CHINA is home to porcelain. There are thousands of art forms related to porcelain in the country, among which carved porcelain is a very unique kind.
Porcelain carving is derived from Chinese jade carving and stone carving. It first appeared in the Song Dynasty, and prospered in the late Qing Dynasty. By carving, the sleek surface of porcelain is engraved with different patterns or poem inscriptions or both, instantly becoming three-dimensional, which, to some extent, injects spirit in to the porcelain.
Beijing carved porcelain is outstanding among various types of carved porcelain across China. As an intangible cultural heritage of Beijing, it originated in the Qing Dynasty during Emperor Qianlong’s reign. There was an office in the imperial palace especially set up to pool skillful craftsmen from the whole country to work for the imperial families. Beijing carved porcelain therefore got developed. Later in the late Qing Dynasty, a high-ranking official Chen Bi set up an arts and crafts school in Beijing with training courses for various arts and crafts disciplines, and Beijing carved porcelain was among them. A brief history reveals the characteristics of Beijing carved porcelain: closely connected with imperial needs, it is considered noble and thus favored by collectors.
As its name indicates, carved porcelain refers to porcelain carved by specially made knifes. The carvings might be deep, shallow, thick, or light, which is controlled by the artist to express the spirit of the calligraphy and images to be carved. As a result, the paintings and the porcelain are complementary and add color to each other.
There are two main steps. The first one is designing. Before carving, the artists usually design and visualize the whole craft in their mind first, which requires them to possess and harness both artistic accomplishment and experience. After designing comes drafting. The artists need to outline the patterns of what they’ve conceived on the surface of the porcelain, laying a foundation for carving.
There are three kinds of skills in the carving of porcelain. The first one is chiseling. The artist normally grips a small cuboid wood block with two adjacent fingers as a hammer, and then with it to knock the top of the diamond chisel rhythmically. Through the different level of strength used during chiseling, varied shades and patterns will come into being.
The second kind of skill is carving. After outlining, the artist starts carving the patterns on the surface of the porcelain with a diamond knife to present the details on the porcelain.
The third kind of skill is engraving, mainly for outlining the patterns. For example, when there’s a human figure to be carved on the porcelain, the outlines of it and of its clothes need to be engraved first, before chiseling or carving for further refining.
After the carving process is completed, the artist will fill the color into the patterns. This step might take several repetitions for a natural, clean, and detailed result. Normally, a finished piece might need several layers of coloring.
Beijing carved porcelain is crafted on the glaze of the porcelain, with the skills of chiseling, engraving, and carving to present various details of a traditional Chinese painting. Different lines are used as the basis to present the appearance and spirit of the pattern to be carved. The carved images are then colored by Chinese ink or colorful pigments. The clear contrast caused by the difference between the smooth glaze and all the harsh carved tracks, give the porcelain new values in the eyes of collectors.
Not many pieces of carved porcelain have been left after the Qing Dynasty. This is mainly due to two reasons. First, this craft is a difficult one as porcelain is hard and brittle with a slippery surface. Second, porcelain carving combines painting and carving, which means a single piece needs a very long period of time and effort to be finished.
The Third Generation Successor: Life-long Devotion
In the 1900s, the best way to making a living for those who lived at the subsistence level was to learn a kind of craft. In 1904, Chen Zhiguang, a native Beijinger dropped out of school due to poverty. His parents then sent him to the arts and crafts school in the district of Xuanwu in Beijing to learn porcelain carving from the famous artist Hua Yuesan. Today the third generation successor of Beijing carved porcelain that succeeds Chen is his son Chen Yongchang.
Chen Yongchang began his career at sixteen. In the following sixty years, he got the essence of his father’s skills and incorporated his own style of Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting into his carving, creating works with profound cultural appeal to viewers.
Now in retrospect, Chen said the biggest lesson he learned throughout his career was that inner peace was the key to good porcelain carving. To him, the artist needs to sit down still with full attention when carving, as a reconnected line is easily noticeable. The whole process demands patience, which can only be grasped through practice.
“A single stroke of a painting requires mere seconds of a painter’s time, but it takes one to two days to be carved. Besides, at the beginning we did not have diamond knives; our main tools were steel chisels, which took more time than today. Meanwhile, we also need to have a taste for the painting to be carved.”
For a long time, Beijing Carved Porcelain remained a strange name to many. In 2009, it got listed to Beijing’s intangible cultural heritage list, which brought it attention and financial aid from the Beijing municipal government. In 2014, the Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Center of Beijing’s Xicheng District organized an activity to pool volunteers who were interested in China’s traditional craftsmanship and teach them the skills. In 2017, the Beijing Municipal government held lectures in Beijing Union University to publicize Beijing carved porcelain among college students. With those efforts made by the government, an increasing number of people have come to learn about this heritage.
Chen Yongchang hopes more young people will participate and he vows to do whatever it needs to help preserve the craft. Now, Chen is passing his craft to his student Zhou Xiaoming, who was one of the volunteers in 2014.
The Fourth Generation Successor: Injecting Emotions
Zhou Xiaoming is one of those referred to as millennials. She is now the fourth generation successor of Beijing Carved Porcelain.
Born in the suburb of Zibo, Shandong Province, Zhou says she grew up in a ceramic production center, and knows a lot about this field. In addition, she majored in ceramic design back in college and has studied Chinese painting since childhood.
“In 2014, when the protection center was looking for volunteers, I immediately signed up. As a lover of ceramic art, I find carved porcelain very interesting and I want to inherit it if I have the chance. But back then I had no confidence as there were so many volunteers signing up. Luckily, I got the chance to sit together with nine other students in Mr. Chen’s class. Now I am the only one who has set it as a career.”
In Zhou’s eyes, porcelain carving is a comprehensive art, and its innovation lies in a deep understanding of its theory.
Zhou pays great attention to the temperature at which the porcelain is baked. She uses a lot of porcelain from Jingdezhen in east China’s Jiangxi Province as they are baked at a lower temperature so the glaze is relatively soft for carving.
“I like carving on porcelain with transmutation glaze, a kind of porcelain baked by fire with a craft which makes the glaze randomly formed. When I was creating my work A Lonely Road, I tried more than twenty porcelain vases before finally choosing the one. The glaze of the chosen vase echoes my initial ideas as it looks like a winding road, reminiscent of the overland, winding road Monk Xuanzang took from China to India in pursuit of Buddhist doctrines, which was at times windy, snowy, freezing, and at other times sandy and burning hot.”
Zhou put down her thoughts on a card and put it together with the work at exhibitions for viewers to further understand it.
The injection of new blood into this venerable art is revitalizing Beijing Carved Porcelain. There is still much lying ahead for us to explore more of this century old art.