Wheat grain carving

This is a carving of two deities upon a single grain of wheat.

It appears to have been made soon after the harvesting period. It was acquired, probably as a souvenir, at the Ise Jingū, a complex of over 100 individual Shinto shrines in Ise prefecture, Japan.

The deities are likely to be representations of Daikoku and Ebisu, two of the seven Shinto gods of fortune. Daikoku and Ebisu are often seen together as the deities of bountiful harvests. Food is often the centre of human activity. In people’s homes, these deities are responsible for the provision and protection of food.

Victorian commercial designer, Christopher Dresser, journeyed to Japan in 1876-7 and observed such carvings being sold in a market just outside the Kamiji-yama Shinto temple in Ise.

Amongst other small purchases I bought a carving of the god Daikoku, so small that it is enclosed in the husk of one grain of rice. In another husk I bought the two gods Daikoku and Yebisu sitting side by side (Dresser 1994:169).

The Ise Jingū shrine complex dates to around 710CE. It was dedicated to the sun goddess Amateresu ōmikami. The complex consists of the Gekū, the Outer Shrine, and the Naikū, the Inner Shrine, which are 6 kilometers apart and connected by a pilgrimage road. It is tradition for these shrines to be remade to exact specifications every twenty years. This is to ensure that the shrines always look new.

Miniature carving is a traditional craft that dates back more than 2000 years in Asia. The art of micro carving refers generally to the engraving of infinitesimal characters on ivory, grains of rice, wheat or millet and human hair.

Traditionally, the artist cannot see the work he is carving but has to rely on touch. The art is therefore sometimes described as “carving by one’s will”.

The artist must work in a peaceful environment. Hands are prone to considerable movement so the artist has to control his heart beat through deep breathing exercises.

In China and Japan there are many micro sculptors who can engrave poems, paintings and miniature seal marks in many colours onto small grains of ivory.

Carved wheat grain close up

In 1982 Zhang Yunhu, a Shanghai miniature calligrapher, engraved the text of the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, consisting of 14,000 Chinese characters, onto a chip of ivory 2.8 cm square. He did this in two weeks. His clear and fine strokes can only be seen under a microscope.

In Britain today, Willard Wigan, creates miniature carvings in the eye of a needle or on a pinhead. His work includes Henry VIII and his six wives, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the characters from the Wizard of Oz, the Titanic and Cassius Clay v Sonny Liston in a boxing ring. He works with tiny specs of dust.