Wood Carving

       The archaeological excavations show that the essential techniques of woodcarving had been pretty much complete at the time prior to Qin dynasty (221-207 BC). Carving in intaglio (yinke 阴刻), in relief (yangdiao 阳雕, either raised 浮雕 or piercing through 镂空), and in the round (lidiao 立雕) all reached a highly developed state. And in furniture, the woodcarving skills came into full play. Edifices of traditional wood structures were another arena for woodcarvers to fully wield their talents; thus came the popular set-phrase, or almost cliché, to describe highly decorated buildings as diaoliang huadong (雕梁畫棟, carved beams and painted pillars, for extreme, elaborate luxury).

      Aside from furniture and buildings, carving skills are also showcased in wood sculptures of religious figures. Buddhism thrived during the Six Dynasties (220-589) and subsequent Sui (581-618) and Tang periods (618-907) ; there were robust activities in the carving of wood statues. The works from the period could be found and seen today. As for wood statues made in North Song (960-1126), from what have been able to survive, those of Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音) in various postures are most admired. They are either sitting in lotus posture, or performing abhaya (“no-fear”) mudra, or standing, or in meditation, all with comely and fitting bearing and serene composure, a true statement representative of the marvels of the highly skillful woodcarving art at the time.

      The Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) placed a very high value on the “Hundred Crafts”. Artisans of superb workmanship were accorded a respectful title “Maestro Artisan (也可兀闌)”. The new institution of jianghu (匠戶, Artisan Household) registry allowed the carving skills passing from the father to the son for generations, until well into Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Woodcarving as a craft, however, still belonged under other professions such as architecture, furniture, and religious statues making. After mid-Ming, the carving arts became an independent craft category in its own right. However, many carving artists though famous for one single craft never confined themselves to that one single medium during their lifetime. For example, renowned bamboo carvers Zhu Ying (朱纓) and Pu Cheng (濮澄) both carved on wood as well. Rhinoceros horn expert Bao Tiancheng (鮑天成) also did his art on ivory and red sandalwood. Into the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), there was a woodworking workshop, even one specifically called Canton woodworking workshop, installed under the Workshops of the Imperial Household Department (內廷作坊). The talented carvers nevertheless devoted most of their time to ivory carving, with wood carving only as a side job. It was the same outside the palace; no artisans could afford carving wood alone as an art or craft. It had to be part of furniture making or wood-framed structure building, or at the best carried out in rendering religious statues.

       Wood of fine grain is the prerequisite for successful fine carving. After polishing, it has to be fine to the touch, i.e. smooth and soft. The most ideal material is boxwood (黃楊木). In addition, Qienan (伽楠) incense wood (aloeswood, 沉香木) and sandalwood (檀香木) are known for their nice aroma, whereas ebony’s (烏木) appeal is in its hues and sheen. Gnarled wood (癭木) gets its name from its many knots, lumps, and snarls. Woodcarving artisans took advantage of this interesting natural form and subtly fashioned it into original artwork, with minimum and “invisible” knife work.

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