As the verse of Su Dongpo goes, “Rather the diet does not contain the meat, cannot inhabit without bamboo”. Bamboo carving artwork has been treasured as ideal collectables by royal families, poets and writers since ancient China. The Chinese bamboo-carving can be classified into column carving, penetrate carving, skin carving and shallow carving. Among them, skin carving, also named as green-retaining bamboo carving, is the most difficult one in bamboo carving. As one of the traditional art crafts of Changzhou, green-retaining bamboo carving is rarely seen and enjoys a high reputation in the circles of crafts and fine arts of China.
The bamboo materials for such carving are rather demanding, and the Mao bamboo (Phyllostachys Edulis) with three to five years old in winter time will be the ideal one. Furthermore, the strictly-chosen bamboo materials must be treated through special process to avoid worm damage, and good for preservation. A distinguishing feature of the carving is that carving part is only limited on a very thin skin of the bamboo surface. The graver shall fully play his skills on such layer of skin, keeping all, more, less, a little or even no skin, to display distinct layers, dark and light, dense and loose effects, and present a strong 3D effect. In addition, the smooth hard skin of bamboo shows yellow color, but the stem of bamboo is red. With time going, the color contrast between the skin and stem becomes more obvious, the stem color grows mauve, like pre-mature cherry or polishing amber, and becomes quite attractive.
Changzhou is just the birthplace of green-retaining bamboo carving. As the legend goes that Zhang Xihuang was the master artist and creator of green-retaining bamboo carving was a Changzhou native. The bamboo carving of Changzhou was originated from “Carving Village” out of the east of Changzhou, therefore, came the name of “Carving Village”.
The talented artists of green-retaining bamboo carving in Changzhou are produced by each generation. One of the most celebrated and influential masters of such bamboo carving in modern times was Xu Subai, who was reputed as the key representative of Chinese green-retaining bamboo carving circles in the 20th century. He resided in Shanghai, and made friends of many famed artists, such as Jiang Hanting, Tang Yun and Cheng Shifa, etc. His masterpieces truly embody the spirit of “Chinese Ink Presenting Five Colors” and his artistic quality reaches the perfect of subtleness.
The contemporary famous artists of green-retaining bamboo carving include Bai Shifeng, Xu Binfang and Fan Yaoqing, etc. Bai Shifeng is skilled in various carving methods, exact composition and subtle carving and is famous for his innovative subjects despite of his old age. Carrying on his father’s cause, Xu Binfang who inherits his father’s career respects the traditions but rejects blindly stick to old conventions, gives more attention to innovation, performs self-painting and self-carving. His works not only displays the charms of calligraphy and painting, but also presents fantastic carving skills. Fan Yaoqing is regarded as a true “peasant bamboo carving artist”. His carving skills were ever instructed by Bai Shifeng, and the subtleness of which is really stunning, presenting the “real oriental aesthetics”.
In the Stars Record published by Modern China Crafts and Fine Arts in 1994, seven celebrated bamboo carving artists were selected, and four among them are Changzhou natives. This shows that green-retaining bamboo carving of Changzhou is so successful and influential.