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Cultural Inheritors: Actions speak louder than words

The Vibe

Today in the second edition of our "Cultural Inheritors" series, we continue with the story of Liu Jianhua, an unassuming artist specializing in Chinese painting and a woodworking enthusiast who has been making high-end classical Chinese furniture for 30 years as both a hobby and an inheritance. Let's follow The Vibe's Qi Jie to learn more about how his artistic achievements and handmade creations nourish each other.


This is Liu Jianhua. He started learning Chinese painting when he was 14 years old. And he's been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about traditional Chinese woodcraft since the early 1990s. "Our Lingnan culture is actually connected with furniture in every aspect, from dining habits to the living environment and painting as well. I traveled all over the country to see ancient structures, old residential buildings, all the old things. Take wood carving as an example — the style is different in every place."

Lingnan culture refers to the regional culture south of the Qinling Mountains, covering the two provincial-level regions of Guangdong and Guangxi. It's one of the four renowned styles of woodwork in China. The Lingnan style dates back to the 17th century. And what distinguishes it is that Lingnan woodwork has been influenced by Western aesthetics since Guangzhou opened its port to the world in the mid-19th century. As for any decorative inlay of precious stones, seashells and marble, Liu tells me people's aesthetic tastes change as the times change.

A custom-made Arhat bed with inlaid ceramic tiles painted by renowned artist Chen Yongkang. /CGTN
A custom-made Arhat bed with inlaid ceramic tiles painted by renowned artist Chen Yongkang. /CGTN

A custom-made Arhat bed with inlaid ceramic tiles painted by renowned artist Chen Yongkang. /CGTN

Liu's woodwork is reminiscent of Ming furniture, which was known for its strikingly simple designs that let the natural wood "speak for itself." And the decorative porcelain plate paintings are not copied from ancient Chinese paintings, but made by the living artists of today, making each piece unique.

Liu has been making high-end furniture for over three decades. So far, he has made around 1,000 pieces as he remembers, and the rate of annual orders is steadily increasing at a rate of 10 percent. But he's never much cared about fame. For him, it's such a joy to "play with wood," as he puts it. For me, he's like one of those craftsmen in the Ming Dynasty hundreds of years ago who left the world exquisite furniture, but no single piece was ever engraved with their names. The aesthetics are eternal.


This is Shawan Ancient Town in the Panyu District of Guangzhou, about 30 kilometers from the city center. The town has a history dating back 800 years. One day in early autumn, Liu Jianhua receives a special delivery: freshly made porcelain plates to embellish his high-end furniture. This time, Liu is collaborating with Professor Lu Xiaobo from Tsinghua University in Beijing. Lu is also a designer and artist who has been painting cranes using the Chinese water-and-ink method for over 30 years. In Chinese culture, cranes are a symbol of purity.

The freshly glazed ceramic cranes are safe and sound. For Liu, it's a big relief since his custom-made porcelain often gets damaged in transit. To celebrate, Liu says it's time to taste Shunde cooking. Some say "You don't really know about Shunde until you've satisfy your taste buds." Liu Jianhua has his own understanding, "Food is art. You have to be sophisticated enough to create works of art." Shunde is one of UNESCO's Cities of Gastronomy and one of the birthplaces of Cantonese cuisine.

Guangdong Province is located on the northern shores of the South China Sea. Due to its near year-round humid subtropical climate, locals prefer to use genuine wooden furniture in their homes. And many people even collect it as a hobby. Liu Jianhua's teacher, Chen Yongkang, is a renowned Chinese painting artist. His work has been collected by the China National Academy of Painting. The 79-year-old is also a collector of classic Chinese furniture, which he believes is closely connected to art. His latest acquisition is this collaborative piece, painted by him and inlaid by his student. And the master is very happy with his custom-made Arhat bed.

Liu Jianhua painting in his studio. /CGTN
Liu Jianhua painting in his studio. /CGTN

Liu Jianhua painting in his studio. /CGTN

Liu Jianhua started learning Chinese painting from his teacher when he was 14 years old. Now a teacher himself at a local art academy, this unassuming man says Chinese painting is his unique way of broadening his artistic perspective on woodworking... and having fun with water and ink with friends. "Whenever I have time, I talk to my friends. Besides painting and making ceramics and handicrafts, I always like to interact with my friends, which inspires creativity."

Over the decades, either in the art world or regarding cultural inheritance, Liu Jianhua's goal has been to be an "artist among craftsmen" or a "craftsman among artists." As artificial intelligence becomes more and more integrated into everyday life, this quiet but active man believes the human touch of craftsmanship is more important than ever.

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