Bamboo Carving, Wood carving, Ivory Carving
Ming-dynasty brush pot_CraftChina

Bamboo carving

Bamboo carving means to carve various ornamental patterns or characters on bamboo items, or make ornaments from bamboo roots by carving. China is the first country in the world using bamboo articles. The extant bamboo carving item early in age is the painted lacquer bamboo ladle unearthed from the Western Han Tombs No. 1 in Mawangdui of Changsha. Decorated with dragon and braids designs using bas-relief and fretwork techniques, it is a highly finished rarity.

Since the mid-Ming Dynasty, bamboo carving developed into a special art. At the very beginning, there were only a few well-educated artisans working for bamboo carving. As bamboo was easily available, more and more people started to join in this craft, some by learning from others privately, until bamboo carving became a special line with a great quantity of works left over to posterity. Bamboo joint carving is the representative variety in bamboo carving in which bamboo joints are shaped into brush pots, incense tubes, tea caddies, etc. and then its surface pierced out to make relief sculpture to produce an artistic effect.


The techniques of bamboo carving mainly include keeping green-covering, pasting yellow chips, round carving and inlaying.


The craft of keeping green covering refers to that motifs are carved using bamboo surface layer hull with other part on the surface removed. That part, appearing pale yellow, is called bamboo muscle, which is used as background. When a bamboo is dried, its outer layer gradually turns from green to light yellow, and then remains unchanged. But the bamboo muscle will change from light yellow first to deep yellow, then to reddish purple with color and luster growing deeper and deeper until they resemble amber’s. When the bamboo muscle is often stroked with hand, it will become smooth and mild. As time goes by, the outer layer and the bamboo muscle differ distinctly in luster and color, and the designs become more and more clear.


The yellow chip (bamboo muscle) refers to the light yellow inner layer of the bamboo. It is glossy and smooth, like ivory. In the craft of pasting yellow chips, large bamboos from the south are used as material. Fresh yellow chips are boiled, dried in the air, flattened by pressing, and then paste onto the surface of objects made of various materials. Often wooden articles are used, among which Chinese little leaf box which is fine in texture and similar to bamboo yellow chips in color and luster, is the best choice. Sometimes two or three layers of yellow chips are pasted as required by design so as to make several patterns closely linked up as if wrought through the invisible hand of nature. The technique of pasting yellow chips prevailed in the Qing Dynasty I many places across the country.


Wood carving

Woodcarving in China constitutes three major categories: architecture carving, furniture carving and artworks carving. Woodcarving as handiworks for display or fondling started from the Song Dynasty when the practice of fondling artworks gradually rose among men of letters and refined scholars. This prevailing custom reached its climax in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Furnishing artworks are a traditional category in wood carving, which are placed on cabinets, windowsills, tables, shelves, etc. Wood carving can also be used to decorate all sorts of furniture and other artworks such as jade-ware, cloisonné and chinaware.


Woodcarving can be seen all over the region on both sides of the Yangtze River where the best known includes the Dongyang woodcarving in Guangdong Province, the golden-lacquer woodcarving in Zhejiang Province, longan woodcarving in Fujian Province and Huizhou woodcarving in Anhui Province.


Dongyang County of Zhejiang Province has always been celebrated for being the “home of carving.” Dongyang woodcarving started from the Tang Dynasty, developed in the Song Dynasty and became popular in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Dongyang carvings preserve the original textures and colors of the wood which, when meticulously polished, make the finished works appear smooth and lustrous. Relief carving is the essence of Dongyang woodcarving in which the depth of the patterns ranges between two and five millimeters. The centerpiece is focused on by the force of the cutting. The designs of Dongyang woodcarving lays stress on “carving all over the background,” which means to have patterns carved over the entire surface of the object so that it has three dimensional display while the background is fully covered. That is a unique artistic style.


Gold lacquer woodcarving is a specialty of the Chaozhou region in Guangdong Province, otherwise known as Chaozhou woodcarving, so named because of the gold coating on the surface. Gold lacquer woodcarving at first was a decorative art used in architecture in ancient China. Later on it was influenced by local art and became a school of woodcarving fa=eaturing local flavor. In Chaozhou, local people have specially compounded a kind of lacquer which not only enables the gold foil to adhere to the surface of the wood, but also makes it moisture-proof and rot-proof. The history of Chaozhou woodcarving can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty and earlier. The Qing Dynasty is the heyday of its development when the fretwork developed from single-layer to multi-layer piercing, producing thus an artistic effect of a strong contrast between far and near, large and small.

Fujian longan (Euphoria longan, evergreen tree) carving developed from furniture decoration and status-of-Buddhacarving, matured around the end of Ming Dynasty and the beginning of Qing Dynasty. Longan is slightly brittle in texture, fine grained, reddish brown in color, mainly growing in the southern area of Fujian Province. The trunk in particular the roots of old-age longan, often grows to the either spectacular or grotesque, which is an ideal wood for engraving. Root carving therefore becomes the unique variety of Fuzhou woodcarving. Local artisans, making the best use of its natural shape, have the twisted roots with their rough nodes carved into all sorts of figures, birds and beasts in shapes vivid and artistically exaggerated. Fuzhou woodcarving when smoothed and polished can reval unsophisticated brass yellow or orange color that will never fade.


Wood used in Huizhou woodcarving includes soft or less hard species such as pine, China fir, camphor tree, nanmu, gingko, etc. What Huizhou woodcarving stresses is not the quality of wood, but the content of subject matters, the skills at carving, and the perfection of composition and lines, which has exerted a great influence in the surrounding areas. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, Huizhou woodcarving is focused on architecture and furniture decoration, well-known for its giant-sized carved paintings whose themes are mostly “men farming and women weaving,” fishing, woodcutting, plowing, studying, fairy tales, legends, historical stories, classic novels, and so on and so forth.


Ivory Carving

Early in the Neolithic Age, the Chinese ancients already started to use articles made of bones, fangs, and horns from animals along with stoneware, wooden articles and pottery ware. Materials for carving taken from animals are mostly ivory. The animal-mask patterned ivory cup inlaid with pine-and-stone design unearthed from the Fuhao Tomb in the Yin Ruins, Henan in 1976 can be called a representative of the Shang Dynasty ivory carving.


The ivory carving craft made rapid progress in the Song Dynasty, marked by the multi-cased ivory ball named “Superlative Workmanship” using fretwork process completed by the royal handicraft workshop. On the surface of the ball relief patterns are engraved; inside the ball are several hollow balls with different size one on top of the other. Each ball is engraved with exquisite and complicated designs, appearing delicate and refined.


In the Ming and Qing dynasties, economic and cultural exchanges with South Asia and Africa promoted. Ivory material was introduced to China. Then the ivory carving art entered a period of full bloom.


In the Ming Dynasty, invory carving was mainly done in Beijing, Yangzhou and Guangzhou, and widely involved by the government, folk artisans, men of letters and refined scholars. Ivory artworks an other small-sized carved articles using bamboo, wood, gold, stone, etc. became rare curios and ornaments. At that time ivory and rhinoceros horn carvings made no difference to bamboo, wood, gold or stone carving so far as carving skills were concerned. Quite a number of craftsmen had no difficulty in carving using different materials, some were known as all-arounders in carving.


In addition to the common techniques such as single-line intaglio carving, round carving, relief carving, micro-carving, etc., there are three more unique skills in Chinese ivory carving: fretwork, cleaving-plaiting and inlaying-dying.


The most typical of fretwork item is the intricate hollowed out ivory balls. Some have dozens layers, cased one on top of another, each able to revolve. It is the quintessence of Chinese culture. The working procedures of cleaving-plaiting is, by making use of ivory’s properties of marvelous tenacity and fine grain, cleave ivory into even thin pieces and then plait into artworks such as mattress, round fans, flower baskets, lampshades, etc. As ivory can only be cleaved into fine pieces in an environment with a temperate and moist climate, this kind of craft naturally becomes exclusive to the southern regions. Inlaying-dyeing craft has two different forms. One is to inlay other gorgeously colored substance on the surface of ivory items; the other is to inlay ivory pieces together with other bright substance such as precious stone, on designed patterns. Dyeing is able to improve the monotonous color, and to cover the defects of ivory, horn, etc. inlay-dying enhanced the decorative effective effect of ivory carving items, making them ore brilliant and graceful, more splendorous an colorful.