Sculptures and carvings have been an important element of Chinese culture throughout history. As early as 6000 BC, China was known to be creating interesting and unique carvings from many materials.
Carving and sculpting are similar in style and techniques. Carving involves reducing raw material to form the final article. Sculpting adds additional material to the article to form the desired art work. Both produce a piece of art which has been shaped and designed into a three-dimensional object. Carving is the most common method of creating sculptures. Materials used range from bronze, stone and ivory to bamboo, jade and coral.
The first Chinese sculptures to date are from the Yellow River communities during the Neolithic Period (10000-2000 BC). Sculptures from this era were unpolished, simple and are known for their exaggerated features.
Early carvings were made from bamboo and jade. China was the first nation to use bamboo for art. The first record of bamboo carvings was a spoon with a painted dragon pattern. It is dated to be from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Jade was used during the Neolithic period for carving and has a special, symbolic meaning of love and virtue in traditional Chinese culture.
The Terracotta Warriors uncovered near Xi’an are examples of the sophisticated and detailed carving skills which flourished during the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han Dynasties. Built under the orders of Emperor Qinshihung in 210 BC, the Terracotta Warriors are regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. This is due to the remarkable hand sculpting techniques which were used to create the detailed facial expressions and individual strokes on each sculpture.
Stone art became popular during the early Han Dynasty. Pictures were chiseled into stone in tombs and halls. The quality and quantity of pictures determined wealth and status. Techniques from traditional Chinese engravings were adopted by stone art. The earliest and best preserved stone carving is from the tomb of Huo Qubing who was the commander of Emperor Wudi’s army in the Han Dynasty.
Most sculptures excavated within China are from the Zhou (1100-771 BC), Han and Tang (618-907) Dynasties. The Three Kingdoms Period (220-265) was dominated by elaborate religious sculptures and carvings.
One of the world’s largest carvings was built during the Tang dynasty from 718 -803 AD. The largest stone Buddha in the world is located on Leshan Mountain and stands at seventy metres high. It was built by only iron hammers and displays the sophisticated and professional skills of sculptors in the Tang Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty, sculptures and carvings made from all sorts of materials were exported to the Western world.
There was a rapid decrease in the amount of sculptures and carvings being made in China after the Tang Dynasty. The export of jade carvings remained popular; however, stone and wood carvings from the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties are limited.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949), art institutions for sculptors were established to encourage people to embrace the arts of carving and sculpting. Students were sent overseas to learn western skills in arts. Due to this, sculpting and carving flourished in the 1950’s with many artisans using both traditional Chinese and western techniques. Sculptures from modern times are influenced by new ideologies and social reforms which differ dramatically from the past.
Today, authentic jade carvings are among the most sought after sculptures in the world. Bamboo carving is also another art trade which is popular with tourists. It is hard to find authentic sculptures and carvings in China making genuine handcrafted art works rare and a necessity in many art collections.