There Are No Unique Skills Other Than Perfectly-Practiced Basics

Feb 27, 2019

Suzhou woodwork has been known for its exquisiteness since ancient times. Large items include the beams and frames in palaces and halls, while the small ones  include furniture and ornaments. The latter are sometimes called “small rosewood pieces” or “smart woodworks.” “Small rosewood pieces” can be independent pieces of furniture like stationery boxes or dowry lockers, or components of many exquisite handicraft artworks. For example, an ivory carving or filigree-embedded piece must be matched with small rosewood pieces like racks or pedestals to be- come a complete artwork. The exquisiteness and tastefulness of the Suzhou woodwork technique are revealed spontaneously in these “smart woodworks.”
Bustling Renmin Road is the most prosperous road in Suzhou. Over 50 years ago “Rosewood Xiao Wang” used to live here. He specialized in making small rose wood pieces and his workmanship was always superb. After the founding of New China in 1949,  “Rosewood Xiao Wang” started to work at the Suzhou Municipal Rosewood Carving Studio. When Rosewood Xiao Wang passed away, his son took over his position at the age of 13, when he had just finished elementary school and became the new generation Rose- wood Xiao Wang. He was Wang Renshi, the inheritor of the Suzhou small rosewood piece making technique, an intangible cultural heritage of Suzhou.
Each day, Wang Renshi, who is now in his 60s, punctually goes to his studio located on Peach Blossom Castle Avenue. Wang Renshi says, “There is no unique skill at all. Basics are unique skill when they are practiced until they are perfect.” This reminded me of a famous ancient Chinese fable called The Oil Peddler: The peddler says, “I have nothing special but a well-practiced hand.” Practicing the basics every- day persistently is guaranteed to bring success.
Among the small rosewood pieces designed and made by Wang Renshi there is a chrysanthemum petal censer table. It has influenced his whole life. It was made in the late 1970s. Wang Renshi, then in his 20s, had already become a senior design and production artist of rosewood carving. One day, the director of the studio took out from the warehouse a rosewood table which had not been completed but still showed exquisite modeling. He told Wang Renshi: “This is an uncompleted design left by your father. Can you finish it?” The young artist accepted the task confidently, and after weeks of work he present- ed the chrysanthemum petal censer table of natural and exquisite workmanship to the director. That year, this table and five other pedestals made by Wang Renshi became special pedestals for Jingdezhen blue and white porcelain vases given as state presents when Deng Xiaoping visited the USA.
On Wang Renshi’s worktable, there are over twenty tools in a row of different sizes and forms. All of them were made by Wang Renshi himself. A craftsman knows well that “a man’s work is done with 30 per- cent skill and 70 percent tools.” The quality of a tool is very important, and only a tool made by a craftsman himself is the most trustworthy. Wang Renshi says, “Suzhou small rosewood pieces of refined work- manship are both daily utensils and artworks. Small as they are, they are elaborate and pleasing.” For example, snack boxes and plates are just used to put snacks, cakes, fruit and candy in. Nevertheless, they can have enough graceful modeling and refined workmanship to be regarded as artworks to be taken out only when distinguished guests come to visit. Such artworks can display the status of the owner. In addition, bird cages, miniature boats and models of ancient buildings are used to decorate halls, sit- ting rooms and studios. They can both decorate the environment and highlight the owner’s interests and hobbies.
When making a small rose-wood piece, a craftsman first focuses on material selection. Then comes the technique of the master. Wang Renshi always remembers a teaching that Lu Hansheng, a grandmaster, handed down to him. He said that a master should re- member four words in designing and making an artwork: “elegance, conciseness, quaintness and ingenuity.” Elegance means that an artwork should have an elegant artistic conception and look firm and balanced, not clumsy. Concise ness means that the artwork should have a concise structure without tedious details. Quaintness means that the artwork should give people some space for their imagination. Ingenuity means the application of smart and ingenious concepts and means. A master can integrate various gadgets, carvings and embeddings into an artwork, but must think up a rational structure when he makes a design. He needs to put the entire artwork together closely with various kinds of tenon- and-mortise work so as to achieve firmness. Thus it will be possible for it be used for as much as a century without any damage. Wang Renshi restored many traditional-style small rosewood pieces according to relevant records and his memory, such as a circular censer table with a beaded and curled double-leaf and chrysanthemum petal design, censer table with aherb vine oval pedestal, and an octagonal snack box with a peony pattern and em- bedded jade.
What is worrisome is that Suzhou small rosewood pieces which have been greatly popular since the Ming and Qing Dynasties now face a serious crisis. Very few craftsmen now work in this area. WangRenshi himself has found only one apprentice. However, as the collection market is now growing tto an unprecedentedly large size and people appreciate elaborate artworks more and more, he says that he will redouble his efforts to inject a more artistic feel into his artworks to encourage the inheritance of Suzhou-style small rosewood pieces.

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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