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Bamboo Carving

       The status of the artisan class rose with social and economic progress. During mid-Ming, under the reigns of Zhengde (1501–1521) and Jiajing (1522–1565), different schools of carving arts emerged and established themselves in Wuzhong (吳中, modern Suzhou 蘇州, Jiangsu Province) and its vicinities. Into late-Ming, Jinling (金陵, modern Nanjing 南京) and Jiading (嘉定), both in the Jiangsu Province, were two key regions with bamboo carving activities. By the time of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Jinling had slowly lost its edge, while Jiading continued on with the heritage of the Three Zhu’s (Zhu He 朱鶴, Zhu Ying 朱纓, Zhu Zhizheng 朱稚征) for generation after generation. Bamboo carving became the local specialty and staple craft of Jiading.

       Around late-Ming and early-Qing, Jiading carvers of bamboo started to combine high and low relieves to give varieties and contrasts. The skills grew more and more sophisticated over time. The levels of different depths in protrusion increased from initially only a simple one or two to “deep and shallow altogether five or six different grades (窪隆淺深可五六層)”, by the time of early Kangxi reign of Qing. Jiading in the early-Qing period was the leading, though not the only region for best bamboo carvings. Outside Jiading, there were individuals devoted to the art yet somehow their contributions stayed personal, neither forming a common local practice nor spreading beyond. Late-Qing continued with the development begun in mid-Qing of applying the antique style of bronze inscriptions to the bamboo carving art. Aside from emulating epigraphic inscriptions, themes based on pictorial representation were still being done, but again mostly in negative carving, and the carvers had to reply on the painters to design and sketch the image in ink on the carving surface first.

       In addition to carving on bamboo, artisans of Fujian Province during the reign of Qianlong (1736–1795) were well known for their unique bamboo-yellow technique (竹黃, also referred to as “bamboo appliqué”), namely, using bamboo’s inner skin for ornamentation of wares or other objects. Some of their works were honored as local tribute to the emperor when he was on inspection tours of the Jiangnan region (South of the Yangtze River) and won his royal approval. By the late time of Qianlong reign, bamboo-yellow items had been included among the state gifts for diplomatic purposes; the technique itself had also spread from its place of origin in Shanghang (上杭) of Fujian (福建), to Shaoyang (邵陽) of Hunan (湖南), then in a roundabout way arriving west at Jiangan (江安) of Sichuan (四川), then finally Jiading (嘉定) of Jiangsu (江蘇) to the east. The bamboo-yellow could be applied on everyday objects, as decorative veneers, or as a medium for the carvers to replicate the literati’s artworks, so it appealed to the tastes of either the commoners or the refined class.