The bamboo carvings in the Feng Wen Tang Collection were assembled over a period of 30 years and through genuine passion and understanding of the material. The grandfather of the collector owned a bamboo workshop in Taichung, Taiwan, an area with an abundance of the verdant plant. His workshop manufactured and sold bamboo furniture and utensils of all kinds, much like the type of shops that were depicted in trade paintings in the 19th century (fig. 1). She grew up surrounded by bamboos, watching workers harvesting them and drying them, splitting them into thin strips to be woven, or immersing them in boiling water to make them malleable. Her lunch box was always the envy of her classmates as all types of delicacies were placed within intricate bamboo containers. Being the generous person she was, she always shared her lunch with her school friends, and she never forgot that her comfortable childhood was provided for by this most humble of materials. It was this deep connection that motivated her to collect and treasure these pieces, and one of the reasons why her collection is so varied and encompassing.
Bamboo has long been used by the Chinese to make utilitarian objects, but the appreciation of bamboo carving as an art form did not become widely popular until the late Ming period, when a group of literati artisans elevated their craft to the rarefied realm of the scholars studio. In the upwardly-mobile social milieu of the late Ming, it was possible for an artisan to be awarded official status for his excellence in the craft. The Zhu family of the Jiading area, in particular, was renowned for their immersion in poetry, literature, calligraphy and paintings. They were treated as equals by the scholars of the day, not merely as craftsmen who sold their works for a price. Much like a painting by Tang Yin or Qiu Ying, their carvings were highly prized. The late Ming scholar He Ping even celebrated the occasion of acquiring a bamboo carving by Zhu He, the eldest artist of the Zhu family, by changing the name of his studio to The Thatched Hut of a Bamboo Jar. By the Qing Dynasty, bamboo carvings were considered the equals of archaic bronzes and Song ceramics, and were offered as tribute to court1. The Zhu family played a pivotal role in the change of perception on bamboo carvings, and their influence can be seen on many of the later carvings, including several from the Feng Wen Tang Collection.
Although no bamboo carvings can be categorically attributed to Zhu He, who was probably active in the early to mid 16th century, a brush pot in the collection of the Nanjing Museum is very possibly by him.2 This brush pot is carved as a gnarled trunk of a pine tree and decorated with two cranes. Similar and characteristic treatment of the tree bark and pine needles can be seen on the intricately carved washer in the Feng Wen Tang Collection (lot 2804). Some of the skin of the bamboo has been ingeniously left to denote the bark of the tree, a precursor of the liuqing technique. A bamboo washer in the National Palace Museum carved with prunus branches3, is carved in a very similar style, with comparable workmanship and use of bamboo skin at the back. The current masterfully carved piece is a good example of an early bamboo carving in the tradition of the Zhu family.
The works of Zhu He's son Zhu Ying (style name Xiaosong) are perhaps more widely recognized from two well-known examples by him, one an excavated parfumier in the Shanghai Museum (of which more discussions later); the other a brush pot from the collection of Wang Shixiang4. The brush pot is carved with an old man standing by a pine tree, his right arm resting on the oblique trunk. This figure is Tao Yuanming, whose poem Returning Home (guiqulai ci) contains the verse 'I yet caress this lonely pine, and linger' (fu gusong er panhuan). This original composition is a great example of Zhu Family's use of poetry as inspiration in their works. The translation from the lyrical to the visual has a long tradition in Chinese literati painting, which is sometimes described as poetry without words (wushengshi). A set of nine early Ming paintings based on the poem Returning Home is in the Liaoning Provincial Museum, and one of them, painted by Li Zai (fig. 2), is based on the same verse. An early Qing bamboo parfumier on the same subject is in the Feng Wen Tang Collection (lot 2805). Although there are some similarities in composition between the two bamboo carvings (fig. 3 and 4), the Kangxi example has evolved stylistically in many aspects. The shallow relief preferred by Zhu Ying has been replaced by higher relief, and the designs are carved in multiple layers, adding to its depth and complexity. The rocks have become much more rugged with the use of short knife cuts, imitating the cun brush strokes found on landscape paintings.
The last of the Zhu family, Zhu Zhizheng (style name Sansong) is perhaps the most famous, as well as the most influential of the three masters. Many pieces in the Feng Wen Tang Collection are directly or indirectly influenced by his style. The small sculpture of a monk (lot 2829), is closely related both in style and execution to the carving of the monks Hanshan and Shide6 attributed to Sansong, now in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. This charming sculpture is carved with the monk in a lotus petal-shaped boat, rowing with a palm-leaf fan as paddle. Although miniscule in size, it manages to capture the spirit of the figure while paying great attention to details. It is evident that Sansong was very skilled at working with three-dimensional sculptural work. Another piece attributed to him, a lotus-leaf washer now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei7, is carved with a high degree of realism rarely seen on Chinese works of art. Although the virtuosity displayed on this masterpiece has not been replicated elsewhere, a somewhat simpler but equally beautiful example in the Feng Wen Tang Collection is designed with a similar concept (lot 2827). The irregularly formed washer is carved naturalistically with beautiful veining on the exterior, and the slightly concave base sits on the stem of a lotus bloom growing on the side of the washer. Clearly the overall design of this piece is inspired by Sansongs work. Furthermore, the lotus bloom is closely comparable to the blooms carved on another piece by Sansong, a brush pot in the National Palace Museum, Taipei8. This brush pot is carved with a scene from the Romance of the West Chamber, and on one side is a bronze vase containing a floral arrangement of lotuses. Viewed in profile, the arrangement of the lotus petals on the washer is strikingly similar to those on the brush pot. The composition on this brush pot is taken from two different woodblock prints, both designed by the late Ming painter Chen Hongshou. This brush pot later inspired the works of Wu Zhifan, another master from the Jiading area. One of his works, a brush pot depicting the Qiao sisters9, is now in the collection of the Shanghai Museum, and can be seen as the direct successor of Sansongs 'West Chamber' brush pot. Wus composition also became very popular and can be seen repeated on another brush pot in the Feng Wen Tang Collection (lot 2844)
A brush pot in the Feng Wen Tang collection carved with the Seven Sages of Bamboo Grove (lot 2815,fig. 5) is a beautiful example of the high relief carving developed by the Jiading school. By increasing the height and prominence of the bamboo stems towards the foreground, the carver successfully created the depth of field and the illusion of a deep forest within a limited surface. The dense bamboo leaves contrast with the empty space between the bamboo stems to great effect. There are several well-spaced focal points in the composition as one turns the brush pot, just like unrolling a hand scroll painting. It bears the signature of the Qing official Liu Yuan, who was responsible in the Kangxi period for the designs of many official porcelain wares. He was an accomplished artist, so it is possible that he himself drafted the composition on this brush pot. The choice of subject is also of interest, as Liu Yuan's style name is Banruan (ban, 'to accompany'; ruan refers to Ruan Ji, one of the leading characters of the Seven Sages), which implied a deep appreciation of these eccentric figures on Liu Yuans part. There is another brush pot in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which is very similar in style and composition to the current brush pot10 (fig.6).
The relief techniques favoured by the Zhu family carvers and their followers reached its zenith in the hands of Gu Jue (style name Zongyu ), whose works are celebrated for their complexity in composition and layers upon layers of intricate details. It is said that each piece by Zongyu took him more than a year to complete. Although there are no signed works by him in the Feng Wen Tang Collection, there is one brush pot (lot 2828, fig. 7) carved very much in his style, and very possibly by him. On it we see two men carrying a basket filled with herbs, ascending a path towards the rocky mountains. They are Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao, who, according to legend, encountered two female immortals in the Tiantai Mountain while collecting medicinal herbs. Six months later, they returned home, only to discover that six generations had passed while they were away. This story was first recorded in the Tang Dynasty in Taiping Guangji and was made popular in the Yuan dynasty with several versions of zaju plays, one of which is accompanied by woodblock prints (fig. 8) when published in a Wanli compilation11. The excavated parfumier by Xiaosong12 mentioned earlier deals with the same subject, but depicts a different scene. On the parfumier, our two protagonists are playing chess with one of the female immortals, while the other immortal stands underneath a gate inscribed with the characters Tiantai. It is a simple vignette with a beautifully balanced but static composition, and as the two men concentrate on the game, there is a sense of time slipping by unnoticed. The artist of the brush pot has a markedly different interpretation of the story. Here the composition is cleverly laid out V rather than reading the scene like a scroll unrolling in one direction, ones eyes follow the path, which winds around a central mountain and continues towards the female immortals, who are waiting at the end. They are sitting in a grotto and looking back at the mountain path, as if expecting someone to arrive. None of the four people know what is waiting for them on the other side of the central mountain. It is a narrative scene filled with suspense and the unexpected, and much more dynamic in contrast to its predecessor. The fairly simple and fluid carving of Xiaosong is also drastically different from Zongyus elaborate and detailed execution. Comparing these two pieces, it is remarkable to see how the style of Jiading school has evolved, both in terms of the way artists deal with a particular subject, and how the craftsmanship has advanced.
While the Zhu family and their successors mostly worked in relief carving, some of the most famous masters of the Jiading school favoured intaglio decoration. Three pieces in the Fengwentang collection are by artists famous for this style - the first is a bamboo brush pot by Pan Xifeng (style name Laotong) (lot 2826) the second a wrist rest by Deng Wei (style name Yunqiao Shanren) (lot 2842), the third a wrist rest by Fang Jie (lot 2857, fig. 9). All three are very different in style, and represent three different genres. Pan Xifeng was a learned scholar as well as a calligrapher. His bamboo carving has a spontaneous and painterly style, often done with a few simple strokes, embellished with fine incised lines. As he was an accomplished calligrapher, his calligraphic carvings are especially highly praised. His works often combine both painting and calligraphy in the tradition of literati paintings. The small brush pot in the Feng Wen Tang Collection is carved with a scholar and a horse, with an accompanying poem expressing the wish to roam freeing in the mountains. It is an excellent example of his work.
His younger compatriot, Deng Wei, is also renowned for his calligraphy, especially small regular-script characters. Many of his works are purely calligraphic, and mostly of famous proses, poems or sutra texts. The large wrist rest is carved with the Prajna Paramita Sutra, with over 280 characters on the surface. Most of his purely calligraphic works are dated no earlier than 1784, just like the current piece, which is dated 1793. He was perhaps the best carver working with calligraphy of his generation.
Fang Jie, active in the Jiaqing/Daoguang period, was a competent poet and painter. His bamboo works are mostly his own original compositions, and he was well known for his portraitures. The brush rest is executed with incised fine lines to depict Lady Zhongjin (1550-1612), Sanniangzi , the wife of a Mongolian khan in the 17th century, whose wise counsel was instrumental in the signing of a peace and trade treaty in 1571 with the Ming court, and admired by the Han Chinese as well as her own people. Fang Jies style is meticulous and delicate, reminiscent of the baimiao tradition of Chinese portrait paintings.
Apart from the carvers of the Jiading school, there are also two exceptional bamboo pieces in the Feng Wen Tang Collection which were made by artists outside of Jiading. Both worked with the liuqing technique, where the design is formed by carving away the bamboo skin either totally or partially to reveal the flesh tones underneath in varying degrees. This technique was developed most successfully under Zhang Xihuang of the early Qing period, and Shang Xun of the Jiaqing/Daoguang period. The wrist rest (lot 2830) in the Feng Wen Tang Collection is a unique example of Zhang Xihuangs work. It is entirely calligraphic, unlike his other works which are commonly of landscape scenes. The characters are carved in seal script and poetic in nature, and is followed by a date renyin, which corresponds to either 1662 or 1722. Only two other published works by him are dated, one a brush pot in an English private collection dated dingwei (1667 or 1727)13, the other a brush pot in the Metropolitan Museum dated renzi (1672 or 1732)14. As the date indicates, this unique wrist rest is probably an early example of Zhang Xihuangs works.
The second piece is a brush pot signed by Shang Xun (lot 2841) who was active in the Jiaqing/Daoguang periods. This work shows liuqing technique at its best, as the subtle change of tones on the bamboo skin, much like ink on a painting, is used to denote volume, contour, light and shadow to great effect. Some details are so minute only with close inspection can they be discerned, such as the bridle on the horse, which was meticulously done with the imperceptible change of knife pressure. Only a handful of works by Shang Xun are recorded, and stylistically it is closely comparable to the brush pot in the Shanghai Museum15, carved with a scholar and his attendant brewing tea under a paulownia tree.
The breadth and variety of the Feng Wen Tang Collection is truly remarkable. Uniquely, it includes many fine examples that are signed or dated, which gives a comprehensive overview of bamboo carvings from the late Ming to the 19th century, especially that of the Jiading school. This unique art form inevitably started to decline in the late Qing period. The turbulence and wars of the early Republican period severely damaged the Jiading area and put an end to the dwindling bamboo carving industry. In the middle of the last century, bamboo workshops like those run by the collectors grandfather were all that was left of this once thriving art form. As with most important collections, Feng Wen Tang was formed with tireless enthusiasm and conviction, and with each piece we see the unique taste and sensibility of the collector, as well as her deep connection to the material.
1 Qian Yong, Luyuan Conghua, in Bijixiaoshuo daguan, Compilation II, vol.5, juan 12, p. 2927.
2 Illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji - 11 - zhumu yajiao qi, 1987, no. 3.
3 Illustrated by Ji Johsin in Jiangxin yu Xiangong, National Palace Museum,
Taipei, 2009, no. 9.
4 Illustrated by Jo Johsin in Ming Qing Zhuke Yishu, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1999, pl.12a, p. 195.
5 Illustrated in Illustrated Catalogue of Selected Works of Ancient Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, Vol. 15 Beijing Wenwu
Chubanshe, 1997, p. 77.
6 Illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji - 11 - zhumu yajiao qi, no. 6.
7 Illustrated in Jiangxin yu Xiangong, no. 9. The author argues that this piece is possibly an early Qing work.
8 Ibid, no. 2.
9 Illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji - 11 - zhumu yajiao qi, 1987, no. 11.
10 Illustrated in Jiangxin yu Xian'gong, no. 6.
11 Illustrated in Yuanqu Xuantu, Zhejiang Remin Chubanshe, 2013,
12 Illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji - 11 - zhumu yajiao qi, 1987, no. 4.
13 Illustrated in Ming Qing Zhuke Yishu, pl. 29b, p. 226.
14 Ibid, pl. 31b, p. 231.
15 Illustrated in Zhongguo Meishu Quanji - 11 - zhumu yajiao qi, 1987, no. 33.