Local artist makes his own mark on ancient tradition

In the long history of Chinese bamboo carving, works by Jiading artists reflect the spiritual strength of the literati and hence make Jiading bamboo carving an exclusive art form.
Local artist makes his own mark on ancient tradition
Wang Anqi / Ti Gong

Young people take bamboo carving lessons in Jiading where a variety of activities are available to pass on the traditional cultural heritage.

In the long history of Chinese bamboo carving, works by Jiading artists reflect the spiritual strength of the Chinese literati and hence make Jiading bamboo carving an exclusive art form.

In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, many great painters and poets were also masters of bamboo carving.

They used knives as pens and integrated calligraphy, painting, poetry, literature and seal-cutting into their works.

Jiading bamboo carving is 400 years old. Today, Zhang Weizhong is one of the artists who carry on the tradition.

Jiading bamboo carving got people’s attention back in the 1980s and was put on the first national list of intangible cultural heritages in 2006. Zhang was there when Jiading bamboo carving prospered again after the opening up of the Chinese economy. It reflects to a certain extent the change of Jiadingers’ spiritual and cultural pursuits.

Zhang was born in Jiading in May 1967 and started work in the bamboo carving section of Jiading Museum when he was 21.

Zhang’s work focuses on the internal relationship between line and surface and the infiltration of virtual and real spaces.

Though learning from traditional bamboo carving skills, Zhang has formed his own style.

Founded during the reign of Emperor Longqing (1567-1572) and Emperor Wanli (1572-1620), Jiading bamboo carving was an important school other than the Jinling (or today’s Nanjing) bamboo carving developed in regions around the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

Many famous bamboo carving masters appeared during the reign of Emperors Kangxi (1661-1722) and Qianlong (1736-1795) in the Qing Dynasty. Their techniques became more novel and diversified. This was the golden age for Jiading bamboo carving.

Jiading bamboo carvings began entering the imperial court as tributes, and then gained far-flung fame. In the late years of the Qing Dynasty, Jiading bamboo carving was in decline due to social instability and frequent wars.

In the early 20th century, Jiading bamboo carving became redundant, with only a few carvers managing to survive. After 1949, bamboo carving regained attention.

Local artist makes his own mark on ancient tradition
Ti Gong

Jiading bamboo carving works — By courtesy of Jiading Collection Association

The Jiading county government organized bamboo carving cooperatives in 1955. Jiading County Art and Craft Co established a bamboo carving division in 1981. Jiading Museum established a bamboo carving section in 1988.

That was where Zhang learned bamboo carving techniques and so began a 30-year career in bamboo carving and its study.

It was hard times when Zhang studied bamboo carving and the pay was very low. The museum even stopped paying Zhang and his colleagues in 1991. Most of his colleagues gave up bamboo carving for other businesses.

Zhang’s carving techniques are based on Jiading’s tradition but developed after he learned from bamboo carving master Xu Bingfang.

Life was tough amid a depressed bamboo carving market in the 1990s but Zhang never gave up. He left home to go into the mountains to study bamboo and sought inspiration in nature.

He knew that an excellent bamboo carving artist must be proficient in poetry, calligraphy and painting and have a comprehensive and profound literary and artistic accomplishment on the one hand and be free-minded, refined and elegant on the other.

The experience deepened his understanding of bamboo carving, his understanding of art and his perception of time and space.

Zhang’s works display a delicate taste, which is exclusive in the industry.

No hustle and bustle, which is reflected in his choice of bamboo materials. At Zhang’s home, he stores bamboo harvested from different places every year with the oldest picked nearly three decades ago.

From 1-year-old bamboo to teenage bamboo, from spring bamboo to winter bamboo, every time he bought back bamboo, he would do comparative experiments and make a record.

Apart from the age difference, Zhang also notes the regions the bamboo was from. Bamboo growing northward is better. He also studies the specific growth location, whether the bamboo grew on the mountain slope toward the sun, how much water it contained, and even the gender — they were all his considerations.

Local artist makes his own mark on ancient tradition
Ti Gong

Bamboo carving master Zhang Weizhong works at his studio in Jiading.

In 1999, a store selling bamboo carving products was established next to the Fahua Pagoda in Jiading.

A number of bamboo carving artists returned to their former career and played a decisive role in inheriting and developing the profession amid the rapid development of Jiading’s economy and increased investment in the cultural exhibition business as well as government support for bamboo carving.

Works by Zhang and other artists won a number of awards and were displayed or collected by prestigious museums at home and abroad. Jiading established an association of bamboo carvers in 2005.

The country’s first bamboo carving museum was established in Jiading at the end of 2007.

It exhibits more than 200 works from ancient times to the modern day.

Bamboo carving lessons have been launched in primary and high schools in Jiading.

More than a dozen bamboo carvers have opened studios selling their products while the association of bamboo carvers offers training courses. With the assistance of the industrial and commercial administration, “Jiading bamboo carving” has also been successfully registered as a trademark, further expanding its influence.

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