Carvings use knives, axes and a variety of other tools to create art with various hard materials, such as jade, ivory, stone and timber. Based on the material, carving craftwork may be divided into several categories, such as jade carvings, stone carvings, wood carvings and bamboo carvings.
Appreciating gems and jewelry is about focusing mainly on appreciating moldings and colors. And, Chinese jade carvings elicit artistic conceptions of beauty. Chinese jade carving is an art with deep ethnic characteristics, and the pieces are a dazzling treasure in the world of sculpture. Implicit in the carvings are the wisdom of the Chinese culture, its religious notions and its esthetic style.
Beijing jade carvings
Beijing jade carvings enjoy a long history. From the New Stone Age period, women use jaded for decorations. Throughout its long history, jade carving have been turned into graceful, figured artwork.
The skills used in jade carving are different in the north and in the south. Jade carving in the south is centered in Suzhou and Yangzhou, while in the north it is centered in Beijing. Till the Qing Dynasty, north and south carvings were blended in Beijing, where they compiled the good aspects of both and created a unique set of Beijing jade carving skills. Items such as the “Jade Mountain,” “Good Fortune Sea” and “The Da Yu controlled floods jade mountain” in Imperial Palace are curiosa handed down from one generation to another in Qing.
Yangzhou jade carvings
The famous cultural historical city of Yangzhou has an important place in jade carving history. Tangzhou jade article may be separated into six categories, including vases, characters, flowers and birds, beasts and animals, archaic pieces and mountains. It boasts a great number of styles in various series. The White Jade Pagoda Stove in the seventies became famous overnight during a nationwide competition, and it was exhibited in Tokyo, Nagoya in 1981, where it received high praise and respect from all walks of life. The White Jade Five Elements Tower was completed in 1986. The main tower has seven layers and eight sides, is 105 cm in length, 32 cm in breadth, and uses eight jade chains and 440 other chains to link the four towers in four directions to form a colony. It is an excellent piece of work that is rarely seen since time immemorial. The Hundred Years Old Matches Wishes was completed using eggshell techniques in 1989. The Boundless Universe of Buddha was completed using Qianzi Diao techniques in 1990. All of these pieces have been rewarded the Golden Prize of the Nation and been evaluated by the nation as treasures, and are currently kept in the National Museum of Arts and Crafts.
Suzhou jade carvings
Suzhou has had jade carvings since the Tang and Dai Dynasties, and was famous throughout the country until the Ming Dynasty. Suzhou jade carvings are mainly small pieces, most of which are vases, characters, flowers and animals. The archaic vase is civil and spectacular; lady characters are graceful and coquettish, restrained and plump; flowers and birds use colors skillfully, the red-mouthed green parrot is ideally matched. Finished works effectively use hollowed-out works, resulting in exquisitely carved products that are facile and graceful. Suzhou jade carvings make use of their traditional decorative workmanship. The staple jades are emerald, white jade, kallaite, lapis lazuli, coral, jasper, topaz, agate, ross quartz, kopje, amethyst, crystal and others. These may be lined into no less than 20 categories.
Shanghai jade carvings
The Shanghai jade carvings are usually one of four forms: vases, characters, flowers or beasts. Of these, the vase is the most advanced and well-known. The molding is elegant and the emblazonry is delicate and full of bronze, which is unique in the jade carving industry. A variety of vases, stoves, tripods, wine containers, cups, cases, lamps are also made. Molded pieces include: three-legged stove, four-legged stove, crane stove, phoenix stove, eagle stove and so on. There are also twin chickens, cows, elephants and sheep, and various kinds of chain vases.
Shanghai jade carvers are the most skilled and use every bit of the jade’s natural shape, color and luster to design and carve based on the original material. This creates superb craftsmanship, which is full of sentiment. Liu Jisong, the technologist at the Shanghai Jade Carving factory, is known as "The Most Talented Jade Carver in the South." His piece, “Hundreds Emerald Buddha” was carved into 90 different buddhas with various moldings and appearances on a vase 7.5 inches in length and 8 inches in diameter. The piece received great interest from visitors during the tour, “Shanghai Handicraft Article Exhibition.”
Northeast carnelian carvings
Originally carved by the carnelian of Heilongjiang from raw or unprocessed materials, most of the art pieces are of women, animals, flowers, and thuribles with omni-form figures. Carnelian is a mineral grown out of high temperature and high pressure. It has many dazzlingly brilliant colors, such as ash, reddish-brown, greenish-blue and so on. Rare is the carnelian with water at its core, so the carved handiwork is especially expensive. Some were carved into several layers of ivory, and the layers inside were carved into a carnelian ball that can be rolled and that fully reveals the exquisite craftsmanship.
Shoushan stone carvings
Shoushan stone carvings are made of pyrophyllite, which is from the Shoushan Village, 40 kilometers in the north suburb of Fouzhou. Carefully carved, the pyrophyllite is splendid craftwork. The Shoushan stone is glittering and translucent, colorful, pliable and easily shaped. The Shoushan stone has more than 120 different types, and these may be classified into three categories: Tian Keng stone, Shui Keng stone and Shan Keng stone. Tian Keng stone is a rare material of the best quality, and it can be classified into four categories based on color, i.e., Tian Huang stone, Tian Bai stone, Tian Hei stone and Tian Hong stone. Of the four categories, the Tian Huang stone is the rarest and feels the most exquisite. It is honored as the king stone and its price is even higher than that of the gold.
Shoushan stone sculptures are a miracle in current carving technology for their excellent texture, beautiful color, fantastic grain, elaborate sculpturing, various types, and profound cultural deposits. People should feel the beauty of the harmony between nature and man-made creations, as well as the respectable quality of the stone, which enlightens people even though it cannot speak.
Qingshan stone carvings
Qingshan stone carvings refer to traditional Chinese craftwork carved from the Qingshan stone found in Qingtian County in Zhejiang Province, known as the “hometown of Chinese stone carvings.” Qingtian stone carvings are widely loved and collected for their elegant molding and exquisite skills. These carvings are thus honored as “embroidery in stones.”
Qingtian stone comes in different colors, has a pretty sheen, a subtle texture, moderate hardness, and is easy to be carved into different shapes. The craftwork carved from Qingtian stone is blazing with color, is exquisitely carved, glitters and is translucent like jade. The products are pretty artistic. Qingtian quartz has a compact molecule structure, meaning that the stone will not break even when it is carved into a line as thin as a hair. Qingtian stone made into a seal using knives demands quick and neat seal-cutting skills. As a result, the edge of the seal will not be damaged for a long time. Moreover, stamp-pad ink will not permeate into the seal.
Changhua heliotrope carvings
Changhua heliotrope is a precious stone found only in China. It is bright red, glittering and translucent, and is honored as a “National Treasure” on a par with jewels and emeralds. It is named the Changhua heliotrope because it is native to the Yuyan Mountain, at the end of the Zhexi Grand Canyon in Lin’an in Zhejiang Province, originally Changhua County before it merged into the city of Lin’an with two other counties.
Changhua heliotrope is a natural precious stone formed by the paragenesis of cinnabar, kaolinite, dickite and pyrophyllite. Jade specialists believe that Changhua heliotrope is the one richest in color and most changeful among more than 200 kinds of gems. The ore body of the Changhua heliotrope was formed 75,000,000 years ago from volcanic activity. The mineral deposit runs through a dozen mountain ridges at an altitude over thousands of meters, finally forming a tortuous belt of more than 10 kilometers. Cinnabar is commonly referred to as vermilion, the major ingredient of the red substances in heliotrope. The cinnabar has many different colors, including bright red, scarlet, purplish red, and light red, as well as various shapes such as large flakiness, crumbs, belts, spots and so on. Kaolinite and dickite are the major ingredients of the red texture of the heliotrope. They come in white, yellow, black, grey, red, brown, cyan and green. In terms of transparency, they can be classified as transparent, translucent, subtranslucent, or opaque. Generally, Changhua heliotrope consists of more than 50 colorful and remarkable varieties that fall into four categories of frozen ground, soft ground, hard ground and rigid ground.
Liuyang chrysanthemum stone carvings
Chrysanthemum stone carvings are a remarkable craftwork of Liuyang County. They are carved of chrysanthemum stone, which was formed 200 million years ago. Up to now, only Liuyang County is known to produce this natural stone; therefore, Liuyang chrysanthemum stone carvings are undoubtedly honored as the best in the world. The stone, like the chrysanthemum, falls into different core categories: single core, double core, three cores, and coreless chrysanthemum stones. Moreover, the stone creates various flower moldings, such as bamboo chrysanthemum, hydrangea nightshade chrysanthemum, and so on. Craftsmen carefully carve the stone to make full use of the grain characteristics to sort out the petals and add some leaves to form dozens of chrysanthemums. In recent years, craftsmen have broken free of the convention of graphicacy and have created a new technology for sculpturing tri-dimensional flowers and for adding figures to the carvings. This can be seen in craftwork originating from fairy tales, such as “Huang Chao Chants Chrysanthemum” and “Celestial Beauty Scattering Flowers.” Liuyang chrysanthemum stone carvings have won prizes in the Panama World’s Fair for their reflection of exquisite skills and ingenious conception.
Wood carvings are very common in China. They are widely distributed in Zhejiang, Fujian, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Hubei, and Shandong. Famous wood carvings are Dongyang wood carvings, Chaozhou wood carvings and boxwood carvings.
Dongyang wood carvings
Dongyang wood carvings are named after Dongyang in Zhejiang Province, and are listed as the three carvings in Zhejiang together with Qingtian stone carvings and boxwood carvings. The people in Dongyang are said to have begun wood sculpturing as early as over 1,000 years ago. They handed down the craftsmanship through their families, creating a great number of brilliant craftworks as well as great craftsmen. Dongyang has become the famous “hometown of carving.”
The Dongyang wood carving process can be divided into designing drawings, making roughcasts, and slicking. However, craftsmen with outstanding skills at carving and painting skip the procedure of designing drawings and carving the wood directly. When creating a new piece of work, they work out the drawings first and then carve them out by memory. Nevertheless, few are competent enough to engage in such a complicated process.
Zhangzhou wood carvings
Zhangzhou wood carvings date back more than 1,000 years. They are like beautiful flowers blossoming in the earth, belong to Chaozhou folk arts and crafts, and are listed as one of the four Chinese wood carvings, together with Dongyang wood carvings, boxwood carvings, and longan wood carvings.
Chaozhou wood carvings began in the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, at the latest, and were further developed during the Ming Dynasty. They were developed into near perfection by the end of the Qing Dynasty and reached great heights just before the beginning of the Chinese war against Japan.
Zhangzhou wood carvings fall into four overall categories of architecture: decoration, libation decoration, ornamental furnishings, and desk ornaments. Wood carvings are usually stuck with pure gold foil after careful sculpturing, allowing them to glitter. Wood carvings are also known as “gold-coated wood carvings.”
In terms of the selection of subject matter and the artistic treatment, Chaozhou wood carvings mainly deal with figures through the representation of themes such as productive labor and the daily life of laboring people, historic figures, drama and stories, flowers, birds, insects and fish, seafood and lobsters, and so on. In terms of patterns, Chaozhou wood carvings mainly display the traditional circular carvings and full reliefs. In terms of sculpture skills, Chaozhou wood carvings either use one of the skills of relief sculpturing, permeation sculpturing, or line cutting or use them all flexibly, to present different beautifications in form according to different subjects and decorations. The most remarkable characteristic of Chaozhou wood carvings is the multi-level, through-carved sculpture that breaks the limitation of space and time and intensively displays a complicated story through a painting.
Chaozhou wood carvings inherit the traditional wood sculpturing skills and use the virtues of various other folk arts, such as stone carvings, painting, and clay sculpturing, as well as Chaozhou drama as a source of reference. During the wood carving, craftsmen integrating all of these skills have formed a specific school in Chinese sculptural art.
Boxwood carvings belong to the family of circular carvings. They make full use of the natural characteristics of boxwood, including its smooth texture, subtle grains, and dignified color. Originally, boxwood carvings display a cream yellow. As time goes by, the color darkens and presents a kind of simple and elegant beauty.
Among the wood carving skills, through-carving is the most elaborate, and it can bring out glittering and translucent, ingenious and exquisite carvings.
Ye Runju, the great Chinese master of arts and crafts, is skilled at through-carving art and integrates the virtues of different art schools, especially absorbing the ivory sculpture skills of through-carving, engraving, scraping and so on. He also innovates his former skills, allowing his craftwork to always present remarkable and vivid images that combine the dynamic and static states.
Wood carvings were generally used in sculpturing Buddhist statues, constructing temples, and carving dragon lanterns, steles, screens, and furniture. After the craft has been passed to craftsmen from one generation to another, wood carving has become a great handiwork.
Jianchuan wood carvings
Jianchuan County is famous as the “hometown of craftsmen.” Craftsmen are good at sculpturing various figures, flowers and birds, landscapes, and pictures of dragons and phoenix that infer luck and happiness, and that decorate doors and windows, and furniture. Jianchuan wood carvings inherit and develop the excellent traditional skills of wood carving. Craftsmen choose high quality mahogany, southwest birch, Myanmar redwood, natural plant lacquer, and the well-known floral marble as raw materials, giving the products practical use and artistic value, and make them worthy of collection.
Hubei wood carved boats
Hubei Wood Carved Boat is traditional craftwork with a specific folk style among Chinese wood carving arts and crafts. Wood carved boats are an elegant pattern and have a profound folk foundation and a strong decoration effect. Hubei Province is located at the center of China, with a great many rivers, lakes, and a water communication network leading everywhere. This network connects the upper reaches with the downstream of the Yangtze River, which supplies rich resources for the creation of carved boats. In terms of subject matter, craftsmen mainly refer to the folk wood sailing ship used in inland rivers and seas, ancient barges, dragon boats, phoenix boats, colored boats at the Lantern Fair, yachts, passenger ships, freight ships, and so on. These figures reflect the characteristics of different places and times. In terms of carving skills, Hubei wood carved boats attach great importance to decorative design, through-carved work, and precise film. It is very difficult to carve through the wood because the decorative design should be clear, symmetrical, and slim. Furthermore, boat carving requires precise and careful work when carving floral windows, lattice of doors, pavilions, and railings. When working on the film, craftsmen should first design various patterns according to the different modeling for each product. Each part of the wood carved boat should meet the requirements of easy dismantlement and precise structure. Nowadays, Hubei wood carved boats are exported to a dozen countries, such as Japan, Canada, America, and France.
TOPHainan coconut carvings
Hainan coconut carvings enjoy a long history. As early as the Tang Dynasty, people began to create wine cups using coconut shells. During the late Tang Dynasty, Lu Guimeng, a poet, wrote a famous poem concerning the coconut wine cup. In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Hainan Province sent yearly tributes of coconut carvings to Beijing.
Hainan coconut carvings create craftwork from coconut shells by carving craftsmen in Hainan Island. The coconut carvings are of different patterns, are simple and elegant in color, and have a specific artistic style. As early as the end the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, coconut carving craftwork reached a high standard. In the following 300 years, craftsmen gradually developed the craftsmanship into perfection after their continuous hard work, and they finally formed their own specific style.
The skills needed for Hainan coconut carvings are surface relief sculpturing, tri-dimensional relief sculpturing, reversible pattern relief sculpturing, as well as shell-beset carvings. There are more than 300 different kinds of coconut carving products, such as tableware, tea sets, wine sets, smoking sets, and vases, as well as various hanging and standing screens. These are practical with their fresh patterns, refined designs, simple styles, and good texture.
Hainan coconut carvings also consist of displays for appreciation, hanging pieces, and daily items of both artistic quality and practicality. Recently, craftsmen developed coconut paintings with simple patterns, smart conceptions, and curious modeling, which added freshness to the traditional coconut carving techniques.
Quanzhou puppets, a kind of folk craftwork, were named after Quanzhou in Fujian Province, its place of production. Craftsmen carve the head out of camphor wood, cover it with mud, smoothen it, paint it, and then clothe it. The Quanzhou puppet has a distinctly outlined head and refined lines, inherited from the sculpture and painting styles of the Tang and Song Dynasties. In terms of the manufacture of the puppet head, in addition to the reference to traditional techniques, craftsmen attach great importance to exaggeration and change, especially the characterization and the expressive force. The Quanzhou puppet is a valuable kind of folk art famous both at home and abroad.
Because the places to the south of the Yangtze River (Kiangnan area) are rich in bamboo, bamboo carving art prevailed in the following provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hunan, Guangdong, and Sichuan.
Shanghai bamboo bark carvings
Bamboo carvings have been collected by royal families and litterateurs since ancient times. Bamboo carving skills fall into four categories: circular carving, openwork carving, bark carving, and shallow carving. Among the four techniques, bark carving, also known as green-left carving, is the most difficult. Bark carving is to carve designs out of the surface bark of the bamboo. During the carving process, craftsmen choose how much of the surface bark should be left to present the different levels, as well as darkness and brightness, of the bamboo. Bark carving may work for more tri-dimensional products than shallow carving. Bark carving has become a specialty of Changzhou. Hence, the hometown of the Xu family, Mingfeng County, is honored as the "hometown of bamboo carving" by Jiangsu Province. At the first Chinese Souvenirs Designing Contest, the bamboo pen container series and the bamboo paperweight series produced by Xu Bingyan Bamboo Studio won second place and the prize for excellent works, respectively.
Huangyan bamboo carvings
Huangyan bamboo carvings are a kind of bamboo arts and crafts with refined sculpturing, elegant modeling, and a bright yellow color. They can be used for both pure artistic appreciation and decoration.
The carving skills for Huangyan bamboo carvings are very special. First, craftsmen should choose the best bamboo produced in Huangyan (these bamboos should be cut during the winter), cut off the green bark, put the inner bamboo ring into boiling water, flatten and agglutinate the boiled bamboo, then decorate the bamboo by carving various landscapes, flowers, birds, and figures, and, finally, shaping and waxing the carving.
At present, Zhejiang Huangyan bamboo carvings are very popular all over China, and are exported to more than 80 countries and regions overseas.
Shell carvings are made from shells. They are a kind of arts and crafts carefully processed by craftsmen. However, the skill of using varieties of shells and creating special shell carving craftwork was gradually developed after the liberation of China. Shell sculpture designs are worked out by skillfully making use of the original color and shape of different shells after several complicated processing procedures, such as meticulously designing the painting, selecting the material, carving the shell, and assembling the parts. After polishing, carving, and chemical treatment, shells become rich in latent colors. When using the latent colors, you may choose one of them or all of them simultaneously, to create magnificent pictures. Shell sculpture craftsmen produce wonderful and special shell craftwork with simple and dignified designs, borrowing ideas of generalization from Chinese paintings, the skills of sculpture modeling, and the techniques of embroidery, while taking advantage of the characteristics of shells.
In China, shell sculptures are mainly produced at Qingdao in Shandong Province, Dalian in Liaoning Province, Beihai in Guangxi Province, Qinhuangdao in Hebei Province, in Zhejiang Province and in Jiangsu Province. They vary from each other artistically. The shell sculptures consist of hanging screens, standing screens, screens, tri-dimensional shell sculptures, and reading lamps, as well as caskets that have practical utility.
Nut carvings are a kind of folk art only found in China. Nut carvings are exquisitely carved from peach pits, almonds, olive pits, and hickory nuts. People honor the skills of the nut sculpture as a miracle because it is difficult to carve on a tiny nut. Foreign collectors greatly treasure the nut sculptures and go to great efforts to obtain such pieces.
In a broad sense, nut sculpture skills are similar to miniature sculpture techniques. Limited by the small sizes of the nuts, the sculptures are generally relief carvings and tri-dimensional carving that greatly depend on the shape, grains, and textures of the nuts. When carving nuts, craftsmen present their skills and carefully design the sculptures according to the different materials. When carved, the hard texture nuts tinkle and, if carefully carved, they should be smooth and bright. If the nut sculpture is held in the hands for a long time, it will shine.
Carving the olive pit is especially demanding for craftsmen to perform their skills by following the natural shape of nut. For example, by making full use of the slightly bent olive nut, craftsmen can sculpt the body of the God of Longevity into the gesture of a slightly crookbacked, exaggerated to give prominence to the broad and bare forehead and the graceful eyebrow and beard of this god, who takes a dragon head crutch in his left hand and holds up a birthday peach in his right hand. The entire olive nut sculpture vividly presents an image of an amiable old man with a smile.
In the history of Chinese ivory sculpture, this art form originated from the He Mu Du culture and the Da Wen Kou culture of the Neolithic Age. At present, ivory sculpturing skills have reached great heights. Ivory is refined and hard in texture. It is not easy to break and hence is suitable for carving. Many craftsmen choose ivory as the raw material for ivory sculptures. They carve landscapes and figures, as well as flowers, plants, fishes, insects, and charming pastoral scenes. Pastoral land is the resource for food and clothing, and a place for daily life to happen. Many famous ivory sculptures have been crafted, such as the ivory sculpture in the Imperial Palace, "Yueman on Journey," created during the reign of Qianlong emperor of the Qing Dynasty. It is refined in color and embedded with diamonds representing scenes of ladies appreciating plum blossom in the courtyard in January, passing the summer in a leisurely way beside the pool in May, and appreciating the moon at its higher platform in August, all illustrating the pastoral life of the noble. Moreover, many other refined works of ivory are full of pastoral quality, such as the well-known "Through-Carved Floral Round Box," "Marigold," and "Da Ji Gourd Floral Stove" of the Qing Dynasty, and the "Quail Box" of the Qing Dynasty. Ivory sculptures have become more valuable after international animal protection organizations have repeatedly forbade the hunting of elephants.
Ivory sculptures from Beijing are famous all over the nation for their elegant, dignified, and solemn style. Shanghai ivory carving skills create small-scale ivory sculptures with exquisite lines and decorative designs. Guangzhou is rich in refined ivory-carved balls.
Coal carvings are folk craftwork originating from the ancient town of Datong, the production location for coal in China. The raw materials for coal carvings are dug from the mines 300 meters from the underground. They were formed during the Jurassic period, 140 million years ago. Coal is neither humid nor dry, neither soft nor hard. The folk craftsmen carve the coal in reference to items of interest, such as the historic Yungang statues, Liaoning Huayan sculptures, Henshan ancient temples, nine-dragon screens of the Ming Dynasty, famous paintings at home and abroad, and figures of leading individuals. Craftsmen mainly use shadow carving and relief carving techniques to create coal carvings, turning the craftwork into a special artistic style of smooth lines and vivid images. Many people are fond of coal sculptures and like to present them to their friends.
Clay sculptures, also known as painted sculptures, are a traditional folk sculpture craftwork in China. When producing the clay sculpture, craftsmen first blend cotton fibers into clay, mix it well, make various semi-finished figures, and finally paint those semi-finished articles with colors and powders after they dry in the shade.
Mainstream Chinese clay sculpture products display scenes of ancient people buried alive with the dead and people prostrating to Buddha, as well as folklore of strolling players performing sideshows and so on. During the Tang and Song Dynasties, the art of clay sculpture developed to its finest, producing famous clay sculptures such as the figure of Bodhisattva in Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, and the maid in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. During the Qing Dynasty, the art of clay sculpturing was divided into the north school and the south school. In the north, the representative is the Clay Zhang; while in the south, the clay sculpture prevails in Huishan, Wuxi. The Clay Zhang mainly refers to the Zhang family in Tianjin. The first craftsman was Mr. Zhang Changlin, whose works are characterized by lifelike gestures, appearance, clothes, and adornments of figures. Mr. Zhang’s son and grandson inherited and developed his craft and made great contributions to Chinese painted sculptures. Huishan clay figures mainly fall into two categories: figures of interest to children represented by "Big A Fu," with a lively and simple appearance, bright colors, and profound provincial quality; and dramatic figures that have exaggerative modeling and manners of Jiangnan characteristics presented by refined techniques, and simple and thick colors. Clay sculpture specialists are Hu Xinming, Wang Zhongfu, and Yu Qingcheng. The major locations where folk clay sculptures are manufactured are Fengxiang in Shanxi Province, Baigouhe in Hebei Province, and Huqiu in Suzhou.