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A China Carved and Collected: Ningbo Whitewood Figurines in the Long Twentieth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2019

Yuanxie Shi*
Affiliation:
University of Chicago
*
*Corresponding author. Email: shiyuanxie@uchicago.edu.

Abstract

How is the craft history of ordinary woodcarvers different from the political and economic history of elites and literati? This article tells a transnational history of Ningbo miniature whitewood figurines that were first collected by Western travelers as souvenirs from the 1870s to 1940s and then shipped to the West as export craft from the 1950s to 1980s. The examination of the makers, buyers, and collectors of these figurines reveals a dialectic process between carving and collecting. Focusing on both the making and circulation of these figurines, the article uncovers a new layer in modern Chinese history: with the political regime changing from the imperial state to socialist state, the carving and business practices of local artisans continued at its own rhythm. Less than three and a half inches tall, Ningbo whitewood figurines represent a miniature China carved and consumed on a global scale during the long twentieth century.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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References

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28 A museum visitor who has a similar set of figurines recalled her great-uncle who was stationed as a marine in China about the time of the Boxer Rebellion and bought souvenirs, including figurines. Good, email message to Shi, March 17, 2015.

29 Xu Yongshui, interview by Yuanxie Shi, June 2015; Shi and Kendall, “Who Miniaturises China?,” 221; “Sancun muxin: Xu Yongshui he ta de baimu xiaojian” 三寸木心——徐永水和他的白木小件, Dongnan shangbao, accessed September 19, 2017, http://daily.cnnb.com.cn/dnsb/html/2015-06/28/content_872130.htm?div=-1.

30 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

31 The Ninghai Bureau of Culture, Media and Publication website claims a 300-year history for wooden figure carving. However, a recent news report claimed Shen Zhongze 沈中泽 as the first carver, though no further information is provided. See “Ninghai baimu xiaojian disidai chuanren: Xu Yongshui” 宁海“白木小件”第四代传人, Ninghai Xinwenwang 宁海新闻网 (accessed June 16, 2018), http://nh.cnnb.com.cn/system/2011/11/18/010176308.shtml; “Ninghai baimu xiaojian” 宁海白木小件, Baidu Baike 百度百科 (accessed on June 16, 2018), http://baike.baidu.com/view/3236653.htm.

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33 Qiu Yanping 裘燕萍, email message to Yuanxie Shi, Feb 27, 2015.

34 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

35 “Ninghai lao fangzi zhiyi: Gu zhai” 《宁海老房子》之一——顾宅, Ninghai xinwen wang 宁海新闻网 (accessed June 16, 2018), http://nh.cnnb.com.cn/system/2013/04/15/010553586.shtml.

36 “Ninghai lao fangzi zhiyi: Gu zhai.”

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38 Other carvers who engaged in figurine carving include, from the late Qing period, Sun Yusheng 孙余生(裕生), Pan Hongtai 潘宏泰 and his apprentice Shen Zhongze 沈中泽, Bao Hongtai 鲍鸿泰 and his apprentice Gu Hongzhang 顾鸿章, Xun Zhongze 汛忠泽; from the Republican period are two brothers, Hua Renshou 华仁寿 and Hua Rongshou 华荣寿, Shen's apprentice Wang Daiwai 王大外, and Xu Xitu 徐锡土; and others who engaged in practice after 1949 are Wang Dawai's apprentice Xu Yongshui徐永水, Xu Lianghua 徐良华, Li Yunmeng 李允蒙, Chen Xiaoji 陈孝吉, Huang Yong 黄雍, and Ye Weijian 叶维建.

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44 Ningbo-style furniture was a local specialty, as Nicholas Belfield Dennys discusses in his guide to Chinese open ports in the 1860s. See Dennys, Nicholas Belfield, The Treaty Ports of China and Japan: A Complete Guide to the Open Ports of Those Countries, Together with Peking, Yedo, Hongkong and Macao (London: Trubner and A. Shortrede, 1867), 341Google Scholar; Shi and Kendall, “Who Miniaturises China?,” 220–21.

45 Clunas, Chinese Furniture, 33; Shiba, “Ningpo and Its Hinterland,” 211; Zhou, “Forms of Business in the City of Ningpo,” 64–68; Xu Yongshui, interviewed by Shi, March 6, 2016.

46 陈眉, Chen Mei, “Qiantan Ningshi jiaju zhuangshi yishu fengge de xingcheng” 浅探宁式家具装饰艺术风格的形成, Ningbo jiaoyu xueyuan xuebao 8.6 (2006), 5254Google Scholar.

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50 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

51 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

52 Examples include two figures on boats, collected by James Page Dowden before the 1920s (9-5287 and 9-5280), and three sedan chairs, collected by the Brooklyn Children's Museum (40.68.1, purchased in 1940; 42.31.7, donated in 1942; 97.10.39, donated in 1997).

53 They are from the Phoebe Hearst Museum, catalogue number: 9-17292, 9-17297, 9-17303, 9-17304.

54 See Collection of China's Pagodas: Achieved by the Siccawei Catholic Mission, Industrial School, near Shanghai, to the World's Panama Pacific Exposition, 1915 (Shanghai: n.p., 1915)Google Scholar.

55 See the photos in Loong, Mee-Seen and Hantover, Jeffrey, eds, A Collection of Pagodas: 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco (New York: New York Paragon, 2014)Google Scholar.

56 The Brooklyn Children's Museum used to be known as the Children's Museum of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. See Bowen, “Chinese Models,” 34.

57 Meghan O'Brien Backhouse, email message to Shi, Jan 8, 2019.

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62 Zhou, “Forms of Business in the City of Ningpo,” 80.

63 Zhou, “Forms of Business in the City of Ningpo,” 80.

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66 Ledderose, “The Bureaucracy of Hell,” 163–85.

67 See more discussions on the origin of pictorial prototypes in Shi and Kendall, “Who Miniaturises China?,” 228–32.

68 See more discussion and images in Shi and Kendall, “Who Miniaturises China?,” 232.

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70 Inscriptions such as Yinyi 鄞邑 (nowadays Ningbo), Xiangshan 象山 (a county of Ningbo), Zhejiang 浙江, Songjiang 松江, Prefecture of Songjiang 松江府, and Shanghai were inscribed on the figurines in cangue.

71 See Ninghai xian difangzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui 宁海县地方志编纂委员会, Ninghai xianzhi 宁海县志 (Ninghai, 1993), 181–82, 185.

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73 Xu Yongshui mentioned this during the interview. Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, June 10, 2015; Zhonggong zhongyang huanan fenju nongcun gongzuobu disanchu 中共中央华南分局农村工作部第三处, ed., Shougongye hezuohua jianghua 手工业合作化讲话 (Guangzhou: Huanan renmin, 1955), 7.

74 Zhonghua quanguo gongye hezuo zongshe 中华全国工业合作总社 and Zhonggong zhongwang dangshi yanjiushi 中共中央党史研究室, eds, Zhongguo shougongye hezuohua he chengshi jiti gongye de fazhan 中国手工业合作化和城市集体工业的发展, vol. 1 (Beijing: Zhongguo dangshi, 1992), 5–11.

75 The group was one of the eight production groups in Ninghai in 1956. See Ninghai xian difangzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui, Ninghai xianzhi, 182.

76 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, June 10, 2015.

77 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

78 The term is most known as a reference to the Ningbo hongbang tailors who were skilled in making Western-style clothing. Na, Ou, “Entre Occident et Orient: La nouvelle culture de la mode en Chine [Between the West and the East: The new culture of the fashion in China],” in Esthétiques du Quotidien en Chine: Sous la Direction de Danielle Elisseeff, eds. Lottthé, Dessins de Sylvia & Jianming, Song (Paris: Institut Français de La Mode, 2016), 111125Google Scholar.

79 “有头无发, 有面无耳, 有手无指.” Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

80 “一刀到顶.” Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

81 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016; Zhou, “Forms of Business in the City of Ningbo,” 63–66.

82 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, June 10, 2015 and March 6, 2016.

83 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, June 10, 2015 and March 6, 2016.

84 Day, “Ningpo Wood Carvings,” 311.

85 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

86 “1963 nian Shanghai shi chukou shangpin tongji nianbaobiao” 1963 年上海市出口商品统计年报表, Shanghai Municipal Archives.

87 The average working days for factory workers during the PRC was about six days a week: 63528÷35≈1815; 1815÷(365÷7×6)≈5.8.

88 Clunas, Chinese Furniture, 70.

89 Zhou, “Forms of Business in the City of Ningpo,” 58–61.

90 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

91 In 1957, whitewood figurines were sold to the Shanghai Import and Export Company of Arts and Crafts for three RMB per set, a considerable price for toys. Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

92 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

93 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

94 For instance, Maria Mies studies the lace-making women of Narsapur, who were regarded as “the informal sector” and did not statistically exist as workers, either in researchers’ data collection or in economic planners and politicians’ calculation. Mies, Maria, The Lace Makers of Narsapur: Indian Housewives Produce for the World Market (London: Zed Press, 1982), 69Google Scholar. See related China studies in Eyferth, Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots, 11–14; Ko, Social Life of Inkstones.

95 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

96 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, June 10, 2015 and March 6, 2016.

97 Cooper, The Artisans and Entrepreneurs of Dongyang County, 46.

98 Cooper, The Artisans and Entrepreneurs of Dongyang County, 65.

99 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, June 10, 2015.

100 Zhonghua quanguo gongye hezuo zongshe and Zhonggong zhongwang dangshi yanjiushi, Zhongguo shougongye hezuohua he chengshi jiti gongye de fazhan, 401.

101 Xu Yongshui, interview by Shi, March 6, 2016.

102 Chong, Hu, Yibing, Du, et al. , “Zhejiang sheng chuantong gongyi meishu diaocha baogao” 浙江省传统工艺美术调查报告, Zhejiang gongyi meishu 4.2 (1986), 153Google Scholar.

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105 Zhou, “Forms of Business in the City of Ningpo,” 71–76.

106 See Bianzuan weiyuanhui, Ninghai xian wenhua zhi, 233–34.

107 Moning, Shen 沈墨宁, Diaofeng louyue hua jizi 雕风镂月话吉子 (Hangzhou: Xiling yinshe, 2010), 17Google Scholar.

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109 Local forest resources were largely destroyed during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. See Ninghai xian difangzhi bianzuan weiyuanhui, Ninghai xianzhi, 272–73.

110 Zhou, “Forms of Business in the City of Ningpo,” 80.

111 Sun Weirong 孙伟荣, the manager of a Ninghai artwork company, first encountered wooden figurines during his investigation of local cultural heritage in 2010. But it is said that his real intention was not to preserve the all-but-vanished handicraft but to gain government subsidies, if he could succeed in applying the intangible cultural heritage to the wooden figurines. “Ninghai baimu xiaojian disidai chuanren: Xu Yongshui.”

112 Qiu Yanping, interview by Shi, June 10, 2015.