Shang Xia: The Pinnacle of Chinese Lifestyle

 

 

In 2008, Jiang Qiong Er founded an extremely unusual design company in Shanghai under the patronage of Hermès: exquisite objects for the 21st century – based on century-old aesthetics.

Of course, Shanghai has not always been the gleaming futuristic city it is today, filled with skyscrapers, three-level freeways and golden Ferraris. In the early eighties, when Jiang Qiong Er was a little girl, people mainly used bicycles for transport and went to the park on their day off. At least Jiang Qiong Er's parents did. They also traveled throughout the entire country to raise Jiang Qiong Er and her brother's awareness of the beauty of China's nature. Of the lotus. And of the swans. At home they would then draw what they had seen: for example, the lotus and the swans. Jiang Qiong Er started drawing at two and a half. In her family everybody draws. Her maternal grandfather, Jiang Xuanyi, was a famous painter. Her father Xing Tonghe is the architect of the Shanghai Museum where all the valuable cultural exhibits that distinguish China from other countries are on display. Early porcelain masterpieces, paintings and calligraphy. Jade jewelry. Delicately chased wooden furniture. So it's not entirely a coincidence that these are the objects Jiang Qiong Er now explores and reinterprets with her company Shang Xia under the patronage of luxury brand Hermès. Although "luxury" is a word better avoided when speaking to Jiang Qiong Er. To her, it's a marketing term used for trendy fashions which may well be discarded by the following season. According to her, our only true luxuries nowadays are time and emotion.

The true luxuries of today are time and emotion.

These values are what Jiang Qiong Er tries to elicit with objects so precious they strike a chord in their owner and allow them to dream. And her concepts work on every level – just simply entering the boutique with its airy wall hangings designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma makes visitors feel as if they were walking into a cloud. But what does the company name signify? Shang means "up," Xia "down." To explain Jiang Qiong Er starts philosophizing a little, her self-confessed favorite occupation. "To me 'up and down' stands for the harmonious co-existence of all the contradictions we are surrounded by: people and nature, city and countryside, tradition and modernity, east and west. Without a past there is no present – and definitely no future." Of course, she acknowledges, during the war and hunger years, China's extraordinary aesthetic slipped into oblivion. The only thing that mattered was having enough food to eat. "But now the economy is booming. So it's a good time for us to rediscover our traditional values!"

Probably there isn't a single person more suited to distill the essence of Chinese traditions than this charming woman. Her drawings were so good that, while she was still a child, two of the most eminent Chinese artists bestowed the honor on her of making her their lifelong pupil. Once a week she would visit her teachers and discuss her pictures and calligraphies with them, with lessons often ending in ethical-philosophical discussions. After all, only a beautiful soul at peace with itself is capable of producing good art. When she was six and her brother nine, a film producer made a documentary about the two wunderkinder. At the end, little Jiang Qiong Er was asked what she wants to do when she is older. Boldly she replied, "I want to paint the world in bright colors with my paintbrushes ..."

To this day, it seems impossible to create a more poetic mission statement. Jiang Qiong Er could be the fairy godmother in a modern Asian fairy tale. Dressed in a modest black outfit, she sits very straight and alert, smiling radiantly while she speaks. Thirty-six years old, she is the mother of two, an infant and a toddler. The meeting takes place in the penthouse of the elegant boutique hotel 88, which is used by her company as an "Experience Center." Unsurprisingly, the meeting starts with a tea ceremony, the embodiment of Chinese hospitality. Drinking tea creates a bridge from the old China to the modern one and to Shang Xia's visionary concept. Whether taxi driver or president, everybody cherishes the traditional ceremony – even coffee drinkers from the West relax when they sit down and watch the leaves being rinsed and the tea poured into small cups. The ceremony also functions as a common thread between the four ranges of objects the company has on offer. "First a beautiful tea set and furnishing is needed, followed by comfortable clothes and poetic jewelry." The Shang Xia collections do not simply result from what Jiang Qiong Er herself likes, they are based on their relevance in Chinese lifestyle.

The Da Tian Di tea table is inspired by furniture from the Ming dynasty crafted out of dark zitan, also known as the Emperor's wood. Reinterpreted by her team in a modern aesthetic, it displays a degree of perfection that leaves the beholder speechless. The wood feels almost soft to the touch because it has been polished to a silky luster in over a thousand hours of work. Pushing open the tabletop reveals a tray made of cool Duan calligrapher stone along with a kettle whose electric cord disappears discreetly into the table leg. The honors are done by Wendy, the sylphlike tea and scent master of the house. The walls are decorated with tea bricks set in a chess-board pattern which emit a delicate herbal scent. The celestial music in the background – composed by one of Qiong Er's friends and based on the ring of a wafer-thin Shang Xia tea service – lends the entire ritual an ethereal ambience.

"Splendid simplicity" is her concept. Simple designs, state-of-the-art craftsmanship, finest materials – the result brings tears to the eyes of connoisseurs.

In fact, almost everything Jiang Qiong Er creates is of otherworldly beauty. She calls it "splendid simplicity" – and is not prepared to compromise. In the long-term, her aim is to rekindle the Chinese people's pride in their heritage and lead them away from the bling-bling of Western brands. With pride she tells us that she has already met with several modern Chinese who were so touched by the outstanding craftsmanship, the simple designs and the fine materials of the Shang Xia designs that they were moved to tears. In September, a third boutique outside of China is being opened so that the brand can also be experienced in Europe. In Paris, the city she owes so much to.

My parents have absolute trust in me, and they always gave me a free hand. I've been incredibly lucky with my parents.

Paris is where she studied – and found herself. Jiang Qiong Er laughs and adds, "13 years later I even have a French husband." Originally she had intended to round of her art studies at the Shanghai Tongji University by doing a master's degree in California. Everything had been organized. Then, during her last year at university, she traveled through Europe – and was so overwhelmed by its culture that she spontaneously decided to throw her plans overboard and attend the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, and do her master's in furniture design there instead. Her parents did not understand her sudden change of plans – she couldn't even speak French – but they "always let her do what she wanted. They trust me absolutely. I've been incredibly lucky with my parents."

After a year of language tuition, Jiang Qiong Er was allowed to design something without any specifications for the first time. The complete opposite of what she had been taught until then in traditional Chinese schooling, which focuses on learning by copying. Now, by fusing both approaches, her artistic expression really came into its own. And because she was at peace with herself, she enthusiastically started building up her career. Together with her former professor from Shanghai and another friend she founded no less than four boutiques. All this before her 30th birthday! However, she landed the real jackpot in 2006 when Hermès invited her to take on the artistic design of all their shop windows in China. At a business dinner she was introduced to Hermès CEO Patrick Thomas, who had long wanted to found a subsidiary of the Parisian company in China. Et voilà! Window dresser Jiang Qiong Er turned out to be the perfect partner to realize his dreams. "It was like any successful first date," Jiang Qiong Er reminisces. "We talked, exchanged ideas, discovered common ideals ... starting with our quality demands up to the orientation from historic models – simply wonderful!"

My family is my biggest success until now. This love. It contains so much positive energy...

After founding the joint venture in 2007, she and her team traveled through China for months in order to find the best-suited artisans. Time was simply not an issue. What if manufacturing a Da Tian Di tea table takes 2000 hours of work? Because Jiang Qiong Er doesn't have to generate a turnover, this is not a problem. Hermès has given her 20 years time. No wonder she looks so composed despite having an eight-month-old baby at home. But what does she do to relax? "I certainly don't go shopping," she says with a smile. Her clothes cupboard contains a modest mixture of clothes by Zara, Uniqlo and Hermès. "What I really love is traveling, cinema, photography, Kung opera and reading." And, of course, my family. They have been my biggest success until now. This love. It contains so much positive energy." And with that, a typical mom, she gets out her iPhone to show us pictures of her children. Her daughter. Her son. Proudly she says, "Although he's only two and a half, he already has an excellent taste for tea. Sometimes he tells me that he'd rather go to his Grandma today. Because her Oolong tea is much nicer."

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