Skilled Fuzhou artists trans­form tree bark into tra­di­tional Chi­nese land­scapes

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at wangqingyun@chi­ Yang Jie con­trib­uted to this story.

Chen Kong­guo was work­ing on a piece of carv­ing the size of his palm in a crudely dec­o­rated work­shop in Fuzhou, cap­i­tal of Fu­jian prov­ince, in De­cem­ber. He was carv­ing a minia­ture tra­di­tional Chi­nese garden, fea­tur­ing rocks of unusual shapes, pavil­ions and an arch bridge. The carv­ing, along with dozens of others on the desk that were fin­ished, are the fruits of the skills that he has spent more than four decades hon­ing.

The 66-year-old is one of many cork carvers in Fuzhou, a city renowned for the art of sculpt­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese land­scapes from the bark of cork trees. The art form is con­sid­ered one of the “three art trea­sures” of Fuzhou, along with agal­ma­to­lite (a soft stone) carv­ing and lac­quer work, and was in­cluded in the list of na­tional in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage in 2008.

Cork carv­ing is said to have orig­i­nated in the city in the early 20 th cen­tury, when an of­fi­cial re­turned from an over­seas trip with a Christ­mas card carved out of cork and gave it to lo­cal wood carvers, who, af­ter study­ing the card, de­vel­oped in­tri­cate ways to chisel cork into Chi­nese land­scapes such as pavil­ions, pago­das, trees and moun­tains.

Chen in­her­ited the skills of cork carv­ing from his fa­ther. “He used to bring un­fin­ished cork sculp­tures from work and con­tinue work­ing on them at home in or­der to make more money and sup­port the fam­ily. Me and my two younger sis­ters would help him with his work,” Chen said.

“Since then, I have in­vested my whole life into the art.” Af­ter train­ing for three years, Chen, at the age of 16, got a job in a cork carv­ing fac­tory in Fuzhou, and worked there all the way through to 1997, when the fac­tory closed. Chen’s wages were en­vi­able in the 1980s, when Fu­jian prov­ince ex­ported cork carv­ings to more than 60 coun­tries. “We had to work overnight for a week dur­ing the busy time,” Chen re­called. How­ever, over­seas mar­kets shrank in the 1990s and the prov­ince’s bat­tered cork carv­ing in­dus­try failed to re­cover. Many cork carv­ing mas­ters chose to call time on their pro­fes­sional ca­reers.

Af­ter the fac­tory was closed, Chen found a job sell­ing stain­less steel, and shifted from job to job. Then he landed work in a cork carv­ing fac­tory about six years ago. The fac­tory was set up by a busi­ness­man Zheng Xuezhi in 2010 in or­der to at­tract more peo­ple to cork carv­ing in a bid to sal­vage the in­dus­try.

Co­op­er­at­ing with his co-worker Wu Ruizhen, Chen spent about five years on a large piece of art­work called “Pines, cranes and the ris­ing sun”, which won a bronze medal in a com­pe­ti­tion held by the China Na­tional Arts and Crafts So­ci­ety this year. The carv­ing, fixed on a glass­cov­ered wooden plaque two me­ters wide and one meter tall, fea­tures sculp­tures of cranes fly­ing or rest­ing on a cliff un­der the crown of a big pine tree. Chen made the cranes, chis­el­ing flakes from cork and glued them piece by piece to make feath­ers for the birds, while Wu, 54, spe­cial­ized in carv­ing trees, grass and flow­ers and took charge of creating the pine tree.

Wu used to work in the same fac­tory with Chen. And like Chen, af­ter their for­mer em­ployer shut it down, she had to change her pro­fes­sion and worked as a cleaner to make a liv­ing be­fore find­ing work in Zheng’s fac­tory.

Now to­gether in the same fac­tory again, Chen and Wu rel­ish their new op­por­tu­ni­ties. Each earns about 3,000 yuan ($430) work­ing as a cork carver and gets a pen­sion of 2,000 yuan a month. How­ever, the salary seems to at­tract lit­tle in­ter­est for younger peo­ple.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult to find young peo­ple who want to learn cork carv­ing. ... They think that the salary is too low, even lower than what they would make wait­ing tables in a bar or a restau­rant,” Chen said, con­cerned that ex­quis­ite tech­niques may be lost to the younger gen­er­a­tion. Fac­tory owner Zheng agreed. “Peo­ple of Chen and Wu’s age are the

It’s very dif­fi­cult to find young peo­ple who want to learn cork carv­ing. ... They think that the salary is too low, even lower than what they would make wait­ing tables in a bar or a restau­rant” Chen Kong­guo, a renowned cork carver from Fuzhou, South­east­ern China’s Fu­jian prov­ince.

youngest cork carvers right now. Maybe they will be too old to con­tinue mak­ing such hand­i­crafts 10 years from now,” said the busi­ness­man who has been de­vel­op­ing and sell­ing cork-carved art­works for more than a decade.

Bleak as the fu­ture for cork carv­ing may seem, Chen said he hopes the gov­ern­ment will lend more sup­port to help the in­dus­try sur­vive. “There is noth­ing else I can do. My pas­sion is for this art. ... My pas­sion and mis­sion don’t al­low me to not do it. I will go on mak­ing cork carv­ings un­til the day my limbs can’t move,” he said.


The soft wooden sculp­ture of Tem­ple of Heaven, a prod­uct of Zheng Xuezhi’s com­pany.

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