Why it takes several hundred years to carve a chaffinch
In no other cultural tradition has nature played a more important role in the arts than in that of China. Yet the artisans, along with the merchants, were at the bottom of the social pyramid. On May 16, 1645, everything changed when the Manchurian emperor Kangxi dissolved the Chinese caste system. Overnight, woodcarvers were transformed into respected citizens, and thanks to the support of the imperial court, woodcarving was elevated to a “Heavenly craft.”
This may sound like a curiosity but is much more important than that, because it is in a village in Manchuria that our ideas take shape from trees that the villagers themselves have cut down in the forest. In the winters, they gather at each other’s homes, around red-hot wood stoves, gossiping, laughing, and carving in wood. Outside it is 30 degrees below zero and the fields’ soil has frozen to stone. For generations, the rough fists of the farmers have shaped the most exquisite objects. In many ways a tradition reminiscent of how the farmers in the Yorkshire Dales gathered at ”knitting parties”. At first, figurines were carved for their house altars to honor gods, ancestors, and the holy hermit Han-Shan. Thus, to scamp with the craft was not even conceivable. The same philosophy applies today, what does not pass the carver’s scrutiny becomes heat in the house’s wood stove.
The philosopher Confucius, who, not unexpectedly, also came from Manchuria, said that ”Lucky is he who has friends in distant lands.” We can testify that this hospitality has survived to this day, over 2,500 years later. We are invited to share their food and their homes, they present us with gifts. What begins as a business relationship quickly develops into friendship. We would like to believe that this attention to people and objects is present in all our products, as well as centuries of craft tradition and professional pride. The moral of this little story is that we have a lot to thank Emperor Kangxi and Confucius for, and that if you want to carve a chaffinch that looks like a chaffinch, you better not be in a hurry.
Wood carving is perhaps the world’s oldest craft. In China, the tradition goes back at least 7,000 years. The same tools are still used, carving knife, strait and scoop gouge, coping saw, and chisel, straight handles and curved handles, the blades always sharp. But unlike traditional Manchurian wood carving where the wood’s structure is polished away, we always leave a small memory of the forest.