I am an artisan and have a small workshop in Yangshuo in the Guilin region of southern China. There I build traditional bamboo rafts, a craft I learnt when I was twenty and have been doing for 22 years now.
As far as I know, the first raft builder in our family was my great-great-grandfather about 200 years ago. Originally, my male ancestors used rafts made of unworked bamboo for fishing. They tied five or six bamboo canes together and went fishing on the rivers in the area. Before they passed away, the elders always passed on the „secrets“ of raft building to the next generation of the family. Outsiders were never let in on these secrets. Given this family history, I was probably predestined to be a raft builder.
Unlike in the past, today we villagers no longer depend on fishing. But since bamboo raft trips are a popular among travellers to the area, I rounded up a few friends to build handmade rafts together and sell them to tourist destinations all over China. Our biggest customer today is a travel agency here in Yangshuo that offers raft trips on the Yulong River and buys thousands of rafts from us every year. Once we also received an order from the northeast Chinese province of Jilin, which is 3,000 kilometres away from here - that was our most distant customer. Since you can use a traditional bamboo raft for one or two years at most, demand remains stable.
The most strenuous part is assembling the rafts with your bare hands.
“The most strenuous part is assembling the rafts with our bare hands”
I am proud of my business, but also of the fact that the rafts are made entirely of natural materials: Bamboo canes, iron wire and some wood. Everything can be found in the direct vicinity. Apart from that, we only need a few simple tools like a hammer and a knife. Since you can get everything you need for a bamboo raft on every corner in Guilin, the material costs are low. The most strenuous part is assembling the rafts with our bare hands.
We get the bamboo canes from the mountains or the fields. First, I remove the top layer of the canes so that I can heat them more easily in the next step. Thick bamboo canes can break in the oven if they have not been peeled properly. Heating them in the oven makes them more pliable, so we can shape them later. I cut the bamboo canes to the desired shape and size and tie them together with pieces of wood and iron wire to form a raft. The longer, straight sticks go in the middle. The shorter bamboo poles are bent and attached to both ends of the main frame. We usually need ten bamboo poles for one raft. Raft building is really hard work, but we still only earn 200 to 300 Yuan a day, the equivalent of about 25 to forty Euros.
Since my friends and I build these boats ourselves, we also know how to take them onto the water. A bamboo pole is the only thing a raftsman in Guilin needs to make his raft glide smoothly over the water like a pearl over a silk cloth. Many talk about the „wisdom of the ancestors“. Thanks to years of practice, I can feel the currents well and react to them. Steering a raft is not difficult. You just have to always remember to bend your knees and adapt your body movements to the waves. However, if you want to play the skipper on such a thin raft, you should definitely learn to swim first. A well-intentioned tip for all landlubbers.
“The rich tourists in Guilin always emphasise what a „natural“ experience such a raft trip is for them”
Of course, maintaining an old tradition like bamboo raft building does not mean that I have anything against modern rafts. The advantages are obvious. Rafts made of plastic have a longer lifespan than our handmade companions. Standardised plastic tubes also make for a better balanced construction. The natural bamboo canes are rarely symmetrical and come in a wide variety of sizes. One side is always heavier and larger than the other, which complicates production and also makes it harder to use.
Nevertheless, rafts made by hand have a huge advantage: they look more organic than modern boats. The rich tourists in Guilin always emphasise what a „natural“ experience such a raft trip is for them. Rafts made of real bamboo are a bigger attraction that they are happy to spend money on.
Admittedly, I don't know much about the tourism business in Guilin. What interests me most is bamboo raft building, so I wish more people from other countries would visit our workshop and see the rafts.
I think it is good that my son and other young family members are trying to get a better education or are looking for a job in a big city. My twenty-year-old son did brilliantly in his second year at university. I don't know if he will eventually decide to come back to our tiny hometown and earn a living here. If he does, I will be very happy if he works in my business.
As told to Yixuan Chen