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Root Carving

Root carving is a traditional art in China. Integrating ingenuity and craftiness, root carving not only employs ways of expressions similar to wood carvings, sculptures and stone carvings, but also demonstrates the unique features of root carving by absorbing the techniques exhibited in the creation of other carving arts.


China has a long history of root carving: Primitive people began to make effigies out of wood for ornaments. In 1982, when cleaning the No 1 tomb of the Chu state excavated in Mashan, a local museum employee in Jingzhou County, Hubei Province discovered a root carving believed to have been made between 340 and 270BC in the late Warring States Period - 2,300 years ago. It featured a four-legged animal with a tiger's head, a dragon's body and a rabbit's tail; its manner was full of verve and simple and elegant in hue. By the Sui and Tang dynasties, root art was very prosperous. Records from The Biography of Li Mi present a root carving entitled "Dragon-shaped Claw" made from a crude tree root for the emperor. Root carving artwork from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), such as the "Phoenix" and "Jade Dragon" have been on display in Yuyuan in Shanghai until today. These works thoroughly exhibit the verves of root carving.

Since the third plenary session of the 11th Congress of the CPC, China's economy has witnessed enormous developments. Under such circumstances, the art of root carving thrived. In 1983, a documentary called The Art of Root was filmed; the "Chinese Root Art Exhibition" was held at the China National Museum of Fine Arts in 1985 and, in the same year, the Root Art Association under the Chinese Arts and Crafts Institute was established, which was regarded as laying an academic basis for Chinese root art, symbolizing its standardization. With approval from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the Class 2 Association was promoted to the China Root Art and Fine Arts Institute -- a Class 1 association directly under the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles. In the meantime, over 40 root-art societies were developed all over the country. The number of root-art factories continues to climb in provinces such as Fujian, Zhejiang, Anhui, Jiangsu, etc, with root-art works reaching new levels. Owing to its originality and unique artistic appeal, Chinese root art is winning the hearts of more and more people.


The process of creating root art includes four steps:

1. Root selection. This has to be done with respect to both quality and shape of the natural root. Quality refers to the breed and the firmness of the crude root. Generally speaking, hard roots are preferable since soft or rotten ones are of little value for root-art creation. The shape of the root must possess its own characteristics, such as a kraurotic buttress root. To select roots with a complex shape is of equal importance. In this way, the carving can be done using different concepts.

2. Conception. A necessary feature of root-art creation is originality. While root carving, the creator must make the best use of the original shape of the root and not alter its original shape so he or she can explore its natural beauty. With this in mind, the creator can then use his or her imagination and find the best concept.

3. Processing. When the concept is clarified, the superfluous roots can be sewn or clipped, and the bark removed. Then, it is necessary to polish the bald root with abrasive paper.

4. Coloring and lacquering. This is done for the benefit of antisepsis and collecting purposes. Two methods are commonly employed for coloring: one is to wax it so the artwork takes on its original color, which is simple and elegant; the other is to stain it with bronze lacquer, which can add a touch of antiquity to the root.

The most important principle to follow in root carving is to make use of the natural root. This principle usually goes like this: "three-tenths (of the work) is done by man, seven-tenths is determined by nature," attaching great importance to making use of the traits of the natural root, such as the fibers, holes, knurs, veins, color and luster. With a motif in mind, the creator should employ different carving techniques on roots of different shapes; the ultimate purpose is to integrate the unique beauty of the natural root with the cunning beauty attained by carving. Since root carving is largely done by making use of the natural beauty, the opus is of an integrated style.

The second principle is highlighting the composition. There are quite many modes of composition in root carving, and the one most common is the "triangle setup", which is usually employed in sculpture. Other geometrical shapes, such as circles, ellipses and lozenges, are also used to further composition.

Next comes the principle of expressing the mentality and sentiment of the creator. Root carving derives from real life, and it surpasses and regresses to it. However, it is by no means a replication of real life; rather, the creator reveals his inner feelings by making use of the characteristics of the natural root.

Finally comes the principle of seeking singularity and pursuing beauty. No art form is detached from the material used, and root carving is no exception. Root artists have to refer to nature for materials and their pursuit of singularity and beauty lies in the process of selecting roots as well as in the conception process. They have to find out and collect roots of various odd shapes, which give them creative inspiration. Only after obtaining a uniquely shaped root can the artist apply his or her wisdom, imagination and originality to creative root carving.


1. Applied root carving. Root carvings of this type have a practical utility as well as ornamental value. Some common examples include home accessories, such as chairs, stools, tea tables, sofas, screens, flower shelves, and some stationeries, including brush shelves, ink slabs, etc.

2. Ornamental root carving. This kind of carving is primarily for decoration purposes and accounts for a large proportion of root carvings. Based on their respective shapes, they can be further classified into many types, such as root carvings featuring characters, animals, flowers, etc.

3. Aesthetic root carving. This refers to root carvings that cannot be named easily; they are also called "nameless" root carvings.

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