The outstanding artistic expressions in all cultures throughout the ages have left a footprint that characterizes them as classical, the highest level to which the evident exquisiteness with which the artist endowed them raises them and turns them into models worthy of being emulated and preserved.
China, in particular, has harbored an immense treasure trove of artistic works left behind by countless masters dedicated to each of the disciplines through which they captured their perception of aspects of life and nature.
They infused them with the inspiring and magical message they wanted to share with their future viewers, based on the dictates of the gods.
Author Iona McCombie Smith puts it this way: “When observing, contemplating on and admiring a work of art, the viewer can feel the inner values of the artist. Therefore, an artwork is not simply something marking an achievement, but a contribution of the most wonderful values to the community: to promote goodness and inner peace, to help others to flourish.”
She adds, “If the mind of an artist is not pure, then their work is only a technical showcase. It is no longer a work of art. This is the art to be the most honored and respected by humanity.”
When this ability and inspiration were applied to wood as a medium, works of admirable artistic expression, worthy delicacy and perfection were created, which transcend the ordinary plane and produce well-being when contemplated alone, materializing the author’s offering to the divine and the community.
After an arduous and delicate work, the author tells the stories that each piece of wood keeps inside. The play of light and shadows that originate change the nuance of what is told by the work, adding a charm that can hardly be appreciated in other artistic products.
The appreciation for such beautiful works of art was such that the excellence achieved by the most outstanding artisans in classical Chinese society allowed them to be honored with social placement in high levels of the imperial court, being precisely the carvers the most prominent members of that guild.
The favorable environment favored by the proximity of the masters of the plastic arts to the inner cultivation and the divinities enriched the culture of classical China.
The development of classical wood carving
Historical records show that woodcarving existed as early as the Shang Dynasty (around 1600-1100 BC), although its historical origin cannot be pinpointed. One of the most dazzling artists was Lu Ban, distinguished as the father of woodcarving.
Regarding the perfection of his works, it is said that he carved a wooden bird capable of flying in the sky for three days. Lu Ban was notable as a carpenter, engineer, architect, and strategist in the 5th century B.C.
While the most impressive wood carving works were generated inside the imperial palace, important private workshops also developed outside it thanks to the patronage of the literary gentry and wealthy businessmen. This brought the carving arts to an unprecedented level of refinement and sophistication.
It is said that the monks of antiquity reached such an affinity with the materials, which they considered alive and endowed with a particular type of consciousness, such that once their works were finished, they became animated, in such a way that if it was the carving of a dragon, as soon as they gave the final touch to the eyes, it flew away.
In general, the subjects chosen were statues or figures of Buddha, dragon lanterns, steles, screens, decorations, and other ornaments of temples, palaces, and homes of important people of the respective imperial courts and epic bucolic scenes and unique furniture.
Currently, the procedure begins with the sketch design; the artist then uses clay to sculpt the model and selects the most suitable wood for his project.
Continuing with his work, he begins the carving, which is the most delicate and demanding process, and finally polishes and waxes the complete work. The wood carvings emerge by separating the portions of wood that blur the forms that the designer of the work perceives as struggling to manifest themselves. He employs sharp metal tools with straight edges or different types of curvatures, lengths, and angles.
The tools used are basic, including a clay hammer, a sculpting shelf, a clay sculpture box, a caliper or measuring tool, scrapers, and various narrow-edged cutting elements.
The charm of wood
The wood itself brings unique characteristics to the carvings, and the qualities described by classical Chinese cultural tradition add meaning and value. Wood constitutes one of the five fundamental elements that manifest in the universe, and it is considered that among them occur the essential interactions that structure this earthly dimensional space.
The tradition describing the essential interactions of the five elements affirms that the world changes according to the generating or overcoming relationships of the five elements. Generating and overcoming are the complementary processes, the yin, and yang, of the action of the five elements.
The beauty of the wide range of existing woods makes up the varied range of possibilities available to carvers. It is similar to the color palettes used by painters. However, it is preferable to use the trunks of trees that have already fallen naturally, whose mature fibers will present the most excellent stability to the artistic creation.
Wood carving implied that the master of this art knew each forest species’ physical and mechanical properties well to select those suitable to be transformed into exquisite works carrying a special message.
The behavior of the fibers of each species is determined by their specific weight, the humidity they contain, and their shrinkage and swelling coefficients. In addition, their shrinkage capacity, tensile strength, bending strength, and hardness are influential. They also exhibit other properties inherent to this element of nature.
In addition to the parameters above, which are largely measurable, aspects such as grain density, intricate grain variations, colors ranging from absolute black to pure white, extremes between which a wide range of shades and tones of subtle variations coexist.
Complementarily, essential oils are often present, some of which seem inexhaustible while conferring an admirable luster that transitions from faint to intense and an unusual softness to the touch.
Apart from these physical attributes, the classical cultural tradition of Eastern countries considers wood to have aspects that are a bit more ethereal to the perception of a typical person of Western culture.
Over the millennia, the wisdom of their spiritual guides and leaders determined, within the framework of Taoist prescriptions concerning the conscious and harmonious occupation of space, to positively influence the people who occupy it, that to the wood element correspond a series of attributes of another level.
Regarding these attributes, the sages concluded that the wood element harmonized with the East as direction, spring as season, the climate accompanied by strong winds, the color green, and the rectangle as shape.
According to the advanced knowledge of the stars unraveled by the ancient Chinese, wood represented creativity, luxury, and flourishing. Additionally, it was linked to a particular planet, a celestial creature, a celestial stem, and a virtue. No less important were the implications of wood in the medical practice, in which field it was linked to sour taste and the eyes as sensory organs.
With all this broad compendium of knowledge related to wood as one of the original multifaceted elements, it was unimaginable that an artist of wood carving would neglect the purity and dedication required to provide his works with the perfection needed to climb to the podium of the classic pieces, worthy of being emulated and preserved.
On the other hand, it must be recognized that carving was also practiced, in addition to wood, in materials available in nature, as diverse as jade, stone, bamboo, ivory, horn, bone, and the seeds of trees suitable for this art. Therefore, the possibilities and variations that could be printed on a given work are very numerous.
It is noteworthy that in the court of the emperors belonging to the Qing dynasty [221-206 B.C.], the unique specialties of the Canton ivory craftsmen specialized in creating linked chains, “living” patterns, very fine thread weaving, and the concentrically layered ball, for which they were given the appellation of “celestial feat.”
Impact of Chinese carving in Asia
An unparalleled revival [of woodcarving art] originated mainly during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties when the nation’s splendor spread into regions as vast as northeast, central, and southeast Asia, positively influencing countries such as Korea, and Vietnam.”
During the Tang dynasty, the art of woodcarving underwent a remarkable development, driven to some extent by the popularity of puppet opera, which required carving and decorating the characters on stage.
It is pertinent to describe some of the characteristics of this dynasty, given that its “Tang society was liberal and largely tolerant of alien views and ideas; in fact the royal family of Tang, surnamed Li, was of non-Han Chinese origin (perhaps originally from a Turkish-speaking area of Central Asia), and leaders of government were drawn from many parts of the region.”
Additionally, “Government was powerful, but not oppressive; education was encouraged, with the accomplished and learned well rewarded. Great wealth was accumulated by a few, but the Tang rulers saw that lands were redistributed, and all had some measure of opportunity for material advancement.”
Furthermore, “This was also a time when many women attained higher status at court, and a greater degree of freedom in society,” as described in the Asian Art Museum’s “China: The Glorious Tang and Song Dynasties” for its educational program.
Simultaneously, the Tang dynasty artists incorporated influences adopted from India, Persia, and Greece into their manifestations, which enriched with new nuances a millenary culture already magnificent by itself.
The arts of carving and sculpture are closely linked since they require similar procedures and techniques from their creators. Likewise, the entire culture of the great Eastern country was profoundly influenced by Buddhism, as author Iona McCombie Smith reviews when referring to the purpose of art.
“In the East, the most elaborate and monumental sculptures are found in the Longmen Grottoes containing more than 100,000 statues of the Buddha. It expands across 2,345 caves and contains 43 temples adorned with over 2,800 inscriptions,” Smith says.
She adds, “1,000 statues of the Buddha are carved out of jade on the top of Longevity Hill in the Summer Palace and the Leshan Giant Buddha—the highest stone buddha statue—is situated on Leshan mountain.”
She went on to say, “Across the globe, the most magnificent of artistic and architectural achievements are found in the Hanging temples of the Great Five Mountains of China, the ancient temples in India and Thailand, and the Islamic mosques of the Middle East. All of which was designed in recognition of the Gods.”
Likewise, she emphasizes the spiritual values that serve as the basis for all the performances that artists develop and enable them to “connect mankind to the gods.
“If art is designed to serve the society from which it is created and crafted to emphasize integrity and honesty, the artist should return to traditional spiritual beliefs and the teachings of the gods.”
Smith adds, “It should be summoned from the original ethical essence of culture; that which connects mankind to the gods. A perfect work of art should strive to lift people up from the inside and bring people closer to Heaven.”
Current situation of art in China
Given that during the last hundred years, the Communist Party of China (CCP) took power in the country and was built on atheism, it initiated and maintained a fierce campaign for citizens to stop believing in the gods and abandon their teachings eroding human morality.
Institutionalizing the so-called “Cultural Revolution” between 1966 and 1976 in China promoted a decade of terror in which millions of Chinese were persecuted, tortured, and murdered. The young people were brainwashed to become involved in the eradication of the cultural wealth cultivated for millennia.
Atheism was also proclaimed and with it the defamation of people who cultivated faith in the religions and ancient spiritual traditions on which the millennia-old culture of the eastern country was based.
Moreover, the destruction has not ceased since then. Great unique monuments have been demolished along with ancient monasteries and churches. Most recently, Chinese-American pastor Bob Fu warned about the “New Cultural Revolution” via his Twitter account.
In the first of the tweets, dated June 25, 2021, he noted that the CCP requires parents and teachers of first graders to hunt down all religious, antagonistic, and foreign books.
In the second of the tweets, he exposes how “the Three Autonomies Church,” controlled by the CCP, chants, “Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China” while choristers wave a communist flag in the pulpit. This church is a CCP-sponsored Protestant organization set up in China.
The CCP also persecutes citizens who profess their ancient spiritual traditions, such as Falun Dafa practitioners, Christians, and Muslims, making it one of the threats to the fine arts and the authenticity of the message conveyed by carvers on the dictates of the gods.
The “respect for Heaven” on which classical Chinese culture has been built for millennia constitutes the core of the wisdom bequeathed directly by the gods. It is feared that it will lose its healing essence by moving away from them, as the CCP is forcing it to do.
However, some of the precious works of art that enhance classical Chinese culture have been rescued and preserved in museums abroad, especially in the National Palace Museum, located in Taipei, Taiwan. The museum is considered one of the five most famous museums globally and houses works of art from almost every era of China’s five thousand years of history.
The museum building is built in the style of Beijing palaces and preserves more than 650,000 works of art. Institutions like this and several others that treasure classical cultural traditions abroad bear witness that such perfection is possible and keep alive the principle that they are essentially divinely inspired.