The term “ivory” embraces a number of materials but usually refers to elephant or walrus tusk. These are easily worked, have a close grain, a natural lustre and a smoothness that makes them ideal for small objects.
From the 10th century, China traded through the port of Ch’uan-chou with Arabs who brought ivory from Africa A substantial trade built up, particularly during the later years of the Ming Dynasty. Numerous ivory carvings have been attributed to this period, especially the long, gracefully carved ivory figures which retain the natural lines of the tusk..
The most common carving for the Chinese home market were combs, back-scratchers, mah-jong sets and articles for the scholar and for smoking opium. Carvings for export included fans, brushes, boxes, tea caddies and gambling counters. The most delicate workmanship was on small carved screens intended for scholars’ desks and on fans, with each fold being carved in an openwork designs of flowers or landscapes.
Nested ivory balls and ivory boats with curved hulls and hundred of occupants have been produced since early in the 20th century to exhibit the skill of the ivory carver. They show a precision absent in older pieces.
The last great flowering of Chinese ivory carving was during the reign of the Emperor Kangxi who, in 1680, established a number of ivory carving factories within his palace compound in Beijing and brought skilled craftsmen from all over the Empire to work there. The factories flourished for about a hundred years.
From the 19th century, a great many ivory carving were mass produced, mainly in Canton.
Carving Balls within Balls
To create latticed balls within balls, the craftsman first carves a perfectly spherical ball and draws a pattern on its surface. He then bores conical holes in it at suitable locations to match the surface pattern. The cones meet at the centre of the sphere.
He then marks the inside of each hole to indicate the number of balls to be cut out. Starting with the innermost, he cuts out each ball using a curved blade. The rest of the balls are then cut out working from the inside out. This has to be judged by feel as the carver cannot see what he is carving.
The record to date is 42 balls carved out of a block of ivory 15cm across by Weng Rong Liao in 1977.
Did you know?
In prehistoric times, there were elephants in China. They were hunted to extinction by about 600 BC. Subsequently, all of China’s ivory was obtained by trade.