The delicate art of bamboo root carving

Sun Deren, one of the youngest artisans in Chinese bamboo root carving in Xiangshan County, spent two years carving 108 warriors based on the Chinese classic novel “Water Margin.” 
The delicate art of bamboo root carving
Ti Gong

Sun Deren, a Chinese bamboo root carving artist, has created plenty of lively characters.

Sun Deren is one of the youngest artisans in Chinese bamboo root carving in Xiangshan County, Ningbo. The 33-year-old craftsman spent two years carving 108 warriors based on the Chinese classic novel “Water Margin,” which won him the Liu Kaiqu prize given by Chinese Root Carving Artists Association, the top award in the field of root carving in China.

Bamboo, which is always erect and has a strong resilience with a plain appearance, is the symbol of junzi, a Chinese term for an ideal man who is both self-disciplined and modest. Ancient Chinese loved to have bamboo wares such as pen containers, signets and writing brushes to go with their studies. The bamboo roots are more suitable for carving as they are 2 or 3 centimeters thicker than the bamboo above the ground.

“The 108 warriors of ‘Water Margin,’ featuring ruggedly handsome and bullheaded perseverance, are in accordance with the bamboo root with coarse and uneven joints and wild texture. Most of my time was spent on brainstorming to match the style of each warrior with the structure of each root,” Sun said, explaining his award-winning work.

The craft of Chinese bamboo root carving has a long history that can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when it was especially popular in Jiading District in Shanghai and Nanjing in Jiangsu Province. Traditionally, there are two schools of carving, namely Jiading School featuring subtlety and delicacy, and Jinling (Nanjing’s old name) School that is wild and natural.

The traditional craft still thrives in places like Huangshan in Anhui Province, Dongyang in Zhejiang Province and also Xiangshan County in Ningbo.

The carvings in Huangshan essentially feature many pen containers while those in Dongyang are for decoration, Sun said.

“The bamboo root carving in Xiangshan has original structure and texture of roots. It’s better to carve as less part as possible, keeping the most natural structure of the roots,” Sun explained.

Xiangshan was declared “the town of folk bamboo root carving” in 1996 by China’s Ministry of Culture.

The traditional craft is now an intangible cultural heritage in Zhejiang Province.

Sun works from his home in Sunjia Village, Qiangtou Town in Xiangshan County. He lives a quiet life as he prefers to have more time to himself for his art and learning. He loves reading Chinese traditional stories such as “Water Margin” which gives him ideas for his work.

“Unlike jades or precious woods, bamboo roots are not expensive at all. The carvings on bamboo roots are a triumph of creativity because of the materials used,” Sun said.

Sun can carve on all kinds of bamboo roots, even the wasted small roots.

“Bamboo roots are different in their forms, either in size or in structure. Each root is suitable for carving according to its natural structure. It is the brainstorming that takes time. I can spend finish the carving in two days if I have a design in my mind. If not, it can take several months to think of an appropriate form,” he said.

He loves carving a plot of story on the roots. There are some small-size bamboo root carvings in his tea room. The carvings vary in the forms from people, furniture, tools, to even small fish that tell a story about a fisherman’s catch.

“It is interesting to carve a story on the bamboo roots and the design forms of different people and objects construct a scene of the story, like Chinese shadow puppets acting on the film,” Sun said.

On the second floor, a variety of bamboo root carvings are exhibited including the traditional carvings with glossy surface and the modern ones with microgrooves that look like rocks that have been affected by nature for too long.

“It is tradition to carve characters on the whole body of bamboo roots and then polish the carved works to give them a smooth surface and glazing color. However, nowadays artisans cut the bamboo roots up and carve whatever they feel like — either a story formed by small pieces or the cartoon characters with crazy facial expressions,” Sun said.

The post-processing is also different. Instead of smooth surface and glazing color, Sun tries blowing emery into the carved roots until the root surface looks like weathered rocks.

“The weathered texture is a pre-historic temperament,” Sun added.

The delicate art of bamboo root carving
Ti Gong

Sun loves carving a plot of story on the roots.

All works are preserved in a temperature of about 30 degrees Celsius as Sun said lower or higher temperature will make the bamboo roots contract and expand that can lead to cracks, especially those traditional airtight carved roots without ventilation inside.

“When we get a bamboo root, we will boil them first to remove the moisture, then carve and polish. It is necessary to remove the moisture because the water will contract and expand according to the temperature, which will distort the carvings,” Sun said.

The difference between traditional carving and modern craving also lies in the tools. He used to carve by various burins with different blades in the form and size but now he is accustomed to using electric tools.

“The electric graver is like a pen equipped with different grinding heads under the power driving of electricity and can create smooth lines because of the fast speed, like painting on the bamboo roots,” Sun said.

Sun has been carving for 17 years and he thinks bamboo root carving has changed over time.

“I started learning bamboo root carving from the age of 17 from Cai Haichu, whom I admired for his concentration and modesty. The first two years it gave me the ability to carve things out on the roots. I used to think it was just a skill for earning a living. However, the more carving I did and the more knowledgeable people I met, I began to understand that it was not only important to just carve things but also be a craftsman to create art based on your own ideas,” Sun said.

Sun said he learned not only the skill from Cai but also the spirit of concentration and continuing studying.

“Cai is a quiet artisan not only good at carving but also in painting, sculpture and other arts, which makes him outstanding in my recognition though not famous in the public,” Sun added.

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