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Carved with ease: carved bamboo objects have traditionally been associated with Chinese scholar-artists. As examples from the British Museum collection show, these functional items often assume a refined appearance thanks to their seemingly effortless decoration.

This year, as part of the celebrations to mark the Shanghai Museum's 60th anniversary, the first international conference on bamboo carving was held in Shanghai, and China's finest bamboo objects were gathered together for an exhibition ('Literati Spirits: The Art of Chinese Bamboo Carving'; 29 April-1 duly). This conference was a catalyst to re-examine and research the bamboo carvings in the British Museum in London. Bamboo's traditional importance in Chinese culture is evidenced by beautiful paintings and poetry, its use in the decoration of fine objects and its presence in China's natural and cultivated landscapes. Bamboo has long been associated with scholar-artists, and the tradition continues to this day--as demonstrated by the Yixing teapot decorated by artist Zhu Qizhan (1892-1996) in 1993 (Fig. 1). Zhu created the delicate design of mountains and bamboo and wrote the poem that adorns the object: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('Long bamboo are worth loving'); [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('In the year Qi Zhan was aged 102').


In contrast to China, bamboo is not a native plant in Britain, but was introduced in the second half of the 19th century. A formal bamboo garden was laid out at London's Kew Gardens in 1891, where around 120 varieties of bamboo now grow. This foreignness, the scarcity of fine carved examples on the art market--and bamboo's associations with the scholarly communities in China rather than with the emperors and their courts-has somehow contrived to deter most British people from building collections of carved Chinese bamboo.


However, bamboo is preserved in the British Museum in many guises, from an 8th-century sutra wrapper to 20th-century tea equipment. Although practised earlier, bamboo carving attained significant status as an art form in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and is still popular today. Bamboo is relatively soft and easy to carve, and its layered skin is particularly suitable for compositions resembling classical Chinese paintings. The carved bamboo collection divides into four distinct categories: brush pots, root carvings, perfumers, and wrist rests and other writing equipment.

To begin with brush pots, the cylindrical form, with its natural base formed by the node dividing the bamboo stem into sections, is perfect for storing brushes. However, the shape was misinterpreted in the West when it first appeared because writing implements were so different in the two cultures; it was copied in porcelain and used to hold tapers for lighting fires. (1) One of the finest Chinese bamboo brush pots in the British Museum is a deeply carved example with a scholar seated under a pine tree (Fig. 2). The rich patina of the bamboo and the style of carving suggest a late Ming to early Qing dynasty date, some time in the 17th century. (2) This type of scene with a scholar in retreat was popular with carvers of other materials such as lacquer and jade. A scholar or group of literati seated beneath pine trees is a common, almost stereotypical subject for Chinese painting. Here the scholar is presented as an idealised recluse, relaxing in summer with a fan in one hand, surrounded by auspicious pine branches that hint at his wishes for longevity. His servant is portrayed in a different scene grinding ink for writing and painting. Separated from both the master and his boy are antiques and a vase, which suggest this retreat is a regularly used sanctuary--where the educated man can read, paint and compose poetry without the interruptions of everyday life. The brush pot is unsigned and so it is not associated with a particular carver, but Chinese connoisseurs traditionally associate this deeply carved style with the Shanghai area.



Educated women are, to a lesser degree, depicted in garden settings with the accoutrements of scholarship about them. A 19th-century album leaf shows two women at a writing table with a bamboo brush pot, inkstone, water dropper with tiny spoon, paper and brushes. A second bamboo brush pot is connected to the theme of this painting; carved in shallow relief, it depicts two ladies examining and reading books (Fig. 4). Dr John William Hawksley Grice (1891-1976), who Craig Clunas has described as the 'first dedicated British collector of the [bamboo] craft', (3) donated it to the British Museum. Grice is regarded as a very important collector of carving in Britain; at the time he was collecting, he appears to have been unique among his peers for admiring late carving. He wrote about 'Chinese Bamboo Carving' in Country Life in 1954, one of the first articles in English on the subject, and at the time he was collecting he appears to have been unique among his peers for admiring late carving. (4) Grice and his wife Kathleen moved to China in 1922 and he worked as a doctor in Tianjin for 30 years. Curator Clare Starkie records that one of his daughters, Dr Catherine Grice, recollected Chinese art dealers coming to their Tianjin house with 'bags of carved ivories to look at'. (5) From this it is clear Grice built his ivory and bamboo collection in China in the decades he spent there before leaving in 1952. He donated this particular brush pot in 1953, soon after his return to England, where he worked as a doctor in Bognor Regis until his retirement in 1973. He also gave a sizeable proportion of his carved bamboo collection to London's Victoria and Albert Museum and donated other ivories and bamboo to the British Museum. In addition, he sold a large number of his Qing ivories in 1937 to the entrepreneur and benefactor John George Graves, who presented them to the city of Sheffield in 1939. These are now on display in the Weston Park Museum, Sheffield.

This brush pot may be dated stylistically by comparing it to porcelain designs with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration. The depiction of the two ladies with their distinctive high piled hair is typical of the portrayal of cultivated women on blue-and-white porcelains from Jingdezhen in the Kangxi era (1662-1722). Women in this era are often shown with these tilted heads, implying that they are of a gentler nature than men of their class, who are shown less submissively, standing upright with shoulders back. The subject of two scholarly women was often depicted by the painter and bamboo carver Wu Zhifan in this period, and the carved and layered style suggests that this object was made in the Shanghai area. The women are together in one scene, and on the other side of the brush pot gnarled pine trees and rocks are shown. The subject does not necessarily indicate that the vessel once belonged to an educated woman, as the theme could equally well be enjoyed by a male scholar. Indeed, the finely inscribed text supports the notion that the vessel once belonged to a man. Incised in traditional Chinese characters, the text reads:




   Two eyes open in tender mood,

   The tired heron in a languishing posture
      appears more attractive,

   Having not experienced melancholy,
      she knows not sorrow,

   It is all because of the coming lover that
      work on embroidery is reduced,

   She has made great efforts to comb
      her hair,

   It is not until the sun is setting in the
      west that she was seen stepping
      down from the house.

   Written by the carefree man on a field
      of cranes. (6)

The text describes the anticipation of the arrival of the lover of one of the ladies. Too distracted to complete her official duties such as embroidery, she is waiting for nightfall before stepping down from the house. The romantic poem seems at odds with the carving of the woman studiously reading her book whilst the other holds a fan. The signature, 'the carefree man on a field of cranes', with its Daoist undertones, is difficult to trace. Scholars carving brush pots, painting in ink or jotting poems were always obliged to make their work look effortless. It is the artisan who toils, but to the scholar-literati class everything must appear to come naturally without struggle.

Signatures are surprisingly rare in the museum's collection. The unsigned carved bamboo brush pot illustrated here, with a relief scene of three sages beneath a pine tree and one pointing to the sun, dates to the 18th century (Fig. 6). The immortals can be identified as the stellar gods of long life, wealth and happiness--Shou Xing, Lu Xing and Fu Xing. It has been suggested that the action of pointing to the sun rising may be a visual pun on advancement. Once owned by Sir Grahame Clark (1907-1995), a renowned British archaeologist and a former trustee of the British Museum, it was presented to the museum by his widow Lady Gwladys Clark. Popular gods and myths were a fashionable source of designs for Qing bamboo carvers; their evocation of parallel, idealised worlds suited their role as subjects for contemplation and inspiration on a scholar's table.

Made later during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), perhaps in the late 18th or early 19th centuries, a fourth bamboo brush pot has shallow carving and shows a man grooming a horse in a river surrounded by a willow tree and rocks (Fig. 3). The composition of the pot's design is like a hand scroll, with the tree and rocks either side of the main scene of the horseman, the scene unfolding as the brush pot is turned. The cylindrical form of the bamboo suits this style of horizontal composition, unlike the vertical format of a hanging scroll.

The theme of Daoist or popular immortals studying works of art is common in paintings, carvings and ceramics of the Qing dynasty. A Qing-period hanging scroll in the museum's collection is painted in ink and colours on silk, and depicts the three sages--the gods of health, wealth and happiness--studying the yin-yang symbol or taiji (the 'supreme ultimate') on a scroll, with children and longevity symbols such as the deer and peach (Fig. 7). A bamboo brush pot made in the Qianlong period (c. 1736-95) is carved in relief with a similar subject (Fig. 5). Five gentlemen have unrolled a scroll with a taiji symbol on it. These are identified as the five ancients, representing the five elements of Chinese cosmology: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. (7) The deer and pine tree symbolise longevity, echoing the role of the deer and peach in the painting.

In 1891, Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks donated a lacquer box to the British Museum, along with writing implements and a chess set (Fig. 9). Franks acquired many objects from acquaintances who were in the military or church and stationed in China. He believed this to be from the Summer Palace in Beijing. Collectors in the late 19th century were often sold materials from China that were said to have an imperial provenance in order to boost their prices, but research has shown that few of them genuinely are of such origin. Stylistically, this set dates to the Qing dynasty, perhaps to the late 18th or early 19th centuries, and includes a carved bamboo writing brush.



In addition to the bamboo brush pot and writing equipment collection, the British Museum had a few bamboo root carvings. In this category, holdings include representations of a miniature rocky mountain with pine trees, and an assembly of immortals, some of them contemplating a scroll on which is painted a taiji symbol--the same subject depicted on the final brush pot (Fig. 8). The latter carving was bequeathed during the Second World War by Marjorie K. Coldwell, who lived in Taunton, Somerset, and died in 1943. She collected ceramics, bronze, lacquer and jade. During the war, most of the museum's treasures were evacuated from London to preserve them from the bombing, but it remained open and some displays were left on view for the public to keep up morale--perhaps this root carving was one of the pieces Londoners could admire at that time.



Carvers in the 18th century perfected modelling in miniature, and the intricate detail and figures here are typical of their fine craftsmanship. Objects with delicately depicted landscapes were popular as ornaments. The British Museum's bamboo root carving of a landscape can be compared to a carved bamboo ornament in the shape of a mountain with the Sixteen Luohans (Buddhist holy men), made in the middle Qing dynasty, in the Palace Museum, Beijing. (8) They provided the eye with an alternative universe in which to escape the travails of the present. Similar landscapes were created in other materials such as jade, porcelain and stone.

Almost 30 years after her father's death, Dr Catherine Grice donated a carved bamboo root ruyi sceptre, made during the Qing dynasty between around 1750 to 1850. Ruyi sceptres or wands are auspicious tokens that are given as presents, often for birthdays. (9) They impart the message 'may everything go as you wish', rather like a design of a four-leafed clover on a good luck card. One of the great skills of such bamboo carvings is to adapt the natural shape of the material to create the subject.

Dr Grice also gave the museum a carved bamboo root in the form of a naturalistically modelled finger citron (citrus medica, commonly called fo shou or 'Buddha's hand') (Fig. 11). Dating from between 1750 and 1850, it has a custom-built, green-stained ivory stand modelled in the form of a gnarled pine tree. This inedible fruit symbolises happiness and is offered to household gods at Chinese New Year, while the pine tree is an emblem of long life. The sculpture functions as a lucky desk ornament and relates closely to the depiction of Buddha's hand in the Ten Bamboo Studio Collection of Calligraphy and Painting (1633), one of the most important early colour-printed woodblock books (Fig. 10).

The third category of carved bamboo in the British Museum is incense holders, which are also known as perfumers and are designed to hold a a fabric pouch containing a fragrant substance. The carved bamboo perfumer illustrated here has a wood base and cap with openwork decoration (Fig. 12). It is carved in shallow relief with scenes of Penglai, the mythical island home of the immortals. Daoist immortals, including Shoulao, the god of longevity (also known as Shou Xing), ride on the back of a crane, and the Eight Immortals offer him gifts. Surrounding the vignettes of immortals are pine trees and banks of clouds, echoing the real fragrant vapours from the perfumer. The artist has signed with a famous carver's name, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('San Song'-'Third Pine'), the sobriquet of Zhu Zhizheng (active 1573-1619), who was part of the celebrated dynasty of bamboo carvers in the Zhu family from Jiading, near Shanghai. The signature cannot be relied on--old signatures are often reused in China as marks of quality--and stylistically this incense holder can be dated to the Qing dynasty, around 1750 to 1850, by comparing it with carved lacquer wares. Dr Catherine Grice gave it to the museum in 2004; it was collected by her father. A similar perfumer is in the Lutz collection in the Denver Art Museum in the United States. (10)

The British Museum's other carved bamboo perfumer with openwork decoration is less well carved, but has a fascinating acquisition history. It was made around 1850-68 in Tengyue, a town in Yunnan province. Colonel Sir Edward Bosc Sladen (1827-90), who was born in Madras, India, and was the son of a doctor in the East India Company, gave it to the museum in 1878. He joined the Madras Army as a cadet in 1849, beginning a distinguished career, and the British government engaged him to open up an official trade route into China from Bhamo in Burma. He reached Tengyue, near the Chinese border with Burma, in 1868, and spent six weeks there before returning to Burma. In 1869 he published an Official narrative of the expedition to explore the trade routes to China via Bhamo, under the guidance of Major E.B. Sladen. (11)


Surrounding each of the figure scenes of this perfumer are inscriptions in rectangular cartouches, like captions to a comic strip. This reflects the way popular woodblock printed stories were designed in China. The poetic inscriptions read:

   Clear water gently waves under the
      fragrant leaves

   The wind is cool and summer days long

   All the words and articles derive from
      mountains and waters

   Such were the themes of poets of past
      and present

   Green pine trees and bamboos in each
      other's reflections

   The moon shines on the water and
      the trees (12)

The final group of bamboo objects in the British Museum is comprised of wrist rests, which were designed to keep the calligrapher or artist's sleeve from smudging the ink as he or she wrote and painted. A carved bamboo wrist rest with a flowering plum branch in low relief was made in the 18th century and is another item donated by Dr John Grice in 1953, shortly after his return from China (Fig. 13). It has a simple design of a flowering prunus branch and is made from a half-section of the culm or stalk of bamboo. This is a common decorative motif and appears in fine porcelain and paintings, such as a hanging scroll of plum blossom made in ink on silk by Chen Jiru (1588-1639) or two exquisite porcelain bowls made for the Yongzheng Emperor with his mark on the base (in the Sir Percival David Collection at the British Museum). Objects of the ordinary quality of this bamboo wrist rest are rarely published and give an insight into the possessions of the educated middle classes.



Curators continue to collect objects made in the 20th and 21st centuries, including a recent wrist rest and stand donated by the Chinese businessman K.S. Lo (b. 1910) following its purchase from Christie's Hong Kong in September 1992 (Fig. 14). Lo was born in Guangdong, moved to Malaysia at the age of 10 and then to Hong Kong at 20, where he studied business at the University of Hong Kong. He built a major international firm based on the production of soya bean milk, which he was able to rebuild after World War Two. He was a major donor to the Hong Kong Museum of Art and his teapot collection has its own museum, the Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware in Hong Kong. In 1993, the British Museum staged a major exhibition of Lo's teapots and related artworks, after which he donated a large group of contemporary Yixing tea wares and sculptures, along with a number of paintings.

This wrist rest is decorated using the liuqing ('retaining the green') technique. The green outer skin of the bamboo, which turns yellow over time, is retained; it is carved through to provide a shallow image, contrasting the yellow skin used for the insects and plants with the darker ground. The design here is a naturalistic portrayal of a cicada and its nemesis, a mantis; the latter appears to be creeping up behind the cicada, camouflaged by the leafy branch. The inscription reads [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('Where is the yellow short-tailed bird?'). The yellow bird (carcluelis spinus), a small, frequently caged finch with a sweet song, feeds on the mantis and is its natural predator. Perhaps there is an uncomfortable, underlying message here about pursuit, which is at odds with the beauty of the modern wrist rest itself.

The maker's inscription reads [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('Carved by Bingfang, the bamboo man of the mainland'). The seal reads [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ('Xu'). Xu Bingfang was born in 1945 in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, and stylistically the wrist rest dates from around 1980-90. Xu created two demonstration wrist rests, showing the stages of the liuqing technique, for Wang Shixiang and Wan-go Weng's pioneering bamboo carving exhibition in the China House Gallery (at the China Institute in America), New York, in 1983. (13)

Bamboo carving skills are still fostered within families in China. Xu Bingfang's father was also a well-known bamboo artist, Xu Subai (1901-75). (14) He too excelled in the liuqing technique, as evidenced by a wrist rest carved with a dragon fly and peony dated 1957, from the collection of Pihan Chang. (15) Xu Bingfang was evidently influenced by his father's work when he made this piece, as the treatment of the cicada relates closely to a brush holder by Xu Subai, with a design of an autumn cicada on a tong tree, carved in liuqing style and dated 1957. His brother Xu Bingyan is another talented bamboo carver, with exhibits in the Jiading Museum and the Shanghai Museum. The British Museum hopes to continue its investigation into bamboo by acquiring further examples of contemporary bamboo artists' work.

Further information about the British Museum and its collection is available online at

(1/) Aileen Dawson et al., Passion for Porcelain: Masterpieces of Ceramics from the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, exh. cat., National Museum of China, Beijing, 2012, pp. 238-239.

(2/) For dating Chinese bamboo, see An Exhibition of Ming and Qing Dynasty Carvings: Bamboo, Wood and Seeds, exh. cat., National Palace Museum, Talbei, 2009.

(3/) Craig Clunas, Chinese Carving, Singapore, 1996, p. 96.

(4/) John Grice, 'Chinese Bamboo Carving', Country Life, May 1954, pp, 1402-04.

(5/) Alison Morton and Clare Starkie (eds.), The Grice Collection of Chinese Ivories, Sheffield, 2008, p, 107.

(6/) I am grateful to Chen Kaijun of Columbia University, who translated this into English.

(7/) Eva Strober, Symbols on Chinese Porcelain: 10,000 Times Happiness, Stuttgart, 2011, pp. 20-21.

(8/) The Palace Museum Collection of Elite Carwings, Beijing, 2002, pp, 74-75.

(9/) Liu Jing et al., Yunzhizaishou: Gugong Bowuyuan CangQingdairuyi (Qing Dynasty Ruyi Sceptres in the Collection of the Gugong Museum), Beijing, 2009.

(10/) Ronald Y. Otsuka, Selections from the Lutz Bamboo Collection, exh. cat., Denver Art Museum, 1979, no. 94.

(11/) Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, vol. LII: Sladen, Edward Bosc by Stephen Edward Wheeler,

(12/) I am grateful to my colleague Wang Meixin for her translation.

(13/) For a photograph of Xu Bingfang carving a wrist rest in his studio in Wujin, Jiangsu province, in around 1982, see Wang Shixiang and Wan-go Weng, Bamboo Carving of China, exh. cat., China House Gallery, New York, 1983,p. 46, fig. 31.

(14/) Ip Yee and Laurence C.S. Tam, Chinese Bamboo Carving Part I and 2, Hong Kong, 1978, vol. I, pp. 466-67.

(15/) Wang Shixiang and Wan go Weng, op. cit. in n. 14 above, p, 44, fig. 29.

Jessica Harrison-Hall is curator of Chinese ceramics and Vietnamese art at the British Museum, London.
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Date:Nov 1, 2012
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