A nomadic survival skill lives on as an exquisite handicraft

“Teach the apprentice and the master will starve,” says 44-year-old Zhou Chuanbin. “This has always been the traditional mindset in the leather-craft trade.”

Like his father, grandfather, and great grandfather before him, Zhou is a leather-smith. Several centuries ago, Zhou’s Mongolian ancestors migrated all the way to Jiangxi province in the south to evade wartime chaos, and brought their ancient leather-making techniques with them.

Today, much of Zhou’s work involves carving vivid prints of mythical creatures, portraits, and landscapes on tanned leather, known as “soft reliefs.” The most common decorative pattern is the “Tang plant (唐草纹),” lush floral and leaf scrolls popularized by the emperors of the seventh-century dynasty in their architecture and fabrics, and which Zhou now carves on handbags, wallets, and other leather accessories.

Want to continue reading?

Log in or register now to read the full story

Imperial Leather is a story from our issue, “Down to Earth.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Liu Jue

Liu Jue is the co-managing editor of The World of Chinese Magazine. She has a Master of Arts in Communication from Middle Tennessee State University, and a Bachelor of Arts from Minzu University. She has been working for TWOC since 2012. She is interested in covering history, traditional culture, and Chinese language.

Related Articles