Architectural Wood Carving

Feb 26, 2019

When Chinese architectural wood carving started is still hard to determine. According to historical materials, Gou Jian (勾践), king of Yue (r. 496-465 BC), had timber used for expanding the Gusu Tower (姑苏台), given as tribute to please the Wu Kingdom, all “checked and trimmed by skillful workers with compass and string rule. These timbers were carved and trimmed into round shapes, and engraved, chopped and polished. Various patterns were drawn on them. White jade artifacts were tied to them with silk ribbons. Gold was embedded in them. These timbers looked like dragons and snakes with colorful and shiny patterns.” This record reveals a little bit about the elaborate and exquisite architectural wood carving on the Gusu Tower. During the Han and Tang Dynasties, carving art was used extensively on palaces.
In the Ming Dynasty, powerful and rich families and affluent merchants built residences and competed with each other in building and decorating sumptuous dwellings. This promoted the increasingly prosperous development of the architectural carving industry in Suzhou. Numerous workshops arose in the city. Famous and skillful masters with unique techniques emerged in every generation. Because of its exquisiteness and elegance, wood carving in Suzhou enjoyed a great reputation through- out China. In the 15th year of the Yongle (永乐) reign period(1417) Kuai Xiang (蒯祥), a craftsman living in Xiangshan, Suzhou, was summoned to Beijing to decorate the imperial palace. In the Qing Dynasty wood carving technology reached its heyday in Suzhou. Two forms of embedding carving combination and glued carving were created. Among the common people, wood carving was applied to almost everything -- doors, windows, beams, eaves and various types of furniture, and even sedan chairs, dragon boats and jewelry cases. Because the general mood of society pursued luxury, architectural wood carving developed a style extremely delicate and complex, compared with the simple and elegant style of the Ming Dynasty.
From over 100 large and small gardens built in different dynasties in Suzhou, people can see that the private residences of wealthy and influential families all display extravagant efforts made in carving and painting. There is a “Stay-and-Listen Pavilion” in the Humble Administrator’s Garden. There are hanging fascia (挂落) and arched hanging fascia (飞 罩) with patterns of pine, bamboo and plum carved from an entire gingko tree inside the pavilion. These artworks are ingeniously and delicately wrought. On the two sides of the screen inside the “Hat Ribbon Washing Waterside Pavilion” in the Master-of-Nets Garden is a carving depicting eight steeds, figures from the History of the Three Kingdoms and auspicious patterns. The exquisite carvings on them can really be called art treasures. The 22 partition boards inside the “Five Peak Immortals Man sion” in the Lingering Garden show a strong decorative taste. The Xu Family’s Ancestral Temple was built in the west of East Village Street in Jinting Town (金庭镇), Suzhou, in the 13th year (1748) of the Qianlong reign period of the Qing Dynasty. The wooden constructional members of the entire building such as beams, square columns, brackets, Timu (替木) connective pieces, Zhaomu (棹木) decorative pieces and base plates are all covered with carvings. These carvings include depictions of literary and opera figures, flowers, grasses and animals. The carving techniques include openwork carving, high relief carving and flat carving. These carvings possess a high value for cultural relics research. The Spring Presence Tower, located in Dongshan (东山), Suzhou, is known as a “flower carving building” as it is covered all over with brick carvings, wood carvings and colored paintings.
Throughout China’s various dynasties a myriad of decorative patterns emerged. The extant articles show that doors and windows generally had geometrical patterns like ice, rhombus, octagonal, ruyi(a form of best wishes) ornament, flowering crabapple, and the character patterns
回 (return) and 万  (ten thousand). These patterns embody the esthetic rules of evenness, balance, alternation, repetition, squareness and continuation. The carvings on the skirt guards of doors and windows are even richer. These can be roughly divided into three types: auspicious patterns that use metaphor and symbolism, such as the legendary Eight Immortals, bamboos symbolizing safety and peace, three chickens, reed pipe and lotus symbolizing getting promoted three levels, four joined ruyi and cloud patterns, and the Four Treasures of the Study (ink slab, writing brush, ink stick and rice paper). The second type covers traditional patterns such as plum, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum blossoms, rare birds and auspicious beasts. The third type covers themes and figures from traditional stories such as the Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars (《二十四孝》),
The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (《三国演义》) and The Romance of the Western Chamber (《西厢记》). In order to achieve vividness, carvers sometimes carved seven or eight layers to reflect the distance and location of pavilions, towers, trees, etc., in the pattern. Part of the picture would be carved using an openwork technique.
In order to achieve dainty and exquisite effect and better visual access, hollowed-out patterns were generally designed for the carving of hanging fascia, arched hanging fascia and ground shade (地樾). The piece would be first hollowed out with a fretsaw and then carved. The composition of the patterns stressed symmetry and balance. Common patterns include pine and cypress, plum and magpie, deer and crane, and orchid and bamboo. Some of these patterns include auspicious figures like the Three Lucky Immortals, the Two Nuptial Immortals, the Eight Immortals and the immortal named Liu Hai. Some use the twisted and coiled vines of melons and fruits as patterns in an intertwining and continuous pat- tern. Several melons, other fruits or autumn insects are added in their proper places so that the picture looks concise and has a richly natural artistic taste.

About the Column

Carving Arts in Suzhou

Carving Arts in Suzhou is a book compiled by the Information Office of Suzhou Municipal People's Government and published by Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd. The good things in Suzhou are hidden and living freely in it without giving any hint of their existence. So you need to make extra efforts if you really want to get an eye-opening experience in Suzhou.

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