Kaiyuan Root Carving
Kaiyuan Root Carving
By Liu Jiatong Edited by Yu Xuebin Photographed by Liu Jiatong
Root carving—the carving of tree roots into forms inspired by their natural shapes—is a Chinese folk art with a long history which developed especially rapidly during the Ming(1368—1644) and Qing(1636—1912) Dynasties. Root carving can be seen as a concentrated embodiment of the wisdom of Chinese people, simultaneously maintaining harmony with nature, and allowing for the human creativity.
It is said: “The best root carving of China is in Yunnan Province, the best root carving of Yunnan is in Honghe, and the best root carving of Honghe is in Kaiyuan”. In Kaiyuan, tree roots and bamboo canes provide a natural medium, and carvers follow their natural forms and textures when embedding meanings and emotions in them through figurative and abstract styles. The most prolific and talented have created many masterpieces, notable for artistry and ornamental value, full of interest and charm, truly amazing in effect.
In 2009, Kaiyuan was officially lauded as the “Hometown of Root Carving Art”.
In China, Korea and Japan, people usually paint the red-crowned cranes together with tall, old pines, to symbolize longevity so greatly prized by the cultures of the region. The red-crowned crane, a large wading bird favouring swamps and estuarine habitats, regally stalks the shallow waters before decisively taking prey, earning it the moniker “God of the Wetlands”. In ancient Chinese myths, folklore and religion, the “red-crowned crane” is a symbol of elegance and longevity, oft-portrayed and eulogized by poets and artists alike. In this piece, a root-carving master of Kaiyuan continues an ancient tradition, making a red-crowned crane inspired by shape of the tree root, rendered in elegant and charming style.
Market Price: RMB 3,000
Zen Stone is carved from a root embracing a weathered stone, a root from a tree grown in infertile soil, strangling a rock for survival. These “roots embracing stones”, have inspired and constituted some of the most novel and exquisite works root carving artists have ever created. With gnarled roots, and worn stone juxtaposed with exquisite carving, this work exemplifies both the best of root carving, and its natural essence.
Market Price: RMB 5,000
There is an old Chinese saying: “fragrance of books and family status”, indicating the status accorded to scholarly families in China since ancient times. But what does ‘fragrance’ refer to? The answer to this conundrum is simple, but historical: the ancient Chinese put leaves of lemongrass—a fragrant herb—into books to protect them from moths and other insects partial to their pages. And so, the “fragrance of books” is the scent of lemongrass, and the inspiration of this work.
Market Price: RMB 6,000
The artistic medium of root carving—tree and bamboo roots, gnarled trunks and burrs—is not merely natural, but possesses uniquely irregular shapes. Here, via processes of imagination and composition, the sculptor has created several artistic images inspired by the various forms found in the uneven mass of a single root, full of artistic expansiveness.
Market Price: RMB 10,000
Survival of the Fittest
The masters of root carving agree that their art consist of “30% craftsmanship and 70% nature”, modestly acknowledging that their work lies in bringing out the forms inherent in the chosen pieces, and owes less to their craftsmanship and embellishment than it first appears. This piece, Survival of the Fittest preserves the beautiful lines of the tree root, while bursting with creativity, and connotation of renaissance of an old tree root with new meaning.
Market Price: RMB 7,000
Maitreya—the future Buddha of this world in the Buddhist eschatology—is widely revered by the Chinese people as an embodiment of benevolence and kindness. Maitreya—a Sanskrit name carrying the meaning “invincibility”—remains one of the most common figures amongst the root carving works of Kaiyuan.
Market Price: RMB 80,000