By Zhang KLun
MINIATURE sculpture is a folk craft unique to China. An early example is a work by a craftsman known as Wang Shuyuan in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who depicted an entire legendary scene on a walnut shell.
The shell was sculpted into a boat in which five people were seated. An article by Wei Xueyi, a contemporary of the craftsman gave details of the work saying that a couplet inscribed on the "boat" could be read clearly and its windows could be easily opened or closed.
Yin Jinniu, who exhibited his miniature sculptures at the recent Shanghai Folk Art Expo is the fourth generation of students from Xue Fohai, a master of the craft (1905-88).
With the help of a microscope, Yin today can make miniature sculptures smaller than ever before. Yin's recent work is a miniature reproduction of an ancient Chinese painting depicting 87 fairies. The figures of the fairies are sculpted on a 16cm-long piece of ivory whereas the original painting was over 29 metres long.
Ivory has been favoured by Chinese sculptors value ivory for its even density and rigidity. Although the ivory trade is now banned worldwide, Yin is still able to find small pieces to work with.
Other materials favoured by Yin and fellow artists are human hair, beans, pearls, stones or grains of rice.
To carve on a human hair used to be a serious challenge even for skilled miniature sculptors in China. People often compared something extremely thin or hardly visible to a hair.
In order to carve on a hair, craftsmen had to dry it and eliminate any fat. Then the hair was pressed and flattened.
Some people question the value of this craft. Looking through a microscope, the craftsman doesn't need exceptional eyesight to do the work. Reducing masterpiece paintings is not a form of original artistic creation and miniaturized calligraphy eliminates the rich changes and methods of expression in traditional calligraphy. Miniature sculpture falls between art and craft.
All contemporary miniature sculptors need is perfect control of their hands and fingers plus an extremely thin and sharp cutting knife. Yin ground his own knives to make them suitable for his miniature work.
The past master Xue was born into a medical family and started creating miniature sculpture in ivory. He once acquired a piece of crystal and attempted to carve an ancient essay on it. He felt his fingers aching after the first few cuts and he knew from his medical background that he would need a strong wrist to fulfill this task.
When he first learned massage in his childhood, his father told him to enhance his wrist power by holding a weight with three fingers for long periods. He started by holding a big cup full of water for over half an hour and later moved to heavier objects and longer duration. Eventually, he could easily hold articles of 15 kilograms with three fingers only.
A delicate craft like miniature sculpting doesn't leave much room for errors. It requires the artist to have great steadiness in their hands as well as in their spirit.
Yin, widely exhibited all over Asia, is a Buddhist and he believes his religion has brought him peace of mind which greatly helps him in producing his sculptures.
A large number of his works are of religious subjects, such as portraits of the Buddha or Buddhist texts. By displaying his work, he also advocates Buddhist doctrines, singing praises for the power of faith.
Yin has also practised Chi Gong for many years and finds it is also of great help in miniature sculpture.
It takes months to finish a piece, but a single error in the cut can ruin the whole work. Accuracy is of prime importance.
Zhou Changxing, 74 and his daughter Zhou Xinju have jointly successfully completed an ambitious project. The father created in miniature sculpture the rooms depicted in the literary masterpiece "A Dream of Red Mansions", while his daughter carved the complete text of the book on 280 small stones.
In order to carve 10,000 characters on a stone small enough to hold in the palm of her hand, Zhou Xinju started by drawing many lines on the surface and dividing the spaces into little checks, each one the size of one character.
One day she suddenly found she had left one check un-carved on an almost finished stone. She wanted to abrade the whole piece off and start all over again but her father, feeling sorry for her 10 days of hard work on the one stone, told her to reconsider it.
But the more she looked at the stone, the more upset she became, and one night she erased all 10,000 characters.
The father and daughter started the project in 1989 and although the rooms, the furniture and the text were completed in two years, Zhou Xinju went on trying to make the miniatures more perfect.
She went out in search of beautiful stones and re-carved part of the story if she felt one stone was better than the previous one.
Father and daughter have a private museum to show their work.
At the Folk Art Expo, Yin's works sold well, a sign of good prospects for the craft.