Uncanny Ingenuity and Celestial Feats -- The Carvings of Ming and Qing Dynasties


Carving is one of the oldest crafts developed by mankind. Archaeological excavations and literature sources show that early primitive societies had already learned to make utilitarian or decorative objects out of materials readily available in nature, such as jade, stone, bamboo, wood, ivory, horn, and bone. Different materials, comprised of different properties, call for different ways of applying knife-work. Among the various carving arts, those of bamboo, wood, ivory, horn, and fruit stone have most in common and are closely related. Since the mid-Ming dynasty in the sixteenth century, they have emerged and developed into a unique, independent category of arts.

The origin of the arts and crafts goes a long way back, but the remote picture prior to the time of Yin-Shang dynasty (1300~1046 B.C.E.) is vague. In the subsequent Zhou dynasty (1046~221 B.C.E.), the "Hundred Crafts" were administered under the Office of Winter. Thereafter throughout different dynasties, the official sector of the trade had its ups and downs, while the private operations went on with a certain degree of steady progress. The Mongolian rulers of Yuan dynasty (1271~1368) dismantled all these. A new registry system was set up consisting of three different types of "Artisan Households". There were also appointed government agencies in charge of the registered artisans. The centralized management and convergence of various talents thus gave rise to inspiration as well stimulation in all crafts.

Ming dynasty (1368~1644) inherited and adhered to the Yuan registry of artisan households, forbidding any changes. The status of registered artisans was therefore on the books and hereditary; however, individuals of special distinction could still become government officials, or hold equivalent office titles, if their talents were greatly recognized by the emperor. There were also members of Ming's learned class, though at the top rank of traditional Chinese social hierarchy of four classes (learned, farming, crafts, and trade, in this order), who did not think it beneath themselves to engage in "handicraft" projects. By the time of late-Ming, some of the artisans had not only built a good business and fortune on their craft specialties, but also achieved a status of being on equal terms with the literati. The old rigid class registry half-dead, ambitious artisan families striving to enhance their own social standing, and the cultured and enlightened granting their approval and admiration accordingly, all these together contributed to the demise of a system which had become irrelevant long time ago. On May 19th, 1645, the new ruler Manchurian court ordered the elimination of the "Artisan Household" system.

Back in mid-Ming, with their identity being confined, the artisans with outstanding talents could still gain recognition from the emperors and appointments to high offices. People who felt motivated to achieve thus saw opportunities for betterment. Quite a number of professional artisans in the Ming period were well-read, earnestly seeking acceptance by the literati. Yet still, to socialize with the latter group, for these aspiring initiates, retaining their own specialties of crafts was the entry ticket as critical as having good learning. As a result, with the emperors and the literati playing enthusiastic advocates, and through the effort of the motivated artisans themselves, carving and all other crafts experienced a new and robust period of advancements after mid-Ming.

In Qing dynasty (1644~1911), throughout the reigns of Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong, with the emperors as sponsors the carving artisans who served at the Workshops of the Imperial Household Department brought their originality and ingenuity into full play. Outside the palace, the private studios also made their unceasing effort and contribution thanks to the patronage of the literati gentry and rich businessmen. All these combined to take the carving arts to an unprecedented finesse and sophistication. At the Qing court, the unique specialties of the Canton ivory artisans (linked chains, "live" patterns, floss weaving, and the layered concentric ball) even earned an appellation of "Celestial Feat".

In summary, after mid-Ming when the carving arts as a whole had claimed an independent status in its own right, under the support and patronage both from within and without the court, the carving artisans continued to further their ingenuities and refine their skills, eventually winning themselves the extolled status of "Celestial" workmanship.

The Art of Bamboo Carving

The status of the artisan class rose with social and economic progress. During mid-Ming, under the reigns of Zhengde (1501-1521) and Jiajing (1522-1565), different schools of carving arts emerged and established themselves in Wuzhong (Soochow or Suzhou, Jiangsu Province) and its vicinities. Into late-Ming, Jinling (Nanking or Nanjing) and Jiading, both in the Province of Jiangsu, were two key regions with bamboo carving activities. By the time of Qing dynasty (1644~1911), Jinling had slowly lost its edge, while Jiading continued on with the heritage of the Three Zhu's (Zhu He, Zhu Ying, Zhu Zhizheng) for generation after generation. Bamboo carving became the local specialty and staple craft of Jiading.

Around late-Ming and early-Qing, Jiading carvers of bamboo started to combine high and low relieves to give varieties and contrasts. The skills grew more and more sophisticated over the time. The levels of different depths in protrusion increased from initially only a simple one or two to "deep and shallow altogether five or six different grades", by the time of early Kangxi reign of Qing. Jiading in the early-Qing period was the leading, though not the only region for best bamboo carvings. Outside Jiading, there were individuals devoted to the art yet somehow their contributions stayed personal, neither forming a common local practice nor spreading beyond. Late-Qing continued with the development begun in mid-Qing of applying the antique style of bronze inscriptions to the bamboo carving art. Aside from emulating epigraphic inscriptions, themes based on pictorial representation were still being done, but again mostly in negative carving, and the carvers had to reply on the painters to design and sketch the image in ink on the carving surface first.

In addition to carving on bamboo, artisans of Fujian Province during the reign of Qianlong (1736~1795) were well known for their unique bamboo-yellow technique (also referred to as "bamboo appliqué"), namely, using bamboo's inner skin for ornamentation of wares or other objects. Some of their works were honored as local presents to the emperor when he was on inspection tours of the Jiangnan region (South of the Yangtz River) and won his royal approval. By the late time of Qianlong reign, bamboo-yellow items had been included among the state gifts for diplomatic purposes; the technique itself had also spread from its place of origin in Shanghang, Fujian, to Shaoyang, Hunan, then in a roundabout way arriving west at Jiangan, Sichuan, then finally Jiading, Jiangsu to the east. The bamboo-yellow could be applied on everyday objects, as decorative veneers, or as a medium for the carvers to replicate the literati's art works, so it appealed to the tastes of either the commoners or the refined class.

Bamboo brush-holder depicting a letter-reading scene from the Romance of the West Chamber. With signature of Ju Sansong.

Mid-17th century. h. 13.5 cm, diam. of mouth 8.5 cm, diam. of foot 8.7 cm

Zhu Zhizheng, born around 1559 (year died unknown), active from 1573 to 1619, was Zhu Ying's third son. Among the many works which have come down to today carrying his sobriquet signature of "Sansong" (Third Pine), this holder is the most famous one. The high-relief scene shows a lady, her hair in tall topknots, her back to a screen, poring over a letter diffidently. A lush wutong (phoenix tree) is lightly engraved on the screen and a bird stands on a bough. The carver's name "San Song" in Kai (regular) script is inscribed at the right lower corner of the screen, appearing to serve the double functions of being the signature for the painting on the screen, as well as for the brush-holder itself. The lady in love is Ms. Cui Yingying from the Romance of the West Chamber. Peeking out at her from behind the screen, yet the whole person almost fully in view, is her naughty maid Hongniang. The latter seems to be hushing herself down with her index finger at the mouth. Farther back to the left of the screen is a wood table in relief, on which are arranged a crazed vase of lotus flowers, a potted miniature landscape with Lingzhi (Ganoderma lucidum), a qin (string instrument) in its protective wraps, and other sundry implements typical in a scholar's study: an incense burner, a brush, an ink stone, a water dish, and so on. All together, the foreground, the background, and the placement of various elements form a coherently streamlined composition around the tubular surface.

The overall layout of the image resembles that of one particular woodcut print by Chen Hongshou, active from late-Ming to early-Qing (1598-1652), for an illustrated editioni of the same famed love story. The two images are different in that in Chen's print, the screen is of four panels, and the room has no other furniture and displays, part of which however appear in the background of another illustration titled "Melancholy of Love" in a very similar manner. The illustrated edition was prefaced by Ma Chuanqi (1639), suggesting a close connection between this particular woodblock print of Chen's and the present brush-holder.

Bamboo brush-holder depicting a scene of horse herding. By Wu Zhi-fan.

Late 17th to early 18th century. h. 15.5 cm, diam. of mouth 7.4 cm

The three-footed brush-holder is made of a stem section, with one joint kept for the base which curves a little inward. The surface is slightly scraped off using the jiandi technique (thinning the ground) along the top and bottom rims so both look somewhat flared. In low relief is carved a horse lying on the back rolling and kicking. A stableman wearing a puto (bandanna-like headgear), both hands grasping the reins, is trying to subdue the angry horse: its mane all flaring, the front legs bending along with upper body twisting toward the left, and the rear hooves thrusting up high into the air. The artist captures a split-second moment of the taming attempt. The images of the pair are both raised above the surface only slightly. The fine lines of the engraved mane, tail, and hairs around the hooves, go gradually flush with the ground. All this speaks vividly of the carver's superb mastery of the buodi (thin ground) technique. Further, against the slightly raised figures, in negative engraving are the features, the folds, the muscles and texture. The folds of sleeves are represented as in portrait painting: dintou shuwei, literally translated, "nail head and mouse tail", a style of line drawing which starts deep and hard, then finishes off lightly. The man's facial muscles are done in low relief; even the eyelids are there. So are the body muscles of the rolling horse. Each of the four hooves is carved with varying degrees of depths against the surface, achieving an impressive three-dimension effect. The exposed horse teeth are carved one by one, with every single detail carefully tended. Some semi-translucent pigment of dark brown dots the horse eyes, fully serving the purpose of the final touch, "Marking the Pupils", so to animate the figures or the animals being depicted. The man and the horse form the only images on the brush-holder; all other space is left bare without decoration. The one exception is that behind the stableman, engraved are four characters in elegant yet forceful Xing (running) script "by Wu Zhifan". Here the carving knife goes either harder or lighter traversing through each character, as if it had been a calligraphic brush's movements. The exact precision in execution shows that the maker of the piece must have been a fine practicing calligrapher himself.

Wu Zhifan (byname: Luzheng; self-epithet: an East Sea Taoist) was born around early-Qin, died in either the late Kangxi reign or the first few years of Yongzheng reign and was active mainly during the mid to late-Kangxi. A resident of Nanxiang Township Jiading County, Jiangsu Province, later he moved north to Tianjin, Hebei Province and enjoyed the hospitality of an official there, surnamed Ma. Wu never returned south to his hometown and little was known about his final years. He was a fine painter and calligrapher, specialized in the genres of flower-and-bird and portrait painting; his calligraphy in Cao (cursive) script was very charming yet strong. He inherited the "Three Zhu's of Jiading" heritage shared by many bamboo carving artists in the region, that more than mere artisanship, a decent carver ought to be well-versed in painting and calligraphy. And he was one of the best in this tradition. A pity that he didn't get to achieve any fame and success back at home during his lifetime. Lack of any renowned literary figures among his acquaintances did not help either. As a result his life and doings have remained obscure as a whole.

Wu's carving was in Jiading's style, combining high relief, in the round, and openwork. This sophistication had been the hallmark of Jiading bamboo carving. He was expert in all these techniques and capable of another signature line of Jiading bamboo ware: the tube-shaped container made of a bamboo stem between joints. Composition on such an elaborately designed yet convex surface posed a major challenge for the carver. How to seamlessly flow from one element to the next, beginning to the end, had been the number one issue that had to be dealt with ever since the Three Zhu's time. Wu had to, too. Using the cliff wall surfaces in the image to connect it all was his usual solution.

His much-admired buodi yangwen, also known as buodi yangke, namely low relief, required a very thin layer of the outer skin to be scrapped off the bamboo stem, thus leaving the image very slightly raised above the ground. The similar jiandi technique of thinning the ground around the image had been used way back in the Han dynasty's portrait-carving on stone, such as the ones at a family temple in Jiaxiang County, Shantong Province. Wu took full of advantage of the firmness of bamboo texture to apply his buodi yangwen technique. The low relief design thus formed also leaves out much "white space" undecorated for the viewer to indulge his own imagination. The present brush-holder fully characterizes Wu's famous style.

Low relief in essence, buodi yangwen carves its raised images almost level with the skinned surface around. The fine grain and firm fiber of bamboo make this unique treating possible, which otherwise would have easily broken.

The Art of Wood Carving

The archaeological excavations show that the essential techniques of woodcarving had been pretty much complete at the time prior to Qin dynasty (221~207 B.C.E.). Carving in intaglio (yinke), in relief (yangdiao, either raised or piercing through), and in the round (lidiao) all reached a highly developed state. And in furniture, the woodcarving skills came into full play. Edifices of traditional wood structures were another arena for woodcarvers to fully wield their talents; thus came the popular set-phrase, or almost cliché, to describe highly decorated buildings as diaoliang huadong (carved beams and painted pillars, for extreme, elaborate luxury).

Aside from furniture and buildings, carving skills are also showcased in wood sculptures of religious figures. Buddhism thrived during the Six Dynasties (220~589) and subsequent Sui (581~618) and Tang periods (618~907) ; there were robust activities in the carving of wood statues. The works from the period could be found and seen today. As for wood statues made in North Song (960~1126), from what have been able to survive, those of Bodhisattva in various postures are most admired. They are either sitting in lotus posture, or performing abhaya ("no-fear") mudra, or standing, or in meditation, all with comely and fitting bearing and serene composure, a true statement representative of the marvels of the highly skillful woodcarving art at the time.

Yuan Dynasty (1271~1368) placed a very high value on the "Hundred Crafts". Artisans of superb workmanship were accorded a respectful title "Maestro Artisan". The new institution of jianhu ("Artisan Household") registry allowed the carving skills passing from the father to the son for generations, until well into Ming dynasty (1368~1644). Woodcarving as a craft, however, still belonged under other professions such as architecture, furniture, and religious statues making. After mid-Ming, the carving arts became an independent craft category in its own right. However, many carving artists though famous for one single craft never confined themselves to that one single medium during their lifetime. For example, renowned bamboo carvers Zhu Ying and Pu Cheng both carved on wood as well. Rhinoceros horn expert Bao Tiancheng also did his art on ivory and red sandalwood. Into Qing dynasty (1644~1911), there was a woodworking workshop, even one specifically called Canton woodworking workshop, installed under the Workshops of the Imperial Household Department. The talented carvers nevertheless devoted most of their time to ivory carving, with wood carving only as a side job. It was the same outside the palace; no artisans could afford carving wood alone as an art or craft. It had to be part of furniture making or wood-framed structure building, or at the best carried out in rendering religious statues.

Wood of fine grain is the prerequisite for successful fine carving. After polishing, it has to be fine to the touch, i.e. smooth and soft. The most ideal material is boxwood. In addition, Qienan incense wood (aloeswood, tagara) and sandalwood are known for their nice aroma, whereas ebony's appeal is in its hues and sheen. Gnarled wood gets its name from its many knots, lumps, and snarls. Woodcarving artisans took advantage of this interesting natural form and subtly fashioned it into original artwork, with minimum and "invisible" knife work.

Boxwood brush-holder depicting a scholars' gathering in the West Garden.

Late 17th to early 18th century. h. 18.5 cm, diams. of mouth 17.8 x 22.3 cm

A popular legend in the Ming and Qing periods described how several centurie­s ago during the Yuanyuo reign (1086-1093) of North Song emperor Zhezong, a graceful literary gathering had taken place at West Garden, the property of Wang Shen, husband of a mid-Song emperor's daughter, and a painter-cum-calligrapher in his own right. Wang was the host, the list of guests including the famous brothers Su Shi (1037-1101)and Su Che (1039-1112), their calligrapher friend Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), as well as Qin Guang (1049-1100), Mi Fu (1051-1107), Li Gonglin (1049-1106), Chao Buzhi (1053-1110), Zhang Lei (1054-1114), Zheng Jinglao, Cheng Jingyuan (1024-1094), Wang Qinchen, Liu Jing, Cai Zhao, Li Zhiyi (1038-1117) and Yuantong the Great Monk. All were heavyweights of the then literary and art circle and had their respective significant places in the art or literature history of China. Among them, Li and Mi were both leading figures of great importance in the Chinese painting. Su, and Mi again, ranked among the top four calligraphers of Song. It was also said that Li had supposedly done a painting of the happy gathering, titled a "Graceful Literary Gathering at the West Garden", and that Mi had written a namesake account to go with it, making the story of this highbrow event even more prominent and enjoyable down the centuries. However, Mi's account didn't make its first appearance until Ming dynasty though it has survived to today since, and no other literatures or sources back in Song ever mentioned thus backed up the story of the gathering. Further complicating the matter is that since South Song, there have been all sorts of versions as to the place, time, and list of the guests. So did or did not the famous Garden Gathering actually take place? One is led inevitably to raise the question.

Of late some have commented that the well-known writing attributed to Mi Fu of Song dynasty was very likely a Ming "forgery", and that still the event as recorded in this account could have indeed happened, but might or might not have been called as an "Graceful Literary Gathering at the West Garden".

Regardless, the high-Qing carver who created the present boxwood brush-holder based his design on the descriptions in Mi's account of the Graceful Literary Gathering at the West Garden, with some of the carver's own artistic adaptations for better composition. The guests are arranged into five groups:

Group one: the center figure is the ever-popular and beloved poet Su Dongpo, with four other gentlemen and one lady. Our protagonist wearing his signature "Dongpo cap" is writing feverishly. The host Wang sits by him on the right, watching. Li Zhiyi stands on the other side of the long table, holding a plantain leaf and looking intently toward the calligrapher at work. Cai Zhao is seated right across facing Su, but glances sideways at Su's brother Su Che, who is leaned against a rock and reading. Beside Cai, the charming lady who also has her gaze fixed at the younger Su is a member of the Wang household. All six are surrounded by plantain trees, and each person leads the viewer to the next, together forming a seamlessly coherent whole.

Beyond the old pine tree, group two huddles around the painter Li Gonglin, who perches on a round mound, in front of a table, working his brush to render a painting based on the theme of Tao Yuanming's Returning Home after Quitting the Government Job. Across him Huang Tingjian sits against the table watching. Chao Buzhi stands by Huang, his left hand on the latter's shoulder, his gaze focused at the painter. To the left, Zhang Lei and Zheng Jinglao hold each other on the shoulders, appreciating a painting scroll together. A boy attendant behind Huang turns head to look over at group one, subtly joining the two groups together. Indeed a ingenious, well-thought-out arrangement.

Below, to the left of group two, is situated the third group, a party of two. The Taoist monk Zheng Jingyuan, settled at the root of a kuai juniper, is voluble with excitement and gesturing to an uncertain look on the face of poet Qin Guang, who sits on a rock facing him, hands covered in long sleeves. From where Qin is, now the viewer glances upward and finds Mi Fu wielding his brush writing on a cliff wall. His good friend Wang Qincheng looks up at him at work with both hands clasped behind the back. A boy holds the ink-stone in attendance. The three make up a fourth group.

Across the ledge, a bamboo grove comes into view. Yuantong the Great Monk sits cross-legged in lotus posture on a rush cushion, discoursing on wushenlun (the Buddhist concept of "being not born") with Liu Jing, who also sits in the same posture facing him. Below them, the water splashing against the rocks seems almost audible in the streaming creek under a small bridge. And this fifth group completes a full circle, back at the beginning with group one, delivering an immaculate composition round the brush-holder's entire circumference wall.

Boxwood has a beautiful sheen to it and the grain is very fine. Its hardness is just right and very easy on the knife. However, the tree grows extremely slow so a good-sized chunk is hard to come by. The fact that the diameter of the present brush-holder at where it is widest measures over twenty centimeters makes it a rather rare piece. The carving on the outside surface goes piercingly deep, and the inside is hollowed out for the practical use of holding brushes, and the uneven cross-sections form an irregular wall surface. All this makes it uniquely different from a typical counterpart made of bamboo, both visually and tactilely.

Boxwood sculpture of a lohan scratching his back.

18th century. h. 4.4 cm, l. 4.6 cm

A small chunk of boxwood is carved in the round into a sitting lohan (the Arhat, Arahat or Arahant in Theravada Buddhism), his legs crossed, clothing rolled down to the waist, and the upper body naked. With his left hand pressed against the ground for balance, a scratching stick in the right hand goes over his right shoulder giving his back a good up and down scratch. Between his knees, a pug jumps and frolics, the tail hoisted up high, happily wagging and yapping to his master. The lohan's forehead all wrinkled, his crow's feet deep-set, his features gaunt and angular, yet a contented grin is tilting up the right corner of his mouth and a relaxed look beaming in his eyes.

Boxwood is fine-textured and of an elegant tint. It's a slow-growing tree and doesn't get big easily, so not suitable for buildings or furniture but ideal for carving. The tiny lohan sculpture couldn't have been done in such fine manner if it was any other wood other than boxwood.

One branch in the early-Qing Jiading bamboo carving was headed up by the Feng family and Shi Tianzhang. One of their specialties was to sculpt the underground stems (commonly mistakenly called "roots") into vivid sculptures of figures in the round. Father and son two generations as well as the student Shi all served in the Imperial Workshops. The latter was highly regard by the emperor and thus became well-known for quite some time. All three had been recruited because of their mastery in bamboo carving, but once there they did more than just bamboo and extended their carving knives to other media such as ivory and wood. The maker of this exquisite work didn't leave his signature but obviously was an experienced fine carver. Perhaps, it was one of them?

The Art of Fruit Stone Carving

From literature sources and physical specimens, we know fruit stones used as carving materials come from a variety of sources, including (Chinese) ganlan olives, black olives, walnut shells, cherries, plums, peaches, etc. A "solitaire" stone could serve as a curio item for display, or as a pendant, either for personal ornament or hanging to the end of a fan. When threaded together, they form a bracelet, a "chaplet", or a string of "court beads" which the Qing nobility and high officials wore over their ceremonial dress robes.

The motifs of fruit stone carvings could be separated into five major categories: "Written Words", "Boats", "Flowers and Birds", "Figures or Animals", or "Image Narratives derived from Poetry or Folklore".

Words, characters engraved on the surface of a fruit stone formed the earliest decorative elements in this art, going back to as early as Song dynasty. However, as of Ming (1368~1644) and Qing (1644~1911), a period stressing exquisite and elaborate presentation, mere written words in their own right as ornaments tended to be less used.

Following the natural contour of a fruit stone or pit and rendering it into a tiny boat was a very common practice in this particular field. And the chosen boat was most often the one our beloved poet Su rode at the Red Cliff. Either a passage quoted out of his Ode of Red Cliff I, or some narratives excerpted from the Ode II, the depicted scenes could always take the viewer right to the source of origin that inspired the creativity.

The flower-and-bird pattern was another quite popular theme for fruit stone carving. Tiny pits could even be carved into appealingly cute and adorable baskets, with all kinds of flowers in it, thus acquiring the name the "Hundred-Flower Basket".

There were also motifs based on poetry-derived narratives or figures from popular folklore. In a way, the fruit stone boats depicting Mr. Su Shi's Red Cliff rides also belong to this category, but its frequent appearance entitles it to a category on its own.

Based on what sources we have, the fruit stone carvers came basically from two regions: Wuzhong and Canton. Exquisiteness was the rule in terms of fruit stone carving and a renowned carver could fetch high prices for his creations. However, maestros who could demand unusual high pay didn't come all the time. The art of fruit stone carving could be learned, but it was extremely difficult to master. A practicing carver therefore could hardly support his family on it alone.

Ganlan olive stone miniature boat with the Ode to the Red Cliff carved on the bottom. By Chen Zuzhang.

1737 C.E. h. 1.6 cm, l 1.4 cm, w 3.4 cm

The maker of this miniature wonder shaped a boat out of a ganlan olive pit, complete with what apparatus a decent vessel should be equipped with. Doors and windows can open and close. The cabin awning and cover are decorated with weaving pattern. Masts erect, sails and riggings standing by, inside the cabin are seated the poet Su Dongpo and two other guests. Cups and plates scatter around on the table. At the bow are three boy attendants and one boatman, the helmsman by himself in the back. On the bottom is engraved Su's Ode to the Red Cliff, II, over three hundred hair-thin characters long. And in Xing (running) script, are inscribed "May, Dingsi Year, Qianlong Reign, with utmost reverence by your humble servant Chen Zhuzhang", which translates to the 2nd year of His Majesty's reign. The boat was stored in a red sandalwood rectangular curio box with a handle, which again was kept in Huazi Chamber or Yanxi Chamber of Yangxin Hall, when the last emperor Puyi exited his palace forever. There were altogether over two hundred tiny curio items hidden in the same box. The sheer number perhaps explains why the Palace Inventory team of 1925 "missed the boat" on the first checking, only to discover it the second time. Thus its tag number is also coded with one additional letter of "S" for Supplementary.

Imperial Ivory Artisan Chen Zhuzhang came from Canton. He was sent to the capital in 1729 (the Yongzheng reign) on the recommendation of Zu Bingqui, the official in charge the Customs at Canton Province. However, he didn't seem to have performed in any outstanding way initially on the job, and was only making three liangs a month. Yet at the end of the same year after the ganlan olive boat was completed, he was blessed with a huge raise to twelve liangs a month, topping everyone else on the payroll list ever recorded in the archives of the Imperial Workshops. Could it have had anything to do with the making of this tiny boat? Any way, from the moment on, no longer an average ivory carver under Yongzheng he transformed and advanced to the highest-paid and most important one in the early Qianlong reign.

Five years later after the boat project, in November of 1742, Chen asked to return home on account of being "old, weak in seeing and hard of walking", and requested the court's permission for his son Chen Guanquan to escort him back to Canton. The archives didn't mention when the junior Chen had arrived at the capital but he might have worked as an assistant to his father when the latter first started his tenure in the palace in the 7th year of Yongzheng reign.

Ever since Ming, the Suzhou area had been a place time and again producing talented artisans capable of carving miniature boats out of small fruit stones, and the heritage lasted well into early-Qing. For example, the Feng family of the very bamboo town Jiading were famous for carving on bamboo as well as on pit stones. While serving in the palace, Feng Xilu was also seen doing a peach stone boat with two fine lines engraved underneath, quoted from Su Shi's Ode of Red Cliff, I. That a Cantonese ivory carver Chen Zhuzhang came to pick up a new medium and eventually rendered such an intricate and elegant work of fruit stone boat indicated the inspirational influence on him of the Suzhou carving then in vogue at the court. The present miniature boat exemplifies the early Qianlong court's practice of a "Suzhou's style through Canton's artisanship"

The Art of Ivory Carving

Hunters and fishers of Paleolithic age already learned to make use of the inedible parts of their game and work these into simple tools or ornaments. Ivory went on to become an integrated and widely used component of Neolithic craft cultures, often made into items of ritual and religious purposes. Following on the spread and advancement of civilization, however, the elephants and rhinoceroses which used to roam over China Proper in remote antiquity retreated from basins of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River.

Bronze was the crux of the Shang culture (1600~1046 B.C.E.) but significant progress in ivory carving also appeared at the time. The Shang craftsmen not only worked the intrinsic nature of the material, they also enhanced its beauty with semi-precious stone inlay such as turquoise. Fast forward into Yuan dynasty (1271~1368), the royal house often decorated their palaces with ivory, thus leaving little for other private use outside the court. Lack of materials led to the decline of the art. Ivory carving went downhill as a result.

After the mid-period of Ming dynasty (1368~1644), the activity of carving as an art and craft was concentrated in the Wuzong area. But ivory carving was not a specialty on its own in the region. For a skilled enough carving artist, though, his capacity was never limited. Even famous bamboo carvers could work on ivory as well. Into Qing (1644~1911), bamboo carvers who served at the court in the Workshops of the Imperial Household Department, such as Shi Tianzhang and Feng Shiqi from Jiading, were also ordered more than once to create ivory works and with astounding results. Their rank at the royal workshop was accordingly promoted to that of Imperial Ivory Artisan.

Academically, the Qing ivory carving is categorized into two schools: Beijing-based North Style, including both private-owned and court-run ivory workshops, featuring ivory in its natural attributes and stressing polished textural effects; and Canton-centered South Style, thus also called Canton Style, which focused on carving prowess and bleached their ivory white. Resulted works were luminously white, the knife's work showing and showy, exquisitely and intricately wrought. Above it all, ivory floss weaving was Canton artisans' one-of-a-kind, extraordinary masterpiece. The Beijing's Imperial Ivory Workshop had a sobriquet for the South School's four unique specialties (linked chains, "live" openwork or "animated" patterns, floss weaving, and the layered concentric ball): "Celestial Feat".

The eighteenth century's Imperial Workshops assimilated carving styles from the early High-Qing's Suzhou of Jiangnan, and incorporated the North School on the foundation of Canton's ivory carving techniques. It joined the best of both schools; and under the patronage of the emperor and dictated by his royal taste, the court artisans created a very unique courtly style for ivory carving. The designs were a good mix and use of elaboration and restraint. Where motifs were intricate and rich in detail, knife work was the focal point. When simple designs were intended, smoothest possible grinding and polishing were emphasized. Finally, highlighting with dyes in appropriate spots added an imperial, stately touch. The court artisanship thus led the nation in ivory carving until the dynasty was over.

Ivory miniature dragon boat (in a chicken-shaped lacquer case).

18th century. h. 3.6 cm, l. 5.0 cm

Multiple small chunks of ivory make up this miniature boat. The bow is in the shape of an erect dragon head; the three-storied cabin is complete with doors and windows which open and close nimbly. Eight oars project from each side of the boat; railings, ceremonial arches, and corridors stand on the deck, along with sixteen triangular flags and one canopy. A compact Japanese lacquered case provides storage.

During Qing, the boat and its case were kept in one of the two ancillary buildings to Yangxin Hall (Hall of the Cultivation of the Mind): Huazi Chamber or Yanxi Chamber. When the Palace Inventory committee went in and cataloged the piece in the morning of September 24th, 1925, the storage case was written down as the main item: "Gold-lacquered Chicken Case", and with a note indicating "one carved ivory boat inside."

Today, the boat has acquired its own identity in the Museum's master catalog and both items are given their own numbers. The appealing chicken case was very likely of a Japanese import, and the intricate dragon boat was done domestically by one of the court's ivory artisans from the South, a quite prefect match for each other.

Ivory four-tiered food carrying case in openwork relief.

Second half of 18th century to early 19th century. h. 45.4 cm, l. 30.4 cm, w. 21.6 cm

The multi-tiered carrying case comes with a square handle, the long arms of which extend from the top, down to the bottom along the side of the four tiers of top-load drawers. The first three drawers can be removed, while the bottom one is fixed to the handle, and its height is less than those of the other tiers (3.5 cm versus 8.8 cm high). Each tier is slipped on the next through a mother-and-son-cap lid. The lid's knob is in the shape of Buddhist treasure vase or urn (one of the eight sacred auspicious signs collectively called Ashtamangala). The matching wood stand with an indented waist is decorated around with green-dyed ivory openwork insets, some of which have come off, however.

The lid, the sides, and the drawer bottoms, all are of super thin ivory panels in delicate, exquisite openwork, and set into framing grids. Eight carved strips of red and blue radiate from the center of the lid where the knob is, down the entire length of the carrying case, dividing both the lid and the case into eight sections per tier, while each tier bottom is separated into seven unadorned borders. The side panel insets are carved in fine detail with landscapes, people, birds, animals, plants, and houses of varying motifs for highly enjoyable perusal. The tier bottoms and the stand insets are both in pierced carving of intertwined, stemmed flowers. The tier bottoms are further adorned with various patterns of pierced rosettes, each in its unique, ingenious manner. And that's not all. The intricate designs on the lid and sides are further set against a lacelike openwork ground of lengthwise fine lines. The delicate images and lines give the whole case such a fragile look that one dares not to touch with any degree of force.

The lid knob in the shape of a treasure vase is also pierce-carved with stylized designs and dyed ribbons. As for the very long handle, it is full of auspicious signs and symbols, figures, flowers and fruits for longevity and happiness, each of which is dyed according to its kind. The key motif is the Eight Immortals, four on each vertical arm of the handle, soaring and flying in their respective otherworldly way amid clouds in the fairylands. Across the top part of the handle are eight hovering bats, four on the right and the other four on the left, together facing a round character of "longevity" in the middle. Clouds float around the character and the bats, and a frame of twisted-strand pattern in low relief surrounds it all.

The entire carrying case and designs on it are intricate and exquisite beyond description: the dyes are colorful yet elegantly subdued. The flower-patterns are varied; human figures are diverse (immortals, fishermen, acrobats, etc). The birds and animals are of all kinds (horses, bulls, deer, mythical lions, and auspicious unicorns), and aside from ivory-white, the colors range from red, blue, yellow to green, purple, and brown.

When the Palace Inventory team went in to make a list of the palace objects left by the last emperor in his hasty exit from the Forbidden City, the characters from the Thousand-Word Classic was used to label the palace building and code the cultural articles inside each for cataloguing purposes. The task was conducted with extreme care and attention: altogether around 1,170,000 items were counted and recorded. However, because of the sheer amount, some items were inevitably missed on the first check and were appended immediately with either the original assigned palace code or a newly-designated one. Furthermore, when the national treasure was being packed for shipment on the eve of leaving Peking (Beijing) in anticipation of the imminent Sino-Japanese War, some labeling tags came off. So on November 6th, 1934 in Shanghai, the Museum took another check and recounted what had been moved there. All the ones missing their original tag numbers were reassigned with a new code. As the characters from the Thousand-Word Classic could no longer be used, a new coding system had to be devised up. Mo (卯), Si (巳), Wu (午), Cai (材), Ti (提), Chuan (全) are a few new codes among the known replacements. In addition, a phrase consisting of four characters "Hu Shang Yu Gong" was used to code the crates (literally translated "Sojourning Gentlefolks in Shanghai", 滬上寓公). The character Gong went to the crates containing the objects selected for packing back in Peking by the Museum Secretariat Office; the present carrying case was assigned a number "Chuan 1364", packed in crate "Gong 5230"; the original number for the crate however was "Shou 124" (longevity, 壽) on leaving Peking. In the collections of the National Palace Museum at Taipei is another Ivory carrying case, which when sojourning in Shanghai was reassigned "Chuan 1380", and in the crate of "Gong 289", originally numbered "Shou 125". The packing list compiled in Shanghai lists the current case under the name "Ivory food carrying case", and the other one "Ivory food carrying case with human figures".

Without their respective original codes based on the Thousand-Word Classic, we cannot say with certainty where the Chuan-coded items had been in the Forbidden city when the Museum was first established in Peking. In addition to the two ivory carrying cases, such Chuan-coded items currently in the collections of the Museum at Taipei include the photos of the last emperor and his empress, a leather hat with red velvet top, a large god-plated crosspiece (court ladies' hairgear), a gem and jade buckle, and sundry other jadeite ornamental accessories, etc. Also included is a five-volume book titled the Imperial Yangxin Hall Inscriptions compiled by a mid-Qing prime minister Dai Quheng (1755-1811) who passed the imperial civic examination with top honor. According to these clues, the articles might all have had something to do with Yangxin Hall (Hall of the Cultivation of the Mind) or Yongshou Palace. The former became the imperial resident hall after Emperor Yongzheng moved there, the latter situated right behind the former. In 1731, year nine of his reign, the emperor decreed the Yongshou Palace to be furnished in the manner befitting His Majesty's everyday living. For convenience of coming and going he also ordered small back doors installed back to back connecting the two buildings. Accordingly, what were kept in the royal residences must have directly related to the Royal Person himself, and very likely the amazing four-tier carrying case of ivory was a personal favorite of his!

The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving

Today rhinoceroses no longer roam around on the landscape of China Proper along the lower region of the Yellow River. However, once they were very active during the prehistoric times in both northern and southern parts of China. Over the recent years archaeologists have found relics of rhinoceros bones in various Neolithic sites. The aptly named Warring States period (475 – 221 B.C.E.) had a pretty huge demand for armors made of rhinoceros hide. By the time of Qin (221~207 B.C.E.) and Han (206 B.C.E.~ 220 C.E.) dynasties, this large, thick-skinned, herbivorous mammal had already become a rare sighting in the north. At the latest in the late West Han period, the beast was totally gone from the area of Guanzhong, where the imperial seat of power was.

The ever scarcity of the animal rhinoceros in Tang dynasty (618~907) made its horn ever precious. The Tang dress code required that the emperor and the crown prince alone could use hairpins made of rhino horn to fix in place their imperial crowns, and the officials wear rhinoceros waistbands according to their ranks. The horn remained an exotic rarity after Tang dynasty, and all the while people gradually became totally ignorant of the physical animal itself, except the faint knowledge that it had horns either on the head or at the snout. So the horn became the focal point in any paintings about rhinoceroses. Even as late as in 1674 when the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest compiled an illustrated World Geography for Qing Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722), he portrayed India's single-horn rhinoceros in Volume II but did not identify it as such with its usual Chinese appellation xi (rhinoceros), calling it a "Nose-horn Beast" instead.

Sumatran and African rhinoceroses come with double horns, one on the snout and the other at the forehead, whereas Indian and Javan rhinoceroses have just single horns. The horn is actually a keratinized layer of the rhino's nose skin, and considered a precious ingredient in Chinese medicine. The typical carved horn vessels are cups made from the tapering part of the conical horn, with a somewhat triangle opening. The patterns are usually a mix of low and high relieves, yet seldom carved through. Other forms and functions include raft-shape cups, small flower baskets or stands, little round boxes, and thumb rings for archers.

Most of rhinoceros horn cups available today come from Ming (1368~1644) or Qing (1644~1911) dynasties. Despite the numerous praises and mentions in Ming literati's notes of the cups, that the material was hard to come by was perhaps the very reason that there were no artisans devoted to this single art alone.

His Majesty Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736~1795) did not just write poetry in praise of the existing rhino horn cups made from the times before him, but also ordered his workshop to make new ones in his own name and his time. Having collated, studied, and appreciated antique cups he already owned, Qianlong were now ready and he wanted his new cups to look like the old. The engraved inscription in Li (clerical) script that reads "Great Qing, Qianlong, In Antiquarian Style", shows very much the playful "antiquarian" side of his!

Rhinoceros horn cup in the shape of a lotus-leaf.

Late 16th to early 17th century. h. 7.6 cm, diam. of mouth 14.2 x 10.2 cm

The lotus-leaf cup is fashioned out of a rhinoceros horn, with the tapering tip section removed and the inside gouged out. The leaf rolls up and inwards, veins in low relief covering both sides. The outer side is further adorned with flowers, lingzhis (Ganoderma lucidum), and mountainous rocks in high relief carving, with one stem of two flowers extending into the inner wall: one in bloom tilting sideways, the other still a bud. The steep, protruding rocks and lingzhis together approximate a handle for the cup. The entire cup is dark brown, with a black bottom.

Chinese has valued rhinoceros horns since antiquity as a rare material. The Han's Classics of Odes written in West Han dynasty told that when way back in the ancient late-Shang dynasty, the wise, old advisor Jiang Taigong to the Zhou state sent General Nan Gongshi east to a remote state Yiqu for the Horn of "Scaring off Chickens", to be presented as a gift to the infamous monarch of Shang. A passage from an ancient collection of fantasy tales states that the remote country (in today's Viet Nam) "Feile's tributes of rhinoceros horns reflected with a mix of glitter and shade (so the name: "shadow rhino"). When woven into seating or bed mats, it looked like beautiful rich-patterned brocade." The literatures indicate that the ancient people treasured the horns and regarded them as rare materials. Into Ming dynasty, the rhinoceros horn was valued even more because of its medicinal properties. It was also believed that vessels made of rhino horn could detect poison. The Ming literati wrote adulatory or poetic little verses about these elegant, sometimes wondrous objects. For example, a late-Ming Confucian student Wang Daokun (1525-1593) once composed an epigram of four phrases, each with three characters, for a rhinoceros horn cup carved into the shape of a lotus leaf, "Scoop of Nectar, Into the Lotus; Best to You, Long Live Forever", i.e. the rhino horn cup was used to drink a toast for wishing a happy birthday of longevity. He had another one composed for another rhino horn cup in the shape of hibiscus, "a Rhino Horn Cup, For Your Elegant Banquet; My Heart as Faithful, Yours as Bright Day".

Rhinoceros horn cup depicting the Land of the Immortals.

Qianlong period (1736-1795), Qing dynasty. h. 9.9 cm

The slightly oval cup is made of a rhinoceros horn, with a flaring mouth and deep inside. It is wide at the top and narrows down to the flat, black bottom, revealing somewhat chipped damage along the light brown mouth rim. Below the rim, it is all dark brown. Fairy mountains and dwellings cover the entire outer surface, with clumps of trees here and there, and groups of immortals engaged in profound spiritual discussion. On the narrower side of the cup, protruding mountainous rocks and trees are carved in high relief and meant for the cup handle. Inside the mouth rim, on one side, a front-view dragon in relief coils amid floats of drifting clouds. On the opposite side is engraved in gold-filled intaglio six characters in Li (clerical) script, "Antiquarian Style, Qianlong of Great Qing". On the bottom is the emperor's four-line poem also in yinke (intaglio), in Kai (regular) script, dated "Qianlong, Xinchuo Year, Imperial Poem", which was 1781, the 46th year of his reign. The legend of the Zhuan (seal) script seal reads: "Antique Aroma". The royal verse is included in the emperor's anthology. The custom-made brocade wrap and case are still in existence, with a label affixed to the case cover, "one Rhinoceros horn cup depicting the Land of the Immortals inside".

The matching wood stand of the cord-weave pattern is raised all round the side, so the cup could sit snugly and secure in place. The same verse and signature by the emperor and inscribed on the cup are also carved in gold-filled on the bottom of the stand, only in different styles of scripts. The impression of the seal, different too, reads "As Virtuous".

Back in antiquity, rhinoceroses roamed in the Yellow River valley but the number dwindled with the time as the region became unfitting for their existence. Down to Tang dynasty, wild rhinoceroses could still be seen in the mountainous areas in the southern China. Once into Song, however, as a whole the rhinoceros became extinct in China Proper. People accordingly knew less and less about the beast's physical attributes yet their needs for its horn never went less. Import was the only source for this rare material which could be used as medicine as well as for carving. Vessels carved out of the rhinoceros horn were appreciated by people from all walks of life and deemed valuable collectibles. Ming and Qing literati repeatedly extolled them in their writings; even the royal house joined the praising crowd. The present cup is one of such court items. What Qianlong said in his verse indicated that the emperor associated the piece with the craft tradition of Xuancheng, Anhui Province.


Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum