Oil-paper umbrellas: origin and how it is made

We may have seen from the news or photos of Japapnese women wearing kimono and holds an umbrella in their hand. Do you know that these umbrellas originated from China and are known as oil-paper umbrella (Chinese: 油紙傘, pinyin: yóuzhǐsǎn, Mandarin pronunciation: [i̯ǒu̯ʈʂɨ̀sàn]).

The making of oil-paper umbrella was soon spread to Asia countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos. The oil-paper umbrella has different characteristics in different countries, after it underwent a further changes in the countries.

Some of us may also have heard of a place in Kaohsiung in Southern Taiwan that is famous for making these umbrellas – Meinong township, a Hakka district.

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Do you know that different colors of the umbrellas also represent different meanings in the Chinese and Japanese culture? For example, white umbrellas are used during funerals while purple-colored umbrellas symbolize longevity for the elders.

Oil-paper umbrella has other uses, apart from shielding us from the sun and rain. In Japan, the umbrellas are used for traditional dances, while in traditional Chinese and Japanese weddings, oil-paper umbrellas play an important role in warding off evil spirits by covering the bride with the umbrella.

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Wagasa at a wedding ceremony

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In the Chinese culture, such as in a Hakka wedding, two umbrellas from the bride’s family are given as dowry for the bride as a blessing for her to have a son soon because in the Hakka dialect, the word for “paper” and “child” has the same sound.

In the past, parents give umbrella to their son when he turns 16, as a way of telling the son they hope that he will be able to take up responsibilities to support the family.

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Oil-paper umbrellas can also be seen during religious celebrations where the umbrellas cover the sacred sean chairs and ward off evil spirits.

Today, the umbrellas are usually sold as souvenirs to tourists.

History

Legend has it that the first oil-paper umbrella was made by the wife of a famous carpenter Lu Ban to shelter him from the rain. The umbrella was built with bamboo sticks and covered with animal skins. It could open and close freely.

Later, when paper was invented during the Han Dynasty, people started using the oil-coated paper to make umbrellas.

This invention was spread to Korea and Japan during the Tang Dynasty and later spread to other Asian countries and they took on different looks due to the local culture.

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Umbrella making as home industry

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Basic production process

Although the making of oil-paper umbrellas differs in each country, it is generally created in four main steps:

– Bamboo is selected
– Bamboo is split up and soaked in water. It is then dried in the sun before being drilled, threaded and assembled into a skeleton of an umbrella.
– The paper is cut and glued onto the skeleton. It is then trimmed, oiled, and exposed to sunlight.
– Finally, an artist paints the umbrella.

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