Wood sculptures in Guandu Temple refer to the wood sculpture attached above the traditional major carpentry rather than statues of deities. Before exploring wood sculpture, we should know in advance the characteristics of traditional major carpentry. Traditional architecture is mainly structured by wood. Generally, it is called carpentry, which can be divided into ‘major carpentry’ and ‘minor carpentry’
Major carpentry refers to the structure of the architecture itself, including the structural mechanics and part construction. Therefore, it is similar to the jobs of an architect and a civil engineer. However, a carpenter of major carpentry requires cultivation of basic wood sculpture skills, so that they can make important components such as bracket structures, tongs, beams, girders, rafters, and bundles. Yet in order to cope with the mechanics of architectural structure, distribution of different structures, and wood carvings, the carpenters have to follow the principles in the process so as to avoid ‘loss of materials’ due to excessive carvings and from breaking the carrying capacity of the wooden structure. Generally speaking, the components of major carpentry, including bracket structures, tongs, beams, girders, rafters, and bundles, are the main structure carrying the weight of the architecture. Therefore, the main structure is usually decorated with paint rather than carved out with extra materials and worn out the support. If more decorations are intended to be added, it is only allowed to decorate with some simple shallow reliefs or low reliefs.
In comparison with major carpentry, minor carpentry covers various items, including doors, window lattice, components of decoration, and wooden furniture. The components of decoration are the wood sculpture we are discussing here, also known as ‘minor wood carving’ by traditional carpenters. Therefore, wood sculptors are also called ‘masters of wood carving’.
The components of wood sculpture such as a ‘shu wei’ at the end of a beam; a ‘yuan guang’ beneath short beams between external pillars; a ‘shi zuo’, components to stabilize a large beam and gua pillars; a ‘flower basket’ or a ‘hanging barrel’, short pillars hanging underneath the girder to fix the beams and girders; ‘que ti’ (supporting wood) inserted in the perpendicular intersection of the pillars, are auxiliary components of decoration underneath the main structure of major carpentry. Basically, they do not carry much in terms of the structural mechanics. Besides helping fix the main structure, in fact, most of the components serve as ornaments for traditional architecture through the exquisite carving techniques. ‘Yuan guang’, ‘que ti’, ‘shu wei’, ‘shu tsai’, ‘shi zuo’, ‘flower basket’ and ‘hanging barrel’ are the best demonstrations of the essence of wood sculptors’ command in the art of carpentry.