Tseng Shu-zhu: expressing passion through carvings

Chinese name: 曾淑珠
Born: 1954
Birthplace: Yunlin (Central Taiwan)

Few would believe this pretty and perpetually smiling lady is already grandmother to five children. Born in 1954, Tseng Shu-zhu should be enjoying a peaceful life pottering around and playing with her grandchildren. But she chose to end her 32-year-old marriage and carve out a new life for herself.

She was brought up in Linnei Township in Yunlin County. Lively and vibrant, she seems like the archetype of image of simple country folk come to life. When discussing her childhood, she has an endless repertoire of funny memories, and it’s these same recollections of childhood fun, countryside scenes and family life that are her sources of inspiration for her carving.

After elementary school, she discontinued her education to stay  home and help her family, spending her days running errands, picking up groceries, and working in the rice paddies. She was married at 18 and left her hometown with her husband, who had completed his apprenticeship in religious statue carving and was ready to set up his own business. The young couple moved to Sanyi in Miaoli County and opened a woodcarving shop. A steady stream of orders for wood sculptures meant full days for Tseng as she juggled housework, childcare, and working at the family business. When there was a shortage of hands, she even helped with statue carving, creating the initial shape of a piece. These days, the villagers remember her as “the lady on the bicycle with a kid on her back and who was always busy coming and going.”

As the years went by, however, things began to change. Sanyi’s woodcarving business started to decline in the face of countless cheap imports from China, and the number of orders at the family business began to drop. One day out of the blue, she picked up a carving knife, intending to make a toy for a grandchild. With nothing but an ineffable fascination, she finished her first creation: three lively fish jumping out the fish basket. She still has it today as a memento.

Tseng continued from there, fumbling her way without a teacher. It wasn’t until six months had passed that she found her direction. “I wanted to begin with things I was familiar with, and  country life and scenes from my childhood naturally became my subjects.” Her childhood is exhibited every time she names an artwork. For example, “Continuation” depicts a farmer taking his stud boar to mate.  Another piece shows a man with his child on his shoulders as they work in perfect harmony, picking mangoes off someone else’s tree. It’s named “Cooperation Brings More Profits.” Both pieces draw empathy and a chuckle from those who see them.

Feelings of “relaxation and simplicity” are invariably present in Tseng’s works. Lacking proper training, her sometimes-rough techniques and inaccurate proportioning are a far cry from academically cultivated finesse seen elsewhere. “When I carve, there are things in my mind that I’m unable to express through words. So I use my chisel to put them into wood instead.” The expression of her inner world and the truths she expresses through woodcarving have touched many people.

As they say, God helps those who help themselves. In 1995 her work was chosen among the finalists in the Taiwan Woodcarving Competition. Although she did not win a prize, the whole village was greatly impressed by the accomplishment. Following the recognition, Tseng believed that next time she would surely win, and planned to use the prize money to buy a camera to document her works. “To my surprise, as soon as the materialistic desire entered my mind, I just lost my touch!” She decided right then to stay true to herself and not care whether she wins or loses. As a consequence, her carving improved even more, with her works receiving favorable reviews at exhibitions. This first taste of success even came with some income.

The economic downtown in recent years and a serious illness as she entered menopause almost stopped Tseng from any further art endeavor. She says with a laugh that the “Hakka Women’s Living Image Exhibition was the main driving force that pushed her to return to the rivers and lakes and start creating her brilliant works once more.