Dec 08, 2012

Carved gourd sculptures have been a recognized cultural art within Lanzhou for many centuries. Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu Province situated in the northwest of China.

Gourds are large fleshy fruit with a hard outer coat which is perfect for carving small and detailed patterns and images. The creeping plant from which the gourd is from can be found in warm, dry places. The gourd is precious within Chinese culture as it symbolizes longevity and holds the ability to ward off evil spirits.

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To create a gourd sculpture the gourd must be dried until the surface becomes smooth. Its top is then cut off and the seeds are removed leaving only the shell. Cultural and symbolic designs are carved onto the shell before it is polished and painted. Craftsmen must develop the tedious skill of finely carving the gourd without changing the shape or cutting through the shell. The shell is quite thin and requires patience and a gentle hand for carving. Tidi carving is the main carving technique used to form the small, elaborate designs. It is a form of woodcarving which uses the main lines of the gourd when carving the patterns. Needle engraving and relief carving are also used by Lanzhou craftsmen.

Artistic Gourd sculpting was first introduced to Lanzhou within the Jin (265-420) and Wei (534-557) Dynasties. The earliest forms of gourd sculptures in Lanzhou were carved from large gourds brought to the region by Hu businessmen. Simple carved patterns and letters were added to the gourds.

The famous medicine gourd of Lanzhou was first produced in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Chinese medicine is placed inside the gourd carving. The name and description of the medicine is engraved on the front of the gourd. It became a well known tradition to place the gourd sculptures on the doors of medicine shops within the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) Dynasties. The gourd sculpture was often carved with the Chinese character “药” which means medicine.

During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties, Gourd carvings were valued more for their artistic forms rather than for practical use. Carving techniques from bamboo and wood carving were adopted by Lanzhou craftsmen specializing in gourd sculptures.

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With governmental support, the production of Lanzhou gourd sculptures prospered in the 1950’s. In 1954, the Lanzhou Special Arts and Crafts Workshop was established. It specialized in creative gourd sculptures and carvings. During the 1960’s, Lanzhou gourd sculptures began to be exported overseas to countries such as England, Hungary and Russia. The art of gourd sculpting entered a new era when the artist Ruan Wenhui used a knife instead of a needle to create openwork carved gourd sculptures. Carved gourds with coloured paintings have also become a popular gourd art form from Lanzhou.

Lanzhou is still known for its amazing and unique gourd art. Its incorporation of painting and carving skills combined with the natural beauty of the gourd shell has been highly praised by many throughout the world. Lanzhou Gourd sculptures are classed as a national Chinese folk art which continues to develop and grow over time.

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