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Carving out An Honest Life
The father of Shanghai-style boxwood carving is immersed in his miniature wooden world.

Under a flickering overhead light, 77-year-old Xu Baoqing frowns, trying to force the hard boxwood to yield to his knife, then smiles after executing a particularly difficult cut. Wood shavings flutter to the bare floor.

The hands that create these wonderfully detailed wooden figurines of children at play, and scenes taken from the Bible and classical Chinese literature are coarse from 60 years of carving -- the callus on his thumb is so thick that it looks like a protruding joint.

He works out of his 10-square-meter bedroom, with just a desk, a single bed and a TV set -- usually tuned in to a nature program.

"I only watch nature programs because they show life as it truly is," says the septuagenarian. "I enjoy watching programs about animals. Unlike human beings, they don't pretend. They can be ferocious, yet they rarely never conceal their true desires and emotions."

To achieve that level of honesty has been a lifelong quest for Xu, a man who won't abide artifice in any form. This commitment to verity is visible in his works, which have a lifelike quality. A sculpture of leapfrogging children, for example, conveys the innocence of youth -- excitement and joy radiating from bright round eyes, with the child bearing the weight of his friends wearing an expression combining concern, anguish and wonderment at the same time.

Recently released from hospital after suffering a heart attack, Xu is grateful to be back in his workshop among his carving tools, which he refers to as his "iron pens." Due to his hospitalization, Xu missed his first solo exhibition, held at the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum recently. But back in his small workshop, surrounded by his "iron pens" -- hundreds of knives he designed and made himself, as well as planes, saws and other woodworking tools -- the artisan doesn't reveal any disappointment at missing the show.

At the age of 7, Xu began learning the fundamentals of woodworking at the Xujiahui Catholic Orphanage, where he was sent to live by his ailing grandmother, his only living relative. Life at the orphanage was harsh, recalls Xu, but the Jesuits who ran it would invite local and foreign painters and sculptors to teach the orphans. At the orphanage, Xu also learned skills like furniture making.

It was the work of an Italian missionary that most impressed the boy.

"His sculptures dealt with religious themes, depictions of Christ and Moses. I found them so intricate, complex and appealing that I wanted to emulate the artist," recalls Xu.

Thereafter, he began devoting the majority of his time to sculpture and carving. "If sculpture is like addition, then carving is subtraction," says Xu, taking another piece showing leapfrogging children from a drawer. "This one is not good because the expression in his eyes isn't quite right. Just one sloppy cut can destroy an entire work."

Yet the challenge of carving, or "subtraction," appealed to Xu, and, after working with several materials, he settled on boxwood -- a strong, close-grained timber.

Xu's great contribution to the art form in China was his adoption of Western sculpting techniques into a traditional medium.

"It's very much in Shanghai's East-meets-West character," says Zhu Huiqing, director of the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Research Institute. "Xu successfully incorporated and applied elements from Western sculpture like anatomy and proportion to a traditional art form which, at the same time, remains rich in Chinese flavor."

In 1945, his boxwood sculptures of Biblical scenes became popular. With his "iron pens," Xu depicted Jesus Christ, Madonna and the saints as ordinary Chinese -- even peasants.

"During my time at the orphanage, I was periodically sent to work on farms," Xu says. "I was able to observe the life of peasants and witness their joys and agonies." He was particularly drawn to the life of peasant children, which became a recurring theme in his work.

During the 1950s, five of his pieces were acquired by Shanghai Museum for their folk art collection, and his unique style became known as "Hai Pai," or "Shanghai style."

"To my father, carving is a form of expression," says Xu Youwei, Xu's eldest daughter. "He does a lot of pieces portraying happy childhoods because that's what he longed for, but never had. He once carved scenes from 'Wo Xin Chang Dan' (a classical story about a Chinese king who endured self-imposed hardships to strengthen his resolve, and finally got the better of his enemies) to express his determination to never give up carving."

Xu's passion hasn't faded with time. Even at 77, he works for hours every day. Like other local artisans with a special gift, Xu is concerned for the future of his art form.

He sometimes entertains the possibility of taking on an orphan or a disabled person as an apprentice to "complete the circle of my life experience."

Xu says, "I just want to tell them that they can also stand on their own feet, like I did."

(Eastday.com November 28, 2002)

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