Zheng Guoming makes a bamboo frame for an oilcloth umbrella at the factory. (Photo by Chen Yehua/Xinhua)
Wearing a brightly colored oilcloth apron, 50-year-old Zheng Guoming carefully brushes tung oil on an umbrella cover. Surrounding him are orange oilcloth umbrellas left out to dry, and the area is filled with the scent of tung oil.
"Tung oil is the key to durability of oilcloth umbrellas," Zheng said, adding that it is necessary to brush carefully and evenly to ensure the umbrellas are glossy.
Zheng is manager of the Guoming Oilcloth Umbrella Factory in Gufeng village, Jing county, in eastern China's Anhui province. He is a sixth-generation inheritor of the ancient umbrella-making craft, which boasts a history of around 1,000 years.
With a canopy made from cotton fabric covered with tung oil - which is made from the nut of the tung tree - oilcloth umbrellas are more solid and durable than oilpaper umbrellas, another kind of ancient Chinese umbrella.
The history of the oilcloth umbrella in Jing county can be traced back to the Song Dynasty (960-1276). Production flourished during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
In the beginning, they were mainly used by the imperial family and in rituals. For example, red oilcloth umbrellas were used at wedding ceremonies to ward off evil spirits. Later, they gradually became popular among common people.
"The umbrella has always been a part of my life," Zheng said. "It was so popular when I was a child that I needed to help my parents make umbrellas in my spare time."
He took over the umbrella factory when he was 19.
As a young factory manager in the 1980s, Zheng was taken by surprise when people stopped using traditional umbrellas in favor of modern and more portable foreign umbrellas that swept across China.
"The oilcloth umbrella was out of the market all of a sudden, and our annual demand decreased from 40,000 to just 10,000," he said. "Many umbrella factories quickly went out of business."