Many artists, inspired by the mysterious charm of the 2,000-year-old Silk Road, have produced numerous celebratory works over the centuries.
For Wang Yinhua, 41, a folk artist from Xianju in east China's Zhejiang Province, it has taken almost two decades to turn his fascination for this ancient causeway into a life's work.
Reportedly the largest jade carving screen, which is entitled "The Silk Road," the vision has been turned into reality through the joint efforts of about 80 veteran folk artists from across the country.
It took their combined efforts and talents five years to complete the 60-meter long, 2-meter high jade screen.
Joined by bronze frames and locks, the gigantic piece is composed of 12 themed sections, each 5 meters wide, with inlaid works depicting typical scenes of the legendary Silk Road.
A major Eurasian trade route, with a history dating back to the second century BC, the Silk Road began in Chang'an, today's Xi'an, the capital of northwest China's Shaanxi Province, and ran westward for about 7,000 kilometers, through the western regions and provinces of China, on into several central Asian countries before stretching down to Rome in the Mediterranean.
Wang arranged from right to left the contents of the 12 sections of the jade screen in line with different geographical locations along the Silk Road.
Those images range from Tang Dynasty (AD618-907)style beauties, gods and goddesses as depicted in the Mogao Grottoes, desert nomads, exotic bazaars, dramatic costumes, colorful silks, diverse landscapes, royal palaces, temples, flowers and animals.
At least 600 vividly sculpted ancient Chinese and foreign figures and Buddhas are featured in the jade screen, said Wang.
The work, decorated with hundreds of pearls, diamonds and pieces of agate, weighs 10 tons and was carved out of 30 tons of jade material, of at least 10 different kinds.
The extraordinary screen attracted tens of thousands of visitors when it first went on public display during the Third Nationwide Exhibition of the Masterworks of Chinese Folk Art, in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang Province last December.
It won the silver prize at the exhibition, said Cheng Xiumin, secretary-general of the Chinese Folk Artists' Association and one of the exhibition's organizers.
"The screen instantly captivates the heart of the spectator.
"It gives a true-to-life portrayal of the most glorious period in Chinese history when the Chinese nation was influential, people from different ethnic backgrounds lived in harmony with each other," commented Zheng Jiuchan, a local art critic in Hangzhou.
Zhang pointed out that it was also a time when the society and people's mind were open and active, commerce and foreign trade were brisk and prosperous, and Chinese civilization and culture shone all over the world...
Zhang said that the sculpture was "indisputably" a masterpiece of folk art.
A self-taught folk artist, Wang said he has been passionate about Chinese art since childhood, but it was not until 1992 that he was able to devote all his attention to it.
Born into a wealthy family in Xianju in 1962, Wang was deeply influenced by his father Wang Xiangwo, who was also a lover of traditional Chinese art.
Wang was fond of drawing, sculpting and making Chinese seals during his primary and middle school years.
He retained his keen interest in the Chinese arts during a five year spell in the army in Xuzhou, in Jiangsu Province where he was both an army journalist and painter, five years with the local television station as a program editor, and three years in the real estate business.
"Unlike most Chinese folk artists who either have a strong family tradition or have sought apprenticeship from certain folk art masters, I mainly learnt the trade from fellow folk artists when I set up a Chinese arts and crafts workshop in 1992 in my home town," explained Wang.
In 1984, after leaving the army, he spent about seven months on the Chinese section of the Silk Road, visiting many cities, historic sites, taking photos and making sketches.
"I was stunned by the unrivalled beauty of the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes and the many Tang Dynasty relics in Xi'an," Wang recalled.
"From that year, I vowed to create something of my own to celebrate the glory of the ancient Silk Road."
That same year, he began a painstaking study of the history of the Silk Road.
In his spare time, he read hundreds of Chinese books, and scoured picture and photographic albums relating to ancient Chinese history.
"I have also had piles of photocopies of documents, in English, German, French and Arabian, about the Silk Road translated," he said.
In the ensuing years, Wang traveled extensively across western China to get a better understanding of the Silk Road's cultural legacy.
In the process Wang made friends with hundreds of folk artists from different parts of China, folk art researchers and professors from Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Xi'an.
"I highly valued and tried to make the best of each encounter with these respected artists from near and afar," recalled Wang, who admitted that the "Silk Road" masterpiece could never have come into being without the support of those older generations of folk artists.
After years of preparation, in 1997, Wang set in motion the actual creation of the huge, carved jade screen. Having secured adequate funding and a good command of the skills and techniques employed in Chinese painting and sculpting, he was able to visualize the form and broad theme the jade carving would take.
Throughout Wang maintained frequent contact with his "academic advisers" who lent invaluable help to his production team, by providing vital historic materials and making corrections to the details of his hand drawings, the blueprint for the Silk Road jade carving screen.
Among Wang's advisers were Zhao Feng, deputy curator of the Hangzhou-based Chinese Museum of Silk Art, an established researcher of the history of the Silk Road and professors Yang Yongshan and Zhang Chang from Tsinghua University's School of Art.
Wang, as chief designer and art director for the Silk Road jade carving project, said: "I am so proud of the work, because this is the first time in the history of Chinese folk art that a major masterpiece has been created through the joint efforts of so many folk art masters who are at least 60-years-old and have established their fame, in their fields, for decades."
In Wang's opinion, the design and the sculpting sessions for the work were equally vital to its eventual success.
For this reason he gave the invited artists complete freedom to express their creativity and imagination in the minutia of each of the 12 units, on the proviso that no conflicting styles appeared in each of the themed sections.
Neither were the artists constrained to fixed, daily timetables.
Sticking to fixed timetable "is simply not the right way a piece of art is created," Wang said.
Instead, he often encouraged his fellow artists to "step out into the fresh air, bright sunshine" to take breaks after a strenuous, energy-consuming, brain-racking time in his four-story workshop in Xianju.
"I believe that moments of relaxation and times of tranquility make it easier for the artists to come up with brilliant new ideas to help better carve the sculpture," explained Wang, who himself relished episodes of quiet and escape, often taken beside a picturesque lake, miles from his home.
Wang said that his work was created not simply to express the splendor and grandness of those halcyon days of ancient China, but also to express his hopes for a unified and peaceful world.
"The Silk Road runs through many time-honored cultures and civilizations in China, Asia Minor, India, the Persian Gulf, Greece and Italy," Wang said.
"The ancient Silk Road witnessed so many prosperous cities, where the peoples of many nations and ethnic backgrounds formed friendly relations and had helped foster and enrich each other's cultures, and the exchange of knowledge and technology," Wang said.
"But to our disappointment, many of the once peaceful areas along the Silk Road, such as the Middle East, have since been plagued by wars and conflicts between different nations," he added.
Wang is looking for a permanent home to exhibit the piece, one where many can see it and ponder its significance.
The message in his work is: "Take the precious lesson from the history of Silk Road and work together for peaceful co-existence and mutual prosperity."
(China Daily March 19, 2003)