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Category: china

Chinese botanical motifs: orchid

5 March, 2008 (05:00) | china, early modern, paintings | By: xensen

orchids, chiense brush painting by shitao

These leaves from Shitao’s album depict orchids, with an accompanying verse on the opposite page. Orchids are a popular subject for brush painting, in part thanks to their simple, rhythmic form. According to the Met’s entry on this object, “the calligraphy of the poem, in the manner of Zhong You, with its softly undulating strokes and gently rising and fading ink tones, simulates the swaying orchid leaves and blossoms.”

The best-known or at least longest-established orchid in China is the cymbidium (lanhua), which is noted more for its fragrance than its floral display. The opening lines of the verse, which quote the Classic of Songs, allude to this:

Words from a sympathetic heart
Are as fragrant as orchids

The orchid is regarded as a symbol of spring, and the verse goes on to develop this association.

Together with the plum, the chrysanthemum , and the bamboo, the orchid is known as one of the “four gentlemen of flowers.”

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Chinese botanical motifs: peanut

4 March, 2008 (05:00) | china, modern, paintings | By: xensen

chinese painting, peanut

This late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century painting by an anonymous Chinese artist is in the collections of the V&A in London. According to the V&A entry,it was probably commissioned from a Chinese artist by a European botanist, and it does have something of the precise quality of a European botanical painting. At the same time, it does not quite have a European sense of perspective.

In the Chinese tradition the peanut plant is associated with longevity. Its name, changsheng guo, sounds like the words for “Live forever and never grow old” (changsheng bulao). Moreover, the plant’s extensive root system suggests an impulse to survival. Eating the peanut fruit was thought to improve longevity.

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Chinese botanical motifs: narcissus

3 March, 2008 (05:00) | china, early modern, paintings | By: xensen

narcissus by shitao

This image of a narcissus is from an album of twelve paintings and twelve caligraphic verses by Shitao (Zhu Ruoji; 1642–1707), a member of the Ming dynasty royal family, who became a monk-painter following the Manchu conquest of China in 1644. The painting, from the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Family Collection, Gift of Wen and Constance Fong, in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Dillon, 1976 (1976.280), is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The album alternates landscapes and flowers, with verses in a similar brush style on facing pages.

I’d like to spend a few posts discussing botanical motifs in Chinese art. An authority, and my guide, on this subject is Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator emeritus of the Asian Art Museum. According to Bartholomew, the narcissus, which was imported to southern China from Europe at least by the Tang dynasty (618-906), is known as the “immortal of water” (shuixianhua). The xian in its name is the character that means “immortal,” so a clump of narcissus may be used to signify a group of immortals. For example, since the word for bamboo is a punfor “congratualte,” a clump of narcissus together with bamboo may signify “immortals congratulate you” (on a birthday, perhaps).

In the accompanying verse the narcissus is here associated with plum blossoms. Plums are a symbol of longevity, and the two plants together may suggest “May the immortals honor you with longevity.” Following is a free translation of the verse; for another versions, see the Met’s website.

Narcissus and plum blossoms,
enjoyable together,
vie for glory in winter;
I sit by my bright window,
holding my brush in my hand,
while my thoughts wander freely
far beyond the boundless shores

The narcissus is also a symbol of purity, good fortune, and prosperity. Because it is such an auspicious symbol, it is encouraged to bloom around the new year, and is often featured in new year’s celebrations.

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Zhan Wang reflections

20 February, 2008 (05:00) | china, contemporary, sculpture | By: xensen

Now that the Zhan Wang exhibit has opened at the Asian Art Museum, I amused myself by photographing reflected colors on the stainless steel surfaces of his massive artificial scholar’s rock. The stainless steel of the constructed rock itself has almost no color, but it reflects colors from its surroundings. Oddly, the metalic surface takes on some of the qualities of water. Here are small versions of several images.

zhan wang reflections

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Shanghai deco

19 February, 2008 (05:00) | 20th c, china | By: xensen

shanghai deco - old advertisementShanghai was one of the great centers of art deco. For a couple of decades, beginning in the mid to late 1920s, the city’s artists produced art deco furniture, architecture, and painting to rival any produced in the West, yet with a distinctive Chinese flair. More on this subject to come …

The image is an old advertisement reproduced on the Bund Collection website, which offers reproductions of classic Shanghai deco furniture for sale.

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Year of the Rat

12 February, 2008 (05:00) | china, medieval, paintings | By: xensen

rat painting by chinese ming dynasty emperor xuande

The Xuande emperor ruled China from 1425-1434. He was the fifth emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). His rule was one of relative stability, and he devoted much of his time to painting and writing poetry, activities at which he was accomplished. As a painter he had a free brush style. His paintings were often presented as gifts to favored members of the court; this painting, dated 1431, of a rat nibbling at lichee fruit is inscribed to a favorite eunuch.

2008 is the year of the rat in the Chinese calendrical zodiac. In the Chinese tradition the rat is regarded as clever, charming, and industrious, but also a bit of a schemer, who can at times be ambitious, selfish, and cruel. First among the signs of the Chinese zodiac — it is said that when the zodiac animals were crossing a river rat rode on the back of ox and jumped off his head just as they reached zhore, thus establishing his priority — people born in the year of the rat are leaders and innovators.

A rat year, although it may have have associations with death, is one of opportunity, especially in business. It is also a good year for socializing and enjoying food and the company of family.

Particularly in combination with many-seeded fruits (the seeds suggesting offspring), the rat is associated with fertility, and an image of rat and fruit, such as the Xuande emperor’s painting shown here, implies a wish for many offspring. What a strange gift to present to a eunuch!

The work is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

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Pots-and-pans-orama

11 February, 2008 (05:00) | china, contemporary, sculpture | By: xensen

zhan wang urban landscape, san francisco, in progress

At San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, Chinese artist Zhan Wang is constructing a replica of the city by the bay out of pots and pans. The shiny utensils, stacked by the artist on equally shiny platforms artfully constructed by the museum’s preparators to his specifications, are being arranged to represent the city down to a close level of detail. Here you can see the Transamerica pyramid constructed from cheese grates and salad tongs.

This photo shows the work in progress. It will be completed within the next day or so, and the exhibition, entitled On Gold Mountain: Sculptures from the Sierra by Zhan Wang, will open to the public on Friday, February 15. The title alludes to the Chinese immigrant experience of mining in the Sierra during the Frisco gold rush; the city, called Gold Mountain by the Chinese, was the staging area for the trek to the Sierra.

At this writing a detail of a stainless steel scholar’s rock by Zhan Wang can be seen in the right sidebar.

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Neolithic sword found in Chongqing

15 January, 2008 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, neolithic | By: xensen

recent discovery: neolithic bronze chinese sword

Seven tombs dating to the Han dynasty were found in December in southwest China. Among the artifacts in the tombs were some very ancient objects, such as this bronze sword, apparently intended for ritual use, said to date from the Neolithic period.

I picked up this image and story from Dream Art Gallery. They have probably got it from a Chinese news report, but no credit is given, and I don’t know the original source.

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Glossary of Chinese ceramics: sancai

2 January, 2008 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, medieval, modern | By: xensen

sancai plate

Sancai wares were low-fired lead-glazed ceramics with color decorations. The colors were mixed to produce a great variety of shades. According to He Li, the colors and decorative patterns of sancai ware were influenced by Central Asian textiles.

Sancai literally means “three colors,” just as wancai, the last glaze we looked at, means “five colors.” As in the case of wancai, however, the term should not be understood literally – three-color sancai do predominate, but two- and four-color glazes may also be termed sancai. Common colors were green, yellow, and white, and common coloring agents were iron, copper, and manganese compounds. Sancai wares were first fired at 1000ºC., and then refired with the glaze at about 900ºC. Sometimes a white slip was applied before the decorations were added in order to produce clearer final result.

Sancai is usually associated with Tang dynasty wares, but the technique was equally popular during the Song. The style spread west along the Silk Road and east to Korea and Japan. In China it enjoyed a revival during the Ming dynasty.

Sancai was employed in animal forms (especially camels, horses, and dogs), often created as funerary pieces, as well as various types of vessels and other articles of daily use. Objects such as alms bowls, incense burners, and candlestick holders probably had ceremonial uses. Sancai wares were also popular trade and tribute items.

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Shown: Sancai Plate, 907-1125, Manchuria, Khitan Liao Dynasty, Musée Guimet (via wikipedia)

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Glossary of Chinese ceramics: wucai

19 December, 2007 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, modern | By: xensen

wucai covered jar

With this post I initiate a new series that will run here at 7 junipers intermittently over the next few months (as I find time to work on it). The goal of the series is to create a glossary of terms relating to Chinese ceramics and their glazes. The variety of glazes in traditional Chinese ceramics can cause confusion, which is compounded by an equal variety of foreign terms used to describe them.

I believe, therefore, that the best approach is to use the native terminology: words such as dehua rather than blanc de chine and qinghua rather than blue-and-white, for example.

The glossary will not go into great depth on any of the subjects but instead will aim at providing an introduction and a basis for further investigation. Perhaps it will be of some use to collectors or owners of traditional Chinese ceramics.

Let’s begin with wucai, a kind of ware that was especially popular in the early and middle Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The Chinese words can be translated literally as “five colors,” but in fact the number of colors can vary — the phrase “five colors” is applied loosely to convey the impression of multiple colors on such objects.

To produce wucai ware an underglaze of cobalt blue was laid down, and then three or more lower-fired, fairly pale, transparent enamels were painted on top of the glaze. This was a laborious process that required a second firing. The overglaze colors were applied in more or less equal proportions so that no one color dominated.

Wucai colors tend to be bright and flat (rather than gradated). Ming wucai typically combines underglaze blue with red and yellow or red and green. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) a more varied palette was developed. The use of underglaze blue gradually gave way to blue overglaze enamel, the enamel colors became more opaque (yielding stronger yellows and greens), and underglaze blue was used as an outline for solid opaque enamel masses of color. Qing dynasty wucai may also employ black to define outlines, and may include gold decoration.

Shown is a covered jar decorated with goldfish and aquatic plants, Ming dynasty, reign of the Jiajing emperor (1522-1566). Porcelain with overlay enamels, H: 46 cm. National Museum of Chinese History, Beijing.

Fish appear frequently as a decorative motif in Chinese art. The Chinese word for “fish” (yu) is a pun for “abundance” (yu), so fish are an common auspicious symbol in Chinese art.

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Image source: http://www.saturn-soft.net/Gallery/Gallery1/China1/menu.htm

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The Khoan and Michael Sullivan collection of modern Chinese art

18 December, 2007 (05:00) | 20th c, china, paintings | By: xensen

Fu Baoshi, Landscapes of the Four Seasons, 1950.

Asia House Gallery in London is presenting twentieth-century Chinese works from the Khoan and Michael Sullivan collection in two rotations through 24 May 2008. Michael Sullivan is one of the most influential scholars of Chinese art. His book Chinese Art in the Twentieth Century (1959) was the first in English on the subject, which he continued to explore in Art and Artists of Twentieth Century China (1996).

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Shown is Landscapes of the Four Seasons, 1950, by Fu Baoshi.

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Buddha’s-hand citron

17 December, 2007 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, medieval, modern | By: xensen

jade buddha;s hand citron

This nephrite object from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) may be my favorite jade from the collections of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (the image is from the “search the collection” feature on the AAM website).

This lemonlike citron (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus) is not usually eaten (although the rind may be candied and is sometimes used for zest), but it’s fragrant and said to have some medical qualities. It is said that the fragrance of a single fruit can perfume a room for weeks.

According to Flavor and Fortune, “Gary Palm of The Mission Inn in Riverside, California chops up pieces of rind to add a slightly bitter citrus tinge to fish marinades. Lindsey Shere, pastry chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California uses the candied peel in Italian desserts, such as pane forte. Allan Susser of Chef Allen’s in Adventura, Florida bakes pieces of candied rind in biscotti; it adds flavor that he describes as “kumquat-tangerine,” distinct from the more lemony flavor of regular citrus.”

Traditionally, the fruit was prized by the Chinese for its resemblance to a hand with the fingers outstretched. The buddha’s-hand citron was a popular plant motif in the art of the Ming dynasty. Besides its association with the Buddha the plant suggested wealth because of its resemblance to an outstretched hand. It remains popular at New Year’s and is said to bestow good fortune. Below are some thumbnails of images.

buddha's hand citron thumbnailsbuddha's hand citron thumbnails

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Ancient tomb discovered

12 December, 2007 (05:00) | china, classical | By: xensen

ancient chinese tombA remarkably well-preserved ancient tomb was discovered earlier this month in China’s Hubei Province. In addition to an intact female skeleton, the tomb contained 200 bamboo slips inscribed with ancient Chinese characters packed in a silk bag. According to the slips, the tomb is that of an aristocratic woman named “Hui” who lived during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220).

“Tombs from the Han Dynasty have been found in many places across the country, but it is rare to find such a well-preserved one. This will provide valuable historical data for studies in archaeology, history, zoology, botany and historical textile science,” said Wang Mingqin, head of Jingzhou Museum.

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LINK AND SOURCE OF IMAGE: Ancient bamboo slips reveal tomb owner’s identity

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Jades analysis indicates lively ancient sea trade

10 December, 2007 (05:00) | ancient, ceramics/metal/stone, china, southeast asia | By: xensen

ancient feng tian jade

A Reuters story by Tan Ee Lyn reports on an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the report, an international team of scientists performed X-ray spectrometer analysis of 144 jade ornaments in museums in southeast Asia. The jades were thought to date from 3000 BCE to 500 CE. The analysis determined that at least 116 of the jades were made from stone that originated in Fengtian in eastern Taiwan. Fengtian jade is typically a translucent green mottled with dark spots.

The article quotes lead researcher Hung Hsiao-chun, who noted that one of the Fengtian jades found in the Philippines dates to 2000 BCE:

There was a very huge workshop in Fengtian, dating back to 3,000 BC. Before, researchers thought all the jade in the Philippines was from China or Vietnam. With our analysis … we found that most of the ornamental jade in the Philippines was from Taiwan…. Their seafaring methods must have been very superior, even back then.

Shown is an ancient Fengtian nephrite earring unearthed in the Philippines. The image is from ABC News in Science, where the source is listed as PNAS/Yoshiyuki Iizuka.

The race to save the Mogao frescoes

4 December, 2007 (05:00) | china, classical, himalayas, medieval, paintings, sculpture | By: xensen

bodhisattva image from mogao grottoes at dunhuang, china

The Mogao grottoes at Dunhuang in China are one of the world’s richest art treasures. Dunhuang, though far from the center of Chinese civilization, was a key stop on the Silk Road. The Silk Road was not only a trade route for merchandise, it was also the route by which Buddhism was introduced to China, and Dunhuang is home to nearly 500 caves that served as Buddhist temples. The cave-temples are full of thousands of murals and sculptures, created between the fourth and fourteenth centuries.

For centuries the region’s remoteness and arid climate preserved that artworks is good condition. But today, according to this report, the murals are “fading away from age, tourist pressures and climate change.” The report goes on to describe efforts to photograph and preserve the art works.

restroing the mogao grotto frescos at dunhuang

A race is on to arrest the deterioration of the UN World Heritage site, which occupies 492 different cave temples along a 1.6-kilometre (one-mile) long cliff face near the ancient Silk Road oasis town of Dunhuang.

That decline has accelerated in recent years due in large part to desertification caused by climate change, said Wang Xudong, head of the Dunhuang Academy, the state-run institution that studies and maintains the grottoes.

More-frequent sandstorms from the nearby Kumtag desert are upsetting the fragile environmental balance inside the caves.

“Our biggest challenge is protecting the interior environment of the caves, especially from sandstorms, which are the biggest risk here,” he said.

But it’s a complex and painstaking task.

“Each cave has its own unique mineral, temperature, and moisture situation. We have to treat each one differently. We are learning every day,” Wang said.

The top image of a bodhisattva appears in a Tantric Buddhist painting in Cave 14. Dating from the Tang dynasty (618–906), it probably reflects a Tibetan influence; Dunhuang was under Tibetan rule during a some of the Tang. The second image accompanied the news article; I have done a little restoration work of my own on it.

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Two ewers

23 November, 2007 (07:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, medieval, west asia | By: xensen

two ewers

These two bird-headed ewers are both in the collections of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. I found them by searching the museum’s on-line collection database. Both ewers are currently on display in the museum’s loggia, but they will be taken down in a few weeks to make way for a display of Chinese ceramics.

On the left is a glazed earthenware object from China’s Tang dynasty (618-906). The glazed earthenware object on the right was produced in present-day Iran several centuries later (1200-1250). A lively trade along the Silk Road resulted in artistic influences being carried in both directions between East Asia and West Asia.

The museum will publish a catalogue of its Persian ceramics in June 2008.

Photos by Kaz Tsuruta.

Seven Junipers plays the net

21 November, 2007 (21:44) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, contemporary, meta, sculpture | By: xensen

terra-cotta tennis players

The internet, that is.

What could be a more appropriate image for our inaugural post than these ironic echoes of the first emperor’s terra-cotta army. The tennis warriors are in the offices of el blogador, a digital media consultant who divides his time between London and Antigua, Guatemala. They were created for the ATP Masters Cup being held in Shanghai (in fact, just as each of the first emperor’s soldiers has an individual face, so Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic are recognizable in these images). The artist is not identified.

For 7Junipers I intend to range freely over Asian art and culture, from ancient to contemporary times and across the entire continent. Art and literature will be my main subjects. Since I’m already stretched thin, I’ll probably move somewhat slowly on this, but as posts accumulate I will gather them into categories by culture, era, and medium. The globe on right can be clicked to visit particular regions (not much is up yet).

The title alludes to the seven junipers of Zhidao Guan, a Taoist temple in the city of Changshu in China’s Yangzi delta, as well as to a famous 16th-century painting of them by Wen Zhengming. The seven junipers also represent the seven large cultural regions that fall under the scope of this website. For more, see the “about” tab above.