|Gourd grower Liu Xianzhen checks a swan-shaped gourd at his courtyard in Dacheng county, Hebei province. Photos by Zhu Xingxin / China Daily
By Wang Kaihao and Xu Lin
BEIJING, Oct.31 (Xinhuanet) --Halloween may be lucky timing for this gourd-growing farmer, but he only cares about making art from vegetables, he tells Wang Kaihao and Xu Lin in Dacheng county, Hebei province.
Halloween is famous for bringing out the magic in pumpkins. But in the suburbs of Beijing, one grower of gourds is now harvesting ornamental vegetables with eerie shapes - and he's never even heard of the spooky holiday.
One may feel like Alice in the wonderland of gourds when stepping into Liu Xianzhen's courtyard. Liu grows gourds that he painstakingly shapes to look like other plants, such as pumpkins, and animals, such as swans.
Tens of thousands of gourds in different sizes and shapes lay on roofs and long shelves on the ground and hang on walls. Swan-like gourds bow their heads and lazily bask in the rare sunshine after days of heavy fog.
Visitors may assume that some exotic gourds were prepared for Halloween, but grower Liu had no idea what that festival is when we asked.
"I like making gourds, which is both my work and duty. The more I make, the more I love it," says Liu, 63, from Jiujianfang village, Dacheng county, Hebei province, about three hours' drive from Beijing.
Shy in the beginning, Liu becomes very talkative as he shows off his various gourds - as if introducing his children.
"The secret is to shape the gourds when they are growing," says Liu, who uses his hands and plastic rope to tie up the small fruits on trellises in his 0.8-hectare gourd garden.
The harvest season has ended in late October. Only a few fruits hang on each trellis, and a pile of gourds is stacked on the ground. A gourd usually grows for 90 days. After being peeled, it is dried in the sun for at least two weeks to harden its skin.
Figuring out when to start tying and shaping is tricky.
"It's difficult to say how many days I have to wait after they begin to grow. It's all based on my observation and different natural conditions," Liu says.
He goes to the garden every day to make sure gourds are growing in the direction that he wants. If not, he will adjust the ropes.
However, rope alone won't produce the most amazing figures. Liu must rely on his hands to produce features like a swan's crooked neck.
"The whole process is like a game as well as a gamble. I never know whether I will get the exact gourd shape I want, " he says.
He says he usually bends the slim fruit little by little between noon and 3 pm on sunny days, when the high temperature and sunshine make gourds soft.
"Sometimes I cannot even finish one piece in an hour," he says, because even with extreme care "it is easy to break the fruit".
A gourd with a figure 8 knot made in 2009 is a personal favorite. The knotting took several days. Once the gourd dried, Liu scrupulously painted it for display in his living room. He couldn't do it again today, he says, because the climate in the past few years has not been dry enough to give gourds the needed combination of strength and flexibility.
He also keeps grafting and breeding new types of gourds.
When Liu was a child, he once saw his granduncle made knots out of gourds. Like an artist who makes animals for kids out of balloons, his elder tried to make him happy with the funny gourds.
However, he never tried it himself and forgot about it until 1994, when one of his friends showed him an old textbook on how to make artistic gourds.
"'I've seen much better,' that is what I told him," says Liu, who was then a casket-maker. He tried to remember everything he could, and "then devoted all my energy to gourds".
Novelty had always piqued his curiosity. When he worked in construction, he says, he was interested in interior design and often sneaked a look to see how things worked.
Though he grasps carving techniques, Liu says he does not have energy to expand his business other than growing aesthetic plants with some help from his wife and daughter-in-law.
He once got up at 2 am and drove his van for hours to sell the gourds in Panjiayuan, Beijing's antique market, but quit when that became too exhausting.
"It is not for a great dream, but to make ends meet," Liu says.
The demand for his unusual gourds exceeds the supply. Liu doesn't know how many gourds he has sold, but he earns more than 100,000 yuan ($16,020) a year.
Prices vary based on the shapes and sizes of the gourds. Swan gourds sell the best and even the smallest one brings 150 yuan ($23). Small, simple shapes go for less than 100 yuan.
Some rare ones are more expensive. A big gourd that was 65 cm high and 40 cm in diameter was newly sold for 12,000 yuan, while a set of three shaped gourds commanded a record-breaking 33,000 yuan.
According to Wang Chuntian, a wholesaler from Tianjin who has bought Liu's handiwork for almost five years, the peak period of gourd selling is from October to April. Most of his customers are from China, and a few from abroad.
"Liu is a nice guy. He only sells his products to those who really appreciate them," Wang says, noting that Liu won't sell some gourds no matter what price is offered.
Wang's workers finish some gourds by using an electric soldering iron after painting traditional Chinese pictures such as immortals on them. It takes one or two days to process such a gourd, but the fancy touches can increase the price threefold and sometimes up to sixfold.
"The Chinese pronunciation of gourd is close to that of happiness and fortune. People love gourds as decorations, especially the swan ones," Wang says.
The market is still undeveloped. On Taobao.com, one of China's leading e-commerce sites, only a few gourds with extraordinary shapes are on sale.
"I am not sure whether I should advertise my gourds," he says, looking doubtful. "Once I went to a tourism exhibition and found my gourds as well as the seeds in the fields - they were stolen by others. Other people began to copy my styles later."
(Source: China Daily)