Apart from straw figures, Zhu Weimin also creates straw paintings from dried stalks of cereal crops and reeds.(Wang Rongjiang)
The middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River flow through a warm, rainy region that is ideal for the growth of water rushes used to make mats and other straw products.
In water towns like Suzhou, mat-rush farming and weaving dates back more than 1,500 years. The straw from the rushes is also used to make chairs, shoes and baskets.
Zhu Weimin, 46, is an artisan in the medium of straw. She operates a stand in downtown Shanghai's Yuyuan Garden. Her career path follows from her father Zhu Ruixi, who was a trailblazer in straw crafts in Suzhou.
Zhu Weimin grew up in the countryside, where rushes were collected from around home. She says her hometown Chefang was once considered to have the most fertile soil in Suzhou. It was abundant in straw, bamboo, reeds, vegetables and herbs.
The mat rush is planted in November and harvested the next July, during the hottest days of the year.
"We would cut the straw before sunrise and leave it in the fields to dry during the day," Zhu says. "After lunch, we used to love to take cover in the shade of a cowshed and use the straw to make grasshoppers or snakes."
For use in crafts, newly harvested straw must be tightly covered with dry straw and stored in a dry place for one or two years.
"Exposure to the air could make the rushes become brittle and not ideal for craftwork," she says. "Mat rush left unpreserved breaks easily and tends to rots, while well-preserved straw remains elastic and healthy."
Some of her works from previous years still retain the earthy scent of straw.
The dry, preserved straw has to be soaked in water until it becomes pliable for turning into crafts, like human figures — an idea initiated by Zhu's father.
A typical straw doll that Zhu makes is about 20 centimeters tall, with curly long hair and a puffy dress. She holds a bouquet in her hands and has a shy look peering out from under a hat.
Zhu makes the dress by stitching straw with a sewing machine. The rest of the girl is entirely handmade. The job is harder than it looks.
"It takes a lot of practice to make a hat that exactly fits the size of her head," Zhu explains.
In teaching her craft to other people, she finds that it usually takes three months before a beginner can get the little straw hat right.
"It's hard to make it look neat, smooth and seamless," she says. "You need to make sure that the straw you use is all roughly the same diameter."
And then there's the trick of creating the curly hair for the doll.
"The straw, during preservation, is braided so that it turns out curly," Zhu says.
Each straw girl takes Zhu about four hours to make. Once completed, the dolls are dried in the sun and then preserved in a sealed bag for a year or two before sale.
Zhu makes straw girls and boys in different styles, based on designs from her father.
Most of Zhu's works are yellow, the natural color of straw. Zhu says sometimes her customers ask for works in color. Dying straw is difficult but not impossible, she says.
"The dyeing process requires very high temperatures and top-quality pigments, and even then, the straw doesn't come out in brilliant colors," she says. "In addition, the colors fade after a few decades."
Zhu says mat rush is the most ideal straw for her work. Other straw, including that from bamboo, isn't elastic enough.
At Zhu's family home in Suzhou, straw is stored on the top of three stories. The oldest straw was harvested about 20 years ago. In the past, straw filled 100 square meters on the top floor, but now only about 60 bundles are left. It's enough to last her the rest of her artisan's career, Zhu says.
In Chefang, once famous for its high-quality mat rush, hardly any household grows the plant anymore.
"After real estate developers came, the farmers were left with less and less land for planting mat rush," Zhu says. "Less land means higher irrigation costs because the mat rush is grown in water. Farmers were eventually driven out of the business."
A 600-square-meter field of mat rush yields about 3,000-4,000 yuan (US5-594) a year, according to Zhu.
Once upon a time, the Japanese were the largest buyers of mat rush from this region, but that trade ceased about 15 years ago.
Apart from straw figures, Zhu also creates straw paintings from dried stalks of cereal crops and reeds. In her paintings, an recurring theme is the idyllic life, inspired by memories of her childhood in the countryside.
Wild rice stem, a plant indigenous to this part of Asia, is the most ideal for making little boats, she says.
Zhu says straw art is not as popular as embroidery, a heritage craft for which Suzhou is better known. Government grants tend to support traditional embroidery, while ignoring straw arts. "But I believe that well-crafted traditional art always has a market," she says.