Exposition showcases history of ancient wood carving art

The National Wetland Museum of China has recently opened its doors on an intriguing exhibition revealing a thousand years of wood carving art.

A camphorwood lacquered panel

The National Wetland Museum of China has opened its doors on an intriguing exhibition revealing 1,000 years of wood carving art. 

The exhibition presents over 300 pieces of antique ornamental panels, rubbings of panels and related derivative products collected and produced by Wang Xin, an associate professor from China Academy of Art, who has been researching in the field for 10 years.

“I was then interested in wood carving and root carving and I found out the ancient Chinese took advantage of the wood grain to reproduce natural landscapes on it. It is a charming folk art world that combines both the work of nature and the work of man,” said Wang.

The antique panels on display were collected from cities in Hunan, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces. Most of them come from the mid-17th century and early 20th century and were originally embedded in cabinets, canopy beds, chairs, long tables, basin stands and even in architectural components as corbels and friezes. Once upon a time Chinese wood-carved ornamental panels were common and widely used on furniture, architecture and home furnishings.

A set of five-piece sandalwood panels in red lacquer from Dongyang City, Zhejiang Province, formerly part of a canopy bed

With traditional lifestyles fading out and old residential houses demolished, these ornamental panels were usually discarded, sold to antique dealers, or sometimes, even given away as a gift to collectors.

Based on different motifs depicted on the panels, the exhibition is divided into four units with an additional unit showing Wang’s own reinvention related to the art.

One important function of these panels is to carry auspicious meanings, especially in women’s heavily prepared dowry in eastern Zhejiang Province.

A set of five-piece panels, made in Dongyang City of Zhejiang Province, is a fine exemplar of such tradition. 

The sandalwood panels are covered in red lacquer with jubilant scenes carved and gilded in low relief. The five scenes include qilin (a mythical propitious beast) carrying a baby, two mandarin ducks playing with a lotus and pictorial images of phoenixes, magpies, pines and cranes, which all represent wishes for a fulfilling and long-lasting marriage.

Theatrical or historical stories are also regularly featured on the panels. A lacquered camphorwood panel found in Shexian County in Anhui Province depicts an opera stage performance from Chinese classical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

Displays at the exhibition opened recently at National Wetland Museum of China

Formerly part of the ancient Huizhou region, Shexian is unique in its own art, culture and architectural styles. Panels produced in the area feature intricate details and are usually carved in high relief.

The last part of the exhibition shows Wang’s effort of reviving such an art form with modern designs after years of research and collection. He duplicated patterns of the panels in notebooks and wall hangings through rubbing.

“The panels were of aesthetic, educational and celebrative values to people then, which are also basic demands of people today. They are no longer carried out in furniture or architecture but in art work, home décor and stationery products,” concluded Wang.


Date: Through May 31

Address: 402 Tianmushan Rd

Admission: Free

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