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Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang | Handmade leather carving Armor by Xinjiang’s "Mulan"

Photo shows Meng Lulu personally tries on one of her leather carving works named "Armor".(Shiliyun /Xinjiang Daily reporter Liu Mengmeng)

Meng Lulu, born in 1989, is handsome looking and wears a plaid shirt with a long skirt, bearing a thick artistic temperament.

At her studio, there are all kinds of leather carving works hand-carved using cowhide, ranging from leather carvings for home decoration and traditional musical instruments like Tambur, to common key cases and pendants ...

Meng Lulu is a city-level intangible cultural heritage trustee of leather carving skills in Urumqi. She has been learning leather carving for 8 years.

Meng Lulu, who grew up in Xinjiang, studied Chinese painting at a young age and majored in design in college. In 2012, she accidentally saw drawings that used leather carving skills on the internet and was deeply attracted by the art of leather carving. "When I was young, my grandfather often drove horses to plow the land. The patterns of those drawings that used leather carving skills were very similar to the patterns that were on our household utensils, saddles and other leather goods. It’s just that I didn’t know this kind of craft was called leather carving back then." She says, “the craft of leather carving can be seen everywhere in Xinjiang, then why don’t integrate them into leather carving paintings and make crafts?

After careful consideration, Meng Lulu resigned resolutely from her earlier work, and set up a studio to focus on leather carving wholeheartedly. 

The work of leather carving is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and demands meticulousness, from selecting materials, cutting leather, wetting to printing, engraving, beating, dyeing, etc., involving hundreds of tools with intricate production processes that all entail manual work. At first, there were only online videos available for her to learn.

Photo shows Meng Lulu and her leather carving work "Armor".(Shiliyun /Xinjiang Daily reporter Liu Mengmeng)

"The raw material cowhide is very expensive. Once a mistake is made, the leather will become useless." Meng Lulu says. In order not to waste materials, she had spent a lot of time practicing basic skills, and due to her inexperience, her hands kept getting wounded and her fingers became out of shape. 

In 2014, Meng Lulu became an apprentice to Gawa (Li Siqin), the national-level master of arts and crafts and Chinese Leather Carving artist who had been invited to participate in an art exhibition in Louvre of France. Since then, her leather carving skills have improved tremendously. Her leather carving work "Gulandam" won the Bronze Award in the 2016 International Leather Carving Competition, and her work "Muqam" won the third place in the advanced group of the 2018 International Leather Carving Competition.

Not long ago, Meng Lulu has fulfilled another wish and made a set of armor for woman.

"In the past few years, I used to travel across China to collect folk elements for leather carving, and found that most of the weapons and armors exhibited in the museums were used by man. There are stories of Mulan in folklore, but armors worn by woman are rarely seen." Meng Lulu says. Since then, she has been aspiring to make a set of armor for woman.

Over the past few years, Meng Lulu has been accumulating information while doing research, and began to produce this work of leather carving named "Armor" from the beginning of this year.

"I can't afford real armor to make a template, so I used waste cowhide instead to make templates again and again. From drawing, carving, dyeing to piecing them together, it took 3 months to complete." Meng Lulu says. When completed, she tried it on and made a video and posted it on the internet. It went viral out of surprise!

After seeing the video, many netizens called out “Looking so valiant and heroic in bearing, it must be Mulan," "Looking more than just cool!"

In fact, since 2019, Meng Lulu has been promoting leather carving craftsmanship through the internet, and has more than 20,000 fans on the designer website. "Many people watched the video and asked me to make leather carvings tailored for them. The most expensive custom work that I have made so far is a scabbard, which was sold for 16,000 yuan." Meng Lulu says. 

Meng Lulu has also taught hundreds of people the leather carving skills both online and offline for free. In the future, she wishes to establish a museum of leather carvings to draw more people’s attention to traditional techniques and arts, and show them the beauty of Xinjiang.