Chinese History of Carved Wood Panels

Written by jessica herring
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Chinese History of Carved Wood Panels
A wooden door on a Chinese home. The Chinese have traditionally used wood for practical purposes as well as for intricate artwork. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Chinese carved wood panels serve as perennial testaments to the virtuosity of Chinese artisans. The history of wood carvings can be traced as far back as the Neolithic Age, around 7,000 years ago. The earliest known wood carvings are wood-carved birds found in the Liaoning Province and wood-carved fish in the Zhejiang Province. There are many different varieties of carved wood panels, which fall into three main categories: architecture carvings, furniture carvings and artworks carvings. Wood carvings and carved panels are best known as coming from four provinces, according to Dongyang carving in Zhejiang Province, Chaozhou in Guangdong Province, Fujian Longan in Fujian Province and Huizhou in Anhui Province.

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Dongyang County of Zhejiang Province has been considered the home of Chinese wood carving and carved wood panels, according to Dongyang wood carving began during the Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 907. The use of wood for artistic purposes developed during the Song Dynasty, from 960 to 1276, and reached an artistic peak during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Artisans also began carving wood panels for more practical purposes, such as for furniture, like cabinets, windowsills, tables and shelves. Additionally, wood carvers began using wood to decorate other pieces of art, such as jade-ware, fine china and cloisonné.

Dongyang Carved Wood Panels

Dongyang County in Zhejiang Province is a mountainous region with a temperate climate that yields a plentiful supply of wood. Hence, wood carvings and wood panels naturally flourished in Dongyang. The earliest known wood carving from Dongyang is a statue of Sudhana, the "Child of Fortune" Buddha, which was made in the second year of the reign of Jianlong during the Song Dynasty.

Dongyang wood carvings are characterised by a preservation of the wood's original colours and textures. Dongyang carved wood panels go through five stages: carving of the rough base, carving of the fine base, polishing, line carving and assembly. Artisans polish the wood to give it a smooth and lustrous appearance. Panels and other wood carvings are usually marked by relief carvings, which are patterns made in the wood that range between two and five millimetres in depth. Designs are sometimes carved over the entire panel or object so that it has an aspect of three dimensionality. There are multiple kinds of wood carving in Dongyang, including relief carving, circular engraving, semicircular engraving, saw-hollowed engraving, double-faced engraving, semi engraving, intaglio and inlaid engraving.

Chaozhou, Fujian Longan and Huizhou Carved Wood Panels

Wood carvings and panels from Chaozhou in the Guangdong Province are said to predate the Tang Dynasty, the artform reaching its peak during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Chaozhou wood carvings are characterised by a gold lacquered surface. Residents of Chaozhou created lacquer that enables the gold foil to adhere to the wood's surface and resist moisture and rotting.

Fujian Longan wood panelling is created from the longan tree, which is a tropical tree native to Southeast Asia. Longan wood is brittle in texture, fine grained and has a reddish-brown colour. The wood for carving is usually taken from the root of the Longan tree. Besides being used to build panels, the twisted Longan roots are also carved into exaggerated animals, such as birds and beasts.

Huizhou wood carvings were popularised during the Ming and Qing dynasties. They are made from softer wood, such as pine, China fir, camphor tree, nanmu and ginkgo. Huizhou wood is marked by precise composition and lines. It is used for panelling and other forms of architecture and furniture decoration. Huizhou wood is also used to create giant carved wood "paintings."

Uses for Chinese Carved Wood Panels

Traditionally, caved wood panels were used in Chinese temples, palaces and shrines. Hence, many wood panels are Buddhistic in design and decoration. They were, and still are, used for buildings, doors, vaults of stages, beams, beds, wardrobes, cupboards, tables, chairs, sliding doors, room dividers and screens. Many were carved with reliefs and decorated with religious symbols, flowers, birds and depictions of various animals. Later panels, in the 18th century, were painted to further enhance their decorative qualities. After the 1911 Chinese Revolution, artworks and decorative wood carvings were exported to the U.S. and Southeast Asia. At the time of publication, 19th century Chinese panels are sold for around £260 to £11,050.

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