Cooperage: a hidden treasure

Cooperage, or barrel-making, is a traditional Chinese trade. Formerly regarded as an essential trade like carpentry and stonemasonry, it is now mostly known as an intangible cultural heritage. Qi Jianfei is one of just a few people who is still in the cooperage trade.

“To me, cooperage is a family business. My father did it for a living, my grandfather did it for a living, and I hope to pass it on to my children as well,” 64-year-old Qi said.

The key is patience and determination. In the traditional barrel-making process, every piece of wood has to be bound together perfectly.

In order to make each piece fit together, Qi carves and polishes them for almost half a day before assembling them. After assembly, he polishes each barrel’s surface with tung oil, a Chinese specialty. After three rounds of polishing, a piece is considered done.

In the 21st century, most coopers operate barrel-making machinery to make rice buckets, foot drums and small wooden bathtubs.

Qi, however, still does his work the traditional way because he sees cooperage as not only a trade but also a cultural symbol.