Category Archives: Chinese Art

The Cicada in China

Cicada on tree branch; Wang Zhen (1867–1938); China, modern period, 1919; fan mounted as album leaf; ink on gold-flecked paper; Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art, F1998.222.2

Cicada on tree branch; Wang Zhen (1867–1938); China, modern period, autumn 1919; fan mounted as album leaf; ink on gold-flecked paper; Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art, F1998.222.2

The cicada’s role in Chinese culture is a longstanding and fascinating one. Meanings associated with the insect range from simply indicating the onset of summer to more complex themes, such as rebirth and immortality. The cicada can even represent the pathos of nature, in which we are all prey in the end.

In general Chinese lore, cicadas are creatures of high status. They are considered pure because they subsist on dew and lofty because of their perch in high treetops. An ancient analogy in China suggests that a high-ranking official should resemble a cicada: residing high, eating a pure diet, and with sharp eyes.

Also in antiquity, the headgear of rulers and nobles incorporated a golden image of a cicada with prominent eyes. The emblem signaled refinement, modesty, and a full awareness of one’s surroundings.

Attachment; China, Period of Division, 3rd–4th century; gold, bronze; The Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; a joint gift of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Paul Singer, the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, and the Children of Arthur M. Sackler, RLS1997.48.4455

Attachment; China, Period of Division, 3rd–4th century; gold, bronze; The Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; a joint gift of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Paul Singer, the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, and the Children of Arthur M. Sackler, RLS1997.48.4455

Since ancient times, the cicada has been seen as a symbol of resurrection, an association that owes to its fascinating life cycle. Newly hatched insects drop from branches to burrow into the ground, where they nourish themselves on tree roots for as long as seventeen years before emerging into the sunlight. Then, they climb high into the trees, and their outer skin splits open to allow the full-grown insects to appear.

This process was seen as an analogy for the spirits of the dead rising on a path to eternal existence in a transcendent realm. In the Han dynasty, jade amulets shaped like cicadas were placed on the tongues of corpses, no doubt to symbolize a hope for rebirth and immortality.

Tongue amulet in the form of a cicada (hanchan); China, Han dynasty, 1st century BCE–1st century CE; jade; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.693

Tongue amulet in the form of a cicada (hanchan); China, Han dynasty, 1st century BCE–1st century CE; jade (nephrite); Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.693

The cicada is the most conspicuous summer insect and sometimes represents the season. Its desiccated image when the autumn chill sets in, however, stands for pathos in some Chinese works. Take for example, an anecdote from the Zhuangzi, a compilation of writings by Zhuangzi (late fourth century BCE) and others. While out in a chestnut grove aiming to shoot a jay, Zhuangzi was distracted by a cicada carelessly settling in the shade. A mantis devoured the insect before it was, in turn, caught by the jay. Unsettled by the natural cycle of one species preying on the next, Zhuangzi decided not to shoot the jay. The tale has been turned into a pithy saying about the circle of life: “As the mantis catches the cicada, the jay is just behind.”

New Arrival: A Robe for Royalty

Prince’s summer chaofu (formal court dress); China, Qing dynasty, 19th century, probably 1820–60; silk gauze, embroidery in silk and metallic-wrapped threads, gold-printed trim, metal buttons; 141 x 170.2 cm; Gift of Shirley Z. Johnson; Freer Gallery of Art, F2015.7

Prince’s summer chaofu (formal court dress); China, Qing dynasty, 19th century, probably 1820–60; silk gauze, embroidery in silk and metallic-wrapped threads, gold-printed trim, metal buttons; 141 x 170.2 cm; Gift of Shirley Z. Johnson; Freer Gallery of Art, F2015.7

The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) court was world-renowned for sumptuous spectacle, due in no small part to the luxury of the silk garments worn by the ruling family and courtiers. This robe, a chaofu, is an example of the most formal Qing garment. From its exquisite quality to the tailoring and decoration, every detail signals the power and confidence of an imperial family ruling a prosperous multiethnic empire.

Fastened at the side, chaofu are tailored with long sleeves and a hip-length bodice attached to a pleated skirt. In English, the style is known as either a court or a ritual robe, since such garments could only be worn by the emperor and individuals of rank for rituals or important court assemblies.

Along with its astonishingly pristine condition, this robe—which was exhibited in our 2001 exhibition Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits—is rare in several regards, including for its exceptionally intricate open-work gauze pattern. The airy material suits Beijing’s hot summers (winter chaofu were of heavier silk with fur lining or trim). The embroidery is extraordinarily fine, with the silk threads worked so that the stitching is equally finished on both sides of the fabric. An embroidered character reading “universe” is inside the neck.

The robe on view in our 2001 exhibition "Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits."

The robe on view in our 2001 exhibition “Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese Commemorative Portraits.”

Imagery on court robes depended on the owner’s status, and the decoration here was for a prince of the first rank. The five-clawed dragons on the chest, back, and shoulders are surrounded by five-colored clouds and other auspicious symbols, hovering above a cosmic mountain at the center of the seas. The number eighteen is special as a multiple of nine, the number most closely associated with the emperor; here, eighteen dragon roundels appear on the skirt, sixteen of which are visible (two are hidden beneath the skirt’s front-opening flap). The robe glitters in the light with its dragons worked in gold- and silver-wrapped threads and gold printed trim, outlined by more golden threads.

A detail of the robe.

A detail of the robe.

The imperial family was proud of its Manchu ethnic identity and long success as a conquering dynasty that ruled China and mastered its culture. The rulers broadcast this by incorporating distinctive elements of Manchu dress into the cut of the chaofu, which otherwise borrows heavily from native Chinese dress, including for the pleated skirt and dragon decoration­. The horse-hoof shape of the cuffs, for example, recalls the protective sleeve-ends worn by Manchu horsemen and archers, from whom the imperial family descended.

The first costume to enter the Freer’s collection, this chaofu allows the museum to embody and project the power, status, and grandeur of the ruling elite in a personal way—through a garment that must have been worn by a first-rank prince. The donor of this major gift, Shirley Z. Johnson, has generous plans to follow it with other Chinese textiles from her stellar collection.

Earth Day: Searching for Plum Blossoms

Searching for Plum Blossoms While Riding on a Donkey; probably Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535);  China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century; hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; Freer Gallery of Art, F1917.108

Searching for Plum Blossoms While Riding on a Donkey; probably Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535); China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century; hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer; Freer Gallery of Art, F1917.108

In this sixteenth-century scroll, a man rides a donkey along a lakeside trail followed by a servant carrying his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar. Bundled against the cold, the man may have set out from the rustic houses nestled below the towering mountains. Glancing up at the first plum tree on the trail, he heads toward a thatch-roofed pavilion shaded by pines and plums in bloom.

Searching for plum blossoms in the winter mountains became a seasonal pastime in China during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Numerous poems and other accounts confirm that it was still a common practice more than two centuries later, during the Ming dynasty (1369–1644). Seen as a harbinger of spring, plum blossoms were admired for their ephemeral, pristine beauty and their fortitude in blooming during the coldest part of the year. They were also an emblem of the dignified gentleman in retirement.

See this scroll and other masterworks of painting, poetry, and calligraphy—known in China as the “Three Perfections”—in Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty.

Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty

Walking by a Mountain Stream; Shen Zhou (1427–1509); China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1487–89; album leaf; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art, F1911.163o

Walking by a Mountain Stream; Shen Zhou (1427–1509); China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1487–89; album leaf; ink and color on paper; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, Freer Gallery of Art, F1911.163o

From music to drama, cuisine to garden design, members of the Wu School excelled in all forms of creative expression. Centered on the affluent city of Suzhou and nearby towns, this driving force of Chinese culture during the Ming dynasty (1369–1644) took its name from a kingdom that once ruled the region. Of all their talents, Suzhou’s artists were most admired by contemporaries and later generations for their poetry, calligraphy, and painting. These complementary art forms, known collectively in China as the Three Perfections, were considered the ultimate modes of literati expression.

Opening Saturday, Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty celebrates Wu School works, examining the relationships among their imagery, brushstrokes, and, especially, words. Selections are drawn from the Freer|Sackler—home to one of the best Wu School collections in the country—as well as other museums and collections.

You’ll encounter works by some two dozen Wu School painters and calligraphers in the exhibition, including the “Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty”: Shen Zhou (1427–1509; see his work above), Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), Tang Yin (1470–1524), and Qiu Ying (ca. 1494–1552). This foursome exemplifies the two main groups of Wu School artists. Tang and Qiu were professional artists who accepted commissions from a range of clients and relied on their work to make a living. Shen and Wen were literati, or gentleman artists, who embraced the Three Perfections as both a personal pastime and a medium of social currency.

At the time, most of China’s professional artists worked in highly polished styles and favored traditional literary and historical subjects, which had wide public recognition and popular appeal. Gentleman artists, on the other hand, largely created works for each other, and their brushwork and themes tended to be more nuanced and personal in nature. Poetry was the primary vehicle of polite social exchange for most literati artists, as well as their preferred form of self-expression. Poems are ubiquitous throughout the exhibition, alternately inspiring, accompanying, and responding to the paintings and calligraphy.

The Big Sneeze

Jade nose plug, China

Jade nose plug, China

As the pollen count rises, we in tree-lined Washington, DC, also witness an increase in sniffles, sneezes, and, in response, “bless you”s. Many of us in the States are also familiar with “gesundheit”s or “You’re sooooo good-looking“s.

But what about our fellow allergy sufferers around the globe? In some Arabic-speaking countries, people answer a sneeze with “Alhamdulillah,” meaning “praise be to God.” In Turkey, a sneeze elicits “Çok yaşa“; in Persian, it’s “عافیت باشه” (Afiat basheh).

Sneezes generally aren’t acknowledged in China; neither are they in Japan. However, there is a Japanese saying about sneezing:

一誹二笑三惚四風邪

If you sneeze once, someone is talking or spreading bad things about you.

If you sneeze twice, someone is making fun of you.

If you sneeze three times, someone loves you.

If you sneeze four times, you’ve got a cold.

Ancestors Day

Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186

Portrait of a woman in green; China, possibly Ming dynasty, 17th century?; ink and color on silk; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.186

China celebrates the Qingming Festival today. Also known as Grave Sweeping Day or Ancestors Day, it’s a time for families to visit the graves of their loved ones, making offerings to honor those who came before.

The image above, a hanging scroll known as Portrait of a woman in green, is an ancestor portrait, a type of painting used in rituals and family settings to commemorate deceased relatives. The woman’s strict, frontal pose, covered hands, and almost life-size depiction are all qualities typical of these works.

We don’t know who this woman was, but the items on the red lacquer table behind her give a sense of her personality. Writing brushes and books refer to her education. An incense burner and a small box to hold the incense suggest the fragrance of her study, while a sprig of bamboo and the cloudlike swirl of an auspicious fungus convey a wish for the immortality of her spirit.

FS-8380_05-detail

Portraits of this kind were not regarded as art but as ritual objects, and the artists were expected to efface themselves entirely from the image. Though the names of the painters of ancestor portraits were almost never recorded, they fulfilled a necessary role in Chinese society and existed in every community.

Several years ago, a group of teens studied how the tradition of ancestor worship continues today in some Chinese and Chinese-American communities. Through interviews, family stories, old photo albums, and video footage, they pieced together a look at present-day practices, including those for Qingming jie. 

One of the stories the teens captured was from a husband and wife who had a remarkable ancestral experience early in their relationship:

This story begins many years ago in Taiwan, when Kenneth Chiu and his wife, Carol, were dating. Kenneth and his family paid respects to their ancestors each year with ceremonies and offerings. One year, Carol happened to be visiting Kenneth during one of the ceremony days. She was a Christian and didn’t understand the significance of the rituals. Kenneth responded to her questions by asking for her ancestors’ names and their land of origin. Then he took some paper “spirit” money, sealed it in an envelope, and burned it as an offering to her ancestors.

The next morning, Carol’s mother, who had just arrived from China, began to talk about a strange thing that had just happened to her.

She first told Carol something that she had never mentioned before: ever since the death of her own mother (Carol’s grandmother), she had been haunted every year by her ghost. This happened on Qingming jie (Grave Sweeping Day). In the recurring dream, her mother stood before her, looking at her, but never saying a word. She was always wearing the clothes she had been buried in, now worn and tattered, and she was always frowning, seeming sad and unhappy. Every Qingming jie for twenty years, Carol’s mother had this dream.

Carol still hadn’t spoken a word before her mother continued with her story. The night before, the eve of Qingming jie, the dream had occurred again. The same spirit approached her, but this time her mother was smiling! She had a look of contentment and was richly garbed with glowing, beautiful robes. Carol’s mother finished her story with a look of awe on her face. Then Carol fully realized the importance of the paper “spirit” money that Kenneth had burned as an offering to her dead ancestors. Her grandmother, as a spirit, had acquired the money in the offering.

NYFW: Accessories through the Ages

As New York Fashion Week struts toward its final round of shows, all eyes are on the apparel—and on the accessories. After all, you can’t truly dress to impress without the proper accoutrements, a tenet that discerning dressers seem to have embraced for millennia. Take, for example, the vivid splash of cerulean offered by this string of glazed-clay beads, which may date as far back as Late Period Egypt (712–332 BCE).

String of beads

Spinning to the opposite side of the color wheel (and to some two thousand years later), this Chinese necklace, dating to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), comprises coral, amber, and gold beads.

FS-7533_01

Women also decorated their wrists in Qing dynasty China. The bracelet on the left is made of jade, known in China as the “fairest of stones.” The gold bracelet on the right likely would’ve been worn as one of a pair by an elite Chinese woman. Within the filigree design, two dragons play with a magic pearl.

bracelets

Gold, unsurprisingly, has been shaped into fine adornments for centuries across the globe. Both this ring and these earrings are hollow, fashioned from gold sheets. Made in twelfth-century Iran, the ring bears Arabic inscriptions that read in part, “Good fortune and blessing and joy and sovereignty.” The earrings, created in India circa 1880, are typically worn by Muslim women in the southern state of Kerala, along the country’s west coast.

ring and earrings

And let’s not forget a key piece of arm candy: the purse. This twentieth-century version was made by Pakistan’s Sodha community. Closed with a drawstring, it bears geometric and peacock designs stitched in satin, as well as discs of mirrored glass.

S1991.28

Circling back to brilliant blue: these three Qing dynasty Chinese hair ornaments, fashioned from kingfisher feathers, are nothing short of stunning. We wouldn’t be surprised to see contemporary versions of these accessories accenting the updos at a fashion week sometime soon.

hair

NYFW: Catwalk-Worthy Fashions in Our Collections

New York Fashion Week has officially hit the runways. As top designers’ latest work is swooned over and scrutinized, let’s look at a few catwalk-worthy styles from Asian art history.

 

japan-fashion

As documented in such publications as Fruits magazine, Japanese street style pushes boundaries a bit further each year. Going back a few centuries proves that Japanese fashion has a history of catching eyes. There would be no missing the girl in an orange vermilion dress, painted somewhere between 1661 and 1673. Compare her ensemble to the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century silk costumes made for No performances. Gold is seen extensively in No costumes, used to reflect light and highlight the actors’ slow, stylized movements.

 

china-collage

Long, flowing robes also were en vogue in China, as seen in these tiny but detailed figurines dating between the eighth and thirteenth centuries.

 

china-fashion2

A few hundred years later, noblewomen wore coats over their floor-length robes. Dating to the mid-1800s, this summer surcoat is patterned with encircled dragons. The number of these roundels—and of the dragons’ claws—let everyone know the high status of the woman within the silk garment. The woman in the nineteenth- or early twentieth-century portrait posed in her coat, which she paired with a headpiece made of vivid kingfisher feathers. Speaking of which: Check back for a post on fabulous accessories in our collections.

Celebrate the Year of the Monkey

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Calling visitors of all ages: Ring in the Year of the Monkey at our second annual Lunar New Year Celebration on Saturday, February 6, 11 am–4 pm. Join us to explore the museum, take family-friendly tours of the suspended sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, and enjoy dance performances by the Madison Chinese Dance Academy. Plus: ribbon dancing, mask making, calligraphy, photo booth fun, and Lunar New Year resolutions!


About the Artwork

Chinese artist Xu Bing created Monkeys Grasp for the Moon specifically for the Freer|Sackler. Each of the sculpture’s twenty-one pieces represents the word “monkey” in one of a dozen different languages and writing systems, including Indonesian, Urdu, Hebrew, and Braille. The work is based on a Chinese folktale in which a group of monkeys attempt to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from a tree branch to the moon—only to discover that it is just a shimmering reflection in a pool of water.

Listen to Xu Bing chat about the work during its initial installation at the Freer|Sackler (click on “Interview with the Artist”).

The Cosmic Buddha’s New Dimensions

The Cosmic Buddha, centerpiece of the forthcoming exhibition Body of Devotion, has transcended time and space. The limestone sculpture started its life in China during the Northern Qi dynasty (550–77), most likely carved by a team of craftsmen. From that point forward, little is known about the Cosmic Buddha’s history until it appeared on the art market in Beijing more than a millennium later, in 1923. Freer Gallery curator Carl Whiting Bishop spotted the sculpture and bought it for the museum.

Covering the sculpture, which is formally titled Buddha Vairochana with the Realms of Existence, are detailed narrative scenes representing moments in the life of the Historical Buddha. Scenes of the Realms of Existence, a symbolic map of the Buddhist world, also are etched into the sculpture’s robe. Together, the sculpture’s many images provide a rare glimpse into early Chinese symbolic visions of the Buddhist cosmos.

In earlier times, the only way to capture the Cosmic Buddha’s rich content was through photographs or rubbings, impressions in black ink on white paper made directly on the sculpture’s surface. Today, anyone with a computer can zoom in on its intricate details. With help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the Cosmic Buddha now exists as a three-dimensional model, enabling scholars to study the work as never before and providing worldwide access to this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture.

The Cosmic Buddha’s next journey is from the Freer to the Sackler, where it will appear in Body of Devotion: The Cosmic Buddha in 3D when it opens this Saturday. The interactive installation explores not only the work itself, but also the evolving means and methods of studying sculpture, from rubbings and photographs to the technological possibilities of today.