Phase 3: Interpreting Information
After carefully choosing my inquiry project topic silver smithing with consideration in Phase 0 and starting some further investigation on this topic in Phase 1, I am currently at the research stage of the inquiry project process. In this Phase, I will be conducting research on the background information of this topic from many different resources and finding answers to some inquiries that I mentioned in Phase 1.
Background Information (from Phase 1):
Silver is an elemental metal which in its pure form, has a white metallic appearance and high luster. However, it would be too soft to maintain a steady form when it is pure. Therefore, it is always mixed with other metals for the conduction of silver smithing . In order to fully understand silver smithing in Xizhou, one must consider three aspects: its history, techniques, and uses in the village .
Silver smithing is a crafting technique of constructing silver pieces without the help of machines that originated from a long time ago. The record of metallurgy in China traces all the way back to then the Shang Dynast . The history of silver smithing started approximately 2,500 years ago , and its trading roots could be traced back to the 16th century in the Chinese minority groups . Although during the great leap forward in China during 1958-1961, many silver smiths could be caught for practicing this traditional and complex crafting skill, they still risked their lives to continue crafting . The passions of the silver smiths are definitely surprising. Now-a-days, many of the inheritors have decided to stay in these villages and carry on this precious traditional art form . The traditional Chinese silver pieces usually contain symbols of the Chinese culture, history, and elements .
The process of silver smithing begins with the demand for a specific silver design of a costumer at the shop. The crafter would take a piece of silver ingot and start the crafting process. After melting it down, the silver smith would create a mold for the design and hammer the piece to create the general shape. Then, he/she would refine the details of the piece and polish it to ensure the best quality of the refined piece . Some other techniques that may be used are engraving, repoussé, chasing, and burnishing . There are also many special designs and techniques that are unique to the Bai minority culture.
Silver products are very popular in the Bai minority  since they play an essential role as part of its culture. The application of silver is very special. An example would be the jewelry and decorations in the traditional clothing, such as the pendants created with silver for kids in Xizhou to wear since when they are born until they are six years old that is meant to bring happiness and health . Another example would be the everyday equipment, such as silver bongs and containers.
Information From 3-to-5's:
Most silver smiths work in the morning between 9:30 to 11:00. A village called 沙村 down next to 洱海 has the tradition of using silver products for purposes such as decorations and jewelry for girls who are about to marry. Silver smithing in Xizhou was influenced by many outside resource. There are many new-coming silver smiths from other regions.
Information From Local Contacts:
- Bai people prefer pure gold (24k) and silver more than mixed gold (18k) and silver
- The complicated silver smithing techniques are only inherited to males in the family (females can only be assistants)
- Many of the unique Bai minority designs and techniques are not inherited
- Many shops in Xizhou are operated and adjusted for tourist purposes
- There are attempts of protecting Mr. Zhao's silver smithing skills as a cultural inheritance. However, Mr. Zhao does not want to be restrained by the government
- The creation of some of the traditional silver pieces requires an abundant amount of time and very detailed work
- Mr. Zhao's silver smithing technique was inherited from his family for five generations and hundreds of years
- Some of his tools are more than a hundred years old
- Mr. Zhao's daughters are not going to inherit silver smithing from him-the silver smithing tradition in the family will likely end in this generation
- The modern technology and machines can not compete with the traditional silver smithing skills as there is a certain thickness that limits the operation of the machines, while hand-made silver products can be as thin as possible
- Most of the silver products now a days are sold for either tourist or Bai traditional clothes decoration purposes
- The silver smithing industry is most busy during May and June, when there is a lot of request for accessories for the traditional Bai clothing
- A common Bai design is called 蛇骨链, or snake bone chain, which is named after the design's characteristics. It is very simple and commonly used as decorations
- To carve on fragile and pure pieces of silver or gold, lead needs to be put underneath as a base because it is a very soft material
- Gold is gradually becoming more preferred than silver as the economic ability of citizens improve
- Pine wood is burnt for its black smoke, which can be used to cover gold so it does not stick to lead through out the process
Mr. Zhao gave me a lot of really helpful information in terms of traditional Bai silver smithing designs and techniques that are not directed toward tourists. He was also very kind and welcoming to my questions and wonders. He really helped me understand silver smithing a lot better than before at the beginning of the trip.
Mr. Yang and Mrs. Yang
- There is a thin layer of white silver when it is heated
- By scraping this layer of, the silver piece would become very shiny and reflective
Mr. Yang and Mrs. Yang were one of the first people that I went to who let me watch their silver smithing process. Although they did not give me a lot of information, I still appreciate their kindness and welcoming attitude.
- Silver needs to be burnished with sand paper
- Mr. Hong has been working as a silver smith for 20 years
- Silver products can appear in two forms: 2D or 3D
- The creation of 3D objects requires more time and effort, in turn, its price is approximately twice the price of 2D carving products.
- Mr. Hong started learning silver smithing since 14
- Silver smithing techniques used to be inherited down in the family to heirs, but now-a-days silver smiths accept apprentices to inherit the skills
- Patterns are usually first drawn onto a piece of silver with pencil, then traces/carved out with nail like tools and hammers
- Bai people wear silver because of the traditional believes that it would exorcize evil spirits (辟邪) and sustain health, as well as the high production of pure silver in Xizhou and the availability of silver smiths
- The process starts with 15kg silver ingots
- Silver is now most frequently used to make jewelry/decorations, and silver containers as it is believed that it would purify water
- Requires high concentration and effects eye sight
- Uses of different tools: curved nail-outlining patterns; flat nail-filling in patterns with lines; pointy nail: filling in patterns with dots
- Some common patterns of silver products are peony, lotus, dragon, and phoenix
- Usually beginners start by learning about polishing
- There are generally two types of ways to do silver smithing: one is to directly start hammering and carving to make a piece, another is two carve out the design on was first, then making mold with plaster and filling it in with melted silver
- The last steps includes fixing the final shape of the silver piece and polishing/buffing the piece, which requires repetitive heating and brushing
- Agate (玛瑙) is the common material used for polishing
- Phosphoric acid is usually used to cool silver down after it has been heated
- Silver pieces usually need to be at least about 3mm wide for it to maintain its shape
- Silver pieces that are too thin could easily be bent and are not suitable for carving
- 30g of silver is about 250 yuan
- Silver can usually be designed and formed into any shape with repeated heating and shaping
- Mr. Hong is willing to help me/teach me to do some basic silver smithing and make a bookmark with my own design
- Steel is the material used to make the tools of silver smithing such as the hammer, the carving nails, and the hammering base
- Gold smithing generally requires the same skills as silver smithing, except it requires more concentrated and detailed work because it can not be polished
- The polishing of 3D silver is usually in fact not extremely careful for the purpose of maintaining its natural form
Mr. Hong is the silver smith that I visited for the most amount of times, he is also my teacher who helped me with the creation of a final product-a silver bookmark. Through out the process of talking to him and learning, he gave a lot of very helpful information in all aspects. I am really thankful for his support.
- Mr. Weng came from Fujian to learn silver smithing, but is not planning to do it as a life time job
- Silver needs to be heated once in a while when hammered to ensure that its soft and suitable for further process (过火), if silver does not get heated properly it would harden and crack
- Heats of approximately 30 seconds each time with the fire source
- Silver's color would change if it is washed with sulfur soap (硫磺皂), this is used to make ancient looking silver products
- 16cm is the smallest and 21/22cm is the biggest circumference for adult bracelets
- Hammering with a forward motion from middle to the sides to make a bracelet longer
- General process: purifies silver, turns into silver ingots, cuts into suitable sizes, hammers to proper form, carves patterns, polishes
- Male takes a bigger percentage of silver smiths because lots of the process requires strengths, but there are also female silver smiths who does the carving
Mr. Weng, as an apprentice, gave me a lot of information about many of the basics that he learnt and was willing to talk to me about what he was doing, which was very helpful. The information he gave me helped me learn more about the specific process and techniques used for silver smithing.
- Silver smithing in China became very popular in Qing dynasty
- It started in Ming because of the invention/discovery of casting skills
- The reason why Bai people like to wear silver is because it is white, and Chinese people believe that it represents 一生清白 (clean and innocence)
- Silver smithing was created back in Song dynasty
- The uses of silver varied a lot in the past, such as decorations, containers, as well as royal purposes, but now a days only limits to decoration purposes instead of practical uses
- A specific design is named 白家锁 or 长命锁, which is often used to ensure the safety and health of its owner
- The handmade silver pieces in the past had better quality comparing to the modern machine made pieces because it is more time consuming
- Normal citizens usually use designs like plum, orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum, while royal families usually use designs like dragon and phoenix, which are prohibited to be used by normal citizens
- Machines will likely replace traditional silver smithing in the future
- The country attempts to protect the silver smithing as a cultural heritage
- Machine makes more profit than traditional silver smithing skills
- People usually prefer handmade products more than the machine made ones because they are better representations of culture
- The country prohibits unlimited mining of silver to protect the environment
- The price of silver is likely to rise in the future if the country continues to control the silver mining
- Enamel colors are usually used to color silver
Mr. Mao gave me a lot of information about the history and cultural connections of silver smithing, which I do not usually get from silver smiths who are familiar with the techniques but may not necessarily know its history very well. Many of the information he gave me confirmed with what I already knew about the history and culture of silver smithing.
Answers to Previous Questions (from Phase 1):
- What are the relationships between silver smithing and Bai minority's culture?
Silver smithing is a big part in the Bai minority's culture, especially in terms of clothing, decoration, and blessing uses. Silver jewelry are a necessary part of the Bai traditional clothing. It is also important because of the believes that it has magical effects such as protecting its owner from evil spirits, maintaining good health conditions, and ensuring positive morality
- Where did silver smithing originate from in the Bai minority culture ? How? Why?
Silver smithing originated in Song dynasty in China as the skills of casting were first discovered, and gradually became very popular in Qing dynasty, in both royal families and common families. However, there is not specific origination of silver in the Bai minority culture as it all happened at approximately the same period of time.
- How does silver smithing reflect on the Chinese culture/traditions?
The Purpose of silver smithing mainly reflects on the Chinese culture and traditions as silver is believed to represent innocence and cleanness, as well as bring good luck and healthy life to its owner. Its traditional patterns and designs also reflect on the Chinese culture, such as dragon, phoenix, lotus, plum, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum.
- What are some applications of silver smithing in the village?
There used to be a wide variety of silver applications in the past, including purposes such as decorations, containers, tools, etc. However, now-a-days, the application of silver mostly limits to tourist directed purposes, such as jewelry and containers like teapots. The silver products used to be used to actual application purposes, while in this generation its mostly used only for decoration purposes.
- What are some specific techniques, skills, and designs unique to the Bai minority culture?
The unique aspect of Bai minority culture silver smithing mainly focuses on Designs, as there are many designs that are specifically only used for Bai clothing, such as the snake bone chain (蛇骨链), which is a type of chain that looks the same from both four sides and cannot easily be broken in the middle.
- How do the traditional silver smithing techniques compete with the modern machines?
Although the modern machines are more efficient and could make more profit in terms of production time, many still prefer the hand-made traditional silver pieces because they are better representations of culture and uniqueness. In addition, there is a certain thickness limit with machines when pieces are too thin and delicate to be processes, while with the traditional techniques, silver could be as thin and as detailed as wanted.
- How is silver smithing inherited in Xizhou?
Silver smithing used to be inherited only down in families to male heirs, while females and only assist and learn the basics. However, now-a-days, experienced silver smiths also accept apprentices and teach them the silver smithing techniques. Therefore, the inheritance of silver smithing now is not as limited as it was in the past.
- What are some issues and challenges of inheritance that silver smithing is facing? How could these issues possibly be resolved?
One issue that silver smithing is facing is finding people who are willing to inherit the time-consuming job. It requires many years of learning and practicing, and is certainly not an easy job comparing to others which requires no skills or effort. However, since the inheritance of silver smithing now is not only limited to family members, there is an improvement in the situation. Another issue is the development of machines and modern technology, which may bring some effects to the traditional silver smithing industry.
- Is silver smithing protected as a cultural heritage in the village? How?
Silver smithing is protected by the country as a cultural heritage in the village. There are silver smiths who were invited to be a part of it, and they would be subsidized by the government. However, many silver smiths believe that it would limit their freedom of doing what they want and retiring at a certain age, who therefore reject the country's appeal.
- Will silver smithing likely be inherited in the future where the development of technology is advanced? How?
At its current stage, technology is not advanced enough to well replace the products of traditional silver smithing techniques, while there is in addition cultural significance that can not be easily forgotten. However, as technology continue to developed in the future, there is a certain chance that it will replace traditional silver smithing techniques.
After conducting all the research at the village and having many conversations with local experts, I am confident that I have gathered an abundant amount of information/experience enough for me to move on to planning out and emerging ideas for the presentation of a final product-the results of my learning, which will happen in Phase 4.
1. M., Collin. Silver Smithing, http://www.sasmicrocampus.org/projects/blogs/3662/students, accessed 14 October 2016
2. People's Daily Online. Dali: Bai Minority, http://en.people.cn/102759/102835/7457035.html, accessed 16 October 2016
3. Facts and Details. Bai Minority: History, Religion and Festivals, http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat5/sub87/item178.html, accessed on 17 October 2016
4. CNN. China's migrant workers seek a life back at home, http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/29/world/asia/china-village-silversmith/, accessed on 18 October 2016
5. Chinese Argent. Techniques in Chinese Silver, http://www.chineseargent.com/home/techniques-in-chinese-silver, accessed on 21 October 2016
6. Chinese Argent. Chinese silver motif, http://www.chineseargent.com/home/chinese-silver-motif. accessed on October 2016
7. Mrs. Chu, interview conducted on 21 November 2016
8. Mr. Zhao, interview conducted on 21 November 2016
9. Mrs. Mai, interview conducted on 21 November 2016
10. Mr. Linden, interview conducted on 22 November 2016
11. Mr. Zhao, interview conducted on 23 November 2016
12. Mr. Yang, interview conducted on 23 November 2016
13. Mrs. Yang, interview conducted on 23 November 2016
14. Mr. Zhao, interview conducted on 24 November 2016
15. Mr. Hong, interview conducted on 24 November 2016
16. Mr. Hong, interview conducted on 25 November 2016
17. Mr. Hong, interview conducted on 28 November 2016
18. Mr. Weng, interview conducted on 28 November 2016
19. Mr. Mao, interview conducted on 28 November 2016
20. Mr. Zhao, interview conducted on 29 November 2016
21. Mr. Hong, interview conducted on 30 November 2016
22. Mr. Hong, interview conducted on 1 December 2016
23. Mr. Mao, interview conducted on 5 December 2016
24. Mrs. Yang, interview conducted on 5 December 2016
25. Mr. Hong, interview conducted on 6 December 2016