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How China’s skilled Chaozhou woodcarvers created an enviable art form that still thrives today

  • The craft, known for its precision, sophistication and lifelike sculptures, is one of the nation’s oldest surviving and most reputable types of woodcarving
  • Detailed golden phoenixes, blossoming flowers and crabs caught in fishing nets among images found in temples, ancestral halls, on furniture and tools
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 5:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 November, 2018, 12:10am

This article is part of a weekly series that dives deep into the small things that add character to our city, enrich our culture and make our lives beautiful.

Chaozhou woodcarving is one of the oldest surviving and most reputable forms of woodcarving in China, and is famous for its precision, sophistication and lifelike sculptures.

Depicting everything from golden phoenixes and blossoming flowers to crabs struggling in a fishing net and rivals fighting in a martial arts contest, the craft captures the fine, complex details of images and moments in time.

It brings them to life, right down to facial expressions and dynamic movements.

Chaozhou woodcarvings can often be found on the doors, windows and beams of temples and ancestral halls, on furniture such as partitions and cabinets, on ornaments and on religious tools and vessels.

A common theme is sea animals such as crabs, lobsters and fish ... [because] many Chaozhou people used to be fishermen
Carol Lau, assistant curator, urban and oral history, Hong Kong Museum of History

In 2006, Chaozhou woodcarving was placed on the first national list of intangible cultural heritage.

Chaozhou woodcarving dates back to the Tang dynasty (618–907).

By the end of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the Chaozhou people had already mastered the skills and techniques involved, says Anven Wu Yim-chung, an executive director of the Federation of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community Organisations.

Chaozhou woodcarving continued to develop, reaching its peak in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

“In the early years of the dynasty, a Ming loyalist called Zheng Chenggong tried to topple the regime,” Wu says.

“When he was in Taiwan, the Qing court imposed a sea embargo to prevent anyone, such as the fishermen, from helping him.”

The Qing government eventually defeated Zheng and sea travel resumed, but by then suffering was already endemic among the Chaozhou people.

“Some ate tree bark to survive,” Wu says.

“As a result, some Chaozhou people moved to Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.”

While many migrants struggled to survive, some managed to get by, eventually building on their wealth.

From the middle to late Qing dynasty, those who did well began sending money back to those family and friends who had remained in China.

Much of this money went towards building ceremonial buildings in China, all of them embellished with exquisite details and intricate patterns carved out of wood.

“As soon as you enter a temple or an ancestral hall in Chaozhou, you will see wooden crossbeams on both sides of the ceiling decorated with elaborate carvings,” Wu says.

While Ming dynasty craftsmen would leave the natural colour of the wood intact after carving, from the Qing dynasty onwards they began coating the carvings in colours such as gold, red, blue-green, black and white.

Carol Lau, assistant curator of urban and oral history, at the Hong Kong Museum of History, which is now staging an exhibition, “Gilded Glory: Chaozhou Woodcarving”, says the woodcarvings are also known as “gilt wood” because of the way in which lacquer and gold foil are often applied to pieces to give them a resplendent gold finish.

As soon as you enter a temple or an ancestral hall in Chaozhou, you will see wooden crossbeams on both sides of the ceiling decorated with elaborate carvings
Anven Wu, Federation of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community Organisations

Chaozhou woodcarving is well known for its openwork carving technique, which sets patterns against a hollowed-out backdrop, Lau says.

Other woodcarving techniques used in the Chaozhou craft include relief carving, in-the-round carving and intaglio carving. In relief carving, the pattern projects from the wood surface against a flat backdrop. Carving in the round produces three-dimensional pieces that can be viewed from all angles. With intaglio carving, the design is cut into the wood surface.

Before they start carving, craftsmen have to choose the right knives and the right wood. Camphor, China fir, chinaberry and rosewood are all common carving materials.

The process of carving is a complex one and every detail matters.

Woodcarvers first outline an image on a thin piece of paper, then placing it on a block of wood before carefully carving out the patterns and putting colours on them.

The patterns carved reflect the local culture of Chaozhou.

“One of the most common themes is sea animals such as crabs, lobsters and fish, which is a reflection of the everyday life of the Chaozhou people, many of whom used to be fishermen,” Lau says.

“The carvings also indicate the hope for abundant catches.”

Also popular are signs of blessings such as phoenixes, as well as scenes from folklore, myths and Chaozhou opera that carry a positive message, such as Guo Ziyi’s Birthday Celebration, a story about prosperity and longevity.

“Chaozhou people perform opera for the deities they worship,” Lau says.

“On some carved pieces of multilayered openwork, you will find the detailed depiction of these stories where different scenes are separated by the carving of footpaths, streams and steps.”

For crossbeams, Wu considers a form called “three beams, five melons” the most magnificent type of woodcarving.

This form is characterised by short columns in the shape of melons; they simultaneously decorate the beams and support the ceiling above them.

“Melons, which grow on long vines, are a symbol of abundant offspring,” Wu says.

“The blossoming of fruit is also a sign of a big, prospering family.”

As well as its application on buildings and beams, Chaozhou woodcarving is often used to decorate tools and objects used in religious rituals.

Chaozhou woodcarving reflects our deep feelings for our deities and ancestors: the more detailed the woodwork, the more we show our respect
Anven Wu

These include offering plates, shrine tables on which incense is burned and where ancestor tablets are placed, and the boxes in which sacred food is placed inside a temple.

“You give the most precious food to deities, and the container also needs to be of the highest quality, which is why we decorate it with gold,” Wu says.

The Chaozhou people have a long tradition of deity worship.

They are devoted to building and refurbishing temples and ancestral halls, and it is this dedication that has kept the art of woodcarving alive and flourishing.

“Everyone wants the deities to protect them and their family, and we all want our temples and ancestor houses to be the most spectacular,” Wu says.

It’s a far cry from Hong Kong, where high labour costs are contributing to the speedy decline of the art of woodcarving.

“Chaozhou woodcarving reflects our deep feelings for our deities and ancestors.

“The more detailed the woodwork, the more we show our respect,” Wu says.

“The tradition is a source of pride for us and reminds us of where we come from.”

Explore the rich, intricate qualities of Chaozhou woodcarving at “Gilded Glory: Chaozhou Woodcarving”, an exhibition dedicated to the exquisite art and culture of the Chaoshan region.

It is on show now at the Hong Kong Museum of History, in Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui East, until February 25.

For details, go to hk.history.museum/en_US/web/mh/exhibition/current.html