16 March 2015

Dalbergia and the tragedy of the too common

A few weeks back I came across a short news item that gave me pause. The efforts and expenses to build these items were clearly intended to produce the opposite effects in viewers from what effect they had on me.

I needed to do a bit of online research to help put in perspective my dislike for this style of what? Of oversized modelmaking? Of imperial nostalgia? Of architectural revisionism? It's a muddle to know what to call this type of project. Party triumphalism? It is too big to be anything other than a demonstration of state power with echoes of dynastic excess.

This project is wrong (or is it mainly odd? tonedeaf?) on so many levels that it's hard to ease into a critique. Why did anybody feel it was necessary or even advantageous to use such an expensive and hard to work material? The rosewood hardly adds to create an appearance of Beijing's former citywalls. Today with cgi walkthroughs and 3D software, how does such a thing educate a viewer  better than a Lego model and what are the intended lessons here?

In order to grapple with these questions, I write thus. There is a particular aesthetic amongst Chinese when it comes to wood types, I have learned. In order to explain this, I think it's helpful to examine a parallel attitude that illustrates how Chinese herbal medicine is imagined to work. The ginseng plant produces a root that is purported to have countless medical benefits. Two qualities seem to determine what makes ginseng potent. This first is its shape. The more it resembles a person, from what I can gather, the more expensive it is. It's very much similar to the medieval notion of the doctrine of signatures. Obviously the herb must be good for the body because it looks like a body! And who can argue with that willful logic?

The second quality is its source. The farther the spice or animal part has travelled to reach the consumer or the more difficult it is to obtain, the more effective it must be. I call this the doctrine of conspicuous hypochondria. This is why ginseng grown in exotic Wisconsin fetches a premium price in China and why South Korean ginseng dominates the markets outside Asia. The distance adds to the perceived value far above the actual shipping costs.

Rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) is a beautifully grained wood that is rather easy to identify even by novices. And it just looks expensive, to put it bluntly. The deep coloration has a visual mass to it that conveys importance and status without any additional explanation. Rosewood is also one of the essential species used in the traditional, high-end furniture tradition known as HongMu, 紅木. The forms and construction methods are strongly associated with the Ming and Qing dynasties, probably because, in part, not many examples have survived from earlier than those eras. The native stocks of the woods used for HongMu construction were depleted long ago along with most of China's forests, which only recently have begun to bounce back slowly with concerted efforts to reforest and enforced conservation.

Modern Chinese furniture and cabinetmakers have been, with an aim to supplying the expanding Chinese upper classes, in short order, continuing with the same depletion strategy by getting cut down as many trees as can be found of these slow growing, tropical species. And they really don't care about the laws that must be broken to obtain their raw materials. 

I had a conversation with a colleague that drives the point of this essay in more clearly and really draws a contrast with how I and others whom I admire view woodworking. I mentioned one day that I wanted to obtain more raw stock of one wood in particular, a species of larch, that has many of the same qualities of southern yellow pine if only a bit knottier. I often see it planted as an urban tree even in Nanjing, distinctly shedding its needles and growing ramrod straight trunks. In my mind, the fact that this is a wood that can be sourced locally is a big positive. There is also a native species of open-grained cypress that is dense and stable but I have mainly seen this used in fingerjointed gluelams for cabinetry.
He told me that it was not expensive and easy to buy yet he was dismissive of my appraisal. "This is a too common wood." And that was the end of that conversation. This same colleague after telling me about the existence of sawmill operations in the city limits then stalled about revealing their addresses so I could visit them on my own time. He must regard that lumber as 'Too local" not worthy of our woodshop and yet a similar attitude explains why imported rosewood was used to create a citywall when the same local clay or stone as in the original would have been deemed inappropriate for the task.

This past weekend many of my coworkers and I participated in the Shanghai tradeshow and this was the stock that was to be used for demonstrating bowl turning.

Padauk, probably sourced from Africa
The whole local, sustainable aspects to woodworking that pervade much of what has always appealed to me about the craft is flipped on its head in much of the middle kingdom. And it's likely that this preference of the exotic and endangered involves a degree of class prejudice. Much of China is locally grown and sustainable as least as far as Chinese peasant farmers are concerned so that the idea is well known but it is also strongly associated with poverty and backwardness. There are a few examples of backtotheland movements but not to work the land, mostly to get away from the urban ratrace and take advantage of telecommuting.
So far in China woodworking is still primarily a hobby reserved for the swelling ranks of the middle class and their unrefined aesthetics and crass tastes predominate. They certainly don't want to be associated something too common or local. It might require another generation before younger woodworkers begin to see the trees around them as principal sources for their craft.  

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