The Auspicious Art: Ivory Carving in Ming and Qing Dynasties

Release Time:2019-04-19

Being soft and smooth like jade, easy to carve yet no so brittle, ivory products can be traced back to the Neolithic Age. From ritual objects to the symbol of power and wealth, from living utensils to decorations, from royal courts to clinics, ivory products were used quite extensively. In addition, elephant has similar pronunciation with auspiciousness in Chinese, so ivory artifacts are regarded as propitious mascots that can keep away evil spirits and bring peace to both the mind and the house.

As an ancient Chinese handicraft, the records of ivory carving can be found in the “Rites of Zhou” back in the Zhou Dynasty. Gradually, this exquisite fine art culminated in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, and has been passed down to the present day. In 2006, Ivory carving was listed as the First Batch of National Intangible Cultural Heritage. Carved ivory demonstrates not only the thousand-year old Chinese ingenuity, but also the aesthetics and fashion of different eras. By displaying the very representative artworks, the exhibition will open our eyes to the splendor of Chinese ivory carving.


Preface: Ivory Offerings of the Ancient Shu State

The warm and moist climate of Chengdu Plain and its lush vegetation during the ancient Shu period was ideal for elephants to thrive there. As an important offering in the worship of nature and gods, ivory was found in both Sanxingdui and Jinsha sites. The tons of ivory stuff at Jinsha site  reveal the grandiose ritual ceremony with ivory of the time.


Chapter I: Versatility

During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, thanks to increasingly robust ocean shipping, abundant ivory made its way to China’s coastal areas from Southeast Asia, while the numbers of carving craftsmen and the mature of carving techniques also developing rapidly. Crude ivory products finally evolved into gorgeous and exquisite art pieces in various sizes and forms, comprising a brilliant part of people’s lives. Meanwhile, with more frequent foreign trade, the highly-developed Chinese ivory carving techniques grew popular overseas.


1.1 Fashion of the Literati

White and comfortable to the touch, ivory is often seen as a symbol of the qualities of a gentleman. Either in academies or during social intercourse, from East to West, gentlemen all use ivory carvings to show their noble character.

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Ivory Letter Holder

1.2 Entertaining Delight

Elegant and delicate ivory carvings can be a means of entertainment as well. Exotic oriental toys can be a precious fun learning gift for kids; while in poetry-themed parties and events, ivory counting rods add more fun to drinking games.

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Ivory Jigsaw Puzzle(Photo by Zhang Yan)

1.3 Charming of Ladies

Due to its subtle beauty, ivory carvings make an important accessory to show a lady’s taste and charm without being too flashy or showy. Ivory needlework items, clothing accessories and love tokens made with traditional Chinese carving techniques combined Chinese aesthetics and Western fashion perfectly.

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Ivory Sewing Box(Photo by Zhang Yan)

1.4 Ornaments

As a precious material, ivory ornaments are often displayed in halls and living rooms for people to admire. A variety of carving techniques such as in-the-round carving, relief carving, pierced relief carving and dyeing were used to depict life scenes, people’s aspirations and auspicious motifs.

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Carved Ivory Cabbage(Photo by Zhang Yan)

Chapter II: All on an Ivory Fan

The 17th to 19th centuries mark not only the peak of ivory carving techniques, but also a period of foreign trade prosperity. “Chinese taste”, including ivory carvings gained its popularity overseas, especially ivory fans. During the Qing dynasty, from Emperor Kangxi’s rein to Emperor Jiaqing’s rule, most fans exported were made of no other material but ivory. Being an embodiment of both European aesthetics and superb Chinese ivory carving and fan-making skills,they also represented a clash and fusion of Chinese and Western culture.


2.1 Ivory Brisé fans

Brisé fans are the earliest-known type of exported Chinese fans. The exclusive fan had no leaf but instead used dense-layered and broad ribs to form a natural surface when unfolded. Materials came from tortoise shells, sandalwood, gold, inter alia, ivory, which best produces the smoothness and exquisiteness of the fan. It is without doubt that the making of such fans requires excellent traditional Chinese craftsmanship.

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Ivory Brisé  Fan

Folding Fans with Ivory Sticks and Paper Leaves

Since the beginning of the 19th century, quality brisé fans had gradually faded into the public while those with paper leaves had been emerging fast. Most of the fans were double-sided. Some were decorated with copies of western prints; others were ornated by oriental scenes such as official yards and harbors.  When the Chinese favored bamboo fans as a symbol of nobility, ivory-made-stick ones were the first choice for western customers. Engraving on sticks was on option since sometimes cleanliness was kept for the graceful nature of the untouched ivory.

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Folding Fan with Ivory Sticks and Paper Leaves

Mandarin Fan

During the first half of the 19th century, tailored Mandarin fans started to gain popularity among westerners. The leaves were usually painted with oriental mansions and courtyards based on western imagination, with techniques such as perspective and chiaroscuro. Packed human figures were seen wearing silk robes; their facial contours were outlined manually and then veneered with ivories. Sometimes it was even the case for their hands. Such fans are called Mandarin fans. During the mid-to-late 19th century when the Mandarin fan saw its efflorescence, its production had gradually become routinized. Even with different characters, their outlines were rigid and carving techniques were standardized. 

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Mandarin Fan(Photo by Zhang Yan)

Mixed Material Ivory Fans

During the first half of the 19th century, diversity started defining the fad for ivory fans in terms of their textures and techniques. The fan surface derived raw materials from ductile paper, silk, and feathers, while the sticks were made of a mixture of ivory, sandalwood, tortoise shells, gold, silver, and other precious resources. Regarding carving techniques, the hollow-out method presents the due beauty of the ivory fans.

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Mixed Material Ivory Fan

Coexistence with the Elephants

As a living reminder of China’s ancient ivory carving techniques, exquisite carved ivory artifacts also remind us to cherish the source of it all - ivory and elephants. Globally, the irrational fever over ivory itself is pushing up demand which in turn prompts rampant poaching and illegal trade of ivory, making elephants an endangered species and its protection a global issue.

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(Photo by Zhang Yan)