Ivory sculpture is an old art in China dating back to prehistoric times. From the ruins of the Yin Dynasty capital of 3,700 years ago, knives and rulers made of ivory have been unearthed. The Record of the Warring States, a history written 20 centuries ago, tells of Mengchang, an aristocrat of the State of Qi, who left his homeland for a tour abroad and, when he arrived in the state of Chu, presented an ivory bed. The bed was worth a thousand pieces of gold; the slightest damage would ruin the man who had to compensate for it.
As an art, ivory carving calls for meticulous care. The varying shapes and sizes and the position of the hard core of the tusks must be taken into careful consideration together with the carver's own specialties when he conceives the work he is going to produce. Normally, he will first hew out a rough shape before using his finer tools for the final chiseling and polishing of detail. For larger jobs, a clay model will be moulded and found to be satisfactory before the ivory is worked on. A very large and complex piece of work comprises a number of parts sculptured separately and then assembled.
The Beijing Arts and Crafts Factory turned out in 1974 a large ivory sculpture entitled 'The Chengdu Kunming Railway'. Measuring 180 cm long, 64 cm wide, 110 cm high (including the base) and weighing 318 kilograms, it took 5,000 work-days to complete. Rich in national flavour, it was presented to the United Nations Headquarters.
A gem in the art of ivory carving is the "latticed balls within balls" which has a history of barely a hundred years. To create this marvel, the master craftsman first shapes a piece of ivory into a perfect spherical ball and then bores through it at suitable intervals several conical holes, whose apexes meet exactly at the centre of the ball. Next, he marks the inside of each hole with lines to indicate the number of balls to be cut out. Only now is he ready to cut the balls of different layers starting with the innermost. In spite of the holes, he cannot see anything but have to work by feel, relying on his years of experience and on a fine carver with a curved blade. The rest of the balls are cut out and carved successively from the inside out. Throughout the whole operation, any hair-thin mistake would ruin the entire work of art.
Up to the time of writing, the most complicated "latticed balls within balls" has been produced by the Daxin Ivory Factory of Guangzhou. In 1997, Weng Rong Liao a veteran master craftsman cut out of an ivory block 15 cm across, a set of 42 latticed balls-one inside another, each ball movable inside its larger sphere and bearing pierced work of landscapes (pavilions and towers, clouds and mountains ). And the innermost ball is as thin as paper!
Weng Rong Liao is from a family of four generations of ivory-ball carvers. As early as 1915, his father won international recognition at the International Fair in Panama with a set of "25 latticed balls within balls" carved out of ivory.