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Xu could be one of the last cotton fluffing craftsmen

( ) 2014-12-30

In a 10-square-meter dark room, which is only big enough for one person to move carefully beside the machine, Xu Liming, a man in his late 40s, has been fluffing cotton for most of his life.

Xu first uses a bamboo pole to spread an old cotton quilt on a board, then employs a cotton fluffer — a bow-like piece of equipment — to fluff the cotton before covering with gauze and using a round wooden board as a press.

Xu learned the craft from his father, a well-known craftsman in their hometown of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province.

After China embarked on its reform and opening-up in 1979, a number of Wenzhou people went to North China to work. Xu was one of them.

Almost every day Xu had clients giving him fluffing orders. Xu's workshop could earn around 10,000 yuan ($1,608) a year, a large amount of money at that time.

Xu said that in 1990, Beijing’s average housing price was 500 yuan per square meter compared with this year's 25,000 yuan. Relatively high earners such as Xu enjoyed a comfortable life.

Xu’s high income attracted apprentices and he had four when the business was at its peak.

However, the arrival of machinery meant a decline in the old craft, and Xu decided to leave Beijing for Shanghai.

Xu has been in Jiading for 20 years and is used to the way of life here but still adheres to some old habits that are part of his craft.

Neighboring shop owners usually try to persuade Xu to turn on the lights in his workshop. They think it is too dark to work in, but he replies, "I'm used to the situation in the room."

At that time the charge for processing a quilt was a few yuan, and Xu could only earn little more than 10 yuan a day, which meant Xu couldn't afford candles in the workshop.

All year round, Xu's workshop is dark without lights and without fans. During hot weather, Xu works shirtless. In cold weather, Xu only adds one more layer.

One day, an old man came with a very old cotton quilt. Though Xu found the cotton very hard he still accepted the order. He spent seven hours in his workshop on the job. His efforts were finally repaid, and Xu won more and more clients as a result.

The craft cannot be learnt in haste, and the pains in gaining expertise can only be understood by the student himself, Xu said.

"Holding the fluffing bow on my back and using the wooden hammer to strike the bow requires arm strength, while fluffing the cotton into a loose and uniform condition requires skill and good eyesight," Xu added.

Xu wears a mask during the work to protect him from breathing in the cotton fiber flying in the air. But cotton fiber still gets in his nose. Xu's hands are dry and scaly with deep marks from cuts caused by the fluffing bow string.

Over the past 20 years, Jiading's fondness for newly fluffed cotton quilts has shifted to camel hair quilts, and they now favor quilts of silk and goose down. In Xu's eyes, his craft should end with him. His children needn't earn a living by following in his footsteps.

Recently, Xu has begun to use machines to fluff cotton quilts. Only very occasionally will he take out his bow to process an old cotton quilt.



Jiading Fahua Pagoda

The Fahua Pagoda, 40.8 meters tall, is a square, brick-wood structure with seven stories, accessible by ladders.