Xie Yaozong and His Rosewood Life

Feb 27, 2019


A short, bespectacled man, Xie Yaozong looks just like a kind old neighbor. You can detect nothing that reveals his unique skills from his appearance. If you met this man in the street, you might just walk by him. However, you would not forget his artwork called “Small Antique Ming-Style Study Furniture,” which is now in the Suzhou Arts and Crafts Museum. XieYaozong is an inheritor of the production technique of Suzhou-style small rosewood carvings and a folk handicraft artist in Suzhou.
Walking along a bustling street and turning into a quiet lane, we came to Xie Yaozong’s house. We were excited the moment the gate was opened: what a simple and genuine handicraft art home work shop! On the left end of a bench about 30cm wide and over one meter long, there was a table lamp. Tools of different sizes like small hammers and small chisels were placed by the table lamp. On the other end of the bench, there was a stack of polished rosewood partition boards and baseboards. This was the worktable on which XieYaoZong creates his  exquisite small rosewood pieces. To achieve great exquisiteness with such simplicity was where the miracle lay in traditional Chinese handicraft art. Small pieces that were still in the process of being made were lying all over a square table by the worktable. There were multi-layered chest of drawers, an ink box and a water pot and other artworks in a great variety. I sat on the only high chair in the room -- a Mingstyle rosewood armchair.
The master was busy telling us to be seated and pouring tea while answering our curious questions. We asked him to sit by his worktable and continue with his work when talking to us. We never expected that, when he sat at his worktable, he seemed to become someone else. His face lit up and the bit of uneasiness we had perceived a moment before was completely gone. He took up a small ornament he was making, examined it and tapped it gently with a small hammer. His eyes seemed to grow brighter when he looked at
his artworks. These small pieces all use tenon-and-mortise work. The dimensions of each wooden piece are arranged ingeniously, properly and precisely.
The tenon-and-mortise structure is a form of joint with concave and convex elements used to con- nect components in the process of making traditional Chinese furniture. It is regarded as the soul of traditional Chinese rosewood furniture. The traditional tenon formation is very complicated. There can be several dozen forms. Tenon-and- mortise structure is used to make a complete set of furniture or even a complete house. A structure made using this technique is very firm and solid although not a single nail is used. Such furniture and house can be used for several hundred or even one thousand years.
Suzhou woodwork has been known for its exquisiteness since ancient times. Large items include the beams and frames of palaces and halls while the smaller ones are furniture and ornaments. Suzhou- style small pieces are small wooden articles like ornaments, hangings, components and figurines. There are also small furniture pieces which are made in the form and style of large ones but in smaller sizes and mainly used for appreciation, also known as “small pieces.” Because most of them are made of rosewood, they are also called small rosewood pieces. Rosewood does not refer to one kind of plant, but is a general name for a whole type of hard timber, including the categories of red sandalwood, rosewood, palisander, mahogany black wood, ebony and mahogany redwood. The quality of most of these materials is hard and fine, and resistant to deformation. They also have dark comforting colors, and attractive grains. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, generations of artists who specialized in making small rosewood pieces emerged in Suzhou. Their workmanship was characterized by concise lines, exquisite materials and antique but simple styles. Their artworks were once collectors’ favorites, trading at handsome prices. Their art was known as the “miraculous skills of the generation of the Ming Dynasty.” Suzhou small rosewood  pieces can be said to be the joint creation of folk artists and intellectuals in the Suzhou region.
Emperors, kings, nobles and intellectuals in different dynasties all regarded collecting and appreciating small rosewood pieces as a tasteful hobby. Among these artworks, the elegant and beautiful rosewood study decorations em- body the cultural accomplishment and personality of their user the most, and add much artistic taste to his activities in the study. Curio cabinets are used to house these small and delicate items. In the master’s home, we saw a curio cabinet that he made many years ago. Small leaf red sandalwood is its main material. The partition boards inside were made of gnarled wood. The middle part was the main body of a box in which people could put a brush, an ink block, an ink slab, a seal and ink paste. Two secret drawers undetectable by the uninitiated are located above and below the main section.
The old master regretted that, because handicraft art is a time- consuming and poorly paid occupation he had lost all his apprentices. None of the steps in the production process can be omitted, he pointed out. Just as the saying goes, “Small as the sparrow is, it possesses all its internal organs.” Besides, in order to make small pieces that have a full combination of artistic form, essence and taste, an artist must have extensive knowledge and solid handicraft skill, which takes eight to ten years to master.
leaf red sandalwood is its main material. The partition boards inside were made of gnarled wood. The middle part was the main body of a box in which people could put a brush, an ink block, an ink slab, a seal and ink paste. Two secret drawers undetectable by the uninitiated are located above and below the main section.
The old master regretted that, because handicraft art is a time consuming and poorly paid occupation he had lost all his apprentices. None of the steps in the production process can be omitted, he pointed out. Just as the saying goes, “Small as the sparrow is, it possesses all its internal organs.” Besides, in order to make small pieces that have a full combination of artistic form, essence and taste, an artist must have extensive knowledge and solid handicraft skill, which takes eight to ten years to master.


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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