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. Chinese jade carvings elicit elaborate artistic conceptions of beauty. It is an art with deep ethnic characteristics, and the resulting 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-style jade carvings have a long history. Since the New Stone Age period, women have used jade for decorations. Throughout its long history, jade carvings have been turned into graceful, figured artwork.
The skills used in creating jade carvings are different in the north versus in the south. The carvings in the south are centered in Suzhou and Yangzhou, while in the north they are centered in Beijing.
Until the Qing Dynasty, north and south carvings were blended in Beijing, merging together the best aspects of both and creating a unique set of Beijing jade carving skills. Works such as “Jade Mountain,” “Good Fortune Sea,” and “The Da Yu Controlled Floods Jade Mountain” in the Imperial Palace were handed down from one generation to another in the Qing era.
Yangzhou Jade Carvings
The famous cultural-historical city of Yangzhou has an important place in jade carving history. Tangzhou jade articles may be separated into 6 categories including vases, characters, flowers and birds, beasts and animals, archaic pieces, and mountains, and it boasts a great number of styles in various series.
For example, Jade Pagoda Stove in the 1970s became famous overnight during a nationwide competition, and it was exhibited in Tokyo, Nagoya in 1981, where it received high praise and respect from people of all walks of life. As well, the White Jade Five Elements Tower was completed in 1986. The main tower has 7 layers and 8 sides, is 105 centimeters in length, 32 centimeters in breadth, and uses 8 jade chains and 440 other chains to link the 4 towers in 4 directions to form a colony.
It is an excellent piece of work that is rarely seen. Then there is the Hundred Years Old Matches Wishes 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 named national treasures, and all 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 carvings are mainly small pieces, most of which are vases, characters, flowers, and animals. Finished works effectively use hollowed-out works, resulting in exquisitely carved products that are facile and graceful. The pieces make use of their traditional decorative workmanship, and the staple jades are emerald, white jade, kallaite, lapis lazuli, coral, jasper, topaz, agate, ross quartz, kopje, amethyst, and crystal, among others.
Shanghai Jade Carvings
Shanghai jade carvings are usually one of 4 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, and lamps are also made. Popular molded pieces include three-legged stoves, four-legged stoves, crane stoves, phoenix stoves, eagle stoves, 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 full of sentiment. Liu Jisong, a technologist at the Shanghai Jade Carving factory, is known as "The Most Talented Jade Carver in the South." His piece, “Hundreds Emerald Buddha,” is comprised of 90 different Buddhas with various moldings and appears 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 and unprocessed materials, most of the art pieces are of women, animals, flowers, and thuribles with omni-form figures. Carnelian is a mineral made through applying temperatures and high pressures. 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 have been carved into several layers of ivory, and the layers inside were carved into a carnelian ball that can be rolled and fully reveal the exquisite craftsmanship.
Shoushan Stone Carvings
Shoushan stone carvings are made of pyrophyllite, which is from Shoushan Village, 40 kilometers in the north suburb of Fouzhou. Carefully carved, pyrophyllite is splendid craftwork. Shoushan stone glitters and is translucent, colorful, pliable, and easily shaped.
It has more than 120 different types, and these may be classified into 3 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 4 categories in itself based on color, for example, Tian Huang stone, Tian Bai stone, Tian Hei stone, and Tian Hong stone. Of the 4 categories, 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 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. Exhibitors can easily 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 Qingshan stone found in Qingtian County in the 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 also known 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. Craftworks carved from Qingtian stone blaze with color, are exquisitely carved, glitter, and are also translucent like jade. The products are extremely artistic. As well, 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 seals using knives demands quick and neat seal-cutting skills. As a result, the expertly made 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, glittery, 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 Yuyan Mountain at the end of the Zhexi Grand Canyon in Lin’an in the Zhejiang Province, originally Changhua County before it merged into the city of Lin’an with 2 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 of 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 4 categories of frozen ground, soft ground, hard ground, and rigid ground.
Liuyang Chrysanthemum Stone Carvings
Chrysanthemum stone carvings are 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 especially 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 the Zhejiang Province and are listed as the 3 principal 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 carvings.”
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 4 main 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 4 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 traditional circular shapes 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 limitations of space and time and intensively displays complicated stories through a painting.
Chaozhou wood carvings inherit 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 color. As time goes by, the color darkens and presents a kind of simple and elegant beauty.
Among wood carving skills, the 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 develops his skills, allowing his craftwork to always present remarkable and vivid images that combine both dynamic and static states.
Wood carvings were generally used in sculpturing Buddhist statues, constructing temples, and carving dragon lanterns, steles, screens, and furniture. Through passing the craft from one generation to another, wood carving has become a great and respected form of 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, 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 well-known floral marble as raw materials, giving the products practical use and artistic value, and making 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 have an elegant pattern and a profound folk foundation with 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 ships 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, a 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.
Hainan Coconut Carvings
Hainan coconut carvings are an art form that goes way back into 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, simple and elegant in color, and have a specific artistic style. As early as the end of 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. Quanzhou puppets have 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 of 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 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 4 categories: circular carving, openwork carving, bark carving, and shallow carving. Among the 4 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 and has become a specialty of Changzhou. 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. Hence, the hometown of the Xu family, Mingfeng County, is honored as the "hometown of bamboo carving" by the 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 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 latest 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 the Shandong Province, Dalian in the Liaoning Province, Beihai in the Guangxi Province, Qinhuangdao in the Hebei Province, Zhejiang Province, and 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 carvings 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 a 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 clay sculptures, 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 the 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. 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 2 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.