Creating his own brand of art

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Niu Chengguo has carried a flame for the craft of gourd pyrography since childhood and is trying to help the intangible cultural heritage to find its place in the new era.

Niu Chengguo was beyond proud and thrilled when he knew his handmade gift had been well received by a special international guest in late January.

Niu's fire-painted bottle gourd was given to the chairman of the International Olympic Committee's Beijing 2022 coordination commission, Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr, during his visit to the Olympic Village in the capital city's Chaoyang district.

"Thank you very much. I will cherish this special gift," Samaranch said.

Niu's bottle gourd works feature elements of plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum-four of the favorite subjects of well-known Chinese painters and calligraphers throughout the course of history.

The four plants have also been assigned with the great qualities of fortitude, fragrance and tenaciousness, each resembling the characteristics of a strong will and the ability to overcome hardship.

The bottle gourd presented to Samaranch featured orchids, symbolizing wealth, peace, good fortune and goodwill.

"We had many design schemes at the beginning, but settled on that one to show traditional Chinese culture, humanistic spirit and Chinese virtues," Niu says.

The upper part of the bottle gourd was made into a dragon head, symbolizing the Chinese nation, and an attached red knot promotes luck, explains the 56-year-old villager from northeastern Beijing's Shunyi district.

Niu has been engaged in the gourd art for more than 40 years. The art was named a local intangible heritage by the Beijing government in September 2021.

"I learned it from my grandfather," Niu says.

"As a child, I watched him burn patterns with heated pieces of metal, and I found it very magical," Niu says.

Bottle gourds have long been considered auspicious by the Chinese. Its shape made it an ideal container in the past. In ancient times, many doctors used bottle gourds to hold medicine and hung them at the front of their clinics. The practice saw the gourd evolve into a symbol of traditional Chinese medicine, denoting the presence of its practitioners.

Moreover, as a bottle gourd has many seeds, it has come to be a totem that bodes well for thriving offspring and bountiful grain harvests.

Bottle gourd pyrography is the art of decorating gourds by burning a graphic design onto the surface. The technique known as pyrography can be traced back more than 2,200 years to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), but it was not until the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the art was first applied to gourds.

Gourd pyrography made its way from the folk world to the royal court during the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), where such items became collectible.

Skilled craftsmen have applied pyrography to turn ordinary bottle gourds into exquisite artwork.

The first step to making one is to pick a ripe and golden bottle gourd. As cultivation technology has improved, bottle gourds of varying shapes and sizes have come into being.

Then, the artist has to design a creative pattern before applying it. Skilled artists usually take advantage of the natural shape and texture of the gourd, using a heated tool or wire to burn, or scorch, the designs onto it, which can take on a three-dimensional appearance.

"If you make a mistake during the application process, it's back to the drawing board," Niu says.

Niu is the fourth generation of his family to continue the practice. His predecessor started using a self-made, smoke-free pyrography tool for his artistic creations, which caused a sensation at that time in Beijing.

Niu considers the feats of his generation to be another step further than that of his grandfather.

He found electric irons can be used to brand patterns on bottle gourds during his time serving in the military.

"Branding images onto bottle gourds carries a primitive charm," Niu says.

Niu later picked up fine art and calligraphy skills and integrated them with bottle gourd pyrography.

"I'd like to show China's Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism in my works, in order to raise the cultural and artistic value of fire-painted bottle gourd," he says.

"It would also help the intangible culture heritage to find its place in the new era."

Niu noticed the increasing public interest in the art and, in 2009, decided to set up a bottle gourd art cooperative with his fellow villagers, with the encouragement of local officials.

Niu went from door to door in the neighborhood and managed to recruit more than 60 locals. He then invited experts from colleges to impart bottle gourd planting methods and studied the cultural products market for inspiration.

A gourd planting, processing, artistic creation and sales chain has taken form over the following years, and the cooperative members have grown to 300, 30 percent of whom face life with a disability.

To date, their bottle gourds and related artworks have been sold abroad to Southeast Asian countries.

Per capita annual income among the cooperative members has increased by 18,000 yuan ($2,830).

"The improvement of my family income is the best proof," Niu says.

During this year's Spring Festival, and the Beijing Winter Olympics, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism has arranged for more than 300 intangible cultural heritage items to be displayed at the Winter Games venues. Local authorities want athletes to feel the unique atmosphere of Spring Festival amid the intense competition. At the same time, events themed around intangible cultural heritage will be staged in communities and villages across the capital city.

"The 2022 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games are not just sports events, but also an exchange of cultures and civilizations," says Zhang Qian, director of the intangible culture heritage division of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism.

The concept of openness and sharing is reflected not only in the designs of the sports facilities, but also in the works displayed as part of the cultural exhibition, Zhang adds.

Niu began preparing his bottle gourd artworks for the Winter Olympics in October. He and other artists from the cooperative created about 1,000 works in two months.

"I'm grateful to be participating in the Winter Olympics this way," he says.

In addition to the gourds on display at the Beijing Winter Olympic Village, many were delivered to athletes' rooms.

The idea is to deliver auspiciousness and best wishes to them, Niu says.

Niu has also made a point of publicizing the gourd art.

He has delivered public teaching sessions and developed intangible culture heritage learning activities for pupils in Beijing.

Niu has also answered the call of the Shunyi district authority to help set up gourd plantation and processing cooperative in rural area of Zhangjiakou, Hebei province.

"With all these good news, we just feel more motivated than ever to forge further ahead on our intangible cultural heritage journey," Niu says.

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