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01-20-17 | West & East

Chinese and Western Woodworking

In the West, when talking about Eastern woodworking traditions, it is more often than not the case that we are referring to Japanese tradition. Although there are long and rich histories of wood craft across Asia, from the South through to the East, a google search for Asian woodworking will usually result in a page filled with Japanese carpentry techniques and tools.

Even when searching specifically for Chinese woodworking, several Japanese-centric sites will pop up. Perhaps this is due to a difficult relationship between modernity and tradition within China, but the case remains that Chinese craft is relatively unfamiliar to the general public these days, and even has several negative connotations attached to it.

While traditional Chinese carpentry has many similarities to Japanese carpentry given their intertwined histories, it may be helpful to compare Chinese woodworking with the Western through the lenses of technique, aesthetics and social status.



It would be fair to say that Chinese joinery is superior, while the strength of Western technique lies in carving, turning and bending.




Although Chinese object-making does not shy away from ornamentation, there is a heavy emphasis on structure and framework, with a fair amount of ornamentation taking the form of angular structures, which can be seen in the architecture of temples and palaces.

Iconic examples of Western workmanship can be seen from the ornate rococo and baroque periods, the pared down shaker aesthetic with its spindle-turned spokes, and Michael Thonet's steam-bent No.14 chair, which have all laid foundations for modern woodworking in their own ways.





One major difference between Chinese and Western joinery may also provide us with a peek into the social aspects of carpentry. Chinese joinery is very complex and visually stunning. However, the joinery tends to be blind, where much of the detail is tucked away. Western joinery on the other hand tends to be simpler, but is also much more likely to be exposed as a visual feature celebrating the beauty of the structure.




The aesthetics is a revealing of the social status of carpenters in Chinese and Western culture. While it is a vocational occupation for both, carpentry is regarded much more as a way to make a living in China rather than a calling. Even though it requires about 6 years of apprenticeship to learn the trade and become a professional, a lot of Chinese woodcraft goes uncredited. On the Western side of things, craft is more frequently elevated to artistry, and there are many notable Western woodworkers who have become household names and major inspirations to designers and carpenters alike. It is also interesting to note that, along with an ever-expanding hobbyist culture, woodworking in the west is becoming more standardized and readily available in professional education, while China does not have quite so many people interested in DIY and continues solely on the model of apprenticeship.

With new makers and creators now giving their take on China's identity in the modern world, it will be interesting to see where Chinese object making and design goes from here, and where the East and the West converge and collide.