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Philosophy Carved in Wood
Wandering around the towns and villages at the foot of Mount Huangshan in east China's Anhui Province, visitors might be astonished to find the well-preserved centuries-old architecture revealing the exquisite folk artistry of Huizhou woodcarving.

Over the past two decades in particular, the art of Huizhou wood carving, an important element of what is known as "Huizhou culture," has drawn the attention of an increasing number of visitors, particularly collectors and researchers of Chinese art, folk culture, local history and architecture.

Huizhou culture

Huizhou is the ancient name of the city of Huangshan, which consisted of at least six counties including Xiuning, Shexian, Yixian, Jixi, Qimen, and Wuyuan (now in neighboring Jiangxi Province) during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911).

The continued prosperity of the local economy, arts, culture and literature of Huizhou since the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220) has helped foster the unique Huizhou culture which peaked during Ming and Qing dynasties.

Huizhou culture is distinguished by the Huizhou business community, or huishang in Chinese, the Xin'an School of Confucianism, Xin'an School of traditional Chinese medicine, Xin'an School of Chinese ink painting, Hui School of printmaking, sculpture and architecture, the Huizhou branches of Chinese cuisine and tea art, and the local opera performed in the Huizhou dialect.

The Huizhou business community rose in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420), matured in the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (AD 960-1279) dynasties and reached its golden age in the early Qing Dynasty under the reign of emperors Shunzhi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, when Huizhou business people ruled the commercial world across the country with a close-knit community bound by a similar cultural background.

In major Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Fuzhou and Changsha, a huge network of business guild halls were built. Many Huizhou businessmen even traveled abroad for business to countries and regions as far as Japan, Thailand and Portugal.

The success of Huizhou business people exerted a decisive influence on the growth of Huizhou culture, including Huizhou woodcarving.

Being a major taxpayer to the court, the Huizhou business community also invested in education, construction and consumption. A respectable, spacious house excessively decorated was seen as a major symbol of high social status and great fortune in Huizhou.

Cultural connotations

From the very beginning, Huizhou wood carving, widely used in residential buildings, ancestral halls, archways, temples, gardens, ancient private schools and pagodas, has been an integral part of local art and culture, especially architectural culture. However it also has independent cultural and historical value.

The folk art of Huizhou wood carving has been dubbed by many as "an epitome of the local culture." Most works of Huizhou wood carving can be read as an embodiment of Confucianism.

Among the Confucian ideas, filial obedience was the core concept of feudal moral principles.

Qing Dynasty window carvings entitled The 24 Filial Persons can be found in many existing old buildings. The simple and vividly portrayed images and stories helped spread moral ideas among ordinary Chinese.

The concept of a harmonious, all-generations-under-one-roof lifestyle, was also highly valued in Huizhou in ancient times. Families with a long history of different generations living together carved their cheerful impressions of family life into pictures on walls, archways and beams.

The concept of forbearance and conciliation was also depicted in Huizhou woodcarvings. One popular story used in this kind of woodcarving centers on Tang Dynasty minister Zhang Gongyi. When the Tang Emperor Gaozong asked him how family members from nine generations could manage to live under one roof peacefully, Zhang presented the emperor with a paper scroll with 100 Chinese character of ren, meaning forbearance or conciliation.

Zhang and his family were then praised for being a "model family" and awarded with gold and jewelry for their moral idea and practice which was vital to the stability and prosperity of feudal society.

The worship of kings and emperors was another concept reflected in Huizhou woodcarvings, which revealed local people's hopes for wise and able feudal rulers who could grant them better living conditions.

Commonly visualized concepts in Huizhou woodcarvings include the "coming of age ceremony" when a young man was recognized as an adult and could wear a hat, or a young girl was recognized as a woman and her parents could show their consent for a marriage proposal.

The concept of diligence and academic brilliance is also popular among Huizhou woodcarvings as in feudal society, academic merits could lead to high official posts which meaning honor, power and fortune.

Businessmen also encouraged their descendants to pursue academic achievement so as to gain greater political influence, useful for their business life in the often-corrupt society.

A large number of Huizhou woodcarvings drew inspiration from Chinese literature such as Xixiang Ji (Romance of West Chamber), and local opera titles such as Shi Yuzhuo (Love Story behind a Jade Bracelet), as well as mythical or historical figures, love stories and widely-known moral anecdotes.

The most popular concept in Huizhou woodcarvings centers on happiness, fortune and longevity. People depicted animals like bats, deer, toads and cranes, all auspicious symbols in the eyes of ordinary Chinese.

The ideal of a well-off society is also a highly appreciated theme in Huizhou woodcarvings.

The concept of a well-off society came from the famous Confucian classic Li Ji (Book of Rites), which was said to have been revised and rearranged by Confucius.

Other subjects widely used in woodcarvings include honor, loyalty, integrity and justice.

The Huizhou woodcarving is not only noted for its cultural depth but for its highly-developed artistry and well-honed craftsmanship.

In its early days, Huizhou woodcarving was rendered in a more simple and rough manner.

The work became more and more demanding and time-consuming in the late Qing Dynasty when the house owners asked woodcarving artists to bring to life more detailed, exaggerated and complex images.

For example, they would ask for the eyeballs of the animals to be movable and the tiny carved-out doors and windows capable of being opened or closed with a push or pull of the finger.

Silky skills

Huizhou wood carving is famous for its rigor and vitality.

With the local economy rapidly developing, local people showed a passion for life. In line with this social psychology, the woodcarving images and stories display an unusually upbeat attitude toward worldly life. The lovely, vivid images were carved with various methods to achieve strong visual effects.

The woodcarvings were completed with well-planned overall themes. The woodcarvings in each old building in ancient Huizhou belonged to a certain theme.

In a local scholar's house, woodcarvings on the windows, doors, beams, cupboards, bookshelves and other furnishings depict scenes described in well-known Chinese classic poems. They might also include scenes in private schools and auspicious patterns and mythical figures such as the celestial being of kuixing, a personified god of the stars in the sky, which indicate major success in an academic career.

Huizhou woodcarvings all have well-calculated, bold compositions.

A series of woodcarvings are found portraying dramatic moments, with at least three figures with different postures and facial expressions, from the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms which is known to all Chinese.

Huizhou woodcarvings stand out also for their clever use of light and shade.

The ancient Huizhou buildings, mainly of stone, bricks and a portion of bamboo and wooden materials, were usually constructed with no window on the exterior walls so as to deter theft and bandits.

Local folk artists developed a rich experience and good techniques to carve out images making use of the sole source of light shed from tianjing -- a courtyard in the middle of a residential compound.

Over the centuries, woodcarving artists have also developed rich and well-honed carving styles.

In some woodcarvings, a peony or lotus flower could be carved out larger than life human figures to underline the pleasant ambience of spring.

Metaphorical or symbolic images were created to express people's hope for a bright future in their family.

For instance, while the single image of a peach indicates longevity, and the image of a pomegranate indicates fertility, the combined use of the images of a beehive and a monkey, read as fenghou in Chinese, indicates the wish for success in a political career.

The Huizhou woodcarvings were deeply loved and well-protected for centuries as elegant decorations and an important vehicle for moral education in families.

The author is deputy director of Huangshan Institute of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting and vice-president of Huangshan Artists Association. The original article in Chinese first appeared on the 4th issue of the monthly magazine Shoucang (Collections).

(China Daily June 17, 2003)

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