Liu Ying-hung (劉英宏), a member of a dying breed of stone carving artists in Taiwan, has been honored by the New Taipei City (新北市) Government as a “Master of Traditional Arts.”
As machines continue to take over more tasks that had previously been done by hand, Liu’s traditional artistry has become a rarity.
The 70-year old is now the only stone-carving master left in New Taipei City’s Sansia Township (三峽), and was recognized by the city government for the body of work he has accumulated over his lifetime.
Liu said he felt honored by the accolade, but worries that the stone carving craft might fade away, as traditional stone carvers are getting older and have no young apprentices to pass their skills on to.
After retiring as a professional stone carver 20 years ago, Liu found it difficult to walk away from his lifelong passion. Whenever he picks up a wooden mallet and chisel, memories and feelings from the past are instantly revived, he said.
With one blow of the hammer and stroke of the chisel after another, Liu is still able to fashion rock lion sculptures with fine, vivid details.
Standing in front of the Sansia Tsushih Temple (三峽祖師廟), Liu softly caressed the spiraling dragons carved on the pillar, which, along with the temple’s door frames and window decorations, are some of the creations of which he is most proud.
Although they are not too fancy, having been done in the traditional style, these carvings have become part of the temple’s cultural treasures.
A native of Sansia, Liu grew up in the old town and played in the Sansia Tsushih Temple almost every day in his childhood. While in elementary school, he watched the stone carvers doing their work and tried to learn from them.
After finishing elementary school, Liu became an apprentice and went to many temples in northern Taiwan to hone his skill with seasoned stone craftsmen.
Liu participated in the construction and refurbishment of a number of renowned religious shrines, including the Sansia Tsushih Temple, Xingtian Temple (行天宮) in Taipei and Bishan Temple (碧山巖) in Taipei’s Neihu District (內湖).
“When working on rock materials, the elegant, subtle forms and small delicate features can only be crafted by hand. Engravings portraying moving water with gentle and graceful flowing currents can only be done by hand. Machines can’t do this properly,” he said.
Hand-crafted stone carvings are more expensive and take longer to complete than their machined counterparts, Liu said.
Properly carving one of the dragon-adorned pillars found in most temples by hand can take one or two years, but less than half that time is needed when using machine carving tools.
The traditional way of working by hand is too laborious and painstaking, and long-term exposure to and breathing in the limestone dust pose health hazards, he said.
“These days, carvings done by machine are faster and less expensive, so stone carving by hand is becoming a dying art, because very few young people want to learn it,” Liu said.
“In the past, I had to raise a family, so I did not go teach students if the hourly pay rate was low. Now I want to teach the traditional stone carving skill to people for free. If we have a place to work and some students willing to learn, I will go teach them and pass on this tradition,” he said.