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CRAFTSMANSHIP

Fruit stone carving is a type of miniature carving, for which the stones of peaches, apricots, olives and other fruits can be used. In 2008 the handicraft of fruit stone carving was listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The material used for olive pit carving are the pits of black olives grown in China's southern province of Guangdong, which are also used for their oil. These olives have a thin layer of flesh, and a large pit, making them suitable for carving. But the ideal olive is one in a million, and the prices for these perfectly formed and carved olive pits can reach up to 1000RMB.

The carving of olive pits is a craft which requires endurance, skill, specialized knowledge and a deep consideration of aesthetics. Often when carving olive pits, the final stages are the most important. For example, when carving the delicate outlines of a character's nose, or the windows of a boat, the slightest error can cause the pit to crack, rendering all the prior work wasted. As a result, when the masters of this craft are working on olive pits, they hold their breath and carve with the utmost caution, always aware of the consequences of the slightest error.

The making of carved olive pits.

  • Choosing the material
When choosing suitable olive pits, the masters must not only consider the beauty of the pit, but also its shape, form and structure. Generally, larger pits allow for easier carving. 
  • Design 
There are two steps to olive pit design. Firstly, draft designs are sketched on paper. Secondly, the selected design is painted on to the surface of the olive pit. 
  • Final processes 
The design is carved according to the design painted on the olive pit surface.
  • Carving
This is the most important part in the process of making carved olive pits. After this stage, the most important contours of the design will have been formed.
  • Carving (“opening”) the Face 
Also known as “opening the eyes”, this is the key stage of olive pit carving. It is at this point that the charm and character of the carving comes to life. 
  • Burnishing and Polishing 
Carved olive pits are burnished and polished in sanding and polishing machines. After polishing, the pits have a shiny and wet appearance. Not only are the full of charm, they are also worthy of collecting.

Pit and stone carving are vulnerable works of art, which require careful preservation. Most importantly, cracks on the surface of the pits must be prevented. The main reason for pits cracking is a lack of moisture inside the pit and dryness on the surface. For this reason, carved pits should not be stored in environments with central heating. They should also be kept away from sunlight, water and wind. Another reason for their vulnerability is their surface oil, which needs to be carefully topped up every so often. Thirdly, although olive pits are very hard, after carving they can become brittle, particularly around delicately carved areas. For this reason, they are very vulnerable to damage from being dropped or mishandled. Finally, olive pits should be frequently rubbed. One of their special features is that the more they are handled and rubbed, the more their color and shine deepens.

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History

 

The earliest recorded history of stone and pit carvings comes from the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), although most likely the craft has a history stretching much further back. The most commonly used stones and pits are those of apricots, peaches and olives. The art of olive pit carving matured during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

 

Xia Baiyan and Wang Shuyuan are the well-known pit carvers from Ming Dynasty . Xia Baiyan gained recognition for his masterpiece engraving of the sixteen faces in one olive pit. Each face has its own distinct expression and is about half the size of a rice grain. Wang Shuyuan is famous for his carving 'Su Dongpo's Midnight Boating at Red Cliff', an exquisite miniature carving of a vessel with five men inside; the cabin of a boat has 8 movable, finely decorated windows that are inscribed with characters “as thin as mosquito legs” on both sides. The back of the olive pit has an inscription of Sushih’s lyrical piece “Before Red Cliff ”, written in 1082 to commemorate the Battle of Red Cliff. In 1854, Wang Shuyuan's carving was hailed as “miraculous work” by the Qing Emperor Xian Feng, who was especially fond of its figures lifelike appearance.

 

More outstanding master carvers emerged during the Qing Dynasty. Such were Chen Zuzhang, Du Shiyuan and Zhan Susheng. Some of them did not only create, but were also great olive pit carving collectors.

 

During the Ming and Qing dynasties, two areas of China established themselves as olive pit centers- - Xintang (in the southern province Guangdong) and Suzhou (Jiangsu province).

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