|Fang Maosen posing with the commemorative medal of Albert Einstein(Photo: Cai Xianmin/ GT)|
It is now more than 40 years since Fang Maosen first immersed himself in the world of hand-engraved bronze coins and commemorative medals.
Born in Shanghai in 1949, Fang is officially retired, but he has been rehired by his former employer, the Shanghai Mint Company Limited, as a consultant. The Shanghai Mint (as it was known then) was established in 1920 along Suzhou Creek at 17 Guangfu Road West. "Although machines today can make refined, standardized bronze coins and medals, it does not compare to original hand-engraving work," he told the Global Times.
When Fang was 19 he joined the Shanghai Mint. At the time the company had a senior, hand-engraving expert called Tao Bingqi who was finding apprentices to carry on the tradition. In 1971 Fang became one of those apprentices.
Fang lists calligraphy, sketching, singing, flute-playing and photography among his hobbies. He is especially fond of drawing and writing, and he even designed posters while working at Shanghai Mint. "This equipped me with the fundamental skills for hand-engraving because, I believe, all art is the same."
This learning process involved Fang sitting still for many hours at a stretch. "What Master Tao taught me were the basic working principles, for example, the correct way of using the tools. But I also needed to spend a lot of time studying and exploring on my own," he said. Practice makes the master, in Fang's words, and he still remembers the first time he was given a coin by Tao and asked to reproduce it.
The traditional tool for hand-engraving in China is a chisel, whereas in the West the preferred instrument is a knife. And a hand-engraver usually fashions his own tools to suit his pattern of work.
In order to complete his career Fang decided to finish the high school education in 1982. And in 1984, he was recruited by Shanghai Light Industry Vocational Technical College and majored in mold design. When he graduated in 1987 he returned to Shanghai Mint and became the director of the machinery room. "My advantage is that I know the arts. I know technology, I know detailed manufacturing and I know everything about molding," he told the Global Times.
Today, all the mintage (currency) is made by machine, and hand-engraving skills are only used when creating commemorative coins and medals.
The process of hand-engraving begins with an initial draft drawing. The second step is to make a plaster-relief sculpture of the design. The third step is to create a steel mold using a machine.
The business of producing coins and medals is now largely decided by market forces, and every step of the manufacturing process is done via a competitive bidding process that takes place among the country's very finest mints.
"Although the finished product is not completely handmade, this doesn't diminish its importance. On the contrary, hand-engraving craftsmanship plays a key function in the process of mold manufacturing," he said. "During the process of machine-made steel molding there are always defects left by the machine, which requires manual repairing and restoration. And only someone who is qualified as a hand-engraver is capable of doing this."
A hand-engraved coin or medal usually takes three months to complete from scratch. "The importance of hand-engraving work lies in quality rather than quantity," he added.
The most satisfying work Fang has ever worked on was a commemorative medal of the physicist Albert Einstein which he engraved in the 1980s. The depth of the relief alone was about 40 millimeters with intricate details like wrinkles and hairs carefully engraved. The "thinnest" work Fang ever made was a tenth-of-a-millimeter portrait medal of Chairman Mao.
Today, bronze hand-engraved coins and medals are becoming popular among collectors. "The prices for precious pieces can go up to about 20,000 yuan ($3,196)," he said.
Since 2000, the number of people involved in this craftsmanship has markedly declined, and this gave Fang the impetus to cultivate successors in the trade. Today, those apprentices are the backbone of the industry, both in creating new works and repairing the defects of machine-made products.
Fang has now donated all his tools and equipment to the Mint Museum (located within the company's premises) and his primary task is searching out, and coaching, new talent.