What Is Chinese Sandalwood Fan?

The Sandalwood Fan is one of China’s traditional handicrafts, renowned for its unique material and exquisite craftsmanship. Made from sandalwood, both the fan ribs and surface emit a faint sandalwood fragrance, giving it its name. The Sandalwood Fan serves not only as a practical cooling tool but also as a craft with artistic value.

The Sandalwood Fan, a distinctive handicraft, is a major specialty of Suzhou, crafted from sandalwood into various folding fans and other shapes. Sandalwood, also known as “zhantan,” is classified into white sandalwood for its white color and purple sandalwood for its dark purple hue, both possessing hard and durable wood. Sandalwood Fans made from sandalwood emit a natural fragrance, providing a refreshing breeze. They are renowned as one of China’s four famous fans.

Historical Origin of the Sandalwood Fan

In the Southern Song Dynasty, Wu Zimu’s “Dreams of Liang” mentioned the phrase “周家摺叠扇铺,” indicating that during that time, China was already capable of producing folding fans. By the Ming Dynasty and later, Suzhou became renowned for its skilled craftsmen producing a wide variety of folding fans, with increasingly sophisticated techniques.

In the Ming Dynasty, Shen Defu’s “Yehuo Bian” recorded, “In Wu region, folding fans made of rosewood, ivory, and black wood were considered common, but those made of palm and bamboo were highly regarded as elegant accessories to be carried in one’s sleeve. The value was not determined by the heavy use of gold on the surface, but rather by the quality of the frame. Renowned artisans such as Ma Xun, Ma Fu, and Liu Xinhui were highly valued, and their fans were priced at several shu. In recent years, figures like Shen Shaoqi and Liu Yutang have raised the value to one gold, while Jiang Sutai, in particular, was considered a master craftsman. His fans could be priced at three or four gold, and the competition for them was fierce, similar to the craze for antique pieces, demonstrating their enchanting allure.”

Suzhou fans are known for their exquisite craftsmanship and elegance. They not only serve as pleasant companions in the hot summer but are also regarded as beautiful works of art. There are many varieties of Suzhou fans, with three of the most famous types. The silk palace fan, also known as the round fan, gained reputation around the Jin and Song Dynasties. Xie Fangzi, a poet from the Eastern Jin Dynasty (a resident of Suzhou), wrote the “Round Fan Song,” and during the Song Dynasty, the poet Lu You mentioned “Wu region’s recent events, do you know? Round fans in every household depict old men.” In the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, silk palace fans were frequently used by literati for composing poetry and painting, contributing to their increased popularity. The silk used for the fan surface is delicate and light, while the frame is made of bamboo, covered with materials like ivory or tortoiseshell. The handle is crafted from precious bamboo, wood, or horn, adorned with decorations such as painting, carving, inlaying, or lacquer. The fan shapes vary, including copper mirror style, palace lantern style, golden bell style, clock departure style, chicken heart style, phoenix tail style, dragon ball style, begonia style, jade pendant style, black flower style, hexagon style, and more. Each design is cleverly conceived and meticulously crafted, making Suzhou a flourishing center for the production of silk palace fans.

The folding fan, also known as the gathering-head fan, is opened when in use and folded when stored, hence the name “folding fan.”

Although this type of fan emerged and became popular in the modern era, it quickly gained favor among women both in China and abroad. It is said that the first workshop in Suzhou to produce sandalwood fans was called “Zhang Duoji,” and it began manufacturing sandalwood fans in the 1920s. Initially, these fans had similar styles to ordinary folding fans. Later, there were changes, with carvings of bells, tripods, oracle bones, and various ancient motifs appearing on the sandalwood fans made from large bones. In the 1930s, the renowned fan business “Wang Xing Ji” in Hangzhou, famous for its operation of fans, chose several popular Japanese female fans (small silk fans) from the international market. They commissioned Suzhou sandalwood fan workshops to process and produce sandalwood fans, leading to the famous Hangzhou “Wang Xing Ji” sandalwood fans. Since the business was located in Hangzhou, various sandalwood fans were named after scenic spots in Hangzhou, such as “Yudai,” “Shuangfeng,” and “Xileng.”

Suzhou’s history of sandalwood fan production is long, with a complete range of types and exquisite craftsmanship that has gained recognition both domestically and internationally. Suzhou folding fans are known for their fine craftsmanship and variety. It is said that there are three to four hundred different shapes for bone-shaped fans created by artists throughout the ages. Artists not only create folding fans of different lengths, widths, sizes, and thicknesses based on the user’s characteristics (male, female, old, young, tall, short, fat, thin), region (east, south, west, north, domestic, international), climate (early summer, midsummer), and purpose (borrowing the wind, accompanying dance), but even the tiny head nails of the fan, as small as a grain of rice, are adorned with various patterns, creating an endless array of ingenious designs.

The fan surface of folding fans can be divided into pictorial and plain surfaces, with plain surfaces being the main production type. Sandalwood fans require skilled painters, and according to the Ming Dynasty painter Wen Zhengming, they should not be painted without a square. Skilled bone craftsmen include Ma Xun, Ma Fu brothers, and Jiang Sutai, with Jiang’s technique being the most outstanding and earning the nickname “Jiang Bone.” Sandalwood fans, derived from folding fans, have frames made of sandalwood. Since this type of fan is mainly used by women, it is particularly small, delicate, and exquisite. The fragrant aroma of sandalwood adds to its charm, making it refreshing and invigorating in the hot summer, as the saying goes in Suzhou dialect: “In June, use a sandalwood fan, no matter how hot, you won’t feel nauseous.” After the summer season, it can be stored in a box, serving the dual purpose of preventing moth damage to clothes. Sandalwood fans are mainly suitable for women as decorative accessories, and as such, their forms and structures are rich in decorative appeal. This makes them convenient for literati painters to use for inspiration. Despite having plain surfaces, artisans are skillful in creating variations. There are not only various colored fan surfaces (such as gold, scattered gold, prominent gold, porcelain blue, and coral surfaces), but even in white plain surfaces, there are diverse changes (such as antique imitation, hairpin patterns, silk surfaces, etc.), providing various options for painters and calligraphers. Therefore, the forms of Suzhou folding fans are diverse, and using the phrase “a hundred flowers in full bloom” to describe them is not an exaggeration. Since the Ming Dynasty, Suzhou’s folding fan industry has produced many renowned artists, including the Fang family, who excels in crafting fan surfaces.

Material and Craftsmanship of the Sandalwood Fan

The production process of sandalwood fans involves 14 steps, including material preparation, sawing, drawing, embossing, carving, and assembly. Among these, the most crucial processes are drawing and embossing, which are quite challenging. Even during the heyday of Suzhou sandalwood fan factories, with over 500 workers, only a few dozen could master the art of drawing and embossing. Today, this traditional craftsmanship faces the dilemma of a lack of successors.

circular wire saw

For drawing intricate patterns on the fan slats, a specialized circular wire saw must first be prepared. Craftsmen gently strike a steel chisel, finer than a pencil, with a wooden hammer. The chisel creates teeth on an extremely fine steel wire from three sides. During this process, the steel wire needs to be stretched straight with a bamboo bow, and a rectangular hardwood strip is placed underneath to prevent bending or shaking. The teeth must be fine, uniform, and well-distributed to achieve delicate, magnificent, and ethereal effects in the resulting patterns.

Drawing

Drawing involves aligning two to six thin strips of bamboo slats and placing a wooden board underneath to pull them out at once, ensuring clean lines in the holes. Drawing on sandalwood fans is a craftsmanship technique where artisans use an extremely fine, specially made steel wire saw to create holes in the fan slats according to a pre-designed pattern. This technique shares some kinship with folk paper cutting and carving, characterized by its uniqueness, riskiness, and skill complexity.

Before drawing, a specialized circular wire saw must be prepared. Craftsmen gently strike a steel chisel, finer than a pencil, with a wooden hammer. The chisel creates teeth on an extremely fine steel wire from three sides. During this process, the steel wire needs to be stretched straight with a bamboo bow, and a rectangular hardwood strip is placed underneath to prevent bending or shaking. The teeth must be fine, uniform, and well-distributed to achieve delicate, magnificent, and ethereal effects in the resulting patterns.

During drawing, two to six thin bamboo slats are aligned, and a wooden board is placed underneath to pull them out at once. The holes must have clean lines, and skilled artisans deliberately express elaborate and decorative patterns with precision. On a single fan slat, early coarse drawings had only eight to ten holes, but modern fine drawings can reach four to five hundred or even one to two thousand holes, showcasing exceptional craftsmanship.

Embossing

Embossing, also known as fire painting or pyrography, involves using a specially crafted electric pyrography pen to create various images on the fan slats. The pen tip used for embossing is conical and made of silver. During embossing, the artisan, holding the heat-guided electric pen, first outlines the contours and internal structure of the depicted object with lines. Then, using the side of the electric pen, they create hatching and shading to gradually add a three-dimensional feel to the subject being depicted.

In the process of embossing, the intensity of the heat determines the depth of the scorch marks; high heat results in deeper marks, while low heat results in lighter marks. The operator should adjust the pressure and temperature as needed and control the brushstroke speed appropriately based on the heat level. Unlike a traditional brush, the pyrography pen, in the hands of a skilled artisan, can achieve various artistic effects such as strength, antiquity, liveliness, looseness, roundness, thickness, smoothness, and simplicity, similar to the line drawing in Chinese painting.

Fan Surface Painting

Sandalwood fans evolved from folding fans, with fan frames crafted from sandalwood. Due to the precious nature and fragrant aroma of sandalwood, its usage in the fan is limited. Therefore, sandalwood fans tend to be small, delicate, exquisite, and rich in decorative appeal, making them suitable for women. The focal point of a sandalwood fan is the painting on the fan surface, with a particular emphasis on themes such as flowers, birds, and court ladies.

Before the liberation, only three types of flowers—peonies, poppies, and chrysanthemums—appeared on fan surfaces, presenting a monotonous pattern with little variation. There were even instances of illogical phenomena where flowers and leaves of different species appeared together. After the liberation, artists and craftsmen designed around three hundred different patterns, introducing diverse, novel, and captivating variations. The themes became increasingly rich and diverse, incorporating vegetables, picturesque landscapes, and beautiful patterned designs. In terms of color, there is an emphasis on contrast, featuring bright and lively tones, while avoiding dull and monotonous shades.

In the past, the use of ink was prohibited and considered taboo, one of the specifications for product standards. After the liberation, while maintaining traditional colors, artists incorporated the traditional advantages of Chinese painting coloration. They employed methods like using light or dark ink for harmonization and contrast. Additionally, artists transitioned from using advertising paint to traditional Chinese painting pigments. This allowed for varied yet unified color tones on the fan surface.

Varieties and Characteristics of the Sandalwood Fan

Traditional Sandalwood Fan: Primarily focusing on practicality, traditional Sandalwood Fans use sturdy wood for the ribs to enhance durability and stability. The fan surface typically employs silk or paper materials, providing effective sunshade.

Carved Sandalwood Fan: A fusion of carving techniques with the Sandalwood Fan, this type becomes an artistic piece. Artisans carve various patterns and text onto the fan ribs and surface, elevating its artistic and collectible value.

Embossed Sandalwood Fan: This type features exquisite patterns embossed onto the fan surface using heat. Embossing is a technique of creating patterns on the material’s surface using heat, resulting in a unique aesthetic and artistic effect.

Inlaid Sandalwood Fan: Inlaid with precious materials such as gemstones and pearls on the fan ribs or surface, this type exudes a noble temperament and serves as a luxurious art piece.

Men’s Fans: While sandalwood fans are predominantly associated with women, early sandalwood fans were actually designed for men. They essentially imitated the specifications and styles of bamboo-boned paper folding fans, with sandalwood slats partially or entirely replacing bamboo bones. In the 1920s, Suzhou fan workshops, represented by the “Zhang Duoji” fan shop, initiated a significant production of sandalwood fans. Large fan bones were made from bamboo, while small fan bones were crafted from sandalwood, creating a hybrid of bamboo and wood with paper surfaces for men. Around the 1930s, stylish and beautiful Japanese folding fans for women became popular in Southeast Asia. Inspired by this trend, the well-known Hangzhou Wangxingji fan shop, specializing in bamboo folding fans, commissioned several Suzhou fan workshops to replicate silk-faced women’s fans using sandalwood for the bones. Most of these products were sold abroad, marking the transformation of sandalwood fans from men’s to women’s accessories. The various sandalwood fans produced in Hangzhou and Suzhou were distributed by the Wangxingji fan shop and named after scenic areas in the West Lake, Hangzhou, such as “Yudai,” “Shuangfeng,” and “Xixi.”

Women’s Fans: Sandalwood fans evolved from folding fans, with fan frames crafted from sandalwood, giving them the name “sandalwood fans.” Sandalwood (Santalum album) is an evergreen shrub native to India, Australia, and other regions, including cultivated areas in Taiwan, China. The wood is highly fragrant, making the fan emit a pleasant aroma. In the heat of summer, it provides a refreshing and invigorating effect, and when stored in autumn, it serves as a fragrant accessory with insect-repelling properties. These fans are small, delicate, exquisite, and rich in decorative appeal, making them popular among women. Therefore, modern sandalwood fans are exclusively designed for women.

Cultural Connotations of the Sandalwood Fan

As one of China’s traditional handicrafts, the Sandalwood Fan is not only a practical cooling tool but also an art piece with profound cultural connotations. It blends traditional Chinese aesthetics, carving techniques, and handicraft art, reflecting the unique charm and spiritual depth of Chinese culture. Additionally, the Sandalwood Fan acts as a carrier of emotions, often gifted to friends and family to convey blessings and emotional sentiments.

Challenges and Opportunities in Modern Society

With the rapid development of modern society and changes in people’s lifestyles, the traditional handicraft market has faced certain challenges. Furthermore, the scarcity and high prices of sandalwood pose increasing production costs for Sandalwood Fans. These factors present challenges for the inheritance and development of Sandalwood Fans.

However, as people increasingly value traditional culture and elevate their aesthetic preferences, the Sandalwood Fan, with its unique charm and artistic value, continues to enjoy widespread popularity. Moreover, advancements in modern technology provide opportunities for innovation in Sandalwood Fan production. Introducing new materials and technologies can lower production costs and improve efficiency. Designing more fashionable and personalized styles can attract younger consumers. Expanding sales channels and strengthening brand marketing can enhance product visibility and competitiveness.

Conclusion

As one of China’s traditional handicrafts, the Sandalwood Fan possesses a unique material, exquisite craftsmanship, and profound cultural connotations. Faced with challenges and opportunities in modern society, we should actively explore innovative development paths to inherit and promote this precious cultural heritage. Additionally, efforts should be made to raise awareness and understanding of the unique charm and cultural value of the Sandalwood Fan. Only through these endeavors can this traditional craft shine even more brightly in the context of a new era.

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