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Chan Perpetuates Civilization in Sandalwood

You may have heard of the Riverside Scenes in the Qingming Festival, an immortal painting by Zhang Zeduan from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), but yet have had no chance to see it firsthand. You may have read Journey to the West and Outlaws of the Marsh, two famous works of the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644), and wonder what the characters really looked like. Chan Lai Wa (Chen Lihua), curator of the China Red Sandalwood Museum, can help.

"I Must Keep These Treasures in China!"

"I built this museum to protect the historical relics and the country's national traditional culture, as well as to re-introduce the magnificence of Chinese traditional furniture. I want to get back lost treasures and keep them forever in China," Chan says, looking with deep satisfaction around the China Red Sandalwood Museum, which cost her over 20 years of hard work. "I want to turn it a textbook for China, for the nation and for history."

Red sandalwood is among the most precious of woods. It is hard, but elastic, and emits a musty, floral fragrance. The dark purple and black color represents the solemnity and magnificence of imperial rule. The fine and variable texture proclaims its imposing manner. After being waxed and polished, it looks like silk.

Red sandalwood trees need to mature for hundreds of years before being turned into furniture. Furthermore, most trees are hollow inside, decreasing the availability of this rare timber even further. So there is an old saying that "Red sandalwood is as precious as gold."

During the Ming Dynasty, it was widely used by the imperial families and domestic stocks soon became exhausted. Later, with the development of sea transport and enhanced foreign trade exchanges, a large amount of red sandalwood was imported from places around the world. By the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, a huge stockpile of red sandalwood existed in China. Consequently, elegant and magnificent furniture featuring high-class joinery appeared on a large scale. However, many works went to abroad for various reasons.

The crazy deforestation evident during the Ming Dynasty left the Qing Dynasty with no more red sandalwood. The furniture made during this period was mainly made from stored red sandalwood left over from the Ming Dynasty. After the mid-Qing Dynasty, royal families had to procure their supply from private enterprises at high prices. By the time the Empress Dowager Cixi celebrated her 60th birthday and the last Emperor Guangxu married, there was little red sandalwood left. After Yuan Shikai proclaimed himself emperor in 1915, all the red sandalwood was used up.

As there was no more supply, the techniques of producing red sandalwood furniture disappeared.

Fortunately, red sandalwood has now re-appeared, and, with her outstanding vision, Chan Lai Wa seized the opportunity and procured several hundred tons of timber. She enlisted the services of hundreds of skillful craftsmen and spent two decades in producing over 1,000 pieces of exquisite, artistic works; ensuring that these rare treasures can be handed down to future generations and can be enjoyed by people from all over the world.

"What I am keeping is not only red sandalwood and sandalwood carvings, but also the techniques and the craftsmanship," she explains.

"I Like Doing Rather Than Speaking."

Born into a noble family of the Manchu ethnic group, Chan showed a special interest in red sandalwood furniture handed down from the Ming and Qing dynasties. In her view, the dark purple glittering furniture, having experienced great changes, represents the crystallization of China's traditional culture and the skill and wisdom of its artisans.

Although she is a member of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and chairperson of the board of directors of the Fu Wah International Hong Kong, Beijing Chang An Club, Ltd. and Fu Wah (Beijing) Furniture Enterprise Co., Ltd., Madame Chan is little known to the public.

"I will not speak a lot, but I like doing things carefully and steadily. I try my best to do everything perfect," she explained.

She went to Myanmar eight times to purchase red sandalwood, traveling in mountains and jungles haunted by wild animals. Once, she was chased by swarms of poisonous bees. If it were not for the sealed car waiting for her, she would have lost her life. Another time, she was only one step away from a precipice before she realized it. But she never flinched.

Having got the best-quality sandalwood, Chan began putting a large sum of money into training artisans. Since the techniques had long been lost, and with red sandalwood being as precious as gold, practice on such materials was highly expensive. However, Chan Lai Wa, once a worker herself, saw what was worthier than "gold". She deeply understood employees' tears when they made a mistake.

Her love for red sandalwood is the finest kind of sincerity, even piety, a deeply held belief. For this reason, she has never hesitated to invest money and time in the museum.

At first, she just collected and repaired damaged red sandalwood furniture. Later, she began making replicas of ancient works, especially those in the Forbidden City.

She commands, designs and makes decisions herself, and even joins the carving team. Red sandalwood works emerge from her hands one after another. "The wood articles are actually fine art, " Chan says.

What has given her the greatest satisfaction in the past two decades is the support from her family members. However, she also faces many difficulties. Some visitors, when asked not to touch the red sandalwood, would get angry and swear. Some even damaged the objects. Once a visitor broke the red sandalwood glossy ganoderma from a phoenix's mouth and then left. This makes Chan's heart ache. What a long time and painstaking efforts needed to work out such a ganoderma! Chan hopes visitors will take more care of her articles and will give more support to her work.

"I Cannot Tarnish Art with Commercial Interests."

Chan's hard work has paid off. Experts from the Palace Museum have evaluated nearly 100 works carved by her and her craftsmen as "Treasures of Oriental Art".

The most acclaimed work of the China Red Sandalwood Museum is a set of wooden screens, entitled Riverside Scene during the Qingming Festival. The set contains 12 red sandalwood pieces, each 270 centimeters long, 76.5 centimeters wide and 177 centimeters high, and weighing in all an impressive 5,397 kilograms. Fully employing traditional artistic methods of relief and fretwork, the carvings feature skillful use of knife, smooth and vigorous lines, clear texture and appealing thickness. Each house, bridge, boat, cart, person, and even ripple in the water, rope and tree on the riverside is depicted vividly. It keeps the artistic mood of the original painting, but is totally different from that in the sense of space and three-dimensional effect.

Wang Shixiang and Zhu Jiajin, famous connoisseurs of Ming and Qing furniture, and Wang Shuqing, former deputy curator of the Palace Museum, praised the screens as invaluable. The techniques used on other replicas, such as the Hall of Golden Chimes and Throne in the Hall of Heavenly Purity (Qianqinggong), they said, are every bit as good as the originals.

Chan has also created a kind of cubic culture. On one block of red sandalwood, she has carved all the 108 main characters in the Outlaws of the Marsh, a work by Shi Nai'an of the late Yuan and early Ming dynasties. Each character comes vividly to life. On another two-meter-high camphor wood, Chan and her craftsmen depicted the whole plot of Journey to the West, a novel written by Wu Cheng'en from the Ming Dynasty. Using such techniques as fretwork, sculpture-in-the-round and shade sculpture, the work shows how the Monkey King was born and how the revered monk Xuan Zang finally obtained the Buddhist sutra. According to the workers of the museum, the craftsmen are now busy carving A Dream of Red Mansions and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. To have the four famous literary works thus completed is one of the greatest wishes of Madam Chan.

Another striking work in the museum is the model of the Corner Tower of the Forbidden City made to a scale of 1:5. It is supported by nine girders, 18 pillars and 72 ridges. Adding these three figures together makes 99, and double nine was most revered in old China. The red sandalwood corner tower is 5 meters high and weighs 4 tons. The ridges and bracket systems alone consist of over 4,600 pieces of red sandalwood. It would take one artisan 200 years to complete such a work.

Since its opening on September 19,1999, the museum has attracted a large number of visitors from home and abroad. A US youth delegation came to visit the museum on June 28, 2000 and was surprised by the model of a siheyuan (quadrangle courtyard). They hailed it as the acme of perfection, taking 800 craftsmen a year to complete, through 15 procedures and using hundreds of tons of red sandalwood. The 100-square-meter siheyuan, made on a scale of 1:5, was so impressive they were reluctant to leave. They were filled with great admiration for traditional Chinese art and architecture.

Recently, Jackie Chan, the famous film star from Hong Kong visited the museum. He was so excited to see the siheyuan that he sang and danced in it, saying, "I was wondering where the red sandalwood had gone. It turned out to be here. This is my home."

Besides, there are also red sandalwood models of Wanchun Pavilion and Qianqiu Pavilion of the Imperial Garden and the red sandalwood model of the memorial archway of Longquan Temple of Wutai Mountain.

"As an artist and industrialist, it is my duty to carry forward traditional culture and the art of China," Chan said.

Many celebrities from all walks of life and business tycoons from China and abroad have tried to buy one or two works of the museum at a high price. Some even wanted to purchase the whole museum. But all were refused. Chan says, "I cannot tarnish the purity of traditional art with commercial interests."

However, to meet demand, Chan's factory began making furniture for sale recently.

"Such Wood Art Should Be Known in the World."

On May 27, 1999, Chan was awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the largest private art college in the United States, in recognition of her contributions to art.

SCAD possesses a large number of authoritative professors from the United States and even the whole world in the visual and performing arts, design, building arts, and the history of art and architecture. The students come from over 80 countries and regions as well as all parts of the United States. Each year, it will select one person who has made outstanding achievements in art and confer on him or her an honorary doctorate degree.

The decision to honor Chan dates back to 1998, when Richard Rowen, then president of the university, led a delegation to attend a great exhibition in Shanghai. After that, they made a special visit to see Chan Lai Wa in Beijing. They were stunned by the red sandalwood carvings exhibited in the Chang An Club. "The sense of beauty they convey cannot be expressed by words," said Rowen.

At the award ceremony, he expressed the wish to do more to support Chan's important work in communicating knowledge of the great and unforgettable cultural treasures of China so as to educate and inspire the world and society.

Chan thanked SCAD for the honor. "But it does not only belong to myself. It also belongs to my family and my country," she continued. She wished everyone good luck and an enhanced friendship and further cultural exchanges between the United States and China.

"I am Chinese, but I feel that this kind of art should be known in the world. Art is property of the world and I don't care whether it is in China or America, " Chan said. She donated a large sandalwood screen and a sandalwood throne to the college, which have attracted nearly 10,000 visitors, as well as many of the country's experts.

Chan cherishes another dream: to set up an art academy in China in cooperation with SCAD. In this way, she hopes to pass on her own experiences in red sandalwood carving and attract talents in traditional Chinese arts to teach there. Meanwhile, she will introduce advanced teaching methods and technologies from around the world and combine the arts of foreign countries with those of China, thus making her due contribution to the development of Chinese art and the training of art talent.

According to Chan, collecting and making replicas of red sandalwood works will be a lifelong pursuit. Based on this, she hopes to arouse more people to contribute to traditional Chinese culture. In fact, Chan has been a part of China's opening-up history.

(CIIC 12/13/2000)

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