Category Archives: Chinese Art

Chinese New Year: Celebrating with Food and Art

 

Meet Baolin Zhang, who creates edible festival toys out of rice flour. He will travel to Washington, DC, from Beijing to demonstrate how to make these dough figurines at our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration on Sunday, February 5.

Although this craft does not require complicated skills or rare materials, it does take a lot of artistic practice. At his demonstration, Zhang will show how he kneads colored dough into different shapes. In the video, you can see how he uses small bamboo slits to depict people, animals, and deities from traditional folktales. Along with glutinous rice flour, he uses other edible materials to create his art, including wax and honey to prevent cracking or mildewing.

After watching Bai’s demonstration, you can watch another Beijing artist use liquid sugar to paint beautiful creatures from the Chinese zodiac. Don’t worry if all this edible art makes you hungry: Pinch Dumpling will sell steamed dumplings, which you can enjoy as a casual lunch with friends and family.

All activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.

Chinese New Year: Painted Clay Sculptures Celebrate Beijing Opera Characters

 

Meet Hongkui Lin, a craftsman of painted clay opera masks. On Sunday, February 5, watch him demonstrate his more than one-hundred-year-old craft at our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration. Lin is visiting from Beijing, and his demonstration will be a rare opportunity for Americans to experience this popular Chinese craft.

As this video shows, the process for making the clay masks is more complex than it might seem at first glance. Like a complicated recipe, one mask takes a minimum of sixteen steps, from carving models on paper to applying base paint and adding enamel.

Lin selects colors to reflect aspects of each character’s identity and personality. Red often represents loyalty, for instance, while black symbolizes integrity. Colors also may signify age. Pink is reserved for elders, and if your character is immortal, it most likely will bear silver or gold.

After watching Lin’s demonstration, you may be inspired to watch thirty-minute opera performances by students from the Beijing Opera Art’s College at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Or, you may be tempted to make your own opera mask in the museum’s ImaginAsia classroom.

Seating will be first come, first served, and all activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.

 

On Sunday, February 5, Beijing folk artist Lin Bai will visit the Freer|Sackler as part of our third annual Chinese New Year Celebration. From 12–5 pm, you can watch him demonstrate how to make traditional bristle dolls.

This handicraft originated in Beijing more than a century ago, at the end of Qing Dynasty. In the video, you can see how Bai uses traditional materials to connect to the origins of this art form. He constructs the doll’s head and base from plaster, and he uses straw to shape the character’s bodies. The figures are then dressed in colored paper or silk and lined with cotton padding.

Bai makes characters inspired by popular operatic plays, including Uproar in Heaven and Four Pairs of Mallets. Each character is secured onto a base with a circle of sticks (or bristles), thus giving the dolls their beloved namesake. Once a collection of dolls is finished, the troupe can be placed onto a copper plate. When hit by a mallet, the figures appear to dance due to the sticks’ flexibility.

After watching Bai’s demonstration, you may be inspired to see the dolls come to life in opera performances by students from the Beijing Opera Art’s College at 12:30 and 2:30 pm. Or, you may be tempted to make your own opera mask in the museum’s ImaginAsia classroom.

Seating will be first come, first served, and all activities are free and open to the public. For more information (and to invite your friends), check out the event listing on Facebook.

Chinamania in 3D

3d

Take a spin with 3D versions of the porcelains in Chinamania. Smithsonian Digitization scanned more than sixty of our Chinese porcelains using turntable photogrammetry and laser arm scanning. Click through to view, download, and—if you have a 3D printer handy—create your own versions of these gorgeous blue-and-whites.

Want to know more about the exhibition? Here’s the overview from Lee Glazer, our curator of American art:

Contemporary sculptor Walter McConnell explores the West’s enduring obsession with Chinese ceramics through multiple lenses: museum collections, digital technology, and his own artistic vision. McConnell’s monumental porcelain sculptures are juxtaposed with export wares from China’s Kangxi period (1662–1722) similar to those that once decorated the Peacock Room in London. These historical porcelains, in turn, inspired the artist to create a new work based on 3D-printed replicas. (McConnell’s interest in replication and the serialized mass production of ceramic forms began more than a decade ago, after he visited China. His encounters with the kilns and factories at Jingdezhen prompted him to consider the history of China as an enduring resource for ceramic production.)

Created from digital scans that can be reprinted over and over, these replicas further underscore the intersection of art, technology, commerce, and mass production that has always defined Chinamania.

National Fossil Day: A Mysterious Mammoth Carving

Possibly bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha

Possibly bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (Guanyin) in the guise of a Buddha

In almost every regard, this Chinese figurine is perplexing and intriguing. Until recently, it was dated to 1025, based on an inscription carved into the base. Yet, no figural ivory carvings have been documented from the Song dynasty (960–1279). Was the inscription added legitimately or by an unscrupulous modern dealer?

The intricacy of this carving and its exaggeratedly long body and hands suggest a date of the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The figure is similar to Dehua (blanc de chine) porcelain figures made during this period. Radiocarbon test results on the ivory do not tell much, since the carver used fossil mammoth ivory more than 32,000 years old.

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Jades for Life and Death

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Jade has been one of China’s most highly valued materials for millennia, and we happen to have some of the world’s finest Chinese jades in our collections. Now, more than 250 jades produced during the Chinese Stone Age (ca. 5000―1700 BCE) are globally accessible through our new online catalogue Jades for Life and Death. Most of these works were produced by the Neolithic Liangzhu culture (ca. 3300―2250 BCE), the most prolific and advanced center for jade production in ancient China.

Why “life and death”? The title refers to ways that Chinese people used jade thousands of years ago. Pieces of jewelry—beads and pendants, for example—show that the ancient Chinese donned jade items as accessories. Then there are jade ritual disks (bi) and tubes (cong) that have been discovered at Liangzhu burial sites. Sometimes, the tubes had been arranged in a circle around the deceased’s body; sometimes, the disks were placed near the body and stacked below its feet.

More than two hundred objects were discovered in this Liangzhu tomb, including the jade disks known as bi.

More than two hundred objects were discovered in this Liangzhu tomb, including the jade disks known as bi.

Peruse Jades for Life and Death to marvel at these objects and to learn about their histories. You can find label text that our curators have written about the jades, as well as a host of related materials. Archival purchase records, for example, trace the objects’ journeys to the Freer|Sackler. Several essays delve into such topics as how museum founder Charles Lang Freer gathered this collection and the culture that created them. Research spanning the twentieth century reveals how the understanding of our jades shifted with each archaeological discovery in China.

And there’s more to come. This book is only the first in a series of five volumes we have planned about our jades. The next one, scheduled to come out in fall 2017, is dedicated to jades of the early Bronze Age, chiefly the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600―1050 BCE).

Chrysanthemum Wine on the Double Nine

Chrysanthemums and Wine Jar by Chinese artist Qi Baishi

Chrysanthemums and Wine Jar by Chinese artist Qi Baishi

An age-old tradition in China is to climb to a high place on the ninth day of the ninth month, or the Double Ninth, to eat and drink with family and friends and enjoy the autumn scenery, especially chrysanthemums. These seasonal blooms are particularly associated with Tao Qian (365–427), the magistrate of Pengze, who grew the flowers and loved drinking wine. Drinking chrysanthemum wine on the Double Ninth is said to promote good health and prolong life.

Poem by Cui Shu in cursive script

Poem by Cui Shu in cursive script

This sixteenth-century Chinese scroll bears a poem by the writer Cui Shu (active mid-8th century) titled “On the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month, Climbing the Terrace of Looking For the Immortal.” To observe the holiday, Cui Shu and his friends climbed a high terrace built by Emperor Wen (reigned 179–157 BCE), a scenic spot in Shaanxi province that evoked for the poet a series of historical and literary associations:

Emperor Wen of the Han dynasty raised this high terrace,
Which today we climb to watch the colors of dawn begin.
Cloudy hills of the Jin States stretch off to the north,
Gusting rain over Twin Knolls comes down from the east.
Who would recognize the warden of the far frontier gate?
The old Immortal-on-the-River is gone and won’t return.
Let’s search nearby instead for the Magistrate of Pengze,
To happily imbibe with him a cup of chrysanthemum wine.

Chinese Red

Dish with copper-red glaze; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande (1426–35) mark and period; porcelain with copper-red glaze; on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue) reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze; Purchase—Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries F2015.2

In “Red: Ming Dynasty/Mark Rothko,” opening tomorrow, this superb Ming dynasty dish is juxtaposed with a Mark Rothko painting to display the power of red across time.

China has always privileged the color red. Cinnabar and red ochre were used in ancient burials, probably to represent lifeblood and to help the deceased make the transition from death to immortality. Over time, red became associated with all things auspicious and happy. The Chinese valued its symbolic connection to fire, the sun, the heart, and the southern direction—all positive forces of energy.

For centuries, red has been China’s color of power, celebration, fertility, prosperity, and repelling evil. It has been chosen for the robes of high officials, traditional wedding dresses, babies’ clothing, envelopes for gifts of money, and the walls surrounding the Forbidden City to keep its occupants safe. On Lunar New Year, now as in the past, streets and homes are bedecked with red lanterns, and finery for the day is red or accented by it. Even China’s national flag is red—chosen both as an emblem of the People’s Revolution and as the traditional color of the Chinese people—summing up the color’s importance to national identity.

Round box with dragon and flower; China, Ming dynasty, Wanli reign, 1590s; carved red, black, and yellow lacquer (ticai) on wood core; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1953.63a–b

Round box with dragon and flower; China, Ming dynasty, Wanli reign, 1590s; carved red, black, and yellow lacquer (ticai) on wood core; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1953.63a–b

The English-speaking world has long recognized China’s love of red. Pantone, the standardized color matching system, includes “Chinese red,” a description that can be used to buy house paint or nail polish. But what color is it? “Chinese red” is a vivid orangey-red best described as vermillion. Originally made by grinding the mineral cinnabar and later produced synthetically, vermillion can include a range of warm hues, from bright orange-red to a duller bluish-red. In China, people sometimes refer to “Big Red,” which is a vibrant vermillion; the name also refers to the color’s place on the visible color spectrum, on which red has the longest, strongest presence. Underlying this term, you can feel the deep association with red in the Chinese imagination.

Cinnabar/vermillion is the most common shade of red in China, but it far from the only hue. Dozens of color names that translate as “scarlet,” “ruby,” “crimson,” and “rose” appear in the Chinese language. To suit each art form’s technical requirements, different pigments are used for dying silk, coloring lacquer, or decorating porcelain, thus ensuring a large palette of reds in Chinese art.

Dish with design of dragons and clouds; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande Reign, 1426–35; porcelain with cobalt under clear glaze, enamel over glaze; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1965.4

Dish with design of dragons and clouds; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande Reign, 1426–35; porcelain with cobalt under clear glaze, enamel over glaze; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, F1965.4

Throughout the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), red was favored to connote power and status. The dynasty was founded in the south, which is represented by the color, and the ruling family’s name, Zhu, means “vermillion.” Porcelain, beloved by the early fifteenth-century emperors, was decorated in reds created with a variety of techniques. An iron-red was developed for painting the five-clawed dragon—symbol of the emperor—on a vessel after it had been fired. This achieved a color similar to vermilion, which itself was not suitable for the heat of the kiln.

To create an all-over monochrome red—like the one seen on our dish in Red: Ming Dynasty/Mark Rothko, opening tomorrow—artists had to use a technique in which nanoparticles of copper oxide colored the glaze. The result achieved a tone in the bluish end of the vermillion spectrum, rather like crushed raspberries. “Fresh red” (likened to the blood of a freshly beheaded chicken) and “sacrificial red” are Chinese terms applied to this luscious red glaze. Instead of a blood sacrifice (a common misconception in English), “sacrificial” here refers to the early Ming emperors’ use of copper-red-glazed vessels to present offerings in ritual ceremonies at the Altar of the Sun.

Dish with copper-red glaze; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande (1426–35) mark and period; porcelain with copper-red glaze; on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue) reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze; Purchase—Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, F2015.2

Dish with copper-red glaze; China, Jiangxi province, Jingdezhen, Ming dynasty, Xuande (1426–35) mark and period; porcelain with copper-red glaze; on the base, a six-character cobalt-oxide (blue) reign mark in a double circle under colorless glaze; Purchase—Freer Endowment and Friends of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, F2015.2

The copper-red color must have pleased the Ming emperors at least as much as any of the other red hues that surrounded them. They continued to order this color despite the fact that it was so difficult to make; this explains the many unsuccessful attempts that have been discovered in a rubbish heap at the imperial kiln. Examples of copper-red glaze that did make the grade attest to the Ming potters’ amazing control of a demanding technology, as well as to their artistic sensitivity. While this shade may not initially strike you as “Chinese red,” spending time with our dish may prove that its particular hue is the most mesmerizing red of all.

(Every Day is) Dog Day

Hound

Hound

Give your pup some love for National Dog Day! Small jade animals like this hound were enjoyed as handsome decorations by China’s elite. Due to jade’s cool surface, they were also used as objects to caress. Hounds are, in general, well regarded in China; one of the years of the zodiac is named after the dog. In fact, this jade object might have been presented to someone born in the year of the dog. The slender animal wears a collar with a bell, suggesting that it is a hunting dog.

Incense box with relief figure of lion

Incense box with relief figure of lion

The mythical lion dog, such as the one that decorates this incense box, symbolizes strength and protection, especially of children. The image of a lion dog frolicking among peonies is a favored combination in both Chinese and Japanese imagery.

Puppies in the Snow

Puppies in the Snow

Japanese artist Isoda Koryusai (1735–1790) produced some 150 designs of flowers, birds, and animals. In one of his most charming works, seven puppies huddle together under a shelter that protects a blossoming narcissus from the snow. The print incorporates references to 1778, the year of the dog and when it was published. Calendar prints like this example were distributed as gifts at the beginning of the New Year; on the lunar calendar, this fell in mid- to late February, when narcissus began to bloom but snow might still fall.

Word Play

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Twenty-one monkeys greet visitors to the Freer|Sackler. They hang in the stairwell, dangling from the Sackler’s glass atrium all the way to a small reflecting pool three levels down. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, a suspended sculpture by Xu Bing (born 1955), is a chain made up of twenty-one large, black, lacquered wood pieces. Created specifically for the space as part of a 2001 exhibition of the artist’s work, it tucks nicely into the existing architecture. It is the only piece from the exhibition that was permanently installed in the museum.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is based on the Chinese fable of the same name. The story goes that a group of monkeys catch sight of the moon and attempt to capture it. Working together, they link arms and tails to form a chain reaching from their tree branch to the moon. Just as they’re about to grab it, the monkeys realize that they had merely seen the shimmering reflection of the moon on the surface of a pool. The dual lesson is that working together lets us achieve our dreams, but also that our dreams may be naught but illusion.

Xu Bing brought this lesson into the twenty-first century with his sculpture. Rather than creating actual monkey forms, he designed pieces shaped like the word “monkey” in a dozen languages, with each word forming a link on the chain. In this way, Xu communicates the importance of working together in an age and world as interconnected as ours. The languages—representing various countries, cultures, religions, and ethnicities—must come together to achieve greater goals.

Certainly, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is a work that could be, should be, and is admired for its aesthetic qualities, innovation, and narrative. But on top of this, the work deserves to be recognized as expressly demonstrative of the oeuvre of a very important artist. Xu Bing stands among the most celebrated contemporary Chinese artists; he is already studied in art history classes at many universities. Monkeys is very much in conversation with some of his other best-known works and considers many of the same ideas. In fact, another of Xu’s famous pieces, The Living Word, was also part of his 2001 exhibition at the Freer|Sackler.

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon and The Living Word, like Xu’s other works, are inspired by the relationship between meaning and words. The result is a body of work in which the artist considers worldly issues and culture and manipulates language to subvert meaning, to turn expectations on their head, and to change human perception. In Monkeys, his use of words as sculptural forms challenges the viewer to delve deeper for meaning, to analyze, to not accept the fable at face value. When this happens, each “monkey” becomes a microcosm of a culture, and the chain becomes symbolic of an ideal world. This comes full circle to feed back into the lesson of the illusionistic and fleeting nature of dreams.

“Xu Bing: The Living Word” at the Morgan Library and Museum, 2011

In The Living Word, pictured above in its 2011 installation at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, Xu also created a piece that considers the relationship between the written word and its physical meaning. He wrote the definition of the word niao (“bird” in Chinese) on the floor. Gradually, the niao characters morph between types of Chinese text—from Mao’s simplified text to standard Chinese and then to the ancient Chinese pictograph that means “bird.” Simultaneously, the characters move forward and lift off the floor and up to the sky. They look like birds in flight. They are literally breaking free of the literal definition of the word as they move backward on the timeline of language. Xu said that the words are “escaping the confines of human written definition . . . the birds soar, careless of the words with which humans seek to define them.”

When considered against Xu’s overall body of works, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon takes on another dimension. Its meaning becomes even more dynamic and layered. The Freer|Sackler is lucky to have such a work among its collection, and even more so, to have it permanently installed where visitors encounter it every day. And visitors are lucky to have such a work, by such a famous artist, to admire up close as they move throughout the museum.