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Treasure carved in bamboo

2013-12-17 16:19:59



For many people, luxury is about obviously expensive, imported brands of fashion, handbags, shoes, jewelry, watches, automobiles, houses, vacation destinations, costly cuisine and so on.

One dictionary describes “luxury” as: 1) the state of great comfort and extravagant living; 2) an inessential, desirable item that is expensive or difficult to obtain.

Real Chinese luxury can be much more subtle, simple and understated.

In this biweekly series on luxury in China, we explore its varieties and meanings past and present.

Jiading bamboo carving is a gem of Chinese arts and crafts. In 2005, it was listed on the first national catalog of intangible cultural heritage.

The carving work usually includes bamboo tubes, pen containers, perfume tubes, armrests and table ornaments as well as figurines, landscape scenes, flowers and animals carved from bamboo roots.

Its basic techniques feature shallow carving, deep carving, fretwork and round sculpting. Artisans also build calligraphy, painting, short poems, writing and seal-making techniques into their creations, giving these carvings a distinctive regional flavor and originality.

Zhou Jia is owner of Zhu Yun Art Museum, a private museum in Shanghai’s Jiading District. The 600- square-meter museum houses nearly 100 pieces of Jiading bamboo carving from his collection.

“I was born in Jiading, so I have a profound feeling toward Jiading bamboo carving and I am proud of this special art genre,” Zhou says.

Jiading bamboo carving has a history of 400 years, beginning in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The art form’s progenitor is considered to be Zhu He, who lived during the reign of Emperor Zhengde and Emperor Jia Qing.

Zhu, a poet and painter, was a seal-cutting master. He is credited with being the first to incorporate such elements as calligraphy and painting into bamboo carving. Using a knife like a pen, Zhu creates the deep-carving technique featuring fretwork and deep-relief carving. Later, his son Zhu Ying continued his work.

“Many famous bamboo-carving masters appeared later during the reign of Emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Their technique became more novel and diversified, and this was the golden age for Jiading bamboo carving,” Zhou says.

Pieces of Jiading bamboo carving began to appear at the imperial court as tribute, and the art form began to gain fame. In the late years of the Qing Dynasty, it was on the decline due to social instability and frequent wars.

In the early years of the Republic of China (1912-49), Jiading bamboo carving nearly died out, with only a few carvers managing to survive. After New China was founded in 1949, bamboo carving has regained some of its luster.

“When I was a small kid, I often went to a workshop where they did bamboo carving,” Zhou says.

In the 1990s, Zhou made his fortune and started seriously collecting. After a decade of effort and passion, and spending many millions of yuan, Zhou built his private museum. He took the name Zhu Yun (meaning “breaking into the cloud”) from his ancestral hall.

Many of the items were purchased overseas. One of his carvings was purchased by an English collector 28 years ago at an antique market in the United Kingdom before Zhou brought it back to China. He says its technique and shape are difficult to find now within the country.

The pieces, he says, are precious not only for their beauty but because they tell the story of life in the ancient town of Jiading.

Some items in the museum are comparable to those in a state-level museum. A bamboo-carving work titled “Prosperity” from the Qing Dynasty is one of a pair, the other of which is housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Before an ordinary piece of bamboo can be turned into a piece of art, it first must be washed and steamed. Some types of bamboo need to be dried and cured in the sun for a year or two to keep it from cracking.

But in Zhou’s eyes, the difficulty in bamboo carving lies in its use of a knife on bamboo — the skill in the hands demands years of practice.

“Try it yourself,” Zhou says with a smile. “The natural trait of bamboo being in a round shape is a challenge for every carver. It’s never a easy job, and today the work from some of the veteran bamboo carving artists are highly coveted in the market.”

Famous bamboo-carving artist Zhang Weizhong sold one of his pieces for nearly 200,000 yuan (US$32,939) at an auction in Beijing two years ago. It takes Zhang at least a month to finish a piece, thus only a handful of his works are available.

“Today more and more people realize the value of Jiading bamboo carving, and the price of the works has surged,” he says. “The past few years have shown that bamboo handicrafts have large potential to appreciate in value.”

The best antique carvings can go for as high as tens of millions of yuan on the auction block at Christie’s or Sotheby’s.

While the price of bamboo carving has risen, there still are concerns about the future of the art because it takes so long to become masterful at it, Zhou says.

Yang Fuying, secretary-general of the Jiading Bamboo Carving Association, says the association has launched a training course that has attracted art teachers and even artists from other provinces. It seeks to teach people how to develop and sustain their bamboo carving business.

It wasn’t the first such effort. The Jiading government organized bamboo-carving cooperatives in 1955. Jiading Art and Craft Company established a bamboo-carving division in 1981 that still operates. In 2005, Jiading District established the association of bamboo carvers.

“Today, artists are not sure whether it’s better to make bamboo carving more popular and produce more works, or keep the handicraft more sophisticated and produce fewer works only for collection,” Zhou says.

In recent years, many bamboo-carving pieces have been ordered by companies, which give them to client as gifts, Zhou says.

Renowned bamboo-carving artist Wang Wei sells carvings at his workshop mostly as souvenirs. Most of those pieces are made by people who work for him.

Collectors need to knock on Wang’s door if they want to purchase one of his own works.

“It is lucky for me that I thought of collecting Jiading bamboo carving much earlier than the market realized its value,” Zhou says.

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