| In the history of arts and crafts in China, carving can be considered one of the earliest art forms. From archaeological excavations and recorded documents it can be determined that early man in ancient Chinese society was already able to employ naturally found materials such as jade, stone, bamboo, wood, bone, horn, teeth, etc. to produce supplies of both functional and decorative artifacts. As an example, as early as six to seven thousand years ago ivory carvings were already being produced, as evidenced by their discovery at a Neolithic Ho-mu-tu cultural site in Chekiang province. Remains of wooden artifacts dating from late Shang dynasty have also been unearthed at Anyang in Honan province. Both finds are widely known.Despite the long precedence for carving throughout Chinese history, few historical materials record the development of the art in any great detail. Reflecting this deficiency is the lack of artisan's names associated with particular carved works. In the Yuan dynasty,T'au Tzong-i in his book, Ch'ou Keng Lu, records the name of Chan Ch'eng,a Sung dynasty craftsman, who as of this date is the earliest carver known in Chinese history. |
By the Ming dynasty scholars became accustomed to painstakingly furnishing their studios with highly decorative ink stones and other refined and exquisitely carved works. These scholarly items served as usable implements and as decorative table ornaments. At the same time due to the improved state of economic conditions in China, many affluent businessmen and merchants desired to imitate these outward signs indicative of refined learning and scholarship. With the interest and support of the scholar group, artisans were permitted to exercise greater artistic freedom and technical expression, resulting in a gradual refinement of the works produced in this period.
By the Ch'ing dynasty the customs and traditions of the former dynastic period continued to be a prevalent influence: scholars and wealthy merchants still persisted in cherishing finely detailed and exquisitely carved works, and eventually this popular style of carving tradition was also adopted by the imperial household. The Ch'ing emperors often selected artisans from the populace to serve in the Imperial Workshops. At this time these artisan-carvers could be distinguished into northern and southern regional groups, and under the Ch'ing Imperial sponsorship the development of carving style and technique progressed rapidly, reaching an extremely high level of accomplishment by the reign of the Ch'ien-lung emperor.
There was a succession of many highly skilled carvers throughout both the Ming and Ch'ing periods. These artisans produced a large corpus of expertly crafted and artistic pieces; however, most of their names have not survived down to the present day. There have been occasional instances when brief descriptions about specific artisans have appeared in historical documents, but very often all that remains is just the carver's name without any of his works surviving. There have also been occasions when carved artifacts have been found bearing the artisan's name, but too often because the materials are in themselves not conclusive there is no way to verify or substantiate these findings.
The middle of the Ming dynasty to the middle of the Ch'ing period represents the golden age of Chinese carving. Through this period, in addition to the imperial artisans there were also many local, highly skilled, professional carvers. Examples of famous regionally carved products are: the stone carvings from Ch'ing-t'ien in Chekiang province, and Shoushan in Fukien province; bamboo carvings from Nanking and Chia-ting; hardwood furniture from Kuangchou. The works of all these regional schools all possessed unique attributes that are known for their rounded contours and semi-polished lustre. The bamboo works of the Chia-ting region were executed with a special attention to minute detail, and they were also known for their works carved from bamboo-sections and bamboo-shoots. The ivory carvings of the Kuangchou regions were noted for their extremely fine and delicate works, and also for their ivory thread embroidery; and the Peking region excelled in free-standing ivory figurines and colored, inlaid ivory works. Within the individual regions the artistic style was not homogeneous, but varied from one artisan to another. Among the bamboo carvers of the Chia-ting region, Chou Hao was famous for his use of the engraving technique to illustrate the Southern School landscape, Wu Chih-fan was acclaimed for his skill in "stiacciato relief carving" and the Feng family (Feng Hsi-chueh, Feng Hsi-lu, Feng Hsi-chang and their descendants) were particularly known for their carved bamboo-shoot figurines.
Because of the various materials that can be utilized as the carved or sculpted medium, the art of carving has been distinguished into several subclassifications; however, during the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties many carvers worked in more than one medium at the same time. In the Ming period, Chu Hsiao-sung of the Chia-ting region specialized in carvings of bamboo, but a few of his works in wood have also been handed down to the present. In the Ch'ing dynasty, the imperial artisan Yang Wei-chan, a native of Canton province, worked chiefly in ivory, but the Ch 'ing Dynasty "Aloeswood Carving of the Nine Old Men of Hsiang Mountain" also demonstrates that he worked in wood.
The present exhibition is a selection of Ming and Ch'ing dynasty bamboo, wood, ivory, rhinoceros horn, and fruit stone and nutshell carvings from the museum collection. Included are carvings executed by both imperial as well as local artisans. We hope that our efforts in mounting this exhibition will enable the viewer to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of these representative carvings from the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties.