Hepo, a Handicraft Township in the Hengduan Mountain

2013-7-22 13:57:00 From: http://traditions.cultural-china.com
The Hengduan Mountains, with their cloud-capped peaks and deep ravines, force several torrential rivers, including Jinsha River, Nujiang River, Yalong River and Lanchang River all the way to the south. There is a Tibetan township named Hepo in this remote mountainous area isolated from the world. Located at the base of Que'ershan Mountain with an elevation of more than 6,000 meters it is separated from Tibet by a river. Although small, it is highly acclaimed in a region inhabited by Tibetans, because the famous Tibetan knife of Baiyu is produced here.

Hepo Township belongs to Baiyu County, Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Garze, Sichuan Province. It is a well-known national handicrafts township in the Tibetan region. It is said that it began to produce such iron wares as spears and knives in the Tang Dynasty. At present, 316 out of the 523 families in the township produce handmade knives.

Why is the famous Tibetan knife made here?

A ravine called Bailong (white dragon) is at the foot of Donjian Mountain, a beautiful snow-capped mountain with an elevation exceeding 5,000 meters. More than 800 years ago (1132), a high-ranking monk, Dhanba Desi, of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism arrived here and immediately took to the mountain's physical characteristics. He settled there and established the famous Kathok Monastery, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the whole prefecture.

At an elevation surpassing 4,000 meters the magnificent monastery is one of the six large monasteries of the Nyingma School and also the largest shrine to pay religious homage in the region.

In building a temple it is necessary to mold statues of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, carve printing blocks for scriptures and make Buddhist instruments; thus, craftsmen and artists are needed. Kathok Monastery often sent craftsmen to the interior to learn smelting skills and invited craftsmen from the interior and other regions to learn their skills. Therefore, Hepo gradually became the centre of handicrafts of Baiyu County and even the whole Garze Prefecture. By the Qing Dynasty such national arts and crafts as the Tibetan knife of Baiyu were widely known throughout Garze, and were also sold to the Tibetan regions of all the provinces and to such sountries as India, Bhutan and Nepal.

The various arts and handicrafts are collected in Kathok Monastery, including a Buddhist trumpet taller than two people standing end to end and a huge, handmade door lock, which had taken craftsmen inestimable painstaking efforts to produce them. Kathok Monastery has not only accelerated the birth of the national handicrafts of Hepo but also amassed the masterpieces of the craftsmen of Hepo.

Hepo artists are often good at several handicrafts: iron forging, carving, woodworking, painting and making Buddhist instruments. Some artists have their own scripture halls-encompassing everything from woodwork to Buddhist instruments, from gilt bodhisattvas to Thangkas on the walls; all produced from their own hands.

Of all the handicrafts of Hepo, the most famous is the Tibetan knife, which is sharp and exquisitely carved. With a tiny chisel and hammer, the artist lightly strikes a thin brass plate on a mold with various carved patterns and, gradually, such fine patterns as intertwined dragons, ominous clouds and round patterns wmerge on the plate bit-by-bit and a beautiful sheath of aknife is almost complete. A meticulously carved Tibetan knife is hammered out with those simple, even primitive tools! Because it is made entirely by hand, no two Tibetan knives from Hepo are completely identical. The materials for the knives include white brass, yellow brass, iron, and shark skin. Shark skin comes from India and the knives are sold to Changdu, Lhasa and exported to India and Nepal.

Polyandry used to prevail in the Hepo region and several brothers in each of 70% to 80% of the families share one wife. The reason is economics. If each brother married one woman, the family would be separated. How can a family with only one kettle and one cauldron be split up? But when several brothers stay together the property is collective and the family grows powerful. The brothers with one wife work cooperatively with a distinct division of labor: one purchases raw materials, another crafts them into knives and another sells them, or alternatively the knives are worked on jointly and sold by a third person. The wife is responsible for the finishing touches and for farm work.

In Hepo, handicraft production can be passed down in the family without taking gifts or apprentices. However, it cannot be passed on to a daughter, so the artisans are all male and women do farm work or other physical labor. In Zewu Village, where the best Buddhist articles are produced, only 5 of the 45 families do not produce the handicraft because there are no males in their families. When the fathers died, only daughters were left and usually men do not join such families, so with no man in the household, producing the handicraft was not feasible.


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