Among bamboo carvings produced in ancient China, the earliest are those excavated from a tomb of the West Han period. Fragmented bamboo carvings have been found in tombs belonging to the West Xia Dynasty that once ruled parts of northern China. Bamboo carvings are documented in classic literature produced after the Southern-Northern Dynasties period, but little material evidence has been found as bamboo gets rotten easily.
During the mid-Ming Dynasty, bamboo carving became an independent branch of the traditional Chinese art. The most eminent bamboo artists were Zhu He, his son Zhu Ying and his grandson Zhu Zhuzhi, who lived in the late Ming period in Jiading, or what is now Shanghai. They were credited with the Jiading school of bamboo carving that was to influence development of the art in the following centuries. While inheriting what is the best in the school, Wu Zhipan of the early Qing Dynasty developed the art by using bamboo carving techniques to do wooden carvings. Wu’s works are reputed for exquisite workmanship and a three-dimension effect. Of these, the most representative is a boxwood writing brush holder in the collection of the Palace Museum, which has on its surface a carved picture depicting announcement of victory in a war. It stuns the viewer with numerous figures and landscape done in relief in so limited a space.
Many scholars of the Ming Dynasty and the succeeding Qing took bamboo carving as a pastime, partly because bamboo was inexpensive and easy to carve on relative to gold, jade, bronze and stone. Despite that, hardly was any largesized bamboo and bamboo root carving were produced, due to limitations of the material. What have survived to our time are mostly small things for practical use, the likes of writing brush, incense holders and ink and seal boxes.
By “wood carvings”, we mean those small wooden antiques, with carvings of human figures and/or landscapes on them, not those huge wooden statues in ancient temples. As a traditional art form, wood carvings, mostly on Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist themes, experienced a rapid development in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ming-style beds popular in southern China often have on them relieves based on stories about filial children and immortals, as well as stories told in the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms and in traditional opera pieces. Also produced in the Ming and Qing dynasties are small decorations with carvings, including for example ru yi, bars with auspicious patterns carved in relief.
Balls within balls, incense holders and fans and mats of ivory splints are the most representative of ivory articles produced during the Ming-Qing period. Rhino horns, with medicinal contents that dissolve in alcohol, were often carved into wine cups. Such cups could also be objects for artistic appreciation for their color and luster and the workmanship for their production. Ox horns were often used as substitutes for rhino horns that had to be imported and therefore were expensive.