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Titles: Red Sandalwood-Beauty Beyond Borders
writer: China Red Sandalwood Museum
Publishers: Cultural Relics Press
Summary: Chan Laiwa successfully promoted the red sandalwood culture across the world.

Among the varied types of communication between nations, only the distinguished cultural and art exchanges carry no utilitarianism. They impact the soul and immediately move the heart.

Culture flows in all ages. It is like a drop of agile water running in the river of history. Culture flows everywhere and along with its natural beauty it carries the wisdom of ancient wise men, bringing nutrients to both tender and hard hearts alike.

Upon examining the developmental history of human civilization, we encounter only a few nations in which the vast and numerous cultural traditions pass unscathed through the vicissitudes of time at a tempo which never slows. No doubt there must be persons of insight who wish to inherit, explore and bequeath the eternal miracle so that the torch of civilization would be passed to other generations and never die out.

Madam Chan Laiwa should be counted as one of these.

Chan Laiwa says, “We must never forget the integrity of the core traditional culture of our nation when we throb with the pulse of the world,when our minds are most open to creativity and when we have the greatest boldness of vision for new ideas.”

Her actions in life are a testament to this belief.

Chan Laiwa was born into a family which belonged to Plain Yellow Banner of the Man nationality. She remembers fondly, that her childhood home was filled with antique beds, cabinets, painting tables and chairs made of hardwoods like red sandalwood and Huanghuali wood etc. As she listened to elder generation’s talk month after month and year after year, she came to understand the beauty of the elegant designs and auspicious motifs. She became captivated by the exquisite texture and fragrance of the wood. As a result of this experience, Chan Laiwa developed a deep appreciation for the dignity of Chinese culture.

 “My father knew red sandalwood well. He often told me that it is precious and we should re-assemble any broken red sandalwood pieces and if that was not possible then we should display them by hanging them on a wall.”

As a descendant of a royal family in Qing dynasty, Chan Laiwa’s father had a deep understanding of the traditional significance of the furniture and the historical cultural value attached to it. “Precious”, might be the simplest word a father could use to explain these concepts to his daughter.

“I have always believed that the formation of anyone’s ideology is related to the edifying influence one received in the prime of time. This influence might be either by design or accident. However, it has a far-reaching significance during one’s entire life.” From this perspective, Chan Laiwa is very grateful to her father.

The influence and instruction from elder generations laid a foundation for Chan Laiwa’s awareness, pursuit and love of national culture. These influences completed what the father had started in his earliest teachings of traditional culture to his daughter.

From then on, red sandalwood carving art and Chinese traditional furniture culture captured a place in her heart and became a major pursuit of her life.

From looking for wood carving materials to making red sandalwood objects; from setting up an earlier family workshop to building the present China Red Sandalwood Museum; from being a novice to a master of red sandalwood art; Chan Laiwa is using her lifetime experience to realize her dreams.

The ancients said that to judge things today, you should draw on the experience of the past, for today has grown out of the past. The reason why Chinese culture has remained unbroken for thousands of years is that it has been constantly explored, innovated and passed to future generations.

It demands great inflexible strength to carry on all kinds of the glorious tradition. A person’s personal fancy has awakened and sharpened her cultural awareness. The responsibility to promote and develop the traditional Chinese culture sprung from her practice of making hardwood furniture.

Thirty years ago, Chan Laiwa started to study and reproduce the furniture masterpieces collected in the Palace Museum, where the craft of Chinese classical furniture making reached its culmination in history. Chan Laiwa wandered in the treasure-house of furniture art with an air of rapt wonderment. Despite their age gap, Chan Laiwa has become a good friend of seniors and scholars like Mr. Shan Shi Yuan, Wang Shixiang and Zhu Jiajin during the past 30 years of her “life of red sandalwood art”. These friendships also advanced her achievements in red sandalwood art. Mr. Zheng Xinmiao, Director of the Palace Museum, commented in the preface of Chan Laiwa’s first book precious wood and magnificent palace, “The Palace Museum supported and helped the China Red Sandalwood Museum in all aspects of its creation and development. Reciprocally and with great effort, the China Red Sandalwood Museum brought the ancient heritage of the Palace Museum back to life and facilitates the passing of Chinese culture to future generations.” After enduring trials and tribulations for 30 years, Chan Laiwa was able to proffer her hard work for the renaissance and rejuvenation of the royal wood carving art. Her achievement is extraordinary.

Chan Laiwa is very forward thinking when considering the obligations of passing on traditions. These magnificent artworks made of red sandalwood and Huanghuali wood should not only be displayed in the museum! The natural and rigid wood features of the furniture together with the dignified and gorgeous composition convey an accretion of history. The furniture is testimony to a heritage of culture at a point in history. It represents a kind of spirit and it is the cultural symbol of that period of history.

“Chinese traditional red sandalwood art is a generous heritage our ancestors left for us. It can’t only be the exhibit displayed in the museum.”

As they are a type of art, the exhibits should also serve the important task of spreading culture. There is no national boundary for art and the essence of cultural exchange is harmony. Just like the story of Silk Road, mutual understanding between nations can only occur when the essence of a national’s culture is transmitted beyond its national boundaries. When people of different cultures have the opportunity to experience some aspects of our Chinese culture, the possibility of misunderstanding and estrangement between us is removed. The result is the promotion of peace, prosperity, stability and universal harmony in the world. Art springs from the heart and shakes the soul. With the fewest words, art can also breach the barrier between hearts.

Red sandalwood art, found exclusively in China, is an art of life. Chan Laiwa is the only person in this century to initiate the exchange of this art form with other countries in the world. She brings great artworks to the most famous palaces of art in the world. The exhibits attract the attention of people from many nations. Through her exhibits, she has disseminated the broad and intricate Chinese culture around the world. Her foreign friends call her“a folk culture diplomat”; a title she truly deserves.

Still vivid in our mind is the magnificent sight of an audience of tens of thousands, waiting to buy tickets for access to a red sandalwood furniture exhibition in South Korea.

In Japan, at the EXPO 2005 Aichi, a Red Sandalwood Study filled with traditional cultural flavors captivated hundreds of thousands of world-wide visitors.

In the Golden Horse Palace, Malaysia, a carved and gilded screen decorated with dragon patterns was so brilliant and glittering that it immediately caused the king and queen of Malaysia to stop and gaze at it in admiration.

Pieces of precious red sandalwood artworks replete with oriental art flavor excited visitors in Washington D.C., USA, at the Dresden Museum of Germany and at the Chateau de Chambord of France.

The success of the exhibition held in South Korea and Japan might be attributed to the cultural similarities of these nations to China. However, the high popularity of the exhibit in western countries may indicate a new acceptance of Chinese culture. A kind of cultural harmony seemed to be created by the simple act of people of different colors and different languages gathering together to view the exhibits. A sense of pride welled up in Chan Laiwa’ heart as she heard the applause and watched the bursts from many flash-bulbs.

“Something exclusively owned by an ethnicity would be appreciated by the world” at that moment, Chan Laiwa fully understood the meaning of this phrase.

Not only is she making significant contributions to the world, but in return, she is also the recipient of special honors from that world.

An honorary doctorate degree was bestowed upon Chan Laiwa by the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, USA. She was made an honorary citizen of Savannah, and a “Dr. Chan Laiwa Day” was proclaimed in Washington D.C. Both former French President Jacques Chirac and former US President George Herbert Walker Bush received her in person as an honored guest. The current French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have also kindly extended invitations to her. She has received numerous accolades and encouragement for her efforts to pass the red sandalwood culture to future generations.

Sept. 14th, 2005, is a day should be engraved on our mind.

On that day, several world famous museums each sent a representative of their Board of Directors,to participate in an event of far-reaching significance at the China Red Sandalwood Museum. These illustrious participants included: Zheng Xinmiao, Director of the Palace Museum of China; Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum; David L.Evans, Under Secretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution; Dirk Burghardt, Deputy Director of the Dresden National Art Museum of Germany and Hiroshi Nozaki, Director of the Tokyo National Museum of Japan.

The event can only be described as unprecedented because Chan Laiwa simultaneously donated one of her priceless red sandalwood miniatures to each of the famous museums represented at this gathering. These miniature reproductions included: “ the red sandalwood miniature of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (The Temple of Heaven)”; “the Corner Tower”; “the Ten-thousand Spring Pavilion”;  “the Heavenly Pavilion” and lastly, “the Pine and Cypress Hands Over the Green Jade Pavilion”. Each of these precious artworks was accepted with joy and pleasure. Their distinction can not only be assumed from their names but also because each is constructed from rare small-leaf red sandalwood, which is more expensive than gold. One can only imagine the value of these artworks which represent the highest standards of Chinese carving art. Therefore, the donation fostered an exchange between participants and a dialog between the top minds at the pinnacle of their professional careers.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. All the efforts I have made for so many years will be paid back someday when the red sandalwood art is brought to a greater height of development and ventures beyond the domestic scene. I do not begrudge the money I have spent on spreading the appreciation for Chinese red sandalwood art. What I have already gained is a worldwide acceptance of Chinese culture.

Art can not be measured in terms of money. My most cherished task is the promotion of red sandalwood art so that it will endure in the world. I have never hesitated to accept the responsibility to pay the costs of achieving this dream. However, it makes my heart ache when I see artworks, made with painstaking care, being shipped across the oceans. It is like seeing my daughter married and moving far away. Nevertheless, I feel so happy that many people in the world have come to understand and love Chinese culture.

Chan Laiwa’s life has been transformed from a successful entrepreneur to a champion of traditional culture; from an ordinary person to a folk culture diplomat. This conversion has been a life-enlightening metamorphosis, transcending all her values.

From 2005, Chan Laiwa’s red sandalwood art was being introduced to the world on a larger scale than ever. The great woman has left her footprints in the Palace Museum, the Chambord, the Smithsonian, the Dresden National Art Museum and the Kyushu National Museum.

The French welcomed her as an honored guest with sincere romantic expressions that included strings of golden umbrellas hanging on top of the castles in Chambord; dozens of wine jars of Nu’er Hong tied with red silk; big dancing dragons and a fanfare of bugles from the cavaliers of a guard of honor.

In the Glockenspiel Pavilion of Dresden, the dust-laden gears of the old porcelain wall clock began to rotate and the melodious sounds of the porcelain bells fluttered in the wind under the clear skies of the city. It was a special moment for a distinguished guest from afar.

Visitors to the International Art Gallery in S. Dillon Ripley Centre, Washington D.C., were greeted by various decorations in Chinese Red. Transcending space and time, this field of red transported them back across the centuries to a cultural period when this was the dominant color in Chinese art.

At that moment, Chan Laiwa was very emotional. She was moved by the degree of acceptance and recognition. It was not only the personal recognition that moved her, but also the recognition of Chinese culture itself.

On Oct.8, 2005, the Palace Museum, China

Sep.25, 2006, the Dresden State Art Collections,Germany

On Feb.1, 2007, the Kyushu National Museum, Japan

On Mar.9, 2007, the Domaine National de Chambord, France

On May 30, 2007, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C, USA

Red sandalwood treasures, exquisite beyond compare, followed their owner on an illustrious tour to spread an appreciation for Chinese culture throughout Asia, America and Europe.

This is just a beginning. Any endeavor which becomes a work of the heart can never end. In the coming long years, appreciation for red sandalwood art and its cultural history will continue to grow in the hearts of people. It will become part of the enduring cultural wealth in the fabric of human civilization.

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