The wonderful carvings of Hui architecture
If you’re a fan of Chinese antique furniture and oriental interiors in general then you’ll most likely be familiar with some of the wonderful architectural elements – dividing interior panels and screens, window panels and wooden carvings – that were used to decorate the structure and interiors of traditional Chinese homes. Styles varied greatly across China, with ornate archways and complex interlocking joinery typical of houses in northern parts of China such as Shandong and Shanxi and distinctive heavy relief carvings common in Yunnan in the southwest. However the area perhaps best known for the quality and workmanship of its wooden architectural carvings is the region around modern day Anhui and northern Jiangxi provinces to the west of Shanghai, known as Huizhou in ancient times.
When the Chinese imperial court relocated their capital to the city of Lin’an (now Hangzhou) in nearby Zhejiang during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279), the merchants of Huizhou were able to take advantage of their new proximity to the centre of government, with easy transport links into the capital by road and river. Trading primarily in tea, paper and ink, families were able to amass large fortunes, reaching a peak of prosperity during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Much of this wealth was used to create large mansions, based on the exquisite architecture of imperial homes in southern China. However, the merchants’ relatively low social status compared to local mandarins and courtiers meant that any grandiose displays of wealth were severely frowned upon. Keen to show off their wealth but needing to refrain from any outward showiness, the merchants therefore concentrated their efforts on their homes’ interiors. Based around an inner courtyard, homes were built with beautifully carved sculptures, stone carvings, ornate panels and other decorative architectural elements. These timber-framed structures were built with wonderfully precise joinery, without the need for nails or brackets. Exquisite detail was incorporated into every aspect of the Hui architectural style, with roof beams, pillars, windows, doors, upturned eaves and furniture all being decorated with beautiful open or relief carving. With the larger, more complicated carvings taking weeks or even months to create, the cost involved could be huge, with the price of a single, high quality carving by a skilled master equating roughly to the price of an acre of land.
The skill involved in producing these extraordinary carvings was honed over a lifetime. Carvers would start to learn from a very young age, firstly gaining an understanding and aptitude for calligraphy and drawing before applying this to wood or stone carving. Only the very best would become good enough to work on the beautiful mansions of Huizhou, with a tiny number being considered masters.
Carved designs would almost always tell a story, whether in the form of symbolic animals and flowers, such as bats to represent good luck or peaches for longevity, or more complex scenes from legend or characters from Chinese opera. The motifs used would often relate closely to the home owner’s interests or beliefs.
Amongst the most detailed and beautifully worked carvings were those used to decorate corbels – the weight bearing wooden brackets above a pillar (known as ‘dougong’ in Chinese) or between a pillar and beam (‘queti’). By the Qing dynasty, the carvings used to decorate these had reached amazing levels of detail and skill. Interconnected carvings were shown on each side of a corbel, with the carvers able to apply light and shadow within the carvings in order to pick out figures or specific details in the dim light of a house’s interior.
Today the vast majority of houses that displayed these extraordinary carvings and decoration have disappeared, but it is still possible to find beautifully preserved examples. In Anhui province, the ancient villages of Hongcun and Xidi were declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999, and are home to a number of beautifully preserved traditional Hui mansions.
We at Shimu are delighted to be able to offer a number of antique carved panels and architectural elements, including several wonderfully carved corbels. These are all items that were shipped out of China over 20 years ago whilst it was still possible to do so. Nowadays, with stricter laws and regulations over the export of cultural relics, it would be illegal to ship many of these beautiful pieces out of the country as they would be considered of historical importance – particularly the more heavily carved and decorative pieces.
You’ll find the first of these items, such as the carved corbel (one of a pair) shown above, on the website under our Chinese Antique Accessories, but we will be adding many more over the coming weeks and months. There are some very rare, unique and special items amongst the collection, so as well as beautiful, decorative ornaments and conversation pieces, there are also valuable collectors’ items. I am sure you will be as amazed as I was by the incredible detail in these carvings, and by the time, craft and skill that must have gone into creating each one. I look forward to sharing more of these wonderful artefacts soon.
Sources and more on Hui Architecture:
China Tour Guide: Hui Style Carvings
China Plus: Huizhou Three Carvings
China & Asia Cultural Travel: Hui Architecture
Architecture on the Road: Hui Architecture and Villages
South China Morning Post: Ancient China's Architecture