In April, 2016 I was invited to China by the World Crafts Council as part of a team to assess the applications of Chinese cities for certification as centres of excellence for different crafts. With one other assessor, my friend Alberto de Betolaza from Uruguay, we first travelled from Beijing to the city of Fuxin in Laoning province, near the North Korean border. This was my first time to travel so far north and I was delighted to find that the region’s population is 80% Mongolian – a whole new cultural environment. Fuxin is the largest centre of agate mining and carving in the world. Agate is a semi-precious stone with varied colours, and very difficult to carve.
The raw agate gives very little hint of the amazing interior.
The colours are often layered and the carver selects the areas to cut away in order
to create different effects. The Buddha is laughing at the spider on his foot.
The back of the spider is highlighted by the natural tones of the stone.
Because my Cyclops series always features the hole in the centre of the piece, I have noticed all over China the turned agate pieces that have the same hole in the centre. I think they represent the gathering of feng shui energy, which I think works for my pieces too. In Fuxin I saw them everywhere, but I have yet to see them made.
This piece was so thin that it was translucent. What a wonderful object – I’d like to have it in my house.
This meal of tasty dishes looks good enough to eat – every piece is made from stone
and the colours are all natural!
Such things remind us of the importance of food in Chinese culture, and this trip was no different. In every city we were hosted by local government officials and local craft representatives. The food is always wonderful and the alcohol flows freely - after which many promises are made, often to be conveniently forgotten the next day. It takes some getting used to, but I have learned so much about China in this way.
As part of the assessment process we visited workshops, training schools, markets, galleries, museums, and more. As a way of learning about China, it is unbeatable.
In a museum I was delighted to see this traditional agate-carving machine.
Just like the old wood lathes I have seen in China, it is pedal powered. The agate was held against
the reciprocally rotating disk which was impregnated with abrasive. It must have been painstakingly slow.
In one of the workshops we visited the carvers worked busily, lost in music through their earphones.
This was where I first saw these shaft-driven machines, much more robust than those I have at home.
The stone is cut with diamond cutters, constantly washed with water to remove the dust.
We also visited a training college where we saw the students studying design, business practices,
and of course, carving. This practical class was very neat and, yet again, I saw these wonderful
carving machines. Our guide observed that I seemed to be taking a particular interest
in these machines, and I said, "They are wonderful. I wish I had one!"
The next day we visited a Tibetan Llama temple in the mountains outside Fuxin. Apparently there are fifteen such temples outside Tibet, and each has its own Living Buddha. Alberto and I were granted a rare private audience with him. He was a quiet young man and after we drank tea together, he asked if we wanted to ask him any questions. It is not every day you are given the chance to question a "Living Buddha", so I thought very carefully.
Terry: How old where you when you were told you were a Living Buddha?
Living Buddha: I was just a little boy.
T: How did your parents feel?
LB: They were very upset and resisted a lot. I am their only child.
T: How did you feel?
LB: I was terrified. For a long time I cried every day.
I decided that he was a very honest man.
Our group with the Living Buddha
L – R: Mr Wang, President of WCC China; Alberto de Betolaza, President of WCC Latin America;
the Living Buddha; Terry Martin having the time of his life; Chen Jing, Secretary General of WCC China;
local official. Alberto and I are wearing scarves presented to us by the Living Buddha.
After we left the temple, the Mayor treated us to lunch at a Mongolian restaurant in a traditional yurt. I told everyone about my life-long fascination with Mongolian throat-singing. They asked if I could do it, so I made my few poor attempts. Everyone was quite surprised and they politely clapped. Then, to my delight, a group of traditional singers came in and entertained us while we ate. The main singer was a throat-singer of prodigious power and I told him that because I had never heard throat-singing live, he was "my hero."
We also visited an enormous market where much of the agate in the world is traded – from raw material to finished products.
This was just one hall among many. It was interesting that our Chinese companions could not
understand many of the locals and we depended on the Mayor to translate for us:
Mongolian – Chinese – English – Chinese – Mongolian – and back and forth.
It is a great place to buy souvenirs and bargaining is expected. I enjoyed it immensely:
10 fingers held up (10 yuan?) - shake of head – a shrug and roll of eyes (how much then?) -
10 fingers held up twice (20 yuan) – shake – point to that piece and that piece and 15 fingers held up
(15 for these two?) – a laugh and head shake (you’re killing me!) –
20 fingers and a smile (OK, you win, 20 for 2) – a big smile and a handshake (deal!)
Like all of the people there, this trader was quick to smile.
While we were at the market, Chen Jing asked me to follow her. "Where are we going?" I asked. "You will see", she replied. We wandered through back lanes and eventually arrived at a small shop where I saw lots of tools. "At the workshop you said you would like a carving machine," she said, "and this man will give you the best price." Such unexpected thoughtfulness was delightful. I chose the one they said was best, but they warned me: "It’s very expensive." When they quoted me $150 I nearly laughed. Even if it was available in Australia, it would probably cost me $1500! I agree and paid, but then the owner said, "You will need lots of these", and poured handfuls of diamond cutters into the box, then added "and you will need a spare handpiece" and threw that in as well. I said I would take it with me, but they insisted they would post it to Australia for me at no cost – all 20 KG! Let’s be honest, it helps to be on a team assessing the local industry, but I was still moved by the kindness.
We returned to Beijing where I was given the solo task of visiting a remarkable artist to report on his suitability for inclusion in a register of renowned artists. This was a delicate matter as he a very famous master. Who am I to asses him? At first he was reserved with me, but he took me to an enormous temple complex outside Beijing. It contains sixteen temples and I was astonished to hear that not only had he designed all the buildings, but also all the statues, décor, furniture – even the elevator doors! As we walked through the complex I realised what an extraordinary man he is.
The temple complex – 100% designed by the one man.
Master Lu stands beside one of the altars he designed.
The whole room is extremely ornate and the walls are lined with niches containing 999 Buddha statues.
He invited me for a vegetarian lunch in a temple, and as we ate, he said, "I didn’t ask for this assessment you know. I was told I had to do it." I could sense his wounded pride and I replied, "I didn’t ask to do it either, and I am embarrassed to seem like I am sitting in judgement of a great master. Let’s just pretend and enjoy the lunch!" After that we were the best of friends.
Next we joined the full team of assessors from all the regions of the WCC to travel to Donghai, in Jiangsu Province, to assess the rock crystal-carving industry. When you travel with a large official delegation in China, it is necessary to go through many formal meetings where party officials preside, everyone is formally introduced, and stirring speeches are made while the local media dutifully record everything.
A guest's-eye view of the meeting. There is always lots of clapping.
Rock crystal carving is very similar to agate carving, but the material is quite different and more highly prized.
I asked one of the carvers how long it takes to make a piece like this, about 50 cm high.
He said, "Two months to carve and eight months to polish." The prices were up to hundreds
of thousands of dollars, but as with most of the crafts in China, I am not sure how much they reflect
the reality of an oversupplied market.
As always, bigger is better in China.
These pieces were very prized, but often let down by unsympathetic wooden bases.
While I was in Donghai, I experienced an unexpected kind of celebrity. At a marathon dinner we all had been asked what our first job had been. There was some surprise when I told them I had been a police officer. The next day our interpreter came rushing to me and said, "Mr Martin, I want you to meet someone!" He turned to a man probably in his forties and said, "This is Mr. Su Rui and he is a crystal carver, but he also was a policeman!" We laughed and shared stories about our police experiences, then we discovered our fathers had also both been police officers. To my amazement, this made us instant celebrities and we were interviewed by the media and even appeared in the local newspaper – two carvers, me in wood and him in stone, with no language in common, but a lot of shared experiences. This is why I travel.
Mr. Wang and Terry – two ex-cops!
We visited a street market where crystal was sold in staggering quantities.
It was so long that we didn’t even reach the other end.
Our final destination was Xianyou in Fujian Province. I had visited there in 2014 as part of World Wood Day, and immediately found myself surrounded by people who remembered me. It was much more comfortable territory for me as we were there to assess the furniture industry, which in China means a lot of carving. We were put into an astonishing hotel and every meal was a revelation.
A simple lunch!
Every dish was a work of art and every day the sauces were painted in imitation of different artists.
Our inspections took us to all parts of the city and countryside, and it was during these tours that I had an experience that could only happen in China. We were visiting a famous woman carver, one of the rare women who has been allowed to achieve the status of "master". When our bus stopped near her studio, we got out of the bus to discover that because we had to walk across the road, the police had stopped traffic in both directions. It was a change from the usual risks of crossing the road in China.
I don’t know who the drivers thought we were!
Her carving was astounding. This figure is carved from one solid piece of wood, about one metre tall.
I'd like to offer two final images of the kind of unexpected delights that you can encounter in China.
What better creation for a city renowned for woodcarving than this public toilet inside a "hollow log".
On a student campus I found this sign of the world as it now is for young Chinese -
the four great mysteries of life: Love, Art, Infinity and …….. the Internet?