Hunters and fishers of Paleolithic age already learned to make use of the inedible parts of their game and work these into simple tools or ornaments. Ivory went on to become an integrated and widely used component of Neolithic craft cultures, often made into items of ritual and religious purposes. Following on the spread and advancement of civilization, however, the elephants and rhinoceroses which used to roam over China Proper in remote antiquity retreated from basins of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River.
Bronze was the crux of the Shang culture (1600–1046 BC) but significant progress in ivory carving also appeared at the time. The Shang craftsmen not only worked the intrinsic nature of the material, they also enhanced its beauty with semi-precious stone inlay such as turquoise. Fast forward into Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), the royal house often decorated their palaces with ivory, thus leaving little for other private use outside the court. Lack of materials led to the decline of the art. Ivory carving went downhill as a result.
After the mid-period of Ming dynasty (1368–1644), the activity of carving as an art and craft was concentrated in the Wuzhong area (in present day Suzhou of Jiangsu province). But ivory carving was not a specialty on its own in the region. For a skilled enough carving artist, though, his capacity was never limited. Even famous bamboo carvers could work on ivory as well. Into Qing (1644–1911), bamboo carvers who served at the court in the Workshops of the Imperial Household Department, such as Shi Tianzhang (施天章) and Feng Shiqi (封始岐) from Jiading, were also ordered more than once to create ivory works and with astounding results. Their rank at the royal workshop was accordingly promoted to that of Imperial Ivory Artisan.
Academically, the Qing ivory carving is categorized into two schools: Beijing-based North Style, including both private-owned and court-run ivory workshops, featuring ivory in its natural attributes and stressing polished textural effects; and Canton-centered South Style, thus also called Canton Style, which focused on carving prowess and bleached their ivory white. Resulted works were luminously white, and exquisitely and intricately wrought. Above it all, ivory floss weaving was Canton artisans’ one-of-a-kind, extraordinary masterpiece. The Beijing’s Imperial Ivory Workshop had a sobriquet for the South School’s four unique specialties (linked chains, “live” openwork or “animated” patterns, floss weaving, and the layered concentric ball) — “Celestial Feat (仙工)”.
The eighteenth century’s Imperial Workshops assimilated carving styles from the early high-Qing’s Suzhou of Jiangnan, and incorporated the North School on the foundation of Canton’s ivory carving techniques. It joined the best of both schools; and under the patronage of the emperor and dictated by his royal taste, the court artisans created a very unique courtly style for ivory carving. The designs were a good mix and use of elaboration and restraint. Where motifs were intricate and rich in detail, knife work was the focal point. When simple designs were intended, smoothest possible grinding and polishing were emphasized. Finally, highlighting with dyes in appropriate spots added an imperial touch. The court artisanship thus led the nation in ivory carving until the dynasty was over.