The wood charmers - A new spring for the dead wood
Nataliia Litvinova, 2018-12-05

I am sure that you are familiar with the snake charmers who can hypnotize a cobra, make her dance and twist under the exotic sounds of their musical instruments. But have you heard of “the god singers”, the craftsmen that can charm the wood.

In Zhejiang province, land of dozens rolling hills, high lands and endless acres of magical forests, there is a small village built over several mountain streams. Songxi - a place where the lanterns lead you the way home almost like fireflies and the gods come to drink tea with the villagers and enjoy the crafts of men.

A village of about 3000 people in Pujiang county, where the streets feel like an under the sky gallery. Many of its residents are skilled artists and their talent has been preserved and cultivate through generations. Among the crafts practiced in Songxi is the wood carving and more specifically root carving.

One of China’s traditional folk handicrafts is the wood carving. It can be generally divided into three branches - three-dimensional carving, root carving and relief. 

Root carving is part of China’s history since ancient times. Originally men used it to make necessities and just like other handicrafts, the art of root carving produced from primitive labor. In the beginning, it was also used to drive away the evil spirits.

Later in the Sui and Tang dynasties, people from the governing class started to admire and cherish the root carving works as a pieces of art. Ancient artist tried to preserve the natural beauty of the roots creating vivid works by taking advantage of the effect of rotting and moth-eaten.

In the Song and Yuan dynasties, this craft developed not only as a part of the court life and the folklore of China but started to appear in temples as well. People began carving from roots statues of Buddha. 

Birds sing, children play with each other in the water and clothes dry in the scorching afternoon sun. While walking around the village I come across a wooden door with vibrant carvings depicting the delicate flight of two cranes.

Invited in, I enter the home of a woodcarver to better understand this ancient handcraft.

- First can I ask you to introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about your family and your past?

- My name is Xu Linguang, I was born in 1952. When I was a child, my family lived a tough life we didn’t have anything to eat even rice. So, compared to the past I can say today’s life is improved significantly.

- How did your passion for the root carving begin?

- I began to get interested in root carving when I was in my forties. You see, I am 67 years old now, having more than 30 years experience of carving.

- Did you study from other masters? You have mentioned earlier that your father and grandfather also practiced wood carving.

- I didn’t learn root carving from my father or my grandfather, and they had never learned about root carving. Actually, my friend taught me how to carve, besides, I learned it from the books of carving. Through studying the patterns and techniques of root carving, I was inspired to engrave with my passion. So, I can say to some degree, I learned root carving all by myself.

- We want to learn more about the process of root carving and the traditional techniques of this art. 

- Rome wasn’t built in a day, so is the root carving. The process of root carving is really complicated. However, the most important thing lies in inspiration. Root carving is more like a connection between man and nature rather than art. When you look at the root, the shape or pattern it will reveal itself with time. Plus, it should be carved when it remains natural, an original, otherwise, it will lose its crudity and authentic value.

The wood carvers do not work from plans or sketches, they have a clear idea of the image in their mind.

- Do you find the roots by yourself?

- Most of the roots are discovered by myself, like this one. Of course, some of them are discovered by my friends, and they bring them to me. It’s really hard to come across roots like that that’s why I cherish them a lot.

- How long does it take to make a crane like this one for example?

- Generally speaking, it takes around a week to complete a piece of work, for example, these two cranes.


“The soul mates - Ju An Qi Mei”

-And some take more time, may be 10 days to complete. In one word, the time of completing a piece of work is determined by the complexity of work.

- I can see many carvings of cranes are they special for you in some way?

- In China, crane symbolizes auspiciousness and the longer life. For example, in ancient times, Chinese civil servants wore uniform with cranes while military officers didn’t. In addition, it is impossible for a man to master everything, the best way is to specialize in one thing. Just like these two cranes, one is big and one is small, but their heads are facing the same direction. So, the name of this work can be “Soul mate.” It can also be” The couple”, then the name of the work can be “Ju An Qi Mei” which refers to the happy life of the couple. All in all, the name of each work is decided by its features which is supposed to manifest the unique of the work.

- Can you tell us how root carving is connected to the Chinese folklore?

- This root carving is closely related to the life of the Chinese nation, as things are originated from the nature. It is true that we have made good use of the nature to fulfil the needs of mankind. For instance, the roots from the mountain are largely rotten ones, then they are taken back home by us and are carved into various objects. In this way, the value of them are embodied, which can also be called “a new spring for the dead wood.” Therefore, the root carving is the wisdom of the working people of the Chinese nation, taking advantage of things in the nature.

- What are you currently working on?

- I have been carving a crane recently. You can see that the pattern is very obvious. It looks like the feature and you can also see the muscles of the crane’s back that seems as if it is going to fly. Actually, that is the crudity of root. You don’t need to do a lot of carvings or deliberate modification.

- Are there any other wood carvers in Songxi? 

- The most famous root carver in Songxi is Xu Xinliang who was born in 1904, but the date of his death is unknown. He was one of the most talented students of Zhou Guanghong. He had received good education and he had talent for carving. His technique of carving was super excellent. Now I am the only carver left in our village, because the others passed away.

- Do you have children or grandchildren and if yes are they interested in continuing this craft tradition?

- I have three children, one son and two daughters. They are not very interested in root carving, and even if they are interested, they don't have much time to learn it. Generally speaking, it will take at least 6 years to be an apprentice before he can do carving alone, so there are few people wanting to learn root carving. All of my children graduated from university, my son is working in Hangzhou, one of my daughters is working in Jinhua and the other is in “The first family of south China.” And I also have my grandchildren, every time they come to my house, I would feel very happy and satisfied.

- And lastly, I want to ask how you feel about the changes in Songxi after the project Jinhua Homestay has started?

- As far as I am concerned, the atmosphere in the village has changed, it becomes more energetic. Since this program is organized by the government, the other changes are difficult to express. But I think, the distinctive factory should be emphasized if the program tends to be well implemented. It is well known that Songxi is famous for its limestone, villagers made a living by firing the limestones. They used to cut down trees to fire, then used coal. I think it is necessary to introduce the limestone culture of Songxi to the overseas students as well as the tourists. 

Songxi is a unique village in which whole families are devoted to a certain craft preserving the heritage of their ancestors. So, when you have time come to Songxi for a cup of tea and you might be lucky enough to see the flight of a crane. (By Violeta Vekova, participant of the 7th Session of JH)