Category Archives: Chinese Art

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.

Shining a Light on Jades at the Freer|Sackler

Chisel-shaped object; China, Song dynasty, 960–1279; jade (nephrite, actinolite/tremolite); Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.28

Chisel-shaped object; China, Song dynasty, 960–1279; jade (nephrite, actinolite/tremolite); Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1917.28

Jade was the material most highly prized by the ancient Chinese. Its polish, brilliance, subtle and translucent colors, and extreme toughness have long been associated with the quality of virtue and the concepts of the soul and immortality. The Freer|Sackler’s collections of jades include works of exceptional artistic quality, as well pieces of great cultural, historical, and sociological importance. Searching Open F|S, our fully digitized collection, is a superb way to become familiar with this unparalleled group of jade objects.

Next year, we will further expand access to our holdings with an online jade catalogue. As we prepare to make the evolving field of research on Chinese jades available to the public, we decided to test objects not previously examined for mineral composition to ensure our reports are complete and accurate. Jade is a chemically complex material, and studying its mineral composition is one way to understand more about the choices made by artisans in ancient China. The material properties can provide insights into jade sources, how jades were worked, and how they have changed since they were made.

Xiao Ma, MCI intern, uses a portable Vis/NIR in to analyze a Neolithic jade bi.

Xiao Ma, MCI intern, uses a portable Vis/NIR in to analyze a Neolithic jade bi.

Xiao Ma, a recent intern at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), and I spent a few days studying the jades using two noninvasive methods: portable Fourier Transform Infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and Visible-Near Infrared spectroscopy (Vis-NIR). Both techniques deliver data directly from the surface of a jade in just a few minutes, and because no sample is required, there is no risk of damage to the object.

Example of a Vis-NIR spectrum of a Liangzhu jade bead (F1912.29a) composed of nephrite. The fingerprint bands for nephrite include 1394 nm, 2316 nm, and 2388 nm.

Example of a Vis-NIR spectrum of a Liangzhu jade bead (F1912.29a) composed of nephrite. The fingerprint bands for nephrite include 1394 nm, 2316 nm, and 2388 nm.

How do FTIR and Vis-NIR work? The light we typically see is within the visible portion (400–760 nm) of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum, or the part that human eyes can detect. The light we cannot see, above and below the visible portion, plays an important role in analyzing the composition of materials. For instance, the FTIR technique uses mid-infrared light (2500–25000 nm) to interact with the molecules that make up a jade object. As the infrared light is reflected back to a detector, FTIR measures how well the jade absorbs it at each wavelength, helping us create a molecular fingerprint.

Vis-NIR spectroscopy uses light in the visible region (400–760 nm) and overtones in the near-infrared region (760–2500 nm) to measure light that a material absorbs and scatters. Using this method, we placed jade objects near a light source; the light reflected from the object was collected by the Vis-NIR’s photodetector. The Vis-NIR spectrometer is particularly useful for analyzing mineral composition, as it is highly sensitive to electron transitions in both the visible and near-infrared regions.

We analyzed a total of 103 jades, including bi disks, cong tubes, pendants, ornaments, beads, and axes. Besides the most common jade material, nephrite (tremolite/actinolite), we also found other minerals, such as serpentine, quartz, and diopside. Our research methods and findings promise to serve as guidelines for museums to quickly and noninvasively analyze jade collections. Stay tuned to see more discoveries in the online catalogue when it is released next year.

Friday Fave: Buddhist Stele

Buddhist Stele with the "Thousand Buddhas"; China, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 461 CE; sandstone with traces of polychrome pigment; Gift of Marietta Lutze Sackler; S1991.157

Buddhist Stele with the “Thousand Buddhas”; China, Northern Wei dynasty, dated 461 CE; sandstone with traces of polychrome pigment; Gift of Marietta Lutze Sackler; S1991.157

For my first assignment as a summer intern at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, I was asked to research this monumental Chinese Buddhist stele, which is being considered for a future exhibition on Buddhist art. Steles were created to commemorate the Buddhist faith and proliferated during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE). At the bottom of this stele, the Historical Buddha Shakyamuni sits cross-legged with hands in dhyani mudra, flanked by bodhisattvas and ascetic figures.

The stele’s repetitive pattern is known as the “Thousand Buddhas” (qianfo), characterized by rows of small Buddha figures on the front and back. It’s one of the most important motifs in Northern Wei Buddhist art. According to scholars, it reflects the notion that the cosmos is filled with innumerable realms, which are all simultaneously inhabited by Buddhas. The motif supports the omnipresence of Buddha and Buddha-nature. Many experts propose that the motif is related to the practice of visualization and recitation during Buddhist practice. While there is room for debate on the meaning of the Thousand Buddhas, the inscription provides a concrete example of the hopes of the stele’s sponsors, including their good wishes for the emperor, hope for the spread of Buddhism, and request for peace.

After about a month of reading and researching, I was finally able to view the stele in Sackler storage. It is a remarkable experience to see an object after learning about its many details. It reminded me of meeting a penpal for the first time or reuniting with a childhood friend. I was immediately able to relate all of my research to the physical object in front of me. For instance, I knew to look for the bodhisattva to the right of Shakyamuni who holds a bottle of healing water, indicating that he is Avalokiteshvara. Once I finally saw the stele in person, a wave of complete comprehension and appreciation washed over me. What began as a simple research project evolved into a rewarding, thought-provoking experience.

Vote for the Cosmic Buddha in SI’s Summer Showdown!

Cosmic Buddha (Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence); China, probably Henan province, Northern Qi dynasty, (550-577); Limestone; Purchase; F1923.15

Cosmic Buddha (Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence); China, probably Henan province, Northern Qi dynasty, (550-577); Limestone; Purchase; F1923.15

Voting begins today for the Smithsonian’s Summer Showdown. Last year more than 90,000 people from across the country voted for their favorite object in the Smithsonian. This year, Freer|Sackler is represented by the Cosmic Buddha, one of our most iconic images that is currently on view in the exhibition, Promise of Paradise: Early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture.

Like all Buddhas (fully enlightened beings), this life-size limestone figure of Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha, is wrapped in the simple robe of a monk. What makes this object exceptional are the detailed narrative scenes that cover its surface. They represent not only moments in the life of the Historical Buddha but also the “Realms of Existence,” a symbolic map of the Buddhist world. Heaven appears at the top toward the shoulders, while various hells are at the bottom, along the hem of the figure’s robe. Humans, animals, spirits, and demigods reside between the two.

With help from the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, the Cosmic Buddha also exists as a 3D model. This format enables scholars to study the work as never before, and it provides worldwide access to this masterpiece of Buddhist sculpture.

Vote for this amazing object in #SIShowdown!

Friday Fave: Chinese Bells

Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285

Bell; China, Eastern Zhou dynasty, ca. 5th century BCE; bronze; Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.285

My favorite part of physics in high school was the physics of sound. I was part of several ensembles then and ended up studying music in college. Years later, as a graduate student, I initially learned about Chinese bronze bells through a course on the music of Asia. The following quarter, my first art history course was on Chinese bronzes. This time, I learned about the bells from an art historical perspective.

Naturally, on my first visit to the Freer and Sackler with a friend in 2011, I was delighted to see a bronze bell on display. There it was: over a foot and a half tall; lens-shaped mouth; thirty-six studs jutting out from its body; a slight patina running down the middle, hinting at age; the taotie motif—fangs, horns, and brows snaking around protruding eyes—near the lip.

Clapperless and struck instead with a mallet, these bells were an integral part of ancient court rituals. A full set consists of more than sixty bells of varying sizes. Acoustically, each bell is capable of producing two tones depending on where it is hit: Striking along the side produces one tone, and striking along the middle results in a tone three degrees—or the equivalent of a major or minor third—away. Even in modern times, bronze bells have been used in important ceremonies, such as the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, and in the theme music for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

These bells highlight China’s advanced state of technological advancement and early mastery of bronze casting: Bells of this complexity would not begin to be produced in Europe for another millennia. Bronze bells were included in the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects, and the Freer|Sackler has one of the finest collections of these bells in the world.

Friday Fave: Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing, S2004.2.1-21

First-time visitors to the Sackler Gallery are often surprised and delighted by Chinese artist Xu Bing’s sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The impressive installation comprises a series of twenty-one interlocking laminated wood “monkeys.” They hang from the ceiling of the Gallery’s atrium and descend, one beneath another, through the center of the three-story stairwell to end suspended above a reflecting pool at the bottom level.

What I particularly love about this work is the seamless integration of sculptural forms, multiple writing systems and languages, and storytelling. It starts with a Chinese folktale that describes a group of monkeys in a tree that decide to capture the moon. By linking their arms and tails, they form a chain down toward the moon, only to discover that it is a reflection in a body of water at the base of the tree. Xu’s monkeys certainly look the part, despite being heavily abstracted. They have tails and arms and faces that are clearly identifiable. But each one also spells out the word “monkey” in a different language, in scripts as diverse as Urdu, German, Chinese, and Braille. People, children especially, will often work their way through the entire installation, carefully matching each monkey to a key that shows which one represents which language.

By bringing together these different languages and writing systems into such a coherent form, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon speaks to me about universal connections between peoples of different cultures. It is a fitting way to welcome visitors to an institution devoted to such a culturally and artistically diverse part of the world.

Friday Fave: Elephants in the Museum

Lidded ritual ewer (huo) in the form of an elephant with masks and dragons; Middle Yangzi Valley, China, Shang dynasty, Late Anyang period, ca. first half 11th century BCE; bronze; Purchase, F1936.6a–b

Lidded ritual ewer (huo) in the form of an elephant with masks and dragons; Middle Yangzi Valley, China, Shang dynasty, Late Anyang period, ca. first half 11th century BCE; bronze; Purchase, F1936.6a–b

A search for “elephant” in Open F|S yields 135 results. This trumps the less engaging turtle or rabbit (65 and 83, respectively) but really can’t compare to the stalwart horse or fantastic dragon (528 and 652). I love searching the collection this way—the objects returned come from wildly different periods and cultures, and are executed in nearly all the media represented in the museums’ collections.

The “elephant” category includes a certain number of objects that are made of ivory (made centuries ago and acquired by the museums when it was legal to do so) or that have the word “elephant” in their title. These, however, aren’t actually depictions of elephants. The elephants in the F|S collection are nearly equally divided between two-dimensional works on silk or paper—from China, Japan, India, and Iran—and three-dimensional pieces, mostly in bronze or stone from China, with a few from Southeast Asia. They date from 1200 BCE to the middle of the twentieth century.

Equally striking are the differences in the elephants: some are mischievous, some are complacent—aware of their magnificence as they parade across the page—while some look disgruntled and even sad. Scanning nine pages of results, we see the full panoply of this animal that so has intrigued artists, travelers, royalty, and others over the centuries.

The elephant pictured here is one of my favorites. It is a ewer (or vessel) intended for ritual use, cast from bronze with elaborate surface ornamentation. Made in China, probably around 1100 BCE, it is of modest size. When this vessel was made more than 3,000 years ago, elephants were probably much more prevalent in China than they are today. The little elephant perched on the vessel’s lid and the use of the animal’s trunk as a spout give the object a whimsical quality that belies its ritual significance. It is also an incredibly rare vessel, the only surviving example with its original lid. We know that the lid and base belong together because of similarities in the decoration.

Acquired by the Freer Galley in 1936, the elephant ewer has been the subject of study over the years, but lately it has been receiving a new kind of attention as a recent addition to the Smithsonian’s 3D imaging project. This innovative program creates 3D models of objects from across the entire Smithsonian, allowing us to discover new insights with cutting-edge technology. The research potential is extraordinary, but it’s also just fun to explore the object in this new way, turning it around on the screen, looking at it from new angles, and zooming in to see the elephant in ways we couldn’t do in the gallery.

A special thank-you to Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at Freer|Sackler, for advising on this post.

Friday Fave: Vairochana, the Cosmic Buddha

Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15

Buddha draped in robes portraying the Realms of Existence; probably Henan province, China, Northern Qi dynasty, 550–77; limestone; Purchase, F1923.15

Our Friday Fave blog series features museum insiders taking a closer look at their favorite works of art.

It’s not a piece I paid a lot of attention to at first. At first glance, the statue is almost forlorn, a robed Buddha missing head and hands. I appreciated it abstractly but never looked very closely at it.

The project that would become SmithsonianX3D changed all that. The Cosmic Buddha was chosen as one of the pieces to showcase for the launch of the 3D site, and I had the chance to learn so much more about this fascinating statue while working with Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art, and the Smithsonian digitization team. For example, the decoration on the stone robes is not just abstract imagery, but rich illustrations depicting the Buddhist “Realms of Existence” and scenes from the past lives of the Historical Buddha. The stories are told in bands stacked up the front and back of the Buddha. Wear and tear on the low relief carvings show that the Buddha was cleaned and cared for, and probably had scholars taking rubbings of the imagery.

Now, the Cosmic Buddha—as well as Promise of Paradise, the exhibition in which the sculpture is featured—are my favorite things in the Freer. I still love to wander through the gallery and study the Buddha, and try to picture what the missing head and hands were like (we don’t know, though we can make an educated guess from existing depictions of the Vairochana—the Cosmic Buddha).

Next time you’re at the Freer, look closer at the Buddha. Don’t forget that you can explore it online, too, and learn more at 3d.si.edu.

Celebrate the Lunar New Year at Freer|Sackler

Sheep and Goat; Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322); China, Yuan dynasty, ca. 1300; ink on paper; Purchase, F1931.4

Sheep and Goat; Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322); China, Yuan dynasty, ca. 1300; ink on paper; Purchase, F1931.4

Greetings from the ImaginAsia family program!

To ring in the Year of the Sheep, we are hosting our first annual Lunar New Year Celebration on Saturday, February 21, from 11 am to 4 pm. Throughout the day, visitors of all ages can learn, play, and indulge in culinary delights to mark the new year in China, Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and many other countries.

Visitors can explore the Freer|Sackler’s rich collections through educator-led tours, sample and learn how to make Lunar New Year-themed recipes with author Pat Tanumihardja, and discover the history and traditions of the holiday through book readings hosted by the DC Public Library. Other activities include creating festive good-luck figures with handmade paper and pop-up greeting cards with Sushmita Mazumdar, a local book artist.

This event, held in the midst of the fifteen-day holiday, is co-organized by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Can’t wait for Saturday? Send a Lunar New Year e-card now!