Category Archives: Chinese Art

The Man behind the “Mania”

A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956) 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: Dark Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Owls, skulls, demure shepherdesses and bucking broncos: all of these figures and dozens more coexist in Walter McConnell’s monumental porcelain sculptures. These “stupas,” as he describes them, are part of Chinamania, an installation named for the craze for Chinese blue-and-white porcelain that swept London in the 1870s and still exists in the West. Coated in glistening crystalline glazes, the stupas are juxtaposed with Kangxi period (1662–1722) ceramics from our collection—as well as a piece made up of 3D-printed replicas of these historical objects. While installing the exhibition, which opens July 9, McConnell sat down with Bento to talk about his work.

Bento: Tell me about your travels to China. Why did you go?

Walter McConnell: As a ceramic artist, I was really interested in experiencing ceramic production in China. In the States, I had been working with this collection of recycled hobby industry molds, weird figurines, kitsch ceramic bric-a-brac, and the like. I had an invitation to participate in an international workshop held in a figurine manufactory in China, so I was curious to see what confluences there might be in terms of outputs from these different cultural milieus. Though the manufactory I worked in was mostly producing high-end items, they were also very good at producing kitsch novelties, like statuettes of Bruce Lee in various karate poses.

On that same trip, I had the opportunity to visit Jingdezhen, the source of the blue-and-white porcelains I rearranged for the Chinamania show. . . . I remember being enamored with the dizzying array of ceramic products on display in Jingdezhen market stalls, one after the other after the other—literally stacks of pots, enormous porcelain vessels, and figurines. So in China, I constructed an early version of my “stupa” sculptures by shopping the markets of Jingdezhen for seconds and castoff pieces. I built a piece called Pagoda—a tall, cylindrical stack of market ceramics, figurines, teapots, roof tile, etc. . . . with a waxed paper parasol on top, a motif often represented on the finial of architectural stupas as well.

Bento: Why do you refer to your works as stupas?

WM: The stepped pyramid architecture allowed for an arrangement of ceramic objects that is presentational: you can see them all at once as you circulate around the work. And then, of course, the structure bore a strong resemblance to the stupa and other Asian temple architecture. Furthering the analogy, they’re also, in a sense, reliquaries, housing cultural remains of North American popular ceramics.

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China's Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

An example of a stupa from our collections. This cloisonne stupa was made during the reign of China’s Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–96).

My interest really is in the way that these objects are evidence of a kind of collective consciousness, an encyclopedic display of a slice of popular culture at a particular moment in time. These things don’t have an explicit function; they’re objects of a momentary caprice, perhaps, a particular passion—[someone deciding] “I need this thing” to fit my home décor, my curio cabinet. So you find things in the mix that are readily familiar or completely arcane, objects that have gone in and out of fashion.

Take an inventory: There are vessels of all kinds, beer steins, adorable animals, neoclassical motifs, collectables, commemoratives, Americana, all markers of cultural heritage and class structure. There’s the pastoral, the shepherdess, garden ornaments, antiquities . . . All facsimiles, of course—relatively cheap, slip cast replicas. Ceramic has always been a medium for translating the aristocratic into the democratic, accessible, cheap, ubiquitous.

Bento: Do you collect anything?

WM: I don’t, at least nothing obsessive that we live with. Perhaps, intermittently, Fiestaware and pottery—but generally I’ve saved the compulsion for my artwork. The obsessive/maniacal part of this is in the accumulation, surely, but also in the arrangement. I think I’m a little obsessive compulsive about how these things get placed and displayed. But that’s what’s required, right? The meticulous arrangement really compels the audience to sit up and take notice. Otherwise, the objects are simply dismissible novelties. Coat them with a fabulously flamboyant glaze with blooms of crystalline zinc and accretions of sand and you get this sense of geologic strata, which allows the stupa and its collected relics to feel connected to nature in some way.

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

Detail, A Theory of Everything: White Stupa; Walter McConnell (b. 1956); 2014 and 2004–16; cast porcelain from salvaged hobby industrial molds, zinc crystalline glaze, sand, and plywood shelving; courtesy the artist and Cross MacKenzie Gallery, Washington, DC

BentoChinamania complements Peacock Room REMIX, a contemporary take on Whistler’s masterpiece. How does your work relate to the Peacock Room?

WM: In one sense, they both say something about the psychology of the collector and collections, the need for systems and order. I’ve always been enamored with the aesthetic of abundance and ostentatious display in porcelain rooms that predate the Peacock Room. I’ve researched the history of porcelain manufacture and its migration and reinvention in the West—the aristocratic nature of the medium, the maniacal passion for collecting. In the eighteenth century, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, imprisoned Johann Friedrich Böttger to make lead into gold, and instead reinvented porcelain in the West. Augustus famously traded a regiment of soldiers for a collection of porcelain vases, a well-known early narrative of a kind of Chinamania.

Bento: How do your 3D printouts play into the installation?

WM: The connection between the stupas, the Kangxi porcelains, and the 3D prototypes is an interesting one. I was entertaining a number of things that I could do with your collection, yet I was somewhat stymied by prohibitions on actually handling the originals. I’d been doing some scanning and prototyping in another body of work, so I proposed to scan and prototype the blue-and-white collection. Now I can touch them; I can possess a complete set of these extraordinarily detailed facsimiles (but of course, not the originals). The digital clones are democratic, more accessible. That was the motivation, to bring about a question of how objects circulate like this in culture high and low.

I imagined the original Chinese porcelains displayed in a glowing case inset in a dark wall, floating as if an apparition, less tangible than their miniature clones. Those are now in the room at 40 percent of the original size, set in their souvenir boxed set, replicating with some precision the objects at a distance on the wall. So now the boxed set almost seems more accessible than the things that are illuminated in the case. You have more access to it. I was hoping to affect an oscillation between those states.

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722)

Chinese porcelains from our collection, produced in the Jingdezhen region of China during the Kangxi reign (1662–1722), and their miniature, 3D-printed counterparts.

Bento: What do you hope visitors take away from your installation?

WM: I think the “Stupas” have a lot of different entry points. You walk around them, you find something that catches your eye, evokes a memory, creates an entertaining, improbable narrative, provoking your delight or disdain. They do seem to compel circumambulation by the audience—again, an analogy to the Buddhist model. That kind of active engagement with memory, I suppose, becomes part of what they are.

I think you have to be astonished by their scale, the sheen, the meticulous stacking and improbable structure. Otherwise, they don’t work. The objects are perhaps overly familiar; you can find these things anywhere, an apartment window, your neighbor’s lawn. It’s aesthetic astonishment with the cumulative effect that rouses empathy for the collective consciousness on display here. I hope the work is capable of that.

No Hungry Generations Tread Thee Down

Playing the Chinese qin. Photo courtesy of Bell Yung.

Playing the Chinese qin. Photo courtesy of Bell Yung.

Standing in front of the qin in the Freer|Sackler’s exhibition Painting with Words, I remembered the first time I saw one in my teacher’s house. I cannot recall the name of it, but the slim contour of its body stands vividly in my memory. Under the dim light in the living room, the metal markers shone in the most modest way. Seven strings emanated from the gum, then steadfastly went up along the surface, tied in seven delicate knots on the Mount Yue. My teacher played me “Flowing Water,” a song attributed to the ancient qin master Boya that is featured in the Painting with Words galleries. I remember he said, “It’s always the best piece to lure someone into the world of qin.”

Structure of the qin. Image courtesy of Beijing Musical Instrument Society.

Structure of the qin. Image courtesy of Beijing Musical Instrument Society.

Back then, I was thirteen. To the thirteen-year-old me, the qin was the bridge to the wonderland of ancient Chinese culture. The qin was essential to Chinese artists throughout history. Its significance during the Ming dynasty is clear in Painting with Words—several poets refer to the qin in their lines. Painters also often depicted men either playing or carrying the instrument.

As I started learning to play, I was deeply influenced by the cultural history the qin carries. There have been various schools of qin throughout history. The one I belong to is nowadays called Fanchuan 泛川, founded by Zhang Kongshan 張孔山 and fostered by Gu Meigeng 顧梅羹 in northeast China. My teacher liked to tell me the “inside stories” of the Fanchuan school as well as the history of each piece during our classes. Much of the background information on qin pieces is recorded in Qinxue beiyao 琴學備要, a collection of important qin music. Gu Meigeng hand wrote each character in Qinxue. Every time I open the book and read through the words, I am deeply moved by the master’s great dedication to the study of this enchanting musical instrument.

The book records many wonderful pieces that are representative of the Fanchuan school, including “Oulu wangji” 鷗鷺忘機 (Seabirds and No Ulterior Motives), “Pingsha luoyan” 平沙落雁 (Wild Geese on the Sandbank), “Yigure” 憶故人 (Thinking of An Old Friend), and “Zuiyu changwan” 醉漁唱晚 (Drunk Fisherman Singing at Dusk). Among them, “Flowing Water” 流水is the most essential. Fanchuan’s version of “Flowing Water” adds “seventy-two Gunfu 七十二滾拂” to the sixth section of the music. This change adds a sense of turbulence to the song, as if the flowing water has suddenly come to a dangerous valley and started to dance with its destiny. The contrast between this passion in the middle and the tranquility in the end is thus stronger, creating a more interesting narrative for the piece.

Following behind a robed gentleman, a serving boy carries a wrapped qin. "Walking by a Mountain Stream" is on view in "Painting with Words."

Following behind a robed gentleman, a serving boy carries a wrapped qin. “Walking by a Mountain Stream” is on view in “Painting with Words.”

Since NASA carried “Flowing Water” into space, I always like to imagine how an alien would encounter the song. I picture him walking along a riverbank, watching the beautiful sunset, wondering if there is another being who could enjoy this moment with him. Suddenly, among the thousand beats of water, he hears this music—just for one second, but it has indeed caught his attention. The music goes with the wave and becomes the wave. It achieves pure harmony.

Perhaps the alien in my imagination still does not have an affirmative answer to his question, but I do. Anyone who hears “Flowing Water” is not alone, because the piece transcends time and space. It is immortal, like the song of the nightingale in a poem by John Keats. The music you can hear in Painting with Words was heard “in ancient days by emperor and clown,” for “no hungry generations tread thee down.”

Wu School: Bamboo in Rain

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

Xiao-Xiang River after Rain; Xia Chang 夏㫤 (1388–1470); China, Ming dynasty, 1464; handscroll; ink on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment; Freer Gallery of Art, F1952.27

It’s raining in DC (again). We must stay strong, much like this bamboo dipping into a river in Xiao-Xiang after a rainstorm, on view in Painting with Words. In Chinese tradition, the evergreen bamboo is honored for its strength, resilience, and ability to bend without breaking—qualities also associated with the ideal Confucian gentleman. Naturally straight and tall, bamboo mirrors the gentleman’s upright character. The hollow stems parallel his selfless humility, and their strong, solid joints represent his unbreakable integrity.

Xiao 瀟 and Xiang 湘 are the names of two rivers in Hunan province, central China, that have been famous since ancient times for their extensive groves of bamboo. Together, the names refer to an area known in antiquity as the kingdom of Chu 楚, which occupies a special place in Chinese literature and history.

Any reference to Xiao-Xiang immediately calls famous stories to mind. For example, according to early legend, a sage ruler named Shun 舜 (traditionally 2294–2184 BCE) died suddenly near the Xiang River. His two wives mourned on the water’s edge for days, their copious tears staining the nearby bamboo. Overcome with grief, they cast themselves into the Xiang and drowned, becoming goddesses of the river.

Word Nerd Wednesday: jinshi, juren, and jieyuan

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Judging from the poems, these leaves were meant for a promising young man. He had passed the provincial juren exams with flying colors and was en route to the capital, presumably by boat, to take the national jinshi examinations to qualify for the imperial bureaucracy.

Cramming desperately for finals week? Students past and present may find some solace in the fact that even China’s literary elite didn’t always ace their exams. As explored in the exhibition Painting with Words, centered on works by Wu School artists, several of these renowned painters, poets, and calligraphers didn’t excel at tests. During the Ming dynasty, the national jinshi (advanced scholar) examination, held every three years in the capital, qualified test takers for service in the imperial bureaucracy. Some artists, such as Xia Chang and Wu Kuan, distinguished themselves in the examinations and rose to high government offices.

Tang Yin (1470–1524) and Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) rank among the leading artists of the Ming dynasty, and they’re considered two of the Four Great Artists of the Ming Dynasty. Tang and Wen met as teenagers, and despite radical differences in character and temperament, they became close friends. In 1498, the eighteen-year-olds went off to Nanjing to sit for the provincial juren examinations. Tang was awarded first place (jieyuan); Wen Zhengming failed. Wen would never pass the jinshi examination, though he made multiple attempts. Regardless, he went on to become the unrivaled leader of the Wu School for much of its heyday during the first sixty years of the sixteenth century.

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

While tests were no match for Tang’s brilliance, he had a wild side. He was given to self-indulgence (some would say decadence) and poor decision-making. While in the imperial capital in 1499 to take the national jinshi examinations, Tang behaved inappropriately—possibly involving drunken debauchery—and became embroiled in a trumped-up cheating scandal. Although he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, Tang was jailed, expelled from the exams, and sent home in disgrace, with the once-certain promise of a glorious official career now reduced to ashes.

Nevertheless, Tang’s status remained intact among the scholarly and wealthy elite of his native Suzhou. He lived and moved in the leading circles of local society, and, through their continuing patronage, he made a successful (if sometimes precarious) living through his writing and art for the next twenty-five years.

Remembering Suzhou

A scholar's studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

A scholar’s studio in Suzhou. Photograph courtesy of the author.

In December 2014, while I was working on Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty, I visited China’s Suzhou Museum to see an exhibition on Tang Yin, one of the city’s most celebrated artists and a key member of the Ming dynasty’s Wu School. I spent the first day studying the remarkable assemblage of Tang’s painting and calligraphy, including several works I had long wanted to see. On the morning of the second day, Mr. Pan, a young museum curator, came by my hotel to take me to a famous local garden before we would return to the exhibition in the afternoon. In the spirit of the Three Perfections—painting, poetry, and calligraphy—in which Tang Yin and his fellow Wu School artists excelled, I’ve written the following recollection of that day. 

Curator Pan darts down a narrow side street flanked with whitewashed walls, chatting amiably as we stroll to one of Suzhou’s famous gardens. In the Old City, early morning rituals are in full swing. Under the weak winter sun, brightly colored quilts and bedding are hanging out to air. The wok woman on the corner fires up savory crepes for eager passersby; stacked baskets of gleaming dumplings steam in the stall next door. Up the block, around the public well, bare-armed men and women scrub their laundry in tubs and buckets, sharing gossip of absent neighbors and the rumors of the day.

At a blind corner by the canal, another man cutting crosswise suddenly collides with my companion, butting heads. But their startled curses and momentary consternation quickly turn to wincing laughs and smiles, as old friends clap each other on the shoulder and shake hands. In fact, he lives around the corner now, just down the lane, and we’re invited to drop by for tea on our way back.

Curator Pan loves classical poetry. As we wander the latticed halls and jumbled rockeries of the garden he quotes the early masters, then offers up a sample of his own. He savors every syllable and rhyme, chanting loudly with proud satisfaction: “A new view with every step, Suzhou gardens are the best.” A pavilion, a bridge, fragrant shrubs scattered and massed for every season; tall twisted rocks dredged from nearby lakes and erected on end; maples in full flush and clusters of nandina berries, flaming red: all are reflected clearly in still pools of water. All were put here long ago just to catch our eye as we turn the bend.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

Curator Pan texts his friend. Photo courtesy of the author.

We’ve taken our time, and we text Master Liang, the old friend we had encountered, to let him know we’re running late. Out the front gate and back the way we came, we cross the canal and hurry down the street to the left. A long block later, we knock at a set of wooden doors that front the lane. A young girl opens them, and across the courtyard our smiling host beckons us into his studio where the kettle for tea is already boiling. Master Liang, it turns out, is a teacher of the qin—the seven-stringed zither played by almost every classical poet since the time of Confucius—and soon we’re perching comfortably on sturdy stools inside his high-ceilinged classroom. Sleek-bodied black lacquer zithers hang from rings along the wall; woven mats and low polished tables line the stone-tiled floor.

With a practiced flourish Master Liang discards the first pot of tea and adds new hot water to the leaves: “It’s the second steeping that is best, and the only one to serve an honored guest.” Waiting, we talk of his teacher and mine, of the training and traditions that led us each to where we are. Master Liang asks his friend about his newly opened exhibition on the art of Tang Yin (1470–1524), one of the city’s most beloved poets and painters, and the real reason I am here. The show is the talk of the town, featured in all the papers; we tell him that visitors are packed four and five deep in front of every picture and he should probably wait a couple of weeks to come.

By now the tea is ready, and Master Liang pours us each a shallow cup. Its warmth in our hands and the subtle scent and flavor imbue us with a sense of calm. I tell them of a favorite handscroll in the Freer|Sackler: a short landscape by Tang Yin called Traveling South, which he painted in 1505 for his good friend, a young qin player who was setting out from Suzhou to make his way in the world. Then as now, the road was part of life for professional musicians.

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Detail, Traveling South; Tang Yin (1470–1524); China, Ming dynasty, 1505; handscroll; ink and color on paper; Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment, Freer Gallery of Art, F1953.78

Done in marvelously varied brushwork and subtle graded tones of ink, the scroll is one of the artist’s early masterpieces. After the painting, Tang inscribed two short poems:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

Xi Kang long ago performed the Melody of Guangling
Silent for a thousand years its tonalities are lost
Today I have traveled to this place to see you off
That we may look for its tablature in the handbook

Inspired by my description, Master Liang moves to a nearby table where his qin is tuned and waiting. Selecting a favorite melody, he dedicates it to our accidental meeting: “Reading the Book of Changes at a Window Filled with Pines.” By which, of course, he means that if one reads the universe rightly, our meeting was no accident at all. Each note trembles in the chilly air, then warms as the next one huddles in, piling solid and broken lines one atop the other and transporting us momentarily to another place and time: here and now, there and then, all the same.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

Master Liang performs. Photo courtesy of the author.

The piece ends with a flurry of harmonics, and we finish our replenished cups of tea. His first students of the day will arrive in half an hour, and since we’re meeting a colleague from the museum for lunch, we take our leave. Polite farewells at the door and grateful promises to stay in touch, and as we step across the threshold, returning to the rough-and-tumble, I am struck again by how much Suzhou, for all its modern veneer, remains unwaveringly true to itself. Poetry and painting, zithers and tea, rocks and gardens, crepes and dumplings: the pulse of life for more than five hundred years. Whether 1514 or 2014, certain things abide.

Word of the Day: zhiyin

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze Forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644 Lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip Freer Gallery of Art F1999.8

Seven-stringed zither (qin), named Spring Breeze; forged inscription of Wen Zhengming (1470–1559); China, Ming dynasty, 1369–1644; lacquered wood, water buffalo horn, mother-of-pearl, and silk strings; Gift of Dr. Shing Yiu Yip; Freer Gallery of Art, F1999.8

As you stroll through the works in Painting with Words, you’ll see—and hear—the Chinese qin, a musical instrument that was ubiquitous in the cultural life of Ming dynasty China. Paintings from the period often show a retired gentleman walking in the mountains or along a stream, followed by a young servant carrying the man’s qin (pronounced “chin”). Viewers would understand that the subject of the painting would stop to play his qin whenever he felt so inspired by the nature around him.

In the center of this album leaf, titled "Walking by a Mountain Stream," a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

In the center of this album leaf, titled “Walking by a Mountain Stream,” a man is followed by a servant holding his qin, the quintessential musical instrument of the Chinese gentleman scholar.

The qin music playing in the exhibition is a piece called “Flowing Water.” In 1977, when NASA sent Voyager I hurtling toward deep space, the satellite carried a sound disc with fifty pieces of music to represent earthly civilization. “Flowing Water” was the piece chosen to represent Chinese music.

The song is traditionally attributed to Boya, an ancient qin master. His friend Zhong Ziqi was deeply attuned to Boya’s music. When Zhong died, Boya destroyed his qin, declaring that he had no reason to keep playing now that no one understood him. Since then, the term zhiyin 知音, defined as someone who understands or appreciates one’s sound or music, has been used to refer to a dear friend.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a poem on a handscroll titled Traveling South touches on Boya’s story:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms
I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes
If someone you encounter should appreciate your music
Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

We’re excited to welcome a present-day qin master to the museum this weekend. Bell Yung, emeritus professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the world’s leading authorities on the qin, will hold four free concerts from Friday through Sunday. He will play an instrument similar to the one on display in Painting with Words and will focus on pieces that evoke themes seen in the exhibition: plum blossoms, wild geese, river mists, and flowing waters.

A Daylily for Mom

杜菫 《美人獻壽圖》; Beautiful Woman Presenting Longevity; Du Jin (act. 1465–1509); China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century?; hanging scroll; ink and color on gold-flecked paper; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Purchased to complement the Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly Collection of Chinese art through the bequest of Mrs. Enid Goodrich and the support of Lilly Endowment Inc., 2004.2, imamuseum.org

杜菫 《美人獻壽圖》; Beautiful Woman Presenting Longevity; Du Jin (act. 1465–1509); China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century?; hanging scroll; ink and color on gold-flecked paper; Indianapolis Museum of Art; Purchased to complement the Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly Collection of Chinese art through the bequest of Mrs. Enid Goodrich and the support of Lilly Endowment Inc., 2004.2, imamuseum.org

Looking for a meaningful gift for Mom? Consider giving her a daylily—and a trip to the Freer|Sackler to see the flower in our Painting with Words exhibition, featuring works by China’s Wu School artists.

This Ming dynasty hanging scroll, on loan to us from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, depicts an elegant young woman wearing an elaborate headdress and gazing toward a full moon. In an inscription at the upper right, the artist, Du Jin (act. 1465–1509), identified her as Lady Wu, a deified constellation. A second inscription at the upper left notes that a young man in Beijing commissioned this painting and sent it to his mother as a birthday gift.

In her hands, Lady Wu holds a daylily. The flower symbolizes motherhood in Chinese tradition. In ancient times, women hoping to give birth to sons would wear daylilies on their robes. At the same time, the daylily is known as “the plant for forgetting worry.”

Given the flower’s dual meanings, we can guess that the son intended this painting to express two things to his mother: good wishes for a long and healthy life, and a reminder that she shouldn’t worry about him too much.

Painting with Words: Gentleman Artists of the Ming Dynasty is on view through July 24. (And Mother’s Day is this Sunday!)

 

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.