In the eyes of Chinese literati, bamboo holds significance for them and represents their ideal lifestyle: vigorous, enduring and upright. Su Shi, the famous poet once wrote, "I'd rather eat without meat than live without bamboo."
Endowed with a tinge of elegance, bamboo carvings, known for their delicate craftsmanship, have been enjoyed by literati over the past 2000 years. What bamboo carvings are popular these days? How do bamboo art enthusiasts appreciate the age-old art?
As we step into Yuzhu mountain's Cabin, Li Zhengyu is curled up in an armchair. The instant he hears someone walking in he jumps to his feet. Casting a glance at the way we came is his way of greeting us. Soon he resumes his position in the armchair with a cigarette between his fingers. To show us his bamboo works, he excuses himself for a while before coming back with something in his hand. With a clatter, he puts the bamboo pieces on the table.
Li seems to be a casual and relaxed artist. But for decades, these fine-grained bamboo carvings, with deep lines, have spoken volumes of his perseverance in the art. Born a third generation bamboo carving artist, he has studied traditional Chinese realistic painting and bamboo carving since childhood. At 24 or so, he decided to pursue bamboo carving as a career. Bamboo had widespread use in Zigong, a small city of Southern Sichuan that he calls home. With his upbringing as a bamboo carving disciple of Jiading School, Li became a master in high relief, open work carving and other carving techniques.
Never does Li muddle with his works to meet the deadline. It always takes him anywhere between 20 days to a month to finish a tea scoop or an armrest, and even longer for a pen container. Li makes his own knives for carving, and tends to only use seven or eight knives at work, each with a specific function. Li toils over his desk day in and day out, with eyes following wherever his hands go, and routinely works late into the night. Twenty years of hard work have transformed him into a carving master.
Bamboo is unique. In China, materials available for carving range from jade, ivory, wood and bamboo, the cheapest among them but endowed with elegance. In old times, historians recorded on bamboo. It was in the pre-Qin period that people started to use it as ornament. Thanks to the substantial contributions by literati, the Song Dynasty saw bamboo carving techniques rise to a higher level. By the Ming and Qing Dynasties, bamboo carving had gradually developed into an independent art form. Scholars have always been loyal fans of bamboo, and they either draw or write poems about it to embellish their affections. Some of them even decorate their desks with bamboo carvings or carry pieces of bamboo along wherever they go, to show their cultural orientation.
Over the centuries, contributions made by Chinese literati has driven the development of bamboo carving. Thanks to them, the profound cultural implications of bamboo are still present in modern days. Li Zhengyu once turned down some of his customers who offered a generous amount to carve ivory and rhino horns because, although those were of great value, he firmly believes that carving them would have drawn him away from his beloved bamboo.
Twenty years ago, Li's carvings did not sell well. But this man, fully immersed in the art of bamboo carving, cared little about money. His perseverance in bamboo art has gradually drawn a like-minded group his side, such as Wu Hao (artist) and Mr. Zhou (collector), who both value bamboo. Just as in ancient times when literati met at a common place to discuss poems and paintings, Li and his friends would gather in Yuzhu mountain's cabin to discuss bamboo and paintings, all in the pursuit of a literati-lifestyle. Through such gatherings, Li has renewed the spirit of bamboo carving.
With respect to bamboo carving, Li and his friend first contemplate its implications rather than carving techniques. They often discuss what should be done to infuse contemporary features into bamboo carving works, and what forms the bamboo carving works could adopt. Apart from traditional representations such as bamboo forest, crane, arhat and mountain stone, what else could be created?
Through interactions with contemporary painters and artists, Li realizes a new way. For instance, why not transform Wu Hao's painting into a bamboo carving? Or perhaps let Wu Hao draft the drawing and leave the rest to himself?
Wu Hao considers such collaborations as an extension of bamboo carving forms, and he thinks that Li has combined contemporary paintings with bamboo and infused vitality into traditional bamboo carving. Li's innovation has drawn the attention of famous contemporary painters as well as of budding artists. These encounters have dovetailed with bamboo's connotations. If bamboo was a gentleman, "he" would appreciate the efforts. It is the fusion of ancient techniques and contemporary literati that encompasses the metamorphosis of bamboo carving.
Li, as well as his friends, will definitely carry on with these bamboo-themed collaborations. Their friendship has intrigued many more bamboo enthusiasts. "Li has a wide circle of friends", Wu says and proceeds by taking Mr. Zhou for example, "Now we are a team. Our cooperation provides more art media to enrich creation and strengthens our artistic sensitivity to thoroughly understand the social meaning of each bamboo carving."
Zhou has said that Chinese art enthusiasts have favored delicate artworks from the past to the present. And the social elites like to collect artworks, unsurprisingly. "Though the return on investment in art takes a long time, we want to keep the bamboo artworks out of passion." Then he adds, "Perhaps bamboo carving is only appreciated by a few people, but it will never fade away." In their eyes, the era calls for a pioneer of Sichuan's bamboo carving, and Li Zhengyu is the one with whom they are prepared to go all the way.