PRESERVING THE ART OF CORK CARVING
Skilled Fuzhou artists transform tree bark into traditional Chinese landscapes
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.