Today we paid a visit to my Mother-In-Law’s Elder Brother–“Big Uncle,” we’ll call him.

Big Uncle and his wife live in a small two-level building on a busy small street. Their living quarters are upstairs; downstairs, with large doors that open to expose the entire room, is essentially his workshop and place of business. Big Uncle is one of Anhai’s last traditional hand-made lantern makers.

People order the lanterns from him for a variety of occasions, but he says his best business these years are for ones ordered as gifts for people who have just built or remodeled their homes. (Since we finished a major home remodel ourselves before starting this trip, we took the liberty of ordering a pair for ourselves.)

Big Uncle truly makes these by hand.

First he buys poles of dry bamboo of various sizes, then splits and cuts the wood into strips of various uniform sizes, and half as thick as a popsicle stick. Next, he buys long rolls of very thin but sturdy wire and cuts them into pieces about two inches long each. He then bends the bamboo strips into shape and ties them together with the wire pieces.

Once the “skeleton” of the lantern is done, including any metal or wooden handles to be attached, he wraps a porous, small fishnet-weave fabric around it. (Unfortunately, I didn’t see how he ties it off or seals it, as he was just building “skeletons” while we were there.) Finally, he paints the covering fabric by hand and adds finishing touches like decorative fringes and hangs them to dry all over his shop. A pair of large lanterns sells for about 90 RMB (around $12 U.S. dollars).

This has been his lifelong trade, but not without its sorrows.

One, he’s sad that his only son (he also has two daughters) chose not to follow him into this craft, as he had followed his father.

Second, he still remembers clearly the interruption to his work brought by the Cultural Revolution.

One day in 1966, he described to us, a group of local Red Guards burst into his shop and began to break and tear and dump all his lanterns, materials and tools, threatening him with dire consequences if he ever started again.

The invasion, and the decade prohibiting his work (too “tied to the traditional past”) left a lasting impression on Big Uncle, whose only real view of politics and social development is based on whatever has been passing in front of his shop’s open doorway lately.

After the Cultural Revolution ended, he waited a couple years before starting to make lanterns after being told he could again, just because he wanted to make sure it wasn’t a trick.

Even now, 30 years later, he’s wary. A T.V. crew was in town a couple years ago making a documentary about Anhai’s local Arts and Crafts styles and asked him to be featured, since his work is considered to be among the best.

He declined, telling them he was too busy to take time for an interview, but he confided to us that he was really more worried about how the story might be used against him if things ever “changed back” and the Red Guards returned. (Ironically, both my Father-In-Law and Mother-In-Law were Red Guards, but from opposing factions. More on that Romeo & Juliet tale in another post.)

The entire time we were there, he continued making a stack of small lantern frames, pausing occasionally to pour us small cups of tea or light another cigarette, just as I imagine he’s done with visitors most every day, 1966-78 not included, since starting to make lanterns half a century ago.

L to R, Big Uncle (offering me a smoke), his Wife, my Wife’s Younger Sister and her Daughter, and my Wife’s Elder Sister’s Son:

Big Uncle at work:

Big Uncle at work:

A stack of small lantern frames:

The paint pots:

Drying lanterns and tools:

Close-up of some finished large lanterns: