Carvings and Castings – Han Dynasty Wood Carving
Explanation of Wu-wei Cultural Relics
Dang, Shoushan ( Wuweishi Guangming yinshua wuzi youxian gongsi, 2001. (Wuwei wenwu kaoshu)
Among groups of ancient graves of the Wuwei Yanshan (Yan Mountains) Region, ancient woodcarvings are frequently discovered, with wooden figurines (funerary objects) as the main subject. Among these carvings, especially at Mozuizi, considerable quantities of Han Dynasty burial figurine woodcarvings have been excavated from Han tombs. Their lively and vivid modeling, together with fine carving, rates them as representatives of Han Dynasty woodcarving.
In succession, over 200 wooden burial figurines were unearthed here, and the majority were preserved in good condition. The composition of some are like new. Wooden burial figurines include birds, swans, dogs, pigs, horses, monkeys, and animals associated with animal husbandry. There are oxen figurines of plow-farming and large ox carts for loading baggage that reflect both agricultural production and transportation. There are wooden horse-driven carriage figurines and dancing figurines that reflect the extravagant and luxurious lives of those buried in the tomb. In addition, there are turtledove walking canes implying longevity that were bestowed on elderly people by the emperor and unicorns (etc.) for guarding tombs and exorcising evil spirits. (see plate 1].
The larger woodcarvings of carts, horses, oxen figurines and so forth were usually carved in separate sections for the head, body and tails and then glued together or inlaid. The smaller figurines, however, were constructed from one single log.
The characteristics of carvings are extremely obvious. First of all, their shapes/modeling are succinct. The wooden burial figurines that were carved have clear modeling, a strong sense of solidity, and a particularly hearty and invigorating artistic work-style.
Secondly, their coloring is lucid and lively. The colors of the wooden figurines and the simplicity of their modeling make them unified wholes and give them powerful artistic charm. All the wooden figurines have fine decorations carved on them, using painted lines and dots to draw them out, strengthening the sense of form and movement and creating an artistic effect of complementing one another.
Third is the genius use of materials. The carvers laid emphasis on harmony of the patterns, structure and shapes in the wood they used for their wooden figurines so that all parts were unified and identical.
Fourth, they have lively bearing. The makers were skilled at expressing animals in various stages of movement and action according to the circumstances…(originally published 10/20/1990 in Wuwei Newspaper ) translated by Jana Carpenter
China’s Wooden Books “Jiandu”
“to have knowledge rich as five oxcarts”
Prior to the invention of paper during the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 AD) the practice of writing on wood slips and tablets including bamboo slips started probably during the Shang dynasty.
Well known works and records, like the Historical Records which covered 3000 years of history, the Book of Songs, and the Mathematic where all written on wood or bamboo slips.
These slips of wood had certain standards in length. Imperial decrees and status where about 70cm long. Classics and official works were about 55cm long, and private works or letters where about 25cm long.
To produce a slip or tablet, the outer skin of a piece of wood was removed, cut into sections and then into strips. To prevent rotting or insect damages, they were dried by fire to evaporate all the moisture, or much older wood could be used to avoid the firing process.
A brush made of plant fiber, animal hair, or even chicken feathers was used for writing. In case of a mistake, a knife was used to scrap off the wrong letter to allow for correction.
The ink was made from compressed soot derived from burned oils and woods.
For a long text, the wooden strips or wooden tablets were tied together so that they could be rolled up and carried with ease. Written works were executed on a few dozen slips or as many as several thousands!
The still used Chinese expression ” to have knowledge rich as five oxcarts” comes from a traveling scholar who traveled with his wooden library. He needed 5 fully loaded oxcarts to transport all his books!
It has been reported that some emperors had to read 60 kg (120 pounds) of wooden book reports every day.
Today, wooden slips and tablets, China’s earliest wooden books from the Spring and Autumn period to the Han Dynasty can be seen in the Shanghai museum and Guodian museum in China.
Our collection consists of approximately 300 slips originating during the Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE).
Provenance: Private New England collection originally found in the vicinity of Yong Cang city, Gansu Province.