E-commerce And Singles Day Boost Sales Of Traditional Crafts In Confucius' Hometown

- Nov 20, 2018-

JINAN - In a workshop in the city of Qufu, East China's Shandong province, Yan Fang was busy wrapping up a seal engraved with the name 'Matthew', destined for across the Pacific.

"This is one of the 6,000 packages that are to be delivered on a normal day," she said.

However, this week was not normal. The workshop had more than 100,000 packages to be sent out in the wake of this year's Singles Day - China's gargantuan online shopping spree which falls each Nov 11.

"We received about 30,000 orders for this year's Singles Day, three times that of last year," said Zhang Kai, 31, manager of Kongfu Yinge (Kong Family Mansion Seal Workshop) Co Ltd.

"Online promotions help the business grow faster, but I'd rather stay true to my aspiration of sharing and protecting seal culture, than seek economic benefits," he said.

In Zhang's workshop, seals that stamp English names such as Matthew are not as rare as they were ten years ago.

For thousands of years, insignias have been used as a symbol of imperial power, or certifying one's good faith. Over the ages, seal cutting too has evolved into Chinese art, closely related to Chinese calligraphy. The results continue to be seen today, whether on restaurant menus, or as the logo for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

In the workshop, after designing a font and tracing a mirror image of the script, Kong Lingjia, a 34-year-old master seal engraver, carefully cuts the inscription onto a small pebble.

Raw materials come from all over the world, including Russia, India and Afghanistan, before they're nurtured into shape by one of the team's master engravers.

"The process of seal engraving is a unique and miraculous way to express one's sentiment for traditional culture," said Kong.

Qufu is the birthplace of Confucius and home to the legendary scholar's tomb, as well as his family's sprawling mansion - a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today, the Kongfu Yinge workshop has over 700 staff, but just a decade ago, most of them could be found running their own private stores in streets around the tomb.

Zhang's father, a local renowned seal engraver, was one of them. Zhang said the stores used to viciously compete with each other, which was bad for overall business.

To better protect seal culture and share it with more people, Zhang opened an online store in 2007 and helped his father build a seal workshop, welcoming local seal engravers to join them.

In recent years, his store has become one of the largest of its kind, generating an average annual income of about 20 million yuan ($2.89 million).

The store sits in Linqian Community, surrounded by others also selling cultural and creative products such as Hanfu (the traditional, historical dress of the Han people, the largest ethnic group in China), carved wood sculptures, and Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

Recently, tech firm Alibaba and the local government named the community Qufu's first "Taobao Village", in honor of its contribution to the local cultural and economic development.

The website provides mountains of analyzable data, allowing Zhang to see which designs are popular with buyers, and so tweak production and the store's strategy accordingly.

"Online shopping and big data enables us to understand customers' preferences, so we can provide customized products," he said, demonstrating some examples, including a seal painted with a Beijing Opera figure and a Monkey-King-shaped seal.

According to the bureau of commerce of the Qufu city government, there are over 500 Taobao online stores in the community, and the total transaction amount from 2017 stood at 150 million yuan.

"Seals have been playing an active role in personal cultivation and global cultural exchange," Kong Lingjia said, adding that a careful engraving work can add a touch of civilization to a piece of naturally beautiful stone thus bestowing it with high artistic quality.

"I want to share my affection for traditional seal culture to the world through the internet," Zhang said.