Ivory carvers try to find ways to keep skills alive

For Weng Yaoxiang, the "ivory ball" he is working on is definitely not his most complex piece, but may be the most memorable.

For Weng Yaoxiang, the “ivory ball” he is working on is definitely not his most complex piece, but may be the most memorable.

It is a farewell gift, signaling the end of his 40-year career on elephant ivory carving.  

“It won’t be and can’t be sold. It’s just something about my lifelong passion,” he said.

Standing in stark contrast to Weng’s sense of loss, China’s State Forestry Administration announced that the country had ended the commercial processing and sales of ivory at the end of 2017 as planned, calling it China’s “new year gift to the elephant.”

Under the trading ban, the fate of Weng’s last work will be determined by his employer, the Daxin ivory carving factory in southern Chinese city of Guangzhou.

The ban affects 34 processing enterprises and 143 designated trading venues, with all of them suspending businesses, according to the administration.

“While most senior carvers are near retirement age, young technicians have to consider their future,” said Mo Junhao, deputy head of the factory, which was founded in the 1950s. “The factory can’t earn money any longer.”

Ivory carving requires high standards of craftsmanship. Weng’s son has learned ivory carving for the past four years, but is still not ready in his father’s eyes.

Listed as state-level intangible cultural heritage since 2006, China’s traditional ivory carving art peaked in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

In the early Qing Dynasty, Guangzhou was a rare Chinese port allowing foreign trade. Foreign merchants brought ivory to the city, boosting local carving business.

The “ivory balls” Weng specializes in are representative of Guangzhou-style carving. A hollowed-out ivory ball is carved into multiple layers, with each layer able to rotate.

Weng’s last work has 41 layers, while his record is 51 layers. “Each layer is less than 1 millimeter thick,” said Weng.

“A layer can’t be too thin or too thick. Or it will be too fragile or not exquisite enough.”

Despite their sorrow, carvers said they support the ban and understand the significance of elephant protection.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the population of African elephants declined by 111,000 over the past 10 years.

In 2015, China joined global efforts, announcing it would phase out the ivory trade and ban imports of ivory and ivory products.

Mo said the factory only processed legally imported ivory and coded each tusk.

“For an ivory piece, we clearly recorded how much material was used and how much was left,” Mo said.

“The statistics were reported to the State Forestry Administration, and any use of illegal ivory would be immediately detected.”

Carvers worry the art will become a thing of the past, as the market vanishes.

A 2016 document issued by the State Council said, “Cultural authorities should help with the transformation of ivory carving masters and other practitioners in the business.”

Some carvers are finding substitutes for elephant tusks, such as mammoth ivory.

“Many mammoth tusks were buried for more than 10,000 years underground and have lost their properties,” Weng said.

Despite the difference, Weng and his son have switched to mammoth ivory carving.

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