The Most Fragile Art: Eggshell Painting

2020-11-27 14:34:00 Source:China Today Author:DENG DI
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Of all Zhao Wei’s eggshell paintings, art lovers like most her art works that exhibit folkloric themes.

TO most people, an eggshell is something that gets tossed into the garbage can. But to Zhao Wei, the inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage of eggshell painting, it provides a canvas on which to create mini-masterpieces. Over the years, with innovative ideas and exquisite craftsmanship, Zhao has resurrected the ancient art of eggshell painting and developed a growing following.

Painted eggshells, or caidan, which literally means colored eggshells, are a traditional folk handicraft in Beijing. Folk artists use brushes, pens, knives or needles to draw, carve or sew all kinds of patterns on the outside of empty eggshells of chicken, ducks, geese, snakes, pigeons or ostriches.

The thin and delicate texture of eggshells adds to the difficulty of the craft and presents a unique fragile beauty to the finished product. Having devoted herself to this art for years, Zhao has become highly skilled at it. Now in her 60s, she is still striving to protect and promote the art through hands-on instruction to her apprentices.

Ties with Eggshell Painting

Eggshell painting has a long history. According to Zhao, the art of making colored eggs dates back to the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), when ancient artisans painted boiled eggs and used them as ornaments on their desks. Eggshell painting developed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), as is recorded in Tang tombs. It later flourished in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when it was listed as one of the 72 professions, and artisans who mastered this craft were called “egg-painters.” In the 1970s, painted eggshells, as art products for export, still held an important position.

The origin of eggshell painting is inseparable from folk customs. In the eyes of ancient Chinese, eggs were a symbol of good luck and magical power. In the chapter Heavenly Questions of the ancient Chinese classic The Songs of Chu, it is believed that the ancestor of human beings was born from an egg. This primitive thinking initiated the use of eggs as a symbol of reproduction. By painting auspicious patterns on eggs, artists extol virtues or expressed their wishes.

Zhao’s father Zhao Guoliang was an eggshell painting artist. Due to the family influence, since very young, Zhao Wei had developed a strong interest in the art form, being very familiar with it. Her father, a versatile man full of ideas, was a pioneer in developing and innovating eggshell painting techniques. When she was a child, Zhao often saw her father make beautiful flower baskets with plastic strings and create all kinds of complicated Chinese knots. Her father’s love of life and great passion for crafts kindled within her an interest for art.

After learning how to paint eggshells from her father, in the late 1960s, she responded to the national call for educated youth to move to the countryside, and left her hometown of Tianjin to go to the Lesser Khingan Mountains in remote Heilongjiang Province. The colorful eggs she painted for local friends were highly praised, leading to her meeting a young man from Beijing, who later became her husband.

Over the years, Zhao never gave up her passion for egg painting in her spare time. Thanks to her efforts, this craft was listed in the intangible cultural heritage list of Xicheng District, Beijing in 2009.

Inheritance and Innovation

Eggshell painting is very demanding, requiring exact precision and care before, during, and even after painting. An eggshell is only as thick as two sheets of printing paper. There are several layers that make up a thin eggshell — the outermost is red skin, the middle is a layer of white powder, and the innermost layer is a thin film. It can easily break during the painting process.

The first step in drawing an eggshell is choosing an egg of the required size. A white egg is preferred for painting. After selecting the right egg, the artist will insert the needle of a syringe into it, drain the contents through the syringe hole, and then clean the eggshell. The shell is then smoothed to make it easier to paint. During painting, the artisan’s experience is vital in judging how and where to carefully move the pens, needles, and knives in order to follow the natural texture and lines of the eggshell. Sometimes the final product differs from the original planned design.

Based on traditional techniques, Zhao Wei developed a new way for the art creation, namely creating two paintings, two carvings or two embroideries with a single eggshell.

Artists of her father’s generation always painted the whole eggshell, and Zhao pioneered the technique of splitting an eggshell into two halves and painted each differently. This style was inspired by traditional Chinese culture. In Chinese legend, Pan Gu, a celestial being, created the world by splitting a world of chaos into the sky and the earth.

Of the two even halves, one represents the human being’s unremitting self-improvement, and the other represents their moral commitment. Besides, putting the two art works made from the same eggshell together is also very consistent with the Chinese mentality that good things come in pairs.

The ability to cut an entire eggshell evenly into two halves took Zhao countless days and nights of repeated experiments to master.

Zhao’s works are rich in themes. She has created many series, including the 108 characters from the Chinese literary classic Outlaws of the Marsh, 48 pieces of old Beijing folk tales, and 12 Chinese zodiac animals.

Each series of works are painted on the same batch of eggs, and take a long time to finish. Zhao Wei’s Outlaws of the Marsh series took a year and a half to finish. Each work in the series has its own characteristics, but is also an integral part of the whole series. The lifelike characters immediately bring traditional culture to life.

Zhao Wei is painting an eggshell at her studio in Beijing, during which she needs to sit still and stay concentrated for a long time.

Devotion and Passion

Eggshell painting requires the artist to sit in front of the worktable with a relaxed mind, be focused and hold their breath with each stroke.

According to Zhao, painting eggshells is like practicing qigong, a kind of Chinese martial art, a mind-body-spirit practice that improves one’s mental and physical health by integrating posture, movement, breathing techniques, and focused intent. In eggshell painting, one needs to raise his or her qi (energy) and calm their mind. This process is like the yin and yang dichotomy in Chinese culture, where one hand carefully holds the eggshell while the other deftly moves the paint brush. Since eggshells are very fragile, the art requires artist to have a great degree of patience to avoid becoming frustrated with the eggshell. Whenever she gets frustrated with painting on the fragile eggshell, Zhao tells herself to calm down and draw slowly, step by step, just like practicing taiji, where the unyielding gives way to softness.

Zhao has a deep attachment to her painted eggshells. She loves them as much as her own children. Often she tells her students not to say, “Ma’am, my eggshell is broken.” Even if the shell broke, she does not want to hear it, because her heart would sink at the sound of an eggshell cracking. Moreover, whenever she sells her painted eggshells or gives them away, she is particularly reluctant to part with them.  

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