The Art and Symbolism of Chinese Wood Carvings
When we think of Chinese interiors and architecture, we are likely to have an image in our heads of the intricately carved window panels, screens and wall dividers that were an integral part of wealthy Chinese homes and which can be seen in court residences such as the Forbidden City or Summer Palace in Beijing. At Shimu we have recently been lucky enough to source a large number of beautiful antique carved panels and screens, originally produced in the southern Chinese provinces of Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. These are areas that were well known in the Ming and Qing dynasties for the skill of the carvers and where merchants and scholarly classes would display their wealth and status be embellishing the interiors of their homes with these exquisitely produced works of art.
The history of wood carving in China dates back much further with references to the existence of wood carvings found in early Chinese literature and poetry. Time and events over China’s turbulent history have destroyed most of these perishable treasures, but priceless articles of furniture and wooden panels dating back to the Northern Song dynasty (960 to 1279 AD) can be found in museums today with their carvings still intact.
In paintings based upon Hong Menglou’s seminal novel Dream of the Red Chamber (written in 1749) carvings can be seen on various items of furniture, including on the chair, desk, and walk-way panel shown here. Watch any historical Chinese drama on TV and you will see countless examples of the carving art form that has been ubiquitous throughout the centuries. For those of us of a certain age, think of the 1970s TV series The Water Margin (actually produced in Japan), set in the Song Dynasty and based on the classic Chinese novel of the same name.
Wood carving reached its golden age in the later Ming and early Qing dynasties around the late 17th to the 19th centuries as the wealthy classes swelled in number through trade and commerce, commissioning more and more pieces of ever-increasing intricacy. Demand lessened somewhat in the early 20th century as ‘western’ fashions and styles began to grow in popularity, though in a country of over a billion people the art form did not die out.
With the onset of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), untold numbers of carvings fell victim to the ideological view that “possessions of beauty” were bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. Along with much of the antique furniture that had been handed down through generations and other items viewed as bourgeois or representing pre-communist Chinese culture, tens of thousands of carvings were burned or defaced. The ones that did survive and that are still available today are likely to have been hidden or disguised by their owners, who wished to hold onto their cherished heirlooms and were brave enough to risk the wrath of the Red Guards.
Uses for Carvings
Carvings were added to virtually anything made of wood. Without knowing it, the Chinese adhered to our own William Morris’ maxim: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” As such, simple wooden spoons, stools, cups and other everyday items would often attract the attention of a carving artisan. Higher quality furniture would be embellished with detailed carvings rich in symbolism, particularly on the backs and arms of chairs. Cabinets and particularly canopy beds were also perfect canvasses for carvers to embellish.
As part of their design the exterior windows of homes would incorporate open carvings to allow air to circulate during the summer months while still acting as a partial barrier to nosy passers-by.
Similarly, the larger homes of wealthier members of society would be based around an inner courtyard, an architectural style referred to as ‘Siheyuan’ in China, and the various buildings and rooms overlooking the courtyard would include carved panels and other decorative elements as a display of the social status of the family (you can learn more in our earlier blog post about the carvings in Hui architecture). Inside the buildings, areas would be divided into discreet rooms and quarters for the various members of the household with fixed wall panels or movable screens. These would also be in decorative form, often with intricate geometric patterns and other carved elements.
Meaning and Symbolism
Whilst the simpler carved window panels and dividers would be in the form of geometrical patterns - enough in itself to create an eye-catching vista, many of the higher quality carvings would also incorporate more ornate, detailed designs. These could include representations of characters from popular stories and myths, landscapes, flowers or animals, always carefully chosen for their specific meaning in Chinese culture.
The carvings can therefore be enjoyed at their face value for the skill of the woodworker and for the beauty of their design, but on another level can be appreciated for their embedded meaning - often representing wishes for good fortune, long life, prosperity or happiness. A very common example is the inclusion of bats within a carving as the word for a bat in Chinese, (‘fu’), is a synonym for the word for 'good fortune'. Similarly, butterflies are used as a symbol both for long life and also for happiness in a marriage and so were a common motif on any furniture produced for newlyweds or as part of a dowry.
Dragons were used as the ultimate statement in power (though at times certain depictions were restricted for use only by the emperor), cranes were synonymous with long life, while fish (usually shown in pairs) were used to represent prosperity. Battle scenes would hint at the owner’s triumph over adversity, while carvings of elders and wise men would point to a family’s scholasticism and adherance to Confucian ideals.
Sometimes Chinese characters were incorporated into designs, either in their traditional format or as more stylised versions in circular shapes. Along with 'fu' popular characters included 'shou' (longevity), 'xi' (happiness) and 'lu' (wealth), The ‘Double Happiness’ symbol - also often seen decorating Chinese ceramics and used by the brand Shanghai Tang even today - was popular as a symbol for weddings.
Lastly courtly scenes, or scenes clearly depicting Chinese deities or characters from legend, were aspirational. They were often set against classic landscapes of mountains and trees, or incorporate clouds in the background to represent the sky - the home of the Gods and venerable ancestors.
This detail from a window panel (right) incorporates a number of these symbols, including bats, a pair of fish, a circular long life symbol and, set centrally, the two Chinese deities Hou Yi (the archer god) and his wife, the moon goddess Chang'e.
Quality can be in the eye of the beholder, but there are certain things to look out for when appraising Chinese wood carvings, bearing in mind that even a simple carving can be a thing of beauty!
Carvings were often produced in elder, ash, birch, and beech, but also in rosewood, camphor and other hardwoods. In short, the softer the wood the easier and therefore least time consuming it was to carve. Greater detail could be achieved, for example on the faces and clothes of figures or depictions of flora and fauna, using hardwoods but the time and skill required to carry out the work would mean a more expensive commission.
The number of levels
It isn’t obvious to the untrained eye, but all carvings are said to have levels of working. Think of them as a flight of stairs - stand at the top step and walk down one, then the next, then the next. Some of the most sumptuous and highly expensive carvings will have up to twelve steps (twelve levels of worked depth). The example shown here (left) in elm, depicting various vases, bronzes and other artefacts set on tables, has seven levels (can you see them all?). This whole carving is just 15cm wide, so you can appreciate the skill and effort of the master craftsman who produced it.
In the previous example, you can see a number of uniform scalloped holes in the back of the carving to represent the back wall or divider behind the various artefacts. This is an example of a pierced carving, going right through the wood. In addition to adding an interesting, attractive feature, if the holes were large enough then the carver could access the panel through the back as well as the front, making it slightly easier to add the various detailed levels.
In the example shown right the back has been scooped out, with the detail of flowers and various children at play standing out in relief against the background. In this case all of the carving had to be undertaken from the front.
Single piece or assembled?
The panel above is also a good example of a single carved section providing the focus of the piece. One school of thought was that the fewer the number of separate sections in a design the better the quality of the carving. So a single, large carved panel was more highly prized, showing the skill of its creator. Imagine spending weeks or months on a single large carving only to make a wrong cut with the last stroke of the chisel!
In contrast the panel shown here (left), part of a four panel screen, is comprised of dozens of individually crafted pieces of wood assembled with mortise and tenon joints into an intricate pattern around a central carving. Whilst this is very different in style, it could be argued that the accuracy and planning needed by the carpenter to produce it make it just as impressive.
Painting, plaster, mother-of-pearl inserts
These days we can appreciate these wonderful carvings in their more natural finish, with any old lacquer either stripped or worn away. However, as once were the ancient sculptures of Greece and Rome, many of the higher end carvings were originally lacquered or painted and traces can still sometimes be seen. In some cases a thin layer of plaster was added to the faces and bodies of the subjects to enable a more realistic painting of the features. In others mother-of pearl or bone inlay was pressed into the plaster or into animal glue to provide a further decorative element, as seen in the floor of this carving, taken from part of a marriage bed.
A Dying Art
The art of wood carving was passed down through many generations in countless towns and villages across China. However, with growing wealth over recent years the poorly paid artisans of the country's less developed regions have flocked to the big cities of Shangahi, Beijing, Chengdu and others to work as labourers in manufacturing and construction, where they can earn as much in a day as they used to in a month. As such the talent pool of skilled woodworkers is thinning, and the ones who remain understandably look for quick, easy commissions for greater profit rather than undertake the lengthy, painstaking work required for the most highly prized pieces produced by their ancestors. Much of what was traditionally crafted by hand has been replaced with faster, accurate machine carving and the highly skilled, time consuming hand carvings of the past are now extremely hard to find in modern work.
Treasure these extraordinary pieces for what they say of a bygone era, for they are the last of their kind.