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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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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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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.