Talk about impressive craftsmanship. In a stunning feat of virtuosity, the Chinese artist Ch’en Tsu-chang carved an astoundingly complex scene into a single olive pit in the year 1737. The tiny sculpture is complete with eight exquisite human figures enjoying a serene ride in the furnished interior of a boat with movable windows. To construct the piece, the artist, hailing from Kwangtung and having entered into the Imperial Bureau of Manufacture during the reign of emperor Yung-cheng, allowed his eye and hand to be guided by the natural shape of the olive pit.
Measuring 1.34 inches in length and .63 inches in height, the work was inspired by a poem titled “Latter Ode on the Red Cliff,” written by Su Tung-p’o some six hundred and fifty years before; it depicts the poet and his seven companions on one of his two journeys to Red Nose Cliff, the site of an epic battle that proceeded the poet-official by eight hundred years. On the helm of the boat, the artist meticulously engraved 300 characters from the beloved poem, whose moving lines served as an artistic theme well into the Qing Dynasty. Somehow, the delicate and intricate composition elevates the epic subject matter, making it all the more precious and highlighting its worth as a narrative worth careful representation. What better way to honor a poem about a natural landscape than by rendering its speaker in an organic substance?