History and Culture

China's centuries-old ivory carving nears its end

2018-01-12 10:41:00 (Beijing Time)         Xinhua

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For Weng Yaoxiang, the "ivory ball" he is working on is definitely not his most complex piece, but may be the most memorable.

It is a farewell gift, signaling the end of his 40-year career on elephant ivory carving.

"It won't be and can't be sold. It's just something about my life-long passion," he said.

Standing in stark contrast to Weng's sense of loss, China's State Forestry Administration announced that China had ended the commercial processing and sales of ivory at the end of 2017 as planned, calling it China's "new year gift to the elephant."

Under the trading ban, the fate of Weng's last work will be determined by his company -- Daxin ivory carving factory in southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. The fate of the state-owned factory itself is also pending.

The ban affects 34 processing enterprises and 143 designated trading venues, with all of them suspending businesses, according to the administration.

A HARD BLOW

"While most senior carvers are near retirement age, young technicians have to consider their future," said Mo Junhao, deputy head of the factory, which was founded in the 1950s. "The factory can't earn money any longer."

Ivory carving requires high standards of craftsmanship. Only around 10 percent of young apprentices become qualified technicians, according to Pan Chuju, another veteran carver at the factory.

Weng's son has learned ivory carving for the last four years, but is still not ready in his father's eyes.

Listed as state-level intangible cultural heritage since 2006, China's traditional ivory carving art peaked in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).Beijing in the north and Guangzhou in the south were the two ivory-carving centers of the time.

In the early Qing Dynasty, Guangzhou was a rare Chinese port allowing foreign trade. Foreign merchants shipped Chinese goods from Guangzhou to other countries, and brought back ivory, boosting local carving business.

The "ivory balls" Weng specializes in are representative of Guangzhou-style carving. A hollowed-out ivory ball is carved into multiple layers, with each layer able to rotate.

Weng's last work has 41 layers, while his record was 51 layers. "Each layer is less than one millimeter thick," said Weng. "A layer can't be too thin or too thick. Or it will be too fragile or not exquisite enough."

Despite their sorrow, carvers said they support the ban and understand the significance of elephant protection.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the population of African elephants declined by 111,000 over the past 10 years. The overall trend for poaching African elephants shows a decline from the 2011 peak, but levels are still too high when viewed continent-wide.

In 2015, China joined global efforts, announcing it would phase out the ivory trade and ban imports of ivory and ivory products.

Mo said the factory only processed legally imported ivory and coded each tusk.

"For an ivory piece, we clearly recorded how much material was used and how much was left, Mo said. "The statistics were reported to the State Forestry Administration, and any use of illegal ivory would be immediately detected."

WHAT TO CARVE?

Carvers worry the art will become a thing of the past, as the market vanishes.

A 2016 document issued by the State Council said, "Cultural authorities should help with the transformation of ivory carving masters and other practitioners in the business."

Mo hopes to convert the factory into a non-profit cultural organization funded by the government, which is dedicated to preservation of the art. If his plan is rejected by the government, the factory will be entirely shut down.

"We still have carvers and materials. We're waiting for the approval and detailed measures," Mo said.

The local government holds similar concerns. In late 2017, carving processes of Daxin factory's masters were recorded by 12 cameras, supported by the city's cultural authorities.

Some carvers are finding substitutes for elephant tusks, such as mammoth ivory.

"Many mammoth tusks were buried for more than 10,000 years underground and have lost their properties," Weng said. Despite the difference, Weng and his son have switched to mammoth ivory carving.

Ivory carving master Zhang Minhui started exploring use of ox bones for carving 20 years ago, when China-made ivory began losing American and European customers after the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora banned international ivory trade in 1989.

Ox bones are cheap and abundant, but are small, rough and fragile, according to Zhang.

He invented a technique to clean the mildew from ox bones while retaining their gloss, and to put together hundreds of small bones to imitate elephant ivory.

"How to keep the art alive? It needs our wisdom," Zhang said.