In the misty and mizzly Southern China, umbrella plays a key role in daily life of local people. The unique culture of umbrella, the aesthetics of umbrella, and the poetic imagery of umbrella together express a comprehensive folk culture of China.
West Lake Silk Parasol, also called “West Lake Scenery Parasol”, is a unique product of Hangzhou. It is crowned as the “Flower of the West Lake” for its attractive appearance. In 1972 when US President Richard Nixon visited Hangzhou on his historic China trip, the silk parasol was given to him as a gift emblematic of China.
Origins of Umbrella in China
There are many stories about the origin of umbrella in China. One of them is originated from the lotus leaves. Approximately 4,000 years ago, a child played on the poolside, and encountered the rainfall. He quickly took a large lotus leaf and held on the head to shelter himself from the rain, and then the umbrella was invented.
Another story is related to Lu Ban, the master of inventions and the forefather of carpenters in China living in the Period of Spring and Autumn (722-481BC). Lu Ban worked in the countryside, and his wife sent him food everyday. She always suffered from the raining time, so Lu Ban built some booths along the route to give her shelter from rain. However, the weather easily changed in summer, and the booths could not solve the problem. One day, his wife said “if the booth can be moveable, it will be better”. Hearing this, Lu Ban was inspired a lot, and invented the umbrella.
The Making of West Lake Silk Parasols
West Lake Silk Parasols are made of bamboo and silk, looking very elegant and unsophisticated. They are light, attractive, useful and easy to carry. And the first silk parasol was made by a worker named Zhu Zhenpei in 1930s. Soon, it became very popular and the symbol of ladies in Southern China.
Zhu established the first silk parasol workshop in 1935. The umbrellas it produced became so popular that the city government established the National Hangzhou West Lake Umbrella Factory. At one time, the factory employed 10 designers and more than 400 staffs, who produced 600,000 silk parasols a year. Around two-thirds were exported.
The making of West Lake Silk Parasols is very complicated. It takes 18 steps including selecting bamboo, splitting the bamboo, making the frame, painting etc. Henon bamboo is native to Zhejiang and is the perfect material for the silk parasol. It looks elegant and unsophisticated. It is moderately thick with a bright luster, and its stem is strong enough to withstand even the hottest weather. One branch from this bamboo is split into 32 or 36 strips and a functional handle is added to complete the framework. When a silk parasol is closed, the silk is neatly folded inside and the bamboo frame forms into a section of
Silks for the parasols are made locally and are light and thin. Stretched tightly on the bamboo frame, they are able to keep out the sun but let in the cooling breeze. They serve as beautiful and pragmatic sun-shades. Silk parasols look very attractive when they are open. They are brightly-colored and the decorative artwork on them are either printed, embroidered, or painted. The artwork is largely birds, flowers as well as scenic sights of beautiful Hangzhou, such as Autumn Moon over the Calm Lake and Three Pools Mirroring the Moon.
Renaissance and Inheritance
Over time, as broad-brimmed hats and synthetic, waterproof and collapsible umbrellas became popular, silk parasols became vintage accessories and fashion relics due to their comparatively complicated workmanship and high price. The original silk parasols were only for shade and decoration and they were not water-proof while modern umbrellas are both fashionable and compact. In addition, hand-made pure silk parasols, which are very labor-intensive, cost from 400 yuan to 1,000 yuan for one parasol. So, silk parasols began to lose popularity in the market.
Nowadays, Hangzhou is resurrecting this classic craft. “The craft of making silk parasols will be lost if it is not taught and passed down to the next generation,” says 56-year-old Zhang Jinhua, an expert who makes traditional silk parasols and teaches others in the Hangzhou Crafts Living Culture Exhibition Hall.
Zhang started to learn the craft from Zhu when she was 23 years old. To preserve parasol-making, the city government gave a studio to Zhang and her apprentices. They work six days a week making old-style parasols, some with modern designs and some water-proof.
In master Zhang’s studio, work is well divided. Some paint patterns on the silk; some stitch the silk rim; some polish the bamboo ribs; some glue the ribs to the silk, and so on. Usually, it takes four or five crafts people two days to make one parasol in Zhang’s studio. And the most expensive silk parasol made by Zhang was valued at 7,000 yuan.
Zhang is now the core of the efforts to make old-style parasols and revive their popularity. Today, the Hangzhou Paradise Umbrella Group, one of China’s biggest umbrella companies, sends workers to learn the craft from Zhang.
Another significant event marking the renaissance of West Lake Silk Parasols is the opening of China’s first umbrella museum in 2009. Situated on the west of the Grand Canal in the West Gongchen Bridge History & Culture Block, the China Umbrella Museum all- inclusively shows the culture, history, legends, art and craftsmanship of umbrella in China with a permanent exhibition area of 2,411 square meters.
It serves as the home of West Lake Silk Parasols. Visitors can take shelter under the “China Umbrella Museum” and marvel at the numerous parasols that decorate the ceilings, walls and displays. In the museum, there is also a special zone for interaction where visitors can try assembling, painting and repairing the umbrella, and witness the reviving of this special craft.