Beautifully carved figure of a prancing water-buffalo, his horns turned backwards, his nose, eyes and ears carefully modeled, his weight balanced backwards on the hind legs, as if ready to charge. The artisan was able to imbue this figure with the outmost sensitivity and liveliness, his strokes still visible on the surface.
Animal representations, real and mythical, rich in symbolic meaning, have been an important part of Chinese art from the earliest periods. In particular, depictions of water-buffaloes have been favoured since the Western Zhou period and mostly associated with the western provinces of China. Water-buffalo as well as the more common ox have always been associated with sedentary cultures and mostly employed as metaphors of well-being and fertility. Oxen were also portrayed to placate the spirits of the rivers, according to folk religion and Daoist beliefs.
Indeed the theme of nature is everywhere in Chinese art, as aspects of nature permeate the life of the Chinese in philosophy, religion, art, architecture, medicine, and basic human subsistence for an immense population. Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, all stress man's oneness with nature. That is why, especially in the scholar's study, both materials from nature and materials symbolic of or depicting nature, are frequently found art objects. And such a beautiful animal would have indeed decorated the interiors of a scholar’s house.
The traditional Chinese scholar spent years studying the ancient classics and philosophical treatises while steeping himself in the moral principles of Confucianism, hoping to pass the Civil Service Examination. Passing this examination allowed him to enter governmental service, the key to entrance into a life of privilege, social status, politics, and aesthetics. Within his studio, his room for study and contemplation, he surrounded himself with "treasures" created for scholars-brushes, ink stones, water droppers, toggles, figurines and scholar's rocks. More than mere art curios, these treasures embodied the shared wisdom, traditions, and values of the Chinese literati who governed China for more than two millennia.
The art of wood carving is indeed a millenary tradition in China. From archaeological excavations and recorded documents, as early as six to seven thousand years ago ivory carvings and wooden artefacts were already being produced, as evidenced by their discovery within Neolithic Hemudu culture in Zhejiang province and the Shang dynasty site of Anyang in Henan province. Yet, despite the long precedence for carving throughout Chinese history, few historical materials record the development of this art in any great detail.
What we know is that by the Ming dynasty scholars became accustomed to painstakingly furnishing their studios with highly decorative ink stones and other refined and exquisitely carved works. These scholarly items served as usable implements and as decorative table ornaments. At the same time due to the improved state of economic conditions in China, many affluent businessmen and merchants desired to imitate these outward signs indicative of refined learning and scholarship. With the interest and support of the scholar group, artisans were permitted to exercise greater artistic freedom and technical expression, resulting in a gradual refinement of the works produced in this period and in a wider range of themes.
There was a succession of many highly skilled carvers throughout both the Ming and Qing periods. These artisans produced a large corpus of expertly crafted and artistic pieces; however, most of their names have not survived down to the present day. There have been occasional instances when brief descriptions about specific artisans have appeared in historical documents, but very often all that remains is just the carver's name without any of his works surviving. There have also been occasions when carved artifacts have been found bearing the artisan's name, but too often because the materials are in themselves not conclusive there is no way to verify or substantiate these findings.
The middle of the Ming dynasty to the middle of the Qing period represents the golden age of Chinese carving, when many carvers worked in more than one medium at the same time. Through this period, in addition to the imperial artisans there were also many local, highly skilled, professional carvers. Examples of famous regionally carved products are: the stone carvings from Qingtian in Zhejiang province, and Shoushan in Fujian province; bamboo carvings from Nanjing and Jiading; hardwood furniture from Guanzhou. The works of all these regional schools all possessed unique attributes that are known for their rounded contours and semi-polished lustre.
By the Qing dynasty the customs and traditions of the former dynastic period continued to be a prevalent influence: scholars and wealthy merchants still persisted in cherishing finely detailed and exquisitely carved works, and eventually this popular style of carving tradition was also adopted by the imperial household. The Qing emperors often selected artisans to serve in the Imperial Workshops. They could be distinguished into northern and southern regional groups, and under the Qing Imperial sponsorship the development of carving style and technique progressed rapidly, reaching an extremely high level of accomplishment by the reign of the Qianlong emperor.
This water-buffalo epitomises the creativity of wood carving during the mid-Ming early Qing period, bringing us back to the fashinating world of the Neo-Confucian scholars.