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Art on Coal

The first China Coal Carving Artworks Exhibition was launched in Liupanshui city in Southwest China's Guizhou Province on July 30. It is the first large-scale coal carvings exhibition in China and the world to feature several innovative characteristics -- its grand scale, new contents and unique materials.

A "first" in History

The exhibition boasts a 280-meter-long, 2.5-meter-high relief, and more than 20 large sculptures featuring original themes and bold, rough styles, attracting hundreds of visitors.

In addition, there are hundreds of artworks by famous coal sculptors or coal craftwork companies, such as "Mineworkers", "Deep Feeling Between Father and Son", "Harmony," and so on, which reflect the lives of mineworkers and minority cultures and customs.

"Harmony" depicts scenes of Miao, Yi and Buyei ethnic-minority women, dressed in splendid costumes, playing the zither and beating drums. The joyful and harmonious images take visitors back to the age-old mountainous villages with verdant bamboo forests, gurgling fountains, melodious tweedle and bright drumbeats.

Raw Materials

Coal carving handiworks always use jet - a hard black mineral obtained from coal seam that can be polished brightly -- as their basic material. It is black and shining, solid and wearable. With its light quality and high density, jet has been buried deep in the layers of the earth for hundreds of millions of years.

However, excessive mining has made jet scarce. The coal carvings in this exhibition are, based on modern carving art concepts and technology, made from a combination of jet powder and fiberglass.

There are three different ways to make large-scale coal carvings:
1. Using coke or lump coal to make art shapes directly;
2. Using head coal and sand carving technology to make various shapes, then spraying them with pastern;
3. Adding head coal to fiberglass proportionately, then making various shapes according to the pre-designed model.

The coal carvings can be divided into polished and unpolished handiworks. The former include black porcelain with glazed and exquisite surfaces, while the latter works feature rough lines.

History of Coal Carving

The history of the coal carving can be traced back 6,000-7,000 years. The jet adornments that were unearthed in the cultural stratum at the Xinle ruins in Shenyang, capital city of Northern China's Liaoning Province, comprise the embryo of coal carving. The jet-carved circlet and lumps sculpted in coal, which were unearthed in a Western Zhou Dynasty (1100-771BC) grave in Northern China's Shanxi Province, confirm the long history of coal carving.

Records of coal carving are rare. In the Book of Diverse Crafts, the oldest known work on the arts and crafts, coal carving was regarded as the integration of timeliness, materials and technology. However, nobody knows the concrete origin of coal carving. Historical records say that no delicate coal-carved handiworks have been unearthed.

Fortunately, Zhao Kunsheng, a wood carving handicraftsman, reopened the door to coal carving. When burning coal one cold winter, he discovered a kind of jet black and solid coal fit for sculpting. Zhao then sculpted a pair of balls with a woodcarving tool, and, hence, the first neoteric jet-carved handiwork was born.

In 1970s, an old man from Datong in Shanxi Province sculpted the face of Chairman Mao Zedong in coal as a token of respect. But this was a folk art associated with a particular feeling that did not spread far and wide.

In the 1980s, three workers at the Yungang Grottoes -- a collection of early Chinese Buddhist cave art -- wanted to make coal carving handiworks imitating the grottoes with coal gangue in Datong to promote tourism in Yungang.

The works were then launched on the market. With the accelerated development of the tour in Yungang, coal-carved handiworks became a hit with both Chinese and foreign tourists. However, the technology at that time was fairly primitive compared to modern technology.

Shi Yuping, who lives in Yungang, believes that making coal-carved handiworks requires delicate care. With his high achievements in sculpting figures, Shi began to make coal carvings using high carving technology. He only used high-quality materials and went to distant places to seek for good coal gangues. Shi even made breakthroughs in tools as well as in expressionism, paying more attention to the contrast between light and dark to make the carvings more vivid.

In the First Yungang Tour Festival, the Datong government promoted coal carving in a grand fashion and introduced it in various exhibitions.

Consequently, coal carving, which has existed for thousands of years but was only known by a few, had made a comeback. When various images emerge from coal, the vitality of this art form shows it true colors, attracting many enthusiasts.

Nowadays, coal carving has been introduced to the international market and is collected by tourists from many different countries.

Apart from the large coal-carved handiworks at the exhibition, small coal-carved handiworks are also well known in Fushun and Datong of China, Vietnam and some other countries.

Coal Capital

Reputed as "the coal capital south of the Yangtze River" and "the sea of coal in southwestern China", Liupanshui is an important new industrial city in Guizhou Province, which has accumulated a vast coal culture over several hundred years of coal mining and development. The coal reserves in the city hit 36 billion tons. There are about 36 minorities living in the city, which provides abundant themes for the unique art form.

However, the outside world still knows very little about the accelerated development of Lipanshui as an investment. Therefore, Liupanshui takes advantage of the large-scale coal carving art form to establish its own cultural brand names to attract foreign capital, which is also an effective way to enrich the quality of people's cultural lives.

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