This is my last post from Guizhou, and I’m writing it from my living room back in Shanghai, which has the effect of making it seem even more surreal than it actually was. And it was really surreal. I’ve visited some pretty strange workplaces before – inside an ancient Scottish castle, high up in a lighthouse and underground in a mine – but I’ve never met anyone who worked in a cave, at least, not as a papermaker.
I had heard along the grapevine about the village of Shiqiao (Stone Bridge), famous locally for its traditional papermaking, but it seemed too difficult to get to – a few hours outside the town of Kaili and off the path of regular buses, and I needed help to get there. After stopping in at the Kaili CITS office (the organization that passes as an office of tourism in China) and meeting the amiable, self-effacing and extremely helpful Billy Zhang, we asked if he would help arrange a village-hop to include a local market in another village and then a look at the papermaking at Shiqiao. What we didn’t know was that Billy also had contacts with papermakers who had set up in a cave south of Shiqiao, and had arranged for us to be taken there.
Shiqiao was a quiet little place, on the banks of narrow green river cutting through steep hills, and the papermaking, from treebark and dyed with natural plant dyes, was a very small enterprise – one open-air shed and a tiny shop. It was an atmospheric place to walk around – almost deserted, with the few villagers not out working in the fields warming themselves around a makeshift fire of corn husks burning in a tin on the road. The clouds were low and it was drizzling constantly, but we took a walk over the village’s namesake stone bridge and back before driving off again, we thought, back towards Kaili.
After twenty minutes on treacherous single lane winding roads the car stopped at the mouth of a huge limestone cave, some distance off the main road. There was a dirt track of sorts leading down to it, full of deep potholes and thick brown mud that stuck to our shoes as we walked, and I still wasn’t quite sure what we were coming to see, perhaps a bat colony inside the cave, or a small waterfall. It was only once we got closer that I could make out the striped red white and blue awning covering some kind of workshop.
The entrance to the cave, massive in size, was piled high with papermaking frames drying in the weak sunlight, and enormous tubs of paper pulp. Several motorbikes stood to one side along with broken tools and cast-off clothes. Inside the cave, the only light coming from the cave’s gaping entrance, eight people were silently working, making sheet after sheet of coarse hand-made paper. It was difficult to take it all in at once – the absurd strangeness of it all, and the juxtaposition between the cave’s natural beauty and the busy fledgling industry going on inside it. I was full of questions – why a cave? Why here, when there was a perfectly good village for making paper only a short drive away?
The impossibly high ceiling of the cave was hung with long sharp stalactites which dripped constantly onto the striped awning covering the work area. It would protect them from water but little else, should one of the stalactites break off and fall. From the back of the cave a natural stream flowed from a large, still pool and was then diverted to run beside a long, rectangular brick waist-high tank containing the paper slurry mixed with water. Four men methodically dipped wooden frames into the tank until an even layer of slurry lay over the mesh of each frame, then lifted it deftly out of the water and swung it onto a pile of wet paper sheets behind him, peeling off the new sheet to sit on top of the rest. The pile of papers dripped endlessly onto the floor, leaving a sea of large puddles under each table. The puddles ran together and formed their own small sream heading out of the cave. There was water everywhere.
The men, their sleeves rolled as high as possible and cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths, made about fifty sheets an hour each. Dip, even out, dip again, even out again, open the frame, lift, peel, repeat. Despite the lovely rough feel of the paper sheets, it seemed like boring, wet, repetitive work. I asked why they had chosen to set up in the cave – they told me they were all from Shiqiao village but wanted to set up business on their own, and the cave represented a good water source and protection from the weather. Several of the men were now living in small huts outside the cave entrance so they didn’t have to make the long journey back to Shiqiao at night.
Ever the pragmatists, they didn’t particularly like the work but it was an opportunity to make money and it beat standing in the rain ploughing a field. Because they were working for themselves in a village co-operative (common amongst the villages we saw around Kaili) they set their own working hours and quotas. It still seemed like very difficult conditions, and in winter the constant dripping wet and the cold must be unbearable, but like many who rely on the land for a living, any regular money-making work that supplements the uncertain income from farming is welcome, even if it involves eight wet hours of work in a cave.
Really, I take my hat off to them, and I hope their ingenuity and perseverence bring them success.
Read the other posts about this incredible corner of China: