Farmer's knack for thatch gives new life to famed poet's rebuilt cottage

By Huang Zhiling in Chengdu ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-06-10 07:33:34

Farmer's knack for thatch gives new life to famed poet's rebuilt cottage

Liu Mingfu with a thatched pavilion he repaired at the Du Fu Thatched Cottage Museum in Chengdu, Sichuan province. [Huang Zhiling/China Daily]

Farmer Liu Mingfu is illiterate and knows nothing of Du Fu, one of China's most celebrated poets and the voice of a generation torn between the government and two rebelling generals during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

But the 72-year-old knows thatch. So when the ancient poet's replica cottage at the Du Fu Thatched Cottage Museum in Chengdu, Sichuan province, needed a new roof, the curators knew just whom to call.

The poet (AD 712-770), whose position in Chinese literature is likened to that of William Shakespeare in English literature, came to Chengdu as a war refugee in 759.

The next year, the native of Gongxian in Henan province built a thatched cottage on the grounds of the present-day museum and spent most of the time there before leaving Sichuan in 765, penning 240 of his existing 1,400 poems.

One of his poems is about a gale destroying the roof of his cottage. As it leaked rain, Du lamented that he would die satisfied if all the poor scholars like him had a decent shelter. As the poem is required reading for every Chinese high school student, the museum is a must-see for many first-time visitors to Chengdu.

Du's thatched cottage fell into ruin after he left Sichuan. The museum started rebuilding the house in 1996, employing Liu, and opened it to the public the next year.

Since then, Liu has joined five times in the periodic rebuilding and repairing of the celebrated house, other thatched cottages and pavilions at the museum.

"It takes 12 days to rebuild the thatched roof of a thatched cottage. First, you have to throw away the old thatch, turn bamboo into thin strips and fasten the strips on the top of the cottage," Liu said. "You have to make the strips like a web and then cover the web with new thatch."

When only repairs are needed, Liu uses a bamboo pole to pry up the top layer of old thatch to find where it has become thin, allowing leaks. Then he will replace it with new thatch. Once rebuilt, a thatched roof lasts at least 10 years, he said.

Liu started working to build and repair thatched cottage roofs at 13, as an apprentice to Su Yongcai, who also lived in Fuchang village in Pixian county and was 18 years older. "I had to earn a living, because my parents could not afford to support me, my brother and two sisters. Poverty prompted my parents to marry off my elder sister when she was only 12," Liu said.

Liu fears two facets of the job: snakes hidden in thatch and falls. To prevent slipping from a roof, he works barefoot. This has carried over into the rest of his life. He never wears socks.

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