Sustainable Development Strategies Of The Traditional Handicraft Industry

With the development of industrial mass production, the traditional handicraft industry is facing a series of challenges. The current development of the traditional handicraft industry requires both external heritage protection of the government and the internal transformation and innovation of the industry. By Kuo-Kuang Fan and Ting-Ting Feng, National Yunlin University of Science & Technology



The production of the traditional Chinese handicraft is not only an artistic activity of creation, but also a social and economic activity. It is an important component of traditional culture. 

As the main mode of production in the pre-industrial era, the traditional handicraft itself carries abundant information about traditional cultural codes that embody the unique cultural connotation and value of traditional culture. 

Handicrafts, for many countries, remain important to the unique cultural heritage of the nation. Therefore, the traditional handicraft industry occupies an important position in both cultural and artistic development and economic development.

The emergence of the Western industrial revolution changed people’s mode of production and gradually formed the dividing line between ‘tradition’ and ‘modern’. 

With the continuous development of society, a large number of handicraft industries have transformed into machinery industries. Traditional handicraft industries have been greatly affected and are facing a series of challenges. 

At present, China is in a stage of rapid economic development. The social market economy is on the rise. The pace of people’s lives is becoming faster, and the demand for material life is increasing. 

In the presence of efficient industrial production, the traditional handicraft industry has been pushed to the side. In 1989, the total international trade volume of handicraft products was US$172.7 billion, accounting for 5.59 percent of the total international trade volume, while China’s export volume was US$2.7 billion, accounting for only 1.56 percent of the total international trade volume of handicraft products. 

According to the first national census of the handicraft industry in 2008, among the 1881 kinds of handicraft products in the national census, 988 (52.53%) were in active development, 535 were struggling to survive, 244 were endangered, and 114 were discontinued. In view of these dismaying results, the sustainable development of traditional crafts has become an important topic in China.

China established the Chinese Traditional Arts and Crafts Association in 1995, started the compilation of China Arts and Crafts Encyclopedia in 1996, and promulgated the Protection of Traditional Arts and Crafts in 1997. 

Internationally, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization passed the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage at its 32nd session in 2003. 

At the beginning of 2004, the Ministry of Culture launched a project to protect Chinese ethnic and folk cultural relics. Traditional handicrafts were included in the long-term development plan, which generated new circumstances for the comprehensive protection and research of traditional handicrafts. 

In the same year, China joined the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and became one of the earliest contracting parties. By 2015, traditional handicrafts had become an important focus within the scope of protection provided by the Convention. 

The Intangible Cultural Heritage Law of the People’s Republic of China, which came into effect on 1 June 2011, has included tens of thousands of items of traditional handicraft projects in the protection lists of national, provincial, municipal, and county-level ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ and opened up a new framework for the sustainable development of traditional handicrafts in China.

The sustainable development of the contemporary traditional handicraft industry requires, on the one hand, sorting out the experience during the development process in a historical context; on the other hand, it requires drawing on the research of different contemporary disciplines in a targeted way so that it can form the three-dimensional coordinates of vertical time and horizontal culture. 

Among these factors, historical experience, as an important cultural resource, plays a key role in promoting the continuous development of traditional handicrafts. Therefore, this study puts traditional handicrafts into the overall context of history and culture. 

From the historical context perspective, by examining the historical experience of the competitive advantages of the Su-style furniture industry in the Ming Dynasty, this paper first provides a historical reference for the sustainable development of the current traditional handicrafts. 

Next, strategies for the sustainable development of contemporary traditional handicrafts are explored, and suggestions for the inheritance and development of the current traditional handicrafts are put forward.


Su-Style Furniture In The Ming Dynasty

During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), commercial towns and capitalism sprouted in China. As one of the most prosperous countries in the world in terms of its commodity economy and handicraft industry, China has become the primary subject of historical research on the traditional handicraft industry. 

The furniture manufacturing industry in the Ming Dynasty yielded unique achievements in furniture history. The manufacturing process and craftsmanship reached the highest level at that time and occupied the peak position in the global furniture history. Its style and manufacturing methods are still in use today. 

The furniture of the Ming Dynasty has experienced sustainable development for hundreds of years, from ancient times to the present. Therefore, in the discussion of the sustainable development strategy for the current traditional handicraft industry, this study takes the furniture of the Ming Dynasty as the primary research subject and (1) analyses the competitive advantages of the Ming Dynasty’s furniture that enabled its long-term sustainable development and (2) summarises its historical experience to provide a historical reference for the sustainable development of the traditional handicraft industry today.

In the Ming Dynasty, furniture was manufactured in many different regions, and the differences in geographical location, cultural background, and aesthetic habits led to different furniture styles. The furniture manufactured in the Jiangnan region, as represented by Suzhou, is regarded as the origin of Ming-style furniture. 

At present, Ming-style furniture generally refers to Su-style furniture from the Ming Dynasty. The Ming-style furniture manufactured in Suzhou is characterised by simple and elegant shapes, precious and high-quality materials, and reasonable size and structure; these characteristics are thus representative of the furniture manufactured during the Ming Dynasty. In 2006, Ming-style furniture was listed as China’s first national intangible cultural heritage.

The earliest book that contains figures and texts about Ming-style furniture is the Lu Ban Jing Jiang Jia Jing, which consists of three volumes and was published in the Wanli Period (1572–1620) of the Ming Dynasty, with an addendum edited by Wu Rong. 

The book introduces the building process and living furniture and accurately depicts the shapes of various types of furniture. This book specifies the furniture name, common practices, dimensions, and craft materials of the Ming Dynasty and provides furniture images. 

In 1944, Dr. Gustav Ecké of Germany wrote a book called Chinese Domestic Furniture, which pioneered the modern research on Chinese Ming-style furniture. The book contains a total of 122 pieces of Ming-style furniture and describes the types, structures, materials, hardware accessories, and age identification of the furniture. Specifically, a large number of structural and scale drawings were guided by Dr. Gustav Ecké and drawn by Yang Yao. 

Afterward, the Research on Ming-style Furniture by Yang Yao first proposed to dividing the furniture into six categories according to function, namely, chairs, tables, cabinets, beds, platforms, and screens. This function-based categorisation method makes it easy to distinguish different furniture, and it has been followed by subsequent researchers of Ming-style furniture.

The works with far-reaching influence are the Research of Ming-style Furniture and Appreciation of Ming-style Furniture by Wang Shi-xiang. In the Research of Ming-style Furniture by Wang Shi-xiang, both broad and narrow concepts of Ming-style furniture are proposed. The broad concept of Ming-style furniture includes not only the furniture made during the Ming Dynasty but also furniture made of ordinary wood that was used for people’s daily demands or made of precious wood and delicately carved. 

The furniture that is manufactured in contemporary and modern times with prominent Ming-style characteristics can be called Ming-style furniture. The narrow concept of Ming-style furniture refers to the beautiful and elegant furniture manufactured from the Ming Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty (1616–1912). The Ming-style furniture discussed in this study is based on the narrow concept.

Suzhou is known as the origin of Ming-style furniture. The records of the popularity of fine wood furniture in the middle and late Ming Dynasty, as recorded by Fan Lian in Yun Jian Ju Mu Chao (1593), indicate that only celebrity nobles purchased desk and chair furniture made of fine wood from Suzhou (hardwood furniture made of dense wood). 

After the Longqing (1567–1572) and Wanli Periods, every family was using fine wood furniture. Wang Shi-xiang wrote in Guang Zhi Yi (1597) that the smart people in Suzhou fancied the ancient styles, and they were skilled at counterfeiting such ancient styles. 

All regions followed the preferences of Suzhou people regardless of elegance. Su-style furniture manufacturers preferred to use rosewood (Pterocarpus) and primitive simplicity instead of carving. When there were carvings, Su-style furniture manufacturers adopted the patterns of the Shang, Zhou, Qin and Han Dynasties. The whole country then emulated this furniture, which was especially popular in the Jiajing (1522–1566), Longqing, and Wanli Periods.

In Zun Sheng Ba Jian (1591), Gao Lian mentioned that Suzhou’s manufactured furniture, such as sofas, rattan chairs, and cattail chairs, was rather elegant and is applicable to modern times. It was pointed out that the furniture styles in Suzhou were the most sophisticated, simple, and elegant and included many carvings; therefore, Su-style furniture was highly popular.

Su-style furniture is mostly light, simple, elegant, exquisite, and unsophisticated, with smooth lines and moderate proportions. Its makers are good at selecting materials; many precious hardwoods need to be transported or imported, so craftsmen particularly treasure these materials. 

They carefully calculate and plan for the use of the materials and cherish them as if they were gold, only starting fabrication after repeated and careful consideration. This kind of careful attention also makes the furniture simple and elegant in shape, differing from other styles that incorporate excessive carvings and decorations.

At present, most research on the furniture of the Ming Dynasty focuses on the art style, production process, and age appreciation of the furniture, and such studies play a significant role in popularising the style, decoration, structure, and materials of Ming-style furniture. However, research on the cultural, economic, and historical background still needs to be deepened.


Challenges Of Modern Technology

Edward Lucie-Swith, a British scholar, divided the history of crafts into three historical stages. 

In the first stage, all articles were handicrafts, and all manufacturing processes were manually performed. All manufactured products, whether practical, religious, or decorative, were essentially handicrafts. 

In the second stage, during the European Renaissance, the distinction between handicrafts and fine arts was drawn. In the third stage, with the development of the industrial revolution, there appeared a difference between handicraft products and machine-made products.

The dilemma faced by the traditional handicraft industry has arisen from the transformation of the modern lifestyle, production diversity, dissemination diversity, and sales diversity. All these factors will lead to a reduction in demand for products of the traditional handicraft industry. 

Mass production techniques have met the material needs of most people and created a series of new, cheaper, and easier-to-produce materials, such as metal and plastic materials, which have gradually replaced ceramics, wood, and other materials. 

Contrary to mass production, traditional craft practices have created a sustainable mode of material use that includes environmental friendliness. However, the traditional handicraft industry is still unable to compete with the vigorous efficiency of industrial production because of its high-cost attributes, such as manpower, material resources, and time.


Limitation Of Inheritance

As we all know, the inheritance mode of the ancient Chinese handicraft industry is different from that of other trades that are taught in schools. Instead, it involves family inheritance or mentorship inheritance within a strict hierarchical system with the characteristics of closeness and vulnerability. 

Family inheritance means that the younger generations inherit the craftsmanship of the older generations. On the basis of the familial relationship, craftsmanship is passed from generation to generation. 

The purpose of family inheritance is mostly to protect family interests and monopolise the technology; therefore, it is easy to lose certain crafts when the families who make them cease to exist, making family inheritance the inheritance mode with the greatest closeness and vulnerability among the types of traditional handicraft inheritance. 

Industrial inheritance is based on the master–apprentice relationship, in which the master passes all craftsmanship knowledge to one or more apprentices who, after they finish learning, can recruit new apprentices. 

Compared with family inheritance, mentorship inheritance partly alleviates the crisis of inheritance, but the different qualifications and talents of apprentices will weaken the competitiveness of the industry. 

Similar to the mentorship relationship in China, many artists in the Renaissance period worked as apprentices in handicraft workshops and received strict apprenticeship training and assessment. Some even worked for as long as several decades and were not allowed to marry until they became masters.


Lack Of Sustainable Development Policy

Owing to the long learning time, low income, and demanding skills, many young people do not choose jobs related to traditional handicrafts but instead take jobs that are less strict and better paid. 

By the end of 2012, there were about three million people working in the whole industry, and most traditional handicraft enterprises had fewer than 100 employees. Many old craftsmen have died, and those mastering intermediate and advanced techniques have changed to other jobs, resulting in the endangerment of many traditional handicrafts.

Although China has now enacted laws and regulations to protect and develop traditional handicrafts, the protections are still insufficient for traditional handicrafts with weak foundations. 

At present, the focus of laws and regulations lies in the protection and development of traditional handicrafts themselves, and the support for handicrafters is often lacking. Handicrafters form the main body of the sustainable development of traditional handicrafts, and any development measures should be implemented by handicrafters. Therefore, holding onto handicrafters is an urgent task in the sustainable development of traditional handicrafts.


Competitive Advantages Of Su-Style Furniture In The Ming Dynasty

1. Style Advantage

The participation of the literati prompted the design and manufacture of Suzhou furniture to enter a new stage, which was unprecedented across the whole country. The literati advocated nature, simplicity, freshness, and elegance, and they integrated their pursuit of beauty and art with the design of furniture. 

Their high requirements for furniture style and quality led to the leap-forward development of furniture manufacturing in Suzhou. The literati in the Ming Dynasty brought new inspiration and vitality to the design of Suzhou furniture, and their influence was mainly reflected in improved furniture innovation, practicability, and aesthetics.


● Innovation

Li Yu put forward in Xian Qing Ou Ji that a design should have its own individuality and should not imitate the styles of other people. It should not be constrained by the previous framework, and instead, should be innovated and changed.

With the same idea, progressively more and more literati participated in the furniture design process, modified their existing furniture, and designed a variety of new furniture pieces according to actual conditions. The new design concept of the literati had a decisive influence on furniture development in Suzhou, and the innovative design concept significantly promoted the development of Su-style furniture.


● Practicability

In furniture manufacturing, one of the purposes of the literati’s reformation of the existing standards was practicability. Practicability is the principle and foundation of wares manufacturing. Therefore, the literati first reformed the old system and made innovations according to practicability. 

The bottom of the bookshelf was higher than the ground to prevent ground moisture from damaging the books; the Chinese lute tabletop was hollowed out to create reverberation and increase the acoustic effect. 

It is not difficult to see that practicability was important for the daily life of the literati; furniture must first be practical in order to become a work of art. Su-style furniture in the Ming Dynasty was practical, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing, which became its unique advantages.


● Aesthetics

The requirements of the literati in the Ming Dynasty for furniture aesthetics were mainly simplicity and elegance, and they pursued natural and ancient styles with simple and smooth features while rejecting excessive carved decorations. 

In addition, they had strict requirements regarding the raw materials, patterns, sizes, and decorations of furniture; the raw wood should be precious hardwood, and the inlaid stone was divided into top and low grade. White and slightly green or black and slightly grey marble were the low-grade products.

The rigorous requirements of the literati in the Ming Dynasty invisibly promoted the rapid development of Su-style furniture, which gradually proliferated its own style through fierce competition. The formation of this furniture was also a concrete manifestation of the spirit of literati in material life in the Ming Dynasty.

As the literati poured their feelings and spiritual expectations into their furniture, the furniture manufactured in Suzhou in the Ming Dynasty was naturally graceful, simple, elegant, quaint, and beautiful and formed unique style advantages.


2. Material Advantage

Due to the ban on maritime trade, most people in the early Ming Dynasty lived a self-sufficient lifestyle, and wares were produced using local materials. The wood produced in Suzhou was mainly beech. In early furniture manufacturing, beech was the most important raw material for folk furniture.

With the development of foreign trade, the commodity economy of the Ming Dynasty developed rapidly. People’s living standards continuously improved, and they were no longer satisfied with ordinary beech-made furniture. Instead, they began to popularize the valuable hardwood-made furniture. 

Imported valuable wood mainly included rosewood, Cassia siamea (Senna, Caesalpiniaceae), and ebony (D. ebenum, Diospyros), which were the main raw materials for furniture manufacturing in Suzhou in the Ming Dynasty. The texture, grain, and color of rosewood are similar to those of beech; therefore, the craftsmen of Suzhou were the first to use rosewood in furniture manufacturing. 

In the initial furniture manufacturing process of the Ming Dynasty, local wood was used as the raw material for the furniture made in various regions. Early beech characteristics were similar to those of valuable hardwood; therefore, Su-style furniture was of good quality, aesthetics, and practicability in the early Ming Dynasty. 

In the middle stage, valuable hardwood was used all over the country; at this time, this furniture’s advantage was that the craftsmen had the ability to work with valuable hardwood because of their earlier use of beech. 

Suzhou featured a superior geographical location, the development of the shipbuilding industry, and many large-scale wood markets in the surrounding area, as well as extremely convenient domestic and foreign wood transportation and trade. As these features provided excellent conditions for the acquisition of all raw materials, the material advantage of Su-style furniture was comprehensively formed.


3. Process Advantage

The prosperity of ware manufacturing cannot be separated from the craftsmanship of the artisans. The changes in the craftsman registration system had an important impact on almost all of the ware manufacturing industries in the Ming Dynasty. Craftsmen devoted themselves to their respective works, which promoted the benign development of all industries.

Some of the craftsmen relieved from labour service chose to return to their hometown, while some sought work opportunities in the big cities. Because of its economic prosperity, sound urban scale, large population, and rich work opportunities, many craftsmen came to work and live in Suzhou. 

Therefore, a large number of foreign craftsmen joined in the industrial competition in Suzhou in the Ming Dynasty. Employers had more choices in terms of their workers, resulting in competition in furniture manufacturing in Suzhou. 

Suzhou craftsmen were good at using the mortise method. The most typical was the curved chair backrest of Su-style furniture in the Ming Dynasty. Different curvatures can be selected according to different chair sizes, as the spines of people are S-shaped when sitting. 

As a vertical backrest affects the normal bending of the human body, as a part of a long-term exploration, the craftsmen created a curved backrest that could support the waist.

While the back curvature of the armchair is similar to that of the human spine, it was not completely designed for this reason, as Suzhou craftsmen were more concerned about the practical performance of furniture. 

The curve angle in the opposite direction of the spine did not cause excessive fatigue; in addition, the person sitting in the chair would not become inactive because the chair was too comfortable. The back plate of the round-backed chair was not designed as an ‘S’-shaped curve but was instead based on a curve with a large curvature, as the round-backed chair was mainly used for rest rather than reading or working. Therefore, the large-curvature back plate increases comfort.

The prosperity and development of Suzhou’s economy attracted more skilled craftsmen to the region. At the same time, the reform of the craftsmanship system by the Ming Dynasty government and the rigorous demands of the literati were all important driving forces in technological advantages.

Thus, the competitive advantages of Su-style furniture for sustainable development came from the combined promotion of all aspects. No single aspect of development achieved the sustainable development of the whole industry. Similarly, the sustainable development of today’s traditional handicrafts also needs to be jointly accomplished by uniting all aspects.


Sustainable Development Strategy

The industrial competitive advantages of Su-style furniture in the Ming Dynasty were the result of multiple factors; its competitive advantages were rooted in style, material, and process. 

A quaint and exquisite style with few carvings and a practical and comfortable design and production with both aesthetic and cultural considerations are this furniture’s most prominent characteristics. 

Strict demand conditions, competitive conditions, developed production factors, related industries, and supporting industries are the key reasons for the its development. Meanwhile, the policies and social prosperity of the Ming Dynasty provided the necessary assistance for its competitive development. Thus, it has sustained development over hundreds of years.

The study of the competitive advantages of Su-style furniture in the Ming Dynasty found that government functions were important for industrial sustainable development. While pure internal industrial transformation and innovation can provide the industry with competitive advantages in a certain social context, they are not enough to cope with changes in the social environment. 

The government can provide the social conditions that promote the sustainable development of the industry. In addition, product manufacturing must be based on consumers; thus, traditional handicraft products should also have the ability to inherit a traditional culture and meet both the spiritual and material needs of the people. 

Therefore, the sustainable development of the current traditional handicraft industry must be jointly completed by external government heritage protection and internal industrial transformation and innovation.

To address the current status of the handicraft industry in China, we believe that, for endangered craftsmanship to thrive, the government should adopt support policies, set up special funds, ensure the living quality and working environment of employees from an economic aspect, provide a solid guarantee for the sustainable development of the traditional handicraft industry, and formulate detailed and highly operational protection measures according to industrial characteristics. 

In view of the fact that modern people generally do not understand traditional culture and craftsmanship, the government should work with the media to improve the publicity of traditional culture and craftsmanship, enhance people’s purchasing desire, increase people’s protection awareness and initiative, form a good social atmosphere, improve the management system, and protect the intellectual property rights of traditional craftsmen to expand the market sales channels of traditional handicrafts. 

In addition, the government may also help the traditional handicraft industry to realise international popularity and thus expand the global market of traditional Chinese culture.

Compared with family inheritance and mentorship inheritance, the social inheritance system is relatively active and effective. Social inheritance refers to the establishment of specialised schools or training institutions that enrol students from society and offer systematic courses to teach relevant craftsmanship. 

In terms of the current social environment, the government should increase the content of arts and crafts education in primary and secondary education, strengthen the cooperation between the traditional handicraft industry and universities, and cultivate innovative talents by virtue of university resources.

Analysis of the competitive advantages of Su-style furniture in the Ming Dynasty shows that the demand condition is an important factor for the vigorous and sustainable development of any industry. 

As consumers have the most direct impact on the sustainable development of an industry, the current traditional handicraft industry must first solve the demand problem in order to realise prosperous development; thus, the most fundamental way to provide support is to increase the practicability of handicrafts and enhance the vitality of the handicraft industry.

People’s aesthetics continually change with the progress of society, while traditional handicrafts always stay as a single variety with uniform traditional themes; this makes it difficult for artisans to cater to the aesthetic characteristics of modern people and thus resonate with the people. 

Although it is important to inherit traditions, it is necessary to innovate on the basis of modern society. Traditional handicrafts, which inherit the essence of traditional culture through artistic creation, have witnessed the history of the Chinese nation. 

With the development of productivity, the essence of handicrafts should be further highlighted. To integrate into the modern market, traditional handicraft products’ added value, such as their cultural essence, should be emphasised, while new entry points and value points for consumption demand should be provided to satisfy diverse consumer demands.


Modern Innovation

Compared with the modern industry, the traditional handicraft industry has more folk and regional characteristics and exhibits both diversity and uniqueness. These characteristics, rooted in traditional culture, can undoubtedly be reproduced through creative design. Therefore, the cultural creative industry has become a support for the traditional handicraft industry. 

The innovative design and positioning of functions and forms as well as the materials of the emerging industry models that meet the needs of the times, can inject new vitality into the traditional handicraft industry.

The development of the traditional handicraft industry can rely on modern technology; for example, the use of mechanical tools and computer design can be appropriately increased to save labour costs and material resources and improve production efficiency. 

In addition, the traditional Chinese handicraft industry can be integrated with modern industry, rely on the Internet by cooperating with today’s Internet-based media, and offer promotions through new media forms, thus expanding the sales channels.

The brand effect is also an important route by which the industry can enter the modern market. The establishment of a brand often exerts a centripetal force on practitioners, and this will help the traditional handicraft industry to enter the market quickly. The brand dependence and trust of modern society can also provide direction for the transformation of the traditional handicraft industry.

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