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November 6, 2010

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'Every piece of wood has its soul'

Two sculptor brothers in Fengxian District use ancient skills to "liberate" the soul contained in every piece of wood. They create everything from Buddhas to frogs and say the work polishes their own hearts. Tan Weiyun reports.

Transforming a piece of wood into a thing of beauty has held an enduring fascination for master sculptors Xu Huabing and his big brother Xu Huaxing. While the wood they start with may be rough and unshaped, in their mind's eye and nimble hands it becomes art.

"Every piece of wood has its soul. We just help bring them out of the rough shell and liberate them," says the younger Xu Huabing, who is 47. His elder brother is 51.

These two artists in southern Shanghai's suburban Fengxian District say it takes a special kind of person to work with hardwood, someone with determination and patience - it's all done by hand. Their technical skills, intricate designs, passion for carving and imagination have placed them among China's master craftsmen.

The elder Xu Huaxing carves all manner of objects - tables, chests, doors, window frames, teapots, ink slabs, brush pots and other items. The younger Xu Huabing is believed to be the only one in Shanghai who still carves Buddha statues using traditional skills passed down through centuries.

Their large Buddha statues and sacred objects used in Buddhist and Taoist ceremonies can be seen in many temples and shrines in Shanghai, including the Longhua Temple and the Sanyuan Temple in the Pudong New Area's Huamu Town.

Their studio is in Fengcheng Town in eastern Fengxian District.

Their artworks have been collected by companies and governments. A huge wood picture, "The Beautiful Motherland," carved 10 years ago is 2 meters tall and 4.5 meters wide and took more than a month to complete. It is displayed in the main hall of the Shanghai Exhibition Center.

The Xu brothers also created the 50 larger-than-life wooden statue-posts in front of the USA Pavilion in the Shanghai World Expo Park. Each of the figures that are holding hands stands 3.6 meters tall and 2.2 meters wide. The project required four months.

"There must have been some magic connection between wood and us," says the younger Xu.

Stepping into the brothers' studio is like venturing into a timber mill piled high with various wooden pieces, completed or half-finished, painted or raw. Figures stand in rows. Some of their works have been sold for several million yuan.

Three fierce dogs stand guard, barking at any stranger. They are chained during the day but let loose at night.

The front gate is a large piece of white marble engraved with nine dragons - their own work in stone.

The brothers carved more than the statues - they also did the front door, window frames, desks, chairs, staircase railing, pencil pots, picture frames and a bamboo-shaped folding screen.

Around the studio are small containers shaped like frogs or peaches (symbols of long life), lotus bowls, ink slabs decorated with dragons or lions (symbols of power and authority).

The wood is carved, chiseled, gouged, planed, pierced, cross-hatched and otherwise transformed with all manner of hand tools - no electric saws or drills.

Each piece has an interesting story behind it, drawn from Chinese legends, literature, childhood fairytales and the brothers' personal experiences. Their works depict the Monkey King, figures from "Outlaws of the Marsh" and various warriors, emperors and deities.

"Frankly, we had never thought we would become artists," says Xu Huabing, the younger. "It was destiny that finally led us to take up wood sculpture."

During the 1930s, their father Xu Guanxing went to the downtown City God's Temple and found a job as a carpenter to support the family. His teacher, Zhu Fuxing, was one of the most famous carvers in Shanghai - so famous that even the tycoon Huang Jinlong commissioned work.

Their father passed down his skills, and the boys started carving when they were 15 years old.

"To earn a living, we had no choice but to master a practical skill," Xu Huabing recalls. "But we both fell in love with this craft and have been completely enchanted for almost four decades."

Father and sons worked together, carving many large Buddhas and other statues for the city's temples.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), carving and many other traditional skills were forbidden since they were considered among the "four olds" (old customs, old culture, old traditions and old ideology) that had to be destroyed. The boys didn't give up; they covered their windows with heavy paper and worked secretly in the corner, hiding their work from visitors.

After the 10-year turmoil ended, the brothers passed the entrance exam and became apprentices at the Fengcheng Wood Furniture Factory in the 1980s.

"It takes not only skills but also patience to complete a wooden piece," Xu Huabing says. "We were so absorbed in carving that we often forgot time."

Turning a piece of rough wood into a work of art is by no means simple. First, Xu draws a sketch on paper.

"We've never learned drawing; we just follow our feelings," Xu says. Then he pastes the paper to wood and using different knives and various tools he roughs out the design.

Then he hollows out or pierces the wood with a bow-shaped knife and pricks out the design with small holes. For most people, the sketch is two-dimensional, but for the brothers it represents three dimensions and they know exactly how the wood should be shaped and to what depth.

"I know all the details I've drawn on the paper. You don't need to remember them; you just know it," Xu says.

The next step is da pei or making a rough mold; then comes xiu guang, or sleeking, using a wide variety of knives, some as big as a hammer, some as thin as a needle.

The most time-consuming step is xiu mian, which gives the detail, such as the veins in a leaf, the feathers of a bird's wing, the gems in a necklace or a raindrop.

The piece is then sanded with sand paper. Then it's painted, depending on the clients wish. Some have commissioned works covered with pure 24K gold powder.

A small piece of gold gilt paper measuring 9.3 square centimeters sells commercially for 5.8 yuan and can only be purchased in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province.

Creating Buddha statues requires different steps, and Xu uses ancient techniques. First, he chooses a block of wood, usually 1 meter long, for a sitting Buddha - this is the upper body. The head is about 20 centimeters high.

The most important thing is to draw a middle line from the top to the bottom, to determine the exact place of the crown, eyes, nose, mouth and other parts.

The lower body is relatively simpler to carve and is linked with the upper body by yuan bao or projecting tenons that fit precisely. No nails or glue are used.

"The more you shake or try to destroy it, the stronger the tenon will be," Xu says proudly.

Most of the first Buddha statues and sacred objects in local temples and shrines were carved by the Xu family in the late 1980s when the country launched the reform and opening-up policy.

These include the 18 arhats in Wansheng Convent in the Pudong New Area's Zhoupu Town; the plaques hung in Dongyue Temple in Songjiang District; the statues of deities in Sanlin Town's Chongfu Taoist Abbey; the oldest altars in Longhua Temple and many works.

"I think carving Buddha with a pious heart is doing a good deed and accumulating virtue for the family," Xu says. "It can completely change a person's temperament. No rush, no hurry. Just take it slow and go with the feelings."

He recalls an assistant from Anhui Province who was hot-tempered and easily irritated. But after working with the brothers for three years, he has become calmer and more gentle.

"When carving the wood, you're also carving and polishing your own heart," says the younger Xu. Money isn't an issue.

Last year a client collected a work valued at 2.5 million yuan and promised to pay the bill a few days later - but he was jailed for an economic crime. The money was never paid.

"It's okay. He wanted to pay and would have paid. If he didn't, there's nothing I can do. I don't want to be bothered by this kind of thing," the wood sculptor says.

One of the brothers' biggest concerns is that few young people want to learn the old skills, including their own children.

"When we die," says the younger Xu, "the link will break."


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