Luo Yicheng has spent the past half-decade discovering Chinese artisans' stories. Along the way, he has become something of their ilk himself－he crafts words to weave a tapestry presenting the social fabric of the nation's artistry.
His first book on the subject, published in 2018, gives an eclectic account of 108 Chinese artisans and their traditional trades.
His latest project takes a comparative angle to artisanship on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, because he believes handicrafts can embody a spiritual bond between people and culture.
"Traditional craftsmanship is more than the carrier of a country's traditional culture. It also harks to the nostalgia of many individuals and the collective memory of a place or ethnic group," Luo says.
"This collective memory has the power to resonate with compatriots on both sides of the Straits."
His new book, Qiu Tong Cun Yi (Seeking Common Ground in Preserving Art), was recently released by SDX Joint Publishing Co.
The book tells the stories of 12 artisans, and includes 381 images and several links to short documentaries.
The rationale behind the medium selection, Luo says, is to offer readers a comprehensive experience and provide an exhaustive understanding of the artisans' works.
Luo selected two representative artisans from the Chinese mainland and Taiwan respectively for each of the six categories－pottery, lacquer ware, woodcuts, stone carving, sword-forging and weaving－and delved into their personal experiences and artistic practices.
"The Chinese mainland and Taiwan share the same cultural roots, but each individual's experiences are unique. So, people can feel these similarities and differences from this book and the documentaries," Luo says of the book's title.
Luo believes the book connects him with each of the featured craftspeople.
He has become intimately familiar with their everyday lives and wants to tell their stories from his point of view and in his own words.
The author used to be an accomplished advertiser. He abandoned his successful career in 2015 to search for something to do with his life that provides a sense of sanctuary.
"From these projects, I've come to realize artisanship's influences on me," he says.
"The biggest impact is that I've become calmer and more composed. I don't have to compete with others. I'm grateful that artisanship has brought me a sense of belonging."
Artisans devote the vast majority of their time to one thing. And this trait is disappearing in today's world.
Consequently, he believes that craftsmanship possesses broad implications for urbanites.
The book introduces each artisan with a statement that captures their essence, such as, "The most profound expression begins by renouncing language", and, "Life is ephemeral, but the moment is lasting."
Many artisans are dexterous at their craft but lack sophistication when it comes to verbal expression, Luo says. He hopes to use his eloquence to enable the public to know about these craftspeople.
"Many artisans are actually quite reserved, because they don't have much contact with society and focus on their own profession, while I'm using my language skills to write about them," he says.
"My writing may resonate with more artisans or readers."
Luo spent half a year researching and interviewing the artisans, including traveling to six provinces on the Chinese mainland and making two trips to Taiwan, which he describes as "arduous yet serendipitous".
One of his fortuitous encounters was with Hao Guanxiong, a young lacquer-ware artist who embodies a link between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, since he has learned from masters in both places.
Hao started studying lacquer work when he went to Taiwan in 2013 on an exchange program, during which he took an elective course taught by Wang Tan-en, an associate professor with eight years of experience in making lacquer ware and guqin (a seven-stringed zither).
Hao was fascinated and began visiting a studio outside the university to learn from Wang.
"I'd be happy to learn the basics during my short time in Taiwan. I spent day after day applying and sanding lacquer for two months and didn't see much progress," Hao recalls.
"So, I asked the teacher when I could start to learn ornamentation. He told me to be patient."
Wang told him that making lacquer ware is like building a house. A solid foundation has to be laid before constructing the rooms and exterior. Otherwise, the house will collapse someday.
"I thought what he said was reasonable, but I didn't fully understand," Hao says.
"I sometimes encountered problems making lacquer ware after I returned and suddenly realized how wise my teacher is."
Hao decided to practice lacquer work professionally when he returned to the Chinese mainland. He began to study under Liu Bijian, who's a master of the craft and of making traditional musical instruments, in Hubei province.
Hao also helped design the cover of Qiu Tong Cun Yi.
The cyan blue cover features a lifelike rendering of raindrops, with images based on his woodcut prints that use traditional lacquer-work techniques.
"This is an innovative attempt to apply traditional skills to contemporary situations," Luo says.
"I hope that, with the collective effort of people concerned about traditional crafts, there will be more effective ways to innovate and transform them to protect traditions."
Echo magazine's chief planner Huang Yung-sung writes in his review of Qiu Tong Cun Yi: "Now is the time for craftspeople to seek innovation and change, and embrace the market.
"This book allows us to see the living conditions and psychological states of our artisans. It reassures us. Because as long as craftspeople are seeking peace, craftsmanship can be passed on."