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Ivory Carving

Ivory Carving

Ivory carving has a long, long history, in the artistic shaping and decoration of ivory.  The ivory carving styles of Beijing and Guangzhou are distinct.

Beijing ivory carving can trace its history to two thousand years ago. During its later development, many excellent craftsmen were recruited to Beijing from other provinces to exchange and discuss workmanship with local craftsmen. Therefore, Beijing ivory carving exemplifies palace art, displaying elegant and poised features that have formed a unique technology following hundreds of years of practice. Beijing ivory carving declined during the late Qing Dynasty, but was redeveloped thanks to the efforts of famous ivory carver, YangShihui, and his successors.

Ivory has a special quality and aesthetic, leading to the inclusion of ivory carving within Chinese special handicrafts. Beijing ivory carving technology is complex and difficult.  It encompasses a wide variety of techniques, and is generally passed on via oral or ‘hands-on’ training. In the 1980s, elephants were fully protected and the ivory trade was forbidden on the international market. Beijing ivory carving was fully dependent on imported ivory, and times were hard, with no new raw material, and a shortage of trainees.   However, international organizations have now permitted some registered trade from stockpiled ivory and other controlled measures. There still remains a shortage of trainees to succeed to this special handicraft of Beijing ivory carving, and some mechanism is required to preserve the ancient technology.

Guangzhou ivory carving is famous for creating hollowed out spheres, carvings on floral boats, sophisticated carved paintings and calligraphy. Guangzhou ivory carving products are generally divided into three categories. The first is for appreciation, including ivory balls, floral boats, crab cages, vases, birds and beasts, human figures and rockeries and other purely decorative items. The second type is for practical use, such as folding fans, lamps, ashtrays, pencil cases, powder boxes, seals, combs, chopsticks, toothpicks, book marks and scissors; and finally there is ivory jewelry, such as bracelets, necklaces, ear rings, finger rings, ivory pins and other personal adornment.

Ivory Carving

Guangzhou ivory carving focuses on specific techniques, and is known especially for its inlay and openwork carving. It has developed a complete code of exquisite carving techniques over a long period. Guangzhou ivory carving is characteristically fine and exquisite, and pays great attention to the ivory bleaching and color decoration, perfectly combining the sophisticated and popular tastes. The craftsmen select the smoothest ivory, and carve meticulous designs with the sharpest blades, producing compact designs with no blank spaces. Many other materials such as red sandalwood, rhinoceros horn, hawksbill and emerald green feathers are ingeniously embedded with the ivory into a single item, producing richly-layered patterns, and a magnificent finished product.

Guangzhou ivory carving possesses a long history. It developed to a certain degree in the Qin and Han Dynasty, and technology and production capacity peaked during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The technological level was improved after the formation of the Republic of China, and Guangzhou developed its own school within the national ivory carving industry. Guangzhou ivory carving is mainly passed from master to apprentice, or via family inheritance, adopting the production model of craft workshops, of which the most famous were those of Chen Zuzhang, Weng Zhao, Weng Rongbiao, Feng Shaoxia and Li Dingning.

Located at the southern gate of China, Guangzhou has established close business relationships with various oversea regions, which will hopefully lead to improved prospects for the marketing of handicrafts that reflect the Chinese national character. However, currently there are no family-owned craft workshops existing in today’s ivory carving industry in Guangzhou, and the master-apprentice relationship has changed significantly, which is resulting in the gradual disappearance of many fine handicrafts. This also affects the delicate handicrafts process, with few people either willing or able to make a living by the traditional ivory carving skills.  This in turn affects the development of Guangzhou ivory carving and preservation of the traditional handicrafts. Additional measures and support will be needed to reverse the current unfavorable situation.