The businesswoman, the girl and the elusive red umbrella

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<p>Li Zhenxia (right) and her daughter in her shop in Datong ancient town in Chishui, Guizhou province </p>

Li Zhenxia (right) and her daughter in her shop in Datong ancient town in Chishui, Guizhou province

In the late 1960s, when Li Zhenxia was five, she dreamed of buying the beautiful, red oilpaper umbrella in a shop next to her grandmother’s house. It was too expensive for her family to afford at the time.

When she was 10, she watched a young Miao bridegroom pass by her village house on his way to pick up his bride. He and his companions were carrying six red oilpaper umbrellas, and the image touched her heart. When she was in high school, her physics teacher would arrive with an oilpaper umbrella every time it rained.

In 1996 Li dream of oilpaper umbrellas came true when she started learning how to make them for herself. Two years later she produced her first one. Of course, it was red.

Today Li’s, 58, is a businesswoman and an intangible cultural heritage inheritor, and she enjoys talking to her customers and passing on her techniques to apprentices.

“The oilpaper umbrella is like my lover,” she said. “It has been with me my whole life and always makes me feel better.”

The traditional Chinese handicraft, made of bamboo and paper coated in the oil of the tung nut for waterproofing, has been around for at least 1,000 years and was eventually adopted in other parts of Asia. Both ceremonial and practical, it was used on rainy days, as well as during weddings and religious ceremonies. Usually exquisitely patterned and now more decorative than functional, it is often found for sale at tourist sites or in hotels as decorations.

Li’s store in Datong ancient town in Chishui city, Guizhou province, a town where it rains a lot, welcomes curious, nostalgic tourists who buy her umbrellas to model in photos, decorate their homes or add to collections, and sometimes even to use for catwalks at shows and performances.

“It’s more a piece of art that adds elegance and grace than a means of protection from the rain,” she said.

Li works on an oilpaper umbrella at her store

Production involves more than 100 steps, from cutting the bamboo and threading the pieces together, to pasting on the paper shade, drying it in the sun and brushing it with oil. The process takes between 15 days and several months, depending on the umbrella’s design, and this complexity means it is still made by hand.

Individual prices range from about 100 yuan (£11.60) to 700 yuan, and at its peak between 2017 and 2019 the shop was selling about 20,000 umbrellas a year.

Li had never forgotten that red umbrella in her grandmother’s neighbourhood shop, an object so beautiful that the five-year-old could not take her eyes off it. “It cost 2 yuan. My parents earned 0.5 yuan a day. It was impossible to buy that kind of luxury. So it became my lifelong obsession.”

Now Li has two more shops, one in Danzhai in Guizhou and another in Sichuan province. She recruits locals, mostly unemployed women from nearby villages. She takes her umbrellas to exhibitions and maintains contact with other intangible cultural heritage inheritors. But most of the time she prefers to sit drinking tea, making umbrellas and talking to fellow umbrella lovers.

One of her regulars has bought eight oilpaper umbrellas from Li since 2016. She uses them on rainy and sunny days, matching them with her outfits.

“It is a classic item with great cultural meaning,” she said. “I don’t use ordinary umbrellas anymore. I like Li’s hand-painted umbrellas. They’re pretty, good quality and nicely priced. She offers free maintenance, too.”

Wang Jin contributed to this story.

Previously published on Chinadaily.com.cn

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