Skip to main content

Woodcarver | Li Bing-gui

  • Date:2020-12-08
Woodcarver | Li Bing-gui

Name: 李秉圭

Born: 1949

Place of Birth: Changhua, Taiwan (Lukang)

Did You Know…?

Unlike many other carvers, Li Bing-gui (李秉圭) considers creating sculpture something sacred. In his perception, the statues of deities he has carved are more for appreciation than for worship. To him, creation is a form of "daily spiritual practice." Attributed to his profound cultural foundation, with knowledge in Sinology, calligraphy, painting and literature, Li's creations, portraits and statues of deities in particular, have rarely found charm and aura.

The craft of woodcarving has a long history in Taiwan. Over the past century, it has continued to develop with the times, especially in the Changhua County township of Lukang, where the rich folk crafts resources have been profoundly influenced by traditional faith and religious culture.

A two-fold national treasure who has been recognized by the Ministry of Culture as a preserver of both traditional woodcarving and traditional chisel work, Li Bing-gui was born in Lukang into a family with a long tradition in these crafts. His father, Li Song-lin (李松林), was a woodcarver himself and a recipient of an award in the Folk Crafts category of the Ministry of Education's Global Chinese Culture Awards in 1985.

Growing up with such a master, the younger Li picked up the craft from his father, studying woodcarving under him and setting down a strong basis in the fundamentals without ever letting circumstances make him haughty or complacent. Coming up against such a brilliant background, Li faced more pressure than most other woodcarvers.

To ensure he didn't let his antecessors down, he made sure to take every step along the creative journey with extreme care and consideration, while at the same time he has been seeking to add innovative elements into the traditional craft. He approaches his work with a determination to look more, learn more, read more, and practice more, investing energy not only into honing his carving skills, but also into laying a foundation in calligraphy, painting and classical literature. In this way, he is able to ensure his cultural underpinnings are strong, going above and beyond being a simple craftsman.

"Craftsmanship comes through imitation. Your creations must be based on your comprehension and how much you have learned to work with things, and you can only really be able to do it after you've learned from a lot of reference materials." Li Bing-gui believes that one's level of spiritual cultivation is reflected in the works and those works which were created through the process of designing and thought forming are unique.

As a result, when he strikes with his tools, he needs to consider not just the timing, but also his mood at the time. His carved works span a wide range of subjects, from statues of deities down to tiny personal accessories. Regardless of the scale, through his blades and axes, he works to carve out the traditional and creative ideas he wants to convey through his woodcarving. Whether they are statues of deities or historical figures, or flora and fauna, Li's works find themselves employed in a wide variety of situations, from temple architecture to ornate furniture, and even plaques and screens. Among those works, statues of deities account for the most.

Li Bing-gui specializes particularly in carving statues of Buddhist deities, and he is also an expertise in carving historical figures. For example, he would choose camphor to carve the head of Zhong Kui, the ghost hunter in Chinese mythology, sculpting in the round with particular attention to specific features, like the thick eyebrows and beard that occupy almost half of the face. Deliberately applying rough style of carving, he meant to create an ugly and intimidating face of the deity. His ability to capture the divinity of Guan Yin, goddess of mercy and compassion, is even greater, earning him a reputation as a particularly skilled carver of the bodhisattva. The statues of Guan Yin he has carved radiate a sense of immense compassion and tranquility, full of spiritual energy.

Li Bing-gui's works range from statuary palanquins and statues of deities to a great variety of ornate chisel work. In addition to collectors at home and abroad, many have commissioned him to undertake special projects. In order to pass on this traditional craft, Li has worked actively with the Ministry of Culture to educate the new generation. He is also more than happy to take part in seminars and hold open workshops to let the public come and see what he has been doing. The Songlin Art Sculpture Center and Li Bing-gui's studio are located on Lukang Old Street, near the Lukang Tianhou Temple. Years ago, his father, Li Song-lin, at just 18 years old, presided over the restoration and decoration of that temple.

The Lukang Tianhou Temple restoration project was a major event in Taiwanese woodcarving tradition, and Li Bing-gui has continued to keep the family tradition alive, which is itself no small thing for Taiwanese woodcarving. For the craft to thrive, says Li, there need to be many more people involved. More enthusiastic participation and more ideas can inspire carvers, and this is how things move forward and evolve. Having learned from his own forebears, Li Bing-gui is now committed to passing his own craft and philosophy on to the next generation.