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    Piece by Piece, an Ancient Chinese Craft Is Shaping Future Toys

    Sunmao, an ancient woodworking technique that connects without nails or glue, is making a comeback in the world of toy manufacturing. This resurgence is part of a broader trend of adapting traditional crafts for modern markets, driven by demand from Gen Z.

    Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series exploring how guochao — or “China chic,” a movement blending traditional Chinese aesthetics in contemporary consumer products — continues to influence modern China, from traditional crafts and modern fashion to culture and digital media.

    Born into four generations of carpenters and trained as an architect, Hao Liyan seemed destined for a career in building or design. Yet, he found his true calling where the two disciplines intersect: running a business crafting toys that use traditional Chinese mortise-and-tenon joints.

    “I had seen all the hard work and injuries my forebears endured and decided against following in their footsteps,” the 42-year-old tells Sixth Tone. “(But) growing up, I understood the value of craftsmanship and felt a duty to preserve these skills. The culture of a family deeply influences who we become.”

    This traditional technique, called sunmao in Chinese, joins concave and convex wood pieces together by fitting them like puzzle pieces. Without using nails or glue, the system creates strong, interlocking structures that are built to last. Tracing its roots to the Neolithic period, the craftsmanship is celebrated as a part of China’s intangible cultural heritage.

    Peaking during the Ming (1368–1644 A.D) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, sunmao was integral to constructing everything from grand palaces to intricate furniture and musical instruments. With modernization over the centuries, however, the technique declined as cheaper, less labor-intensive materials became prevalent.

    But in recent years, this ancient technique has found new life amid a cultural resurgence that celebrates traditional Chinese elements in contemporary design. Dubbed guochao — or “China chic” — this movement has grown especially popular among the nation’s younger generations, particularly Gen Z.

    Initially fueled by the revival of traditional Hanfu clothing in around 2018, guochao has since spread across multiple sectors including fashion, beauty, architecture, and lifestyle. According to experts, the shift has significantly altered consumer preferences, with domestic brands now increasingly favored over international ones.

    Capitalizing on this trend, domestic brands have infused traditional Chinese symbols, designs, and motifs into their products and marketing strategies.

    For instance, Florasis, a beauty startup based in the eastern city of Hangzhou, launched makeup items drawing heavily on traditional aesthetics, including carved lipsticks packaged in Chinese love locks and brow pencils capped with designs resembling lotus seed pods.

    According to a recent study conducted by RTG Consulting Group, more than 84% of Chinese consumers said their purchasing decisions are influenced by whether a brand exemplifies Chinese pride.

    Hao’s gradual pivot towards traditional craftsmanship began after he graduated in 2007. He first founded an interior design company focused on kindergarten facilities, which eventually led him to establish a chain of toy rental stores catering specifically to children.

    Despite this success, Hao says he felt a disconnect between his Chinese cultural heritage and a toy market dominated by foreign brands like the Danish-owned toy giant Lego. Two years later, as he was building sunmao toys for his first child using the skills he had learned as a boy, Hao saw an opportunity.

    Seeing a niche for culturally rich toys, he founded Qiaolin. Now with over 20 employees, the company launched its first group of products last October. Currently, it offers eight toy block packages on various e-commerce platforms, each containing varying numbers of basic units. With these blocks, players can construct more than 100 different structures or patterns.

    Last year, Qiaolin’s revenue reached approximately 3 million yuan ($414,500), and Hao anticipates this figure will rise to 10 million yuan this year.

    While mortise-and-tenon toys are still often likened to China’s version of Lego, Hao asserts that their linkage systems are quite different.

    Lego-like blocks follow a two-dimensional assembly logic based on x- and y-axes, creating new forms through stacking and variation. “In contrast, sunmao structures incorporate a three-dimensional element by including the z-axis, which allows structures to stand upright,” he says.

    “While both may use the same number of blocks, the variation in mortise and tenon joint connections is more diverse.”

    Among his brand’s bestsellers is a 42-piece wooden kit that can be assembled into seven different configurations, ranging from a heart to a crocodile and even a miniature replica of the China Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. The 42 pieces are divided into just six types of wooden sticks, each featuring a sawtooth pattern ranging from one to six teeth.

    The sunmao interlocking system offers more than just innovative toy design, according to Deng Hua, head of the Sunmao Preservation and Innovation Lab at Jimei University.

    “The connection of wood with one protrusion and one depression perfectly fits the philosophy of yin and yang,” Deng explains, referring to the traditional Chinese concept of opposing but complementary forces, symbolizing balance and harmony.

    In recent years, the use of sunmao techniques has allowed Chinese toy companies to replicate iconic structures, such as Beijing’s Palace Museum, in a manner similar to how Lego constructs models of famous buildings such as the seven wonders of the world.

    Gao Shenyan, a 32-year-old from Tianjin, was captivated by a television advertisement for a toy replica of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and purchased the 899-yuan kit for her son, Rourou. She hoped to use the replica to demonstrate the intricacy of sunmao construction to her son.

    “It took us four to five hours to assemble,” she says. “We were genuinely excited when we finally finished it.”

    Across China, Gao is part of a growing number of Chinese parents looking to switch from international brands to domestic ones.

    Chinese toymakers first gained prominence as domestic manufacturers for international brands in the 1980s. Over time, they began developing their own brands, initially by imitating popular products like Lego sets. For instance, in 2019, police raided the knockoff maker Lepin, seizing $30 million worth of counterfeit Lego products and arresting four people.

    Despite these challenges, domestic toymakers slowly began creating original, competitive products under their own brands.

    Now, revenue in China’s toy blocks market has increased from 14.2 billion yuan in 2022 to 20.6 billion yuan ($2.88 billion), with projections to reach 37.3 billion yuan by 2026, according to a report from the research institute Leadleo.

    Other domestic brands specializing in sunmao-style blocks include Wanfeng, Xiaomi, Chongshi Yingzao, and Qiaohe.

    Most brands offer sunmao toy blocks in both wooden and plastic versions. Solid wood versions better reflect the authenticity of the traditional technique but tend to be more expensive due to standardization challenges in manufacturing. Plastic versions, however, offer uniformity and ease of assembly but may not capture the aesthetic appeal of wood.

    “Both forms are good as long as they can cultivate an appreciation for mortise-and-tenon connections,” says Deng.

    Deng and his team have also developed a range of teaching tools and courses aimed at K-12 students. These are used during study trips and various extracurricular activities to introduce students to traditional joinery techniques.

    In these courses, children are given two pieces of wood and asked to join them using only a saw and ruler. The approach is designed to encourage students to think creatively and develop their problem-solving skills.

    This emphasis on craftsmanship highlights the importance of precision. Deng says: “Even a minor error of 0.5 millimeters in the fitting of a tenon can necessitate starting the entire process over.”

    To further deepen his connection to traditional Chinese craftsmanship, Hao, in 2021, relocated his company from Beijing to Tengzhou in the eastern Shandong province, the hometown of renowned master carpenter, engineer, and inventor Lu Ban from the Spring and Autumn period (722–481 B.C.).

    By establishing his business in Lu Ban’s hometown, Hao hopes to not only pay homage to this rich heritage but draw inspiration for his products directly from the source.

    Hao also apprenticed under Zhao Yushan, a master carpenter dedicated to preserving the Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian County in the northern Shanxi province. This 968-year-old structure from the Liao dynasty (916–1125 B.C.) is the oldest and tallest multistory wooden structure in the world. Zhao has even constructed an 8:1 scale replica of the pagoda, relying solely on observation and memory since the original blueprints have been lost.

    “Our methods may differ, but our mission is the same. By connecting past and present, we ensure that these age-old skills are not forgotten,” Hao says.

    Additional reporting: Ding Xiaoyan; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: Hao Liyan works on a replica of a pagoda using sunmao blocks. Courtesy of Hao Liyan)