Two years after a 7-magnitude earthquake hit Lushan County in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, root carving, as a local feature, has been thriving and attracting an increasing number of local people back home to find a related job or start their own business. What is root carving? What does it mean to China? Let’s find out!
Root carving (根雕gēn diāo) is a traditional art in China. It is a type of artwork featuring people, animals or objects carved out of natural or distorted tree roots (including tree trunks, burls and bamboo roots etc) through careful designing and artistic processing. For the most part, a root carving piece should be presented through the natural shapes of the root material, with only a small part being recreated by hand. So, root carving is also called “the art of the root（根雕艺术 gēn diāo yì shù）” or “root art”.
The process of creating root art includes four steps:
1. Root selection (选材xuǎn cái). This has to be done with respect to both quality and shape of the natural root. Quality refers to the breed and the firmness of the crude root.
2. Conception（构思gòusī). A necessary feature of root-art creation is originality. While root carving, the creator must make the best use of the original shape of the root and not alter its original shape so he or she can explore its natural beauty. With this in mind, the creator can then use his or her imagination and find the best concept.
3. Processing（雕刻diāokè). When the concept is clarified, the superfluous roots can be sewn or clipped, and the bark removed. Then, it is necessary to polish the bald root with abrasive paper.
4. Coloring and lacquering（涂色túsè与上漆shàngqī). This is done for the benefit of antisepsis and collecting purposes. Two methods are commonly employed for coloring: one is to wax it so the artwork takes on its original color, which is simple and elegant; the other is to stain it with bronze lacquer, which can add a touch of antiquity to the root.
China has a long history of root carving: Primitive people began to make effigies out of wood for ornaments. In 1982, when cleaning the No. 1 tomb of the Chu state excavated in Mashan, a local museum employee in Jingzhou County, Hubei Province discovered a root carving believed to have been made between 340 and 270BC in the late Warring States Period – 2,300 years ago. It featured a four-legged animal with a tiger’s head, a dragon’s body and a rabbit’s tail; its manner was full of verve and simple and elegant in hue. By the Sui and Tang dynasties, root art was very prosperous. Records from The Biography of Li Mi present a root carving piece entitled “Dragon-shaped Claw” made from a crude tree root for the emperor. Root carving artwork from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), such as the “Phoenix” and “Jade Dragon”, have been on display in Yuyuan in Shanghai until today. These works thoroughly exhibit the verves of root carving.
The number of root-art factories continues to climb in provinces such as Sichuan, Anhui, Zhejiang, Fujian and so on, with root-art works reaching new levels. Thanks to its originality and unique artistic appeal, Chinese root art is winning the hearts of more and more people.