With a long history, the art of Chinese carving has survived and thrived over the course of the years. Chinese carving varies greatly from its counterpart in the West. Objects such as figures, animals, plants or landscapes are delicately carved by artists.
Chinese artists demonstrate their talents and creativity on a range of raw materials from stone, tooth, horn, roots, and bamboo to paper. Carvings were originally done on bamboo before artists adopted other materials. Many of these works have become national treasures.
Tooth and Horn Carving
Generally speaking "tooth and horn carvings" refers to objects carved out of animal teeth and horns, and in the circle of collectors, the term specifically refers to works carved out of ivory and rhinoceros horns. Ivory is naturally beautiful, white and soft, and is therefore very exquisite and full of artistic charm; Rhinoceros horn carvings are famous for their rarity and great value.
Ivory carving is one of China's oldest arts and examples of skillfully carved ivory have been found in tombs dating as far back as the Shang Dynasty (18th -12th century B.C.); these pieces are so well designed and executed that they suggest a long previous development, probably stretching back to prehistoric times.
During the Shang and Zhou dynasties, tooth carving gradually became prosperous. By the Tang (618-907 A.D.) and Song (960-1279 A.D.) dynasties, tooth and horn carving was much more sophisticated in terms of both technique and craftsmanship. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the carving became very popular, while the style tended to be simple and smooth.
In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the handicraft industry and businesses began to prosper and Western culture was gradually introduced into China. People's cultural and aesthetic consciousness was gradually enhanced and the tastes of the royal court and feudal officials increased the demand for tooth and horn carvings, triggering the unprecedented development of handicrafts during the period. As a result, many skillful craftsmen emerged, producing a large number of beautiful tooth and horn carving works. However, due to a shortage of raw materials, rhinoceros horn carvings only enjoyed a short period of popularity during the reigns of emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong.
In modern times, the world has run into a more serious shortage of tooth and horn resources. With increased awareness of the negative impact ivory trade has on endangered species, the protection of wild animals has developed and many countries, including China, have forbidden the auction of tooth and horn carvings. This means that the carvings will become more valuable for collection
Elephants play a fundamental role in maintaining biological diversity and shaping a healthy bush environment, and rhinoceroses are also an endangered species. To protect endangered species, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has triggered a global ban on the trade of items made from ivory taken from these animals. China has also gone on the record against the illegal trade of endangered species.
Tooth and horn carving is no longer widely practiced in China. However, related artworks passed down still hold an important position among Chinese traditional crafts, and the techniques used are also employed to make other handicrafts.
In ancient times there were several techniques employed in tooth and horn carving, mainly including hollowing and openwork carving, weaving, micro carving, and inlaying.
Hollowing and openwork carving was the most common technique used in industrial arts, and the most representative work is the Ivory Compression Ball made of hollowing and openwork carving.
Weaving is the process of making cloth, rugs, blankets, and other products by crossing two sets of threads over and under each other. Usually, weavers use threads spun from natural fibers like cotton, silk, and wool and synthetic fibers such as nylon and Orlon. But thin, narrow strips of almost any flexible material can be woven. In ivory carving, ivory is made into several thin strips, and the strips are then woven into different patterns.
The technique of micro-carving refers generally to the engraving of infinitesimal characters on ivory the size of a single human hair. The artist engaged in this unique craft cannot see the work he is doing but must rely on feel. The technique is therefore sometimes described as "carving by one's will."
Inlaying is the process of ornamenting a surface by setting into it material of different color or substance, usually in such a manner as to preserve a continuous plane. Inlay is employed in connection with a great variety of objects, both of major architectural character and of minor furnishing and decorative function, and makes use of a wide range of materials, such as wood, stone, ivory, glass, metal, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell.
China has a long history of woodcarving. Picturesque in contours, concise in intended meanings, exquisite in chiseling skills, Chinese woodcarving embodies harmony, in terms of the relationship between each component and the carving as a whole. Based on customs and myths, its themes in general are classified into the following four categories: auspicious designs, such as "excessive happiness," "full crops harvest," "peaceful and hearts' desire," "longevity," "good luck;" figures for enjoyment purposes, such as characters in operas, ancient heroes, historical novels, myths, and fables; local people's life style, such as farming, harvesting, sericulture, weaving, herding, hunting, sewing, commerce, and love; fowls and beasts, plants, vegetables and fruits that people are familiar with. Beasts include animals like chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, pigs, cows, horses, deer, bats, fish and shrimp.
Woodcarving takes various forms: low relief, deep relief, transparent relief and full relief. Many hollowed-out deep relief pieces are pieced together with full relief pieces. Varied in chiseling techniques according to different materials, strengthened in sense of space, they constitute a kind of multiplayer deep relief similar to a full relief, which is very pleasant to see.
China was one of the first nations to use bamboo. Archeologists once unearthed a painted dragon-pattern bamboo spoon from the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- 24 A.D.) at the No 1 Han tomb of Changsha Mawangdui in Hunan Province. From this, we can see that as early as 2,000 years ago people carved bamboo into elaborate utensils.
Very few bamboo carvings pre-dated the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but mid-Ming Dynasty bamboo carvings became a professional industrial art, and more and more artists took it up, shifting its role from practical uses into an art form. Jiading and Jinling areas, both in today's Jiangsu Province, were the two bamboo-carving centers during the Ming and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
The Jiading School was represented by Zhu He, Zhu Ying and Zhu Zhuizheng, who were from three generations of the same family. They were all good at painting, embossment and round carving, with embossment consisting of bass and high embossments. With the efforts of the Zhu family, the Jiading School became the biggest branch of bamboo carving in the world of that period. Carvers like Hou Xiaozeng, Shen Dasheng, Wang Yongfang, Wang Zhiyu, Wangzhi, Wu Zhifan, Shi Tianzhang, Zhoupo and Gu Zhangyu were all outstanding members of this school.
The Jinling School featured another style, which paid no attention to the exquisite carvings, and pursued natural tastes with minimal cutting and polishing. Its main technique was the bamboo concave carving, which not only involved lines but also the side inlays of the bamboo and could vividly recreate the sentiment embodied in the landscape. The Jinling School was set up in the mid-Ming Dynasty by Pu Zongqian, and it was unfortunate that his craftsmanship was not handed down after his death.
Two other carving methods are called "peel then carve" and "carve then peel," which were based on the development of bamboo carving in the Ming. In the first method, bamboo is sawn into bamboo tubes with the burls and green surface removed, then inlaid into a wooden matrix after cooking, basking and pressing. Lastly, the surface is polished with patterns carved on it. The second technique was developed in the mid-Qing Dynasty, retaining the green surface with a carved pattern on it. The surface is then removed to reveal the real bamboo body.