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Nut Carving

Nut carving, known as Hediao in Chinese, generally refers to two kinds of carvings that respectively use fruit stone (also known as the fruit's pit), like olive or peach stone, and walnut as the raw material. The art form is acclaimed for its delicate carving skills on the small fruit stones or walnuts, and is known as an "uncanny work of art" among the people.

Nut carving generally uses relief and three-dimensional carving skills due to the materials' limited surface area. To produce a fine piece of nut carving, one has to make good use of the shape, grains, and texture of the material; a blueprint also has to be made before the actual carving can begin.

Nut carving prospered in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the art form had already attained very high achievements, with many of the rich and high officials considered it fashionable to wear a piece of nut carving around. Up to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the carving artists upheld the notion of nut carvings requiring more delicate and refined skills.

Ancient Traditions

The ancient artists left their consummate skills on those small works, which featured human figures, various utensils, and some even with lines of poems. Such legacies inspired many ancient literati to record them with passages, with one of them known as Nut Carving Boat, which has been included in Chinese middle school textbooks.

Many people came to know the art form beginning from this passage, which describes the nut carving work by Wang Shuyuan in the Ming Dynasty. The work, carved on a peach stone, features the scene of Su Dongpo (an influential poet and essayist of the Song Dynasty) going boating at night in Chibi in Central China's Hubei Province.

The boat is about three centimeters long. The bump in the middle of the peach stone is the little boat's cabin. On each of the cabin's two sides, there are four windowpanes. When the windows are opened, one can see two delicately decorated poles with flower patterns; when the windows are closed, one can see the poems carved on the cabin's two sides. On the boat's bow and stern, there are five figures featured altogether, each of them being vividly carved and with poise.

Peach, pronounced "tao" in Chinese, is homophonic to escape. Thus the word always has an auspicious meaning, and is used to avoid misfortunes and ward off evil. By the early part of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC), the custom of using the peach wood to drive away evil spirits had already been very widespread.

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, nut carving, with a variety of themes, was very popular in South China's Guangdong Province and the eastern provinces of Jiangsu, Fujian, and Shandong. One of the most popular themes involves the boat.

Although boat carving required a very high level of carving skills, the theme of Su Dongpo going boating at night had always been very popular since its inception. However, the masterpiece featuring this theme by the aforementioned Wang Shuyuan, no longer exists, leaving its description in middle school textbooks as its only legacy.

Chen Zuzhang, a carving artist from Guangdong Province during the Qing Dynasty, created another work of the same theme with olive stone. Based on the experiences of his forerunners, Chen also had some noticeable breakthroughs artistically. Different from Wang's work, Chen's piece featured seven people altogether, each of which was delicately carved. Chen's work is now collected in the Taipei Imperial Palace Museum.

Modern Development

Han Zhiyao, a modern carving artist from Dalian of Northeast China's Liaoning Province who has a special interest for calligraphy and painting, began learning carving boats at the age of eight. Over time, he perfected his skills and has created some high-quality ship nut carvings.

To carve a boat on a walnut, the greatest difficulty comes from the walnut's texture.

"By looking at the grains on the surface of a walnut, a seasoned carving artist can basi cally tell whether the piece can be used for carving, " noted Han. "Besides the bumps and hollows on the rough surface, there are more unexpected, anomalous (irregular), and hidden holes inside, which brings even more difficulty for carving."

In order to avoid the hidden holes, the artist has to be very familiar with the texture and grains of the fruit stones.

The hardest thing about nut carving is that each piece of the raw material is different in texture, density, rigidity, and flexibility. In carving the artwork, the artist should first have a basic blueprint in his mind according to the grains on the surface, and then make adjustments when meeting any hidden holes. The whole carving process constantly requires reconsideration and creation, and there is no established pattern to follow.

To be a good nut carver, one needs not only the basic skills in painting, calligraphy, and carving, but also special materials, knives, good perception, nimble fingers, unique ideas, and exceptional patience.

Special materials refer to the selection of the peach or olive stone. Generally, thick and fat ones that have a surface big enough for carving are preferred. Special knives refer to the carving tools that are most suitable for the artist's hands. Good perception means the artist has to have a layout of his or her work before carving. The artist should also judge the center of gravity and the structure's stability by his or her own eyes.

The artist should have deft yet forceful arms, wrists, and fingers. With many years of painstaking practice, a good carving artist can handle nut or fruit stones with high proficiency, no matter how hard the stones may be. Because the materials of peach stone and walnut are very hard and small, scratches of the fingers are hard to avoid; thus, a short temper will only result in one giving up halfway.

Having unique ideas is another key factor in creating nut carvings. Different artists who have their respective esthetic notion, artistic accomplishment, and technical specialty can use the same kind of material to make totally different artworks.

The paltry fruit stones and walnuts, with the process of the folk craftspeople, become elaborate artistic works, demonstrating the wisdom of ordinary people. Accordingly, this traditional art form is gaining more momentum in the new century.

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