The history of the coal carving can be traced back 6,000-7,000 years. The jet adornments that were unearthed in the cultural stratum at the Xinle ruins in Shenyang, capital city of Northern China’s Liaoning Province, comprise the embryo of coal carving. The jet-carved circlet and lumps sculpted in coal, which were unearthed in a Western Zhou Dynasty (1100-771BC) grave in Northern China’s Shanxi Province, confirm the long history of coal carving.
Records of coal carving are rare. In the Book of Diverse Crafts, the oldest known work on the arts and crafts, coal carving was regarded as the integration of timeliness, materials and technology. However, nobody knows the concrete origin of coal carving. Historical records say that no delicate coal-carved handiworks have been unearthed.
Fortunately, Zhao Kunsheng, a wood carving handicraftsman, reopened the door to coal carving. When burning coal one cold winter, he discovered a kind of jet black and solid coal fit for sculpting. Zhao then sculpted a pair of balls with a woodcarving tool, and, hence, the first neoteric jet-carved handiwork was born.
In 1970s, an old man from Datong in Shanxi Province sculpted the face of Chairman Mao Zedong in coal as a token of respect. But this was a folk art associated with a particular feeling that did not spread far and wide.
In the 1980s, three workers at the Yungang Grottoes — a collection of early Chinese Buddhist cave art — wanted to make coal carving handiworks imitating the grottoes with coal gangue in Datong to promote tourism in Yungang.
The works were then launched on the market. With the accelerated development of the tour in Yungang, coal-carved handiworks became a hit with both Chinese and foreign tourists. However, the technology at that time was fairly primitive compared to modern technology.
Shi Yuping, who lives in Yungang, believes that making coal-carved handiworks requires delicate care. With his high achievements in sculpting figures, Shi began to make coal carvings using high carving technology. He only used high-quality materials and went to distant places to seek for good coal gangues. Shi even made breakthroughs in tools as well as in expressionism, paying more attention to the contrast between light and dark to make the carvings more vivid.
In the First Yungang Tour Festival, the Datong government promoted coal carving in a grand fashion and introduced it in various exhibitions.
Consequently, coal carving, which has existed for thousands of years but was only known by a few, had made a comeback. When various images emerge from coal, the vitality of this art form shows it true colors, attracting many enthusiasts.
Nowadays, coal carving has been introduced to the international market and is collected by tourists from many different countries.