Early in the Neolithic Age, the Chinese ancients already started to use articles made of bones, fangs, and
horns from animals along with stoneware, wooden articles and pottery ware. Materials for carving taken from animals are mostly ivory. The animal-mask patterned ivory cup inlaid with pine-and-stone design unearthed from the Fuhao Tomb in the Yin Ruins, Henan in 1976 can be called a representative of the Shang Dynasty ivory carving.
The ivory carving craft made rapid progress in the Song Dynasty, marked by the multi-cased ivory ball named “Superlative Workmanship” using fretwork process completed by the royal handicraft workshop. On the surface of the ball relief patterns are engraved; inside the ball are several hollow balls with different size one on top of the other. Each ball is engraved with exquisite and complicated designs, appearing delicate and refined.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, economic and cultural exchanges with South Asia and Africa promoted. Ivory material was introduced to China. Then the ivory carving art entered a period of full bloom.
In the Ming Dynasty, invory carving was mainly done in Beijing, Yangzhou and Guangzhou, and widely involved by the government, folk artisans, men of letters and refined scholars. Ivory artworks an other small-sized carved articles using bamboo, wood, gold, stone, etc. became rare curios and ornaments. At that time ivory and rhinoceros horn carvings made no difference to bamboo, wood, gold or stone carving so far as carving skills were concerned. Quite a number of craftsmen had no difficulty in carving using different materials, some were known as all-arounders in carving.
In addition to the common techniques such as single-line intaglio carving, round carving, relief carving, micro-carving, etc., there are three more unique skills in Chinese ivory carving: fretwork, cleaving-plaiting and inlaying-dying.