A black slate, an alloy steel needle and decades of practice. This is Li Yahua's recipe for creating the perfect Huihe stone shadow carving work of art. With her left hand gently leaning against the mirror-like slate to support the heavy chisel she's holding in her right hand, the artist creates a black-and-white landscape by meticulously chiseling dots of various sizes and density on the stone.
Derived from Huian stone carving in Fujian Province, southeast China, stone shadow carving was developed by Li's grandfather. Different from traditional Chinese art genres that emphasize the beauty of lines, it highlights the size and depth of dots.
"We use an alloy steel needle to chisel white dots to create images on a polished and smooth black slate," Li explained, adding the pressure used to chisel them is the key getting the carving right—and the one point that requires a lot of practice.
"On an A4-paper-size slate of black hematite, we need to chisel about 100 million dots to create an image," she continued, adding it would take seven to 20 days to complete the work depending on its level of complexity.
Born into a family of stone carvers, stone and alloy steel needles have been Li's best friends since childhood and the sound of chisel knocking on the slate is the soundtrack to her life. The 56-year-old has devoted nearly 40 years to the craft. For her, shadow carving is about preserving history, culture and art, and recording the stories of the times.
Li Yahua gives her son Dai Yian a few pointers as he’s creating a stone shadow carving work in Xiamen, Fujian Province, on June 28 (ZHANG WEI)
Stone shadow carving was not part of Li's life plan until she was 18, but her subpar performance in China's college entrance examination made the skill a necessity to support herself. A student's score on this all-important standardized test is pretty much the only thing that matters when it comes to determining whether or not they can go to college—and if they can, which schools they can attend.
In Li's hometown of Huian, learning to be a stone carver was traditionally a man's privilege because the art was used decorating ancestral halls and Buddhist temples, projects that denied women's participation. In addition, because machines were not common, artisans had to cut the stones using hammers, a dirty and tiring job deemed unsuitable for women. However, the art of stone shadow carving, a sub-discipline of stone carving, requires no physical labor and relies on meticulous handiwork—a field in which women hold the advantage.
Li Zousheng, her father and a famous stone carver, set strict requirements for the cultivation of his new disciple. "He would always pay attention to the sound and rhythm of my chiseling, which would tell him whether I was concentrating on my work. And he would scold me if I wasn't," Li Yahua recalled.
After three years of training under her father's stern guidance, all the practice and repetition paid off.
In 1988 a businessman from Changhua in China's Taiwan region, visited Li Zousheng. During the trip, he noticed Li Yahua's stone shadow carving depicting a Chinese folk tale, Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea. He bought it for about 5,000 yuan ($1,344 at then exchange rate), which was a lot of money at that time.
"That taught me my work could be recognized by others and that I could actually make a living from the craft. So I changed my attitude toward stone shadow carving and began taking it more seriously," Li Yahua said.
During the 2017 BRICS (the acronym for the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Xiamen, Fujian, Li Yahua, wearing traditional Huian clothing, showcased her stone shadow-carving works to the participants on the sidelines of the event.
Standing in front of her works, Chinese President Xi Jinping introduced the art of stone shadow carving to Russian President Vladimir Putin as "embroidery on stone instead of silk." Xi also praised the women of Huian, referring to them as being "hardworking, unpretentious and determined."
The artist thinks there is a connection between Huian women and stone shadow carving. "Stones are hard and Huian women are industrious; their approach to life truly represents the craft." As she firmly believes folk art of any kind can help more people create a better life for themselves and their families, she has organized carving art classes and encouraged more local women to learn the skill, especially women from Fujian's small villages.
"Stone shadow carving doesn't require many tools. They can take the slates home, do the work, take care of their families and generate income at the same time," Li said, adding she now enrolls more than 30 students every year.
"My deceased father would be pleased to know that I am helping more women to master the art," she continued.
A stone shadow carving artwork about Huian women by artist Li Yahua (ZHANG WEI)
Creating stone shadow carvings can be detrimental to one's hands and eyesight, and the age of 17 to 25 is the prime time for a creator. Li Yahua's eyesight started deteriorating when she was 27. "They (the hands and eyes) decline faster than other people's and I have not been able to complete a work on my own since I was 28."
But this doesn't mean she believes advanced technologies and upgraded machinery can replace manual work. Good work should convey a creator's understanding and emotions, and this is how we record the stories of the times on stone, she explained.
She is also broadening the scope of her subject matter: Unlike the temples and ancient buildings that featured traditional religious elements in the early days, Li Yahua and her team's creations are closer to everyday life. "The inheritance of intangible cultural heritage should be integrated with modern life and contemporary aesthetics," she added.
In order to appeal to young people and tourists, landscapes, animals and traditional auspicious patterns are also included in a modern style and a wide range of colors. This particular "breakthrough" was initiated by her 27-year-old son, Dai Yian.
Dai went to the United States to attend middle school and resided in the country all the way through university. Although he could remember his mother always being obsessed with her art, he himself had a limited understanding of shadow carving.
A cultural exchange stint during his postgraduate studies at Oregon State University changed his mind. Locals in Corvallis were amazed by the works he exhibited, which were all his mother's works, and this gave Dai a whole new appreciation for his homeland's revered folk-art. Ever since, he has spent his vacations learning his mother's stone shadow carving skills.
"As a 16th-generation inheritor of the stone carving art, I should pass on the traditional skill," Dai said. Now, he also livestreams stone shadow carving techniques on Douyin, China's TikTok.
"Passing on intangible cultural heritage should go beyond the level of skill and emphasize its cultural continuity and identification," he added.
(Reporting from Xiamen, Fujian Province)
(Print Edition Title: Stones Rocking 'Embroidery')
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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