China’s artisans work magic with stone
The Chinese excel at many cultural and artistic endeavors, but their expertise in one particular field has left a lasting impression, quite literally, the world over.
With knife or power-assisted tool in hand, China’s artisans display, as they have in the Middle Kingdom for time immemorial, an outstanding ability to instill magic and life in materials ranging from hardwood to olive pits.
While jade in an array of stunning colors may be the stone most associated with Chinese carvings, three magnificent agates — Yunnan’s nanhong, Sichuan’s yanyuan and nanhong and Inner Mongolia’s alashan — are increasingly taking the spotlight.
My intense love affair with China’s masterful carvings
This Day, That Year
lured me recently on a winding journey, by subway, taxi and on foot, far into the back alleys of southeastern Beijing, where I visited a stone carver’s humble yet hallowed work space.
The craftsmen call these workplaces “factories”, a term that in the West conjures up images of mass production and soul-sapping work. But in these workshops, hand-fashioned, highly expressive art begins the journey from rough rock to polished perfection.
At tool-strewn tables not unlike the workbenches where my father and grandpa fashioned furniture and other items from lumber, artists, young and old alike, assess raw stones and engage their imagination. Then, with ink on stone, they meticulously draw every line and curve that they’ll soon carve.
Their eye for detail is astounding. From cranes and monkeys to bamboo shoots and lotus blossoms, carvers turn multicolored stones into masterpieces.
I was shown dragons both fierce and friendly — their piercing eyes aglow — coiling among clouds, breathing fire, displaying claws and whipping their tails in myriad regal colors. Buddhas in deep repose and tigers prowling in the mist also were among the incredibly lifelike carvings.
It became clear that these pieces, destined to become pendants, bracelets or rings, impart a power that’s quite palpable to the appreciative owner.
Likewise enchanting are China’s carved olive pits, cut with amazing precision to depict such wonders as Suzhou scenery, the Shaolin progenitor Damo or the glaring martial god Guan Gong. Carved amber, in brilliant yellows and reds, is another showstopper.
And don’t forget jade in just about any color, and turquoise from the Tibet autonomous region or Hubei province.
Many Chinese, particularly dealers, attach value primarily to the carved material — the type and quality of stone. However, with a growing appreciation for the craftsman’s touch (the consensus is that the best carvers are from Suzhou, Jiangsu province), I ascribe much more value to the carving itself, and to whether the finished piece is endowed with a certain indescribable animation.
Beholding such exquisite carvings has left me spellbound. So convincingly are they rendered that sometimes, when one of my treasures catches the light just right, I wonder whether dragons and winged horses might actually exist beyond the realm of myth.
moment: A woman with unusual weight gave birth to a baby with the help of 16 health workers. The woman, who weighed 140 kilograms with the baby, suffers from several diseases, making the delivery difficult. The medical team comprising obstetricians, anesthetists, pediatricians, midwives and nurses, spent two hours assisting her. This is the second time she has become a mother.
Contact the writer at jameshealy @chinadaily.com.cn
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