10月8日，《上海日报》（《Shanghai Daily》）以《Ancient architectural techniques are modernized but not abandoned》为题刊登了对“上海工匠”、我院智慧与绿色建造技术产教研协同基地大师工作室负责人顾惠明教授的采访，报道了我院木工工作室和传统中国木工技术发展。
Ancient architectural techniques are modernized but not abandoned
Making a waterwheel or a sewing machine solely from wood is not impossible, even if reduced to the size of a fist.
Gu Huiming, a 62-year-old Shanghai carpenter, is breathing new life into the ancient Chinese technique of mortise-and-tenon joinery in building houses, making furniture and creating miniature replicas of structures like pavilions.
Gu was born into a family of woodworkers in a village of Luojing in Baoshan District. After graduating from high school, he followed the family tradition, becoming a carpenter who made wooden items like weaving machines for local villagers.
Gu said the notion that a craftsman will never starve was true for him.
“While most other workers in the village made only 30fen(4 US cents) to 50fena day, we carpenters made 2.65 yuan (1 yuan equals 100fen),” he said. “The better the carpenter, the more the work. It helped hone my skills.”
The most challenging carpentry work in building traditional village houses, Gu said, was making the doors and windows. No hinges are used; doors and the windows open and close on shafts. In mortise-and-tenon joinery, no nails or glue are used.
As Shanghai began its rapid development in the 1980s, construction firms recruited large numbers of skilled carpenters, bricklayers, welders and general workers from suburban areas like Baoshan. Gu was among them.
His career took off along with his reputation. By his early 30s, he had become a titled top master in his trade. In 2000, he founded his own interior decoration company.
Three years ago, he was honored by the Shanghai General Trade Union as a “Shanghai Standout,” a title conferred on top workers in the city.
After retirement two years ago, Gu joined the staff of Shanghai Jiguang Polytechnic College, where he was given a studio dedicated to traditional and modern carpentry.
The studio offers training in the engineering of formwork, or molds into which concrete or other materials are poured. Gu also teaches classes in ancient Chinese wood locks and mortise-and-tenon structures, and serves as a coach for participants in the WorldSkills competition.
“Carpenters have a hard time finding their place nowadays because new materials have appeared that replace much woodwork,” he said. “But it’s important to pass down these skills because they inspire people. Practicing ancient Chinese carpentry, to me, is an opportunity to reeducate myself.”
Besides an array of carpentry tools in normal sizes, Gu has created miniature saws, planes, chisels, hammers, axes, drills and gauges — all modeled on ancient Chinese tools.
These tools, he said, are easier to carry around to classes, and are equally useful in woodworking.
He is using them to create a collection of miniature mortise-and-tenon parts in different shapes. He has made 12 so far, but there are dozens more types, he said.
To showcase the potential of the mortise-and-tenon structure in woodworking, he has made miniature models of ancient Chinese pavilions, weaving machines, waterwheels, furniture anddougong, a unique architectural element of interlocking wooden brackets inserted between pillars and columns and roofs to support a whole structure.
Last year, Gu made an exquisite miniaturedougongin the style of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) — the most complicated of all known styles from ancient China. Though only a bit larger than a fist, it has about 70 parts, and the smallest is the size of a fingernail. It took him about four days to make it.
Gu has decorated his studio with ancient Chinese wooden-latticed window panels and decorative furniture parts. He said everything came from his own collection amassed over the years.
There are many amateur carpenters out and about, but Gu said nothing matches the skills learned from a professional.
“Correct hand gestures are important, and professionals can also help you work more efficiently,” he said. “But most importantly, masters know the secrets to attaining perfect proportions. When you make a chair, for example, the back legs should be slightly shorter than the front ones to provide for comfortable sitting.”
Yu Yongyong, 23, a teacher at the college, has been Gu’s apprentice since 2018, when he was a participant in the WorldSkills competition in concrete construction work. He said Gu’s carpentry skills struck a chord with him.
“When I saw the miniature sewing machine the master made, I was totally blown away by its exquisiteness,” he said. “It is a work of art that embodies highly accomplished artisanship.”
Yu said he started out by learning to saw wood and drill holes in pieces of wood to make classic mortise-and-tenon structures. He is now challenging himself to making latticed window panes in mortise and tenon.
“The latticed panes may look simple to make, but they actually demand a high level of skill,” he said. “Every angle of every piece of wood must be extremely precise to make the window panes seamless and perfectly in proportion.”
Yu said Gu also imparts the theories of carpentry. As Gu often says, “many carpenters are taught only the hows but not the whys.”
Yu said he has become more careful and thoughtful in approaching everything in life after learning carpentry.
“I believe this habit will help me throughout my career and life,” he said.
Yu said modern technology can make traditional Chinese carpentry accessible to a wider public in ways such as block-building toys.
Gu said he plans to write a textbook on carpentry because current books on the subject in Chinese are mostly outdated.
His studio is open for visits.