Published: 12:31, April 17, 2024
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Restoring the past
By Liu Kun in Wuhan and Meng Wenjie

A couple at the Hubei Provincial Museum dedicate their lives to conserving China's cultural heritage through traditional craftsmanship and modern conservation methods.

Zhang Xiaolong cleans the surface of a porcelain vase. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

At the Hubei Provincial Museum, there is a notable couple: Zhao Xiaolong, the husband and a specialist in restoring ancient Chinese calligraphy and paintings, and Zhang Xiaolong, the wife and an expert in cultural relic analysis.

Both born in Wuhan, the capital city of Central China's Hubei province, in 1988 — the Year of the Dragon — they share not only similar names but also a passion for preserving China's cultural heritage.

Growing up near the museum, Zhao had a deep love for history and antiques, often crafting small items like tinny tables and bird cages with wood or cardboard. This interest, coupled with his skillful hands, paved the way for his current profession. In 2010, he became a restorer at the museum.

Zhang, on the other hand, had limited knowledge of history since she studied polymer materials at university. Upon graduation, Zhang, like many of her classmates, chose to apply to several chemical companies. However, when she saw the museum's recruiting notice for specialists in relevant subjects, she decided to explore this new opportunity.

"Previously, I knew little about history. It wasn't until I came here that I started to learn and appreciate it more," she said.

Working at the museum, Zhang realized that relic preservation required knowledge and talents from both humanities and sciences as well as other multiple disciplines.

"While humanities specialists uncover relic information from a historical perspective, my role in relic analysis leans more toward scientific and technical proficiency," she said.

Zhao and Zhang both joined the museum in 2010, but their paths didn't cross until they attended the first pottery restoration training class in Hubei in 2012. It was then that they realized that their skills — Zhao's restoration techniques and Zhang's expertise in relic analysis — complemented each other.

They soon became collaborators at work, and then life partners.

Zhao Xiaolong works on the restoration of an artifact. (LIU ZHONGCAN / FOR CHINA DAILY)

According to Zhao, before restoration begins, relics must be thoroughly examined to identify the causes of damage and establish appropriate repair plans, and he would often invite Zhang into this process.

"Technological assistance aids me in selecting repair materials with greater accuracy," he explained.

Even with modern technology, traditional craftsmanship remains central to relic restoration. As the third generation of restorers since the museum's founding in 1953, Zhao emphasizes the continuity of techniques passed down through generations. "The skills my master taught me were handed down from his master in the 1950s," he said.

While restoration techniques have remained largely unchanged, the materials used have improved over time. Zhao explained that, in the past, restorers relied on potentially harmful substances like potassium permanganate or oxalic acid to eliminate mold from paintings. Nowadays, they employ a low-temperature liquid oxygen flushing method to remove mold. This method may leave some stains, but because it is stable, it not only prevents further mold corrosion but also minimizes the need for aggressive treatments that may damage the original paper.

Throughout his decade-long career, Zhao has restored over 300 pieces and framed over 500 works of calligraphy and paintings.

According to him, in addition to patience and concentration, restoration work may also demand physical strength. For example, some relic pieces can be quite large, requiring restorers to scale heights to access them. "The restoration of each piece typically takes around half a year," Zhao said.

One of his most memorable projects was restoring an ancient painting by Huang Shen (1687-1772), a renowned painter of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). When Zhao first received the piece, he recognized the challenge it presented: it was over three meters high and severely damaged, making it nearly impossible to unfold. Given its significant economic and historical value, the restoration task was both daunting and crucial, ultimately taking three years to complete.

While restoration work is essential, it is not the end goal of relic protection. To ensure the long-term preservation of these antiques, preventive conservation is just as vital. This is the field that Zhang, as a cultural relics analyst, is currently exploring.

Zhao Xiaolong (left) and his wife, Zhang Xiaolong, examine a piece of relic using a specialized instrument. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

According to her, previously, many relics were in urgent need of restoration. However, as restoration efforts have advanced, preventive conservation — another aspect of relic preservation — has received increased attention.

Zhang's daily work involves examining relics before restoration, assisting in making restoration plans, and evaluating completed restorations. Once the restored relics meet the required standards, she and her colleagues draft precautionary guidelines to ensure suitable environments for their proper storage.

For undamaged relics, Zhang closely monitors environmental conditions and implements proactive measures to prevent any potential damage. This includes regulating temperature, humidity, light exposure, and air pollutants.

"Different relics have varying humidity requirements," she explained. For example, bronze artifacts require humidity levels of 40 percent or lower, while lacquered wooden artifacts are best preserved at 60 to 70 percent humidity. Other materials, such as pottery and paintings, have less strict standards, ranging between 50 and 60 percent humidity.

"Whether it's before or after restoration, or for undamaged relics, preventive conservation work is continuous and essential," she said.

Zhang's work also includes relic digitization, preserving images, and creating audiovisual records of relics. "In doing so, even if the relics themselves disappear someday, future generations can still learn from these materials about our ancestors' thoughts and culture," she explained.

In addition to their regular duties at the museum, Zhao and Zhang also actively promote relic preservation to the public. Zhao frequently participates in community lectures on the restoration of ancient calligraphy and paintings. He also teaches restoration techniques at Hubei College of the Arts, offering students a hands-on experience in the field.

Zhang has observed a growing interest in relic preservation among young people, fueled by the popularity of cultural and historical films and TV shows like Masters in the Forbidden City and National Treasure. However, she notes that many people, after gaining a deeper understanding of the industry, find it somewhat tedious due to the repetitive nature of the tasks and a perceived lack of creativity. So, she advises these eager young individuals to temper their expectations.

"This line of work requires not just a passion for history but also considerable patience," Zhao said. "Even with your best efforts, you may not see immediate or substantial rewards. However, dedication over time is crucial for relic preservation to truly thrive."