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This book is for readers to learn something about Chinese culture by looking at art. It describes decorative art on pottery, bronze ware, and many other art works and artifacts throughout Chinese history. It also tells the stories behind the decorative art. Decorative art is different from fine art in that decorative art is most often uses repeated designs and and often contains a theme that tells something about the people that use the artifacts. Decorative art has a fascinating story to tell about Chinese culture that is not as easily told using words alone. I hope that readers will be able to appreciate these themes from the content of the book:
The book includes some Chinese text. This is not necessary to understand the content. It is included primary for native Chinese speakers to be able to scan quickly in their native language and for Chinese language students to learn some specialized terms relating to history and art. If you have trouble with the characters showing up as unreadable square boxes or question marks, see the web page Getting and Using Chinese Fonts.
Decorative designs are many and varied in Chinese culture. Most have a story behind them relating to a legend or historical character. The symbols may be particular to a person, rank, or place, relate to a belief, or be for good luck. For example, in Chinese mythology dragons are connected with water and were thought to be responsible for rain. The window screen below shows a dragon spouting water and a fish swimming in the water below. Fish are a symbol of prosperity because of having the same sound as the word plentiful 余.
Traditional Chinese auspcious patterns 吉祥图案 are a kind of decorative design 花纹 that make reference to or are homophones for symbols of luck and prosperity. The origins of many of these designs go back to the Shang and Zhou dynasties, were developed further in the Tang and Song, and became popular in the Ming and Qing. By the time of the Ming and Qing virtually all designs had to have some meaning and luck and prosperity was the main theme. Stylized pictures of the characters wealth 富, noblility 贵, longevity 寿, and happiness 喜 are popular as are real and legendary animals symbolizing good qualities. Bats, as shown in the window screen below, are symbols of happiness and longevity and, also, the word for bat in Chinese sounds like wealth 富.
Most Western people will have noticed that practically all traditional chinese buildings, furniture, utensils, and other artifacts are literally covered with decorative designs. My interest in Chinese designs was boosted when I read that geometric patterns in Neolithic pottery were likely the origin for Chinese characters. I decided to do some research into Neolithic pottery to see if I could find the connection. A stronger connection that I found was decorative designs and symbolism in Chinese art from prehistory, through every Chinese dynasty, and on to the present day, a period of over 5,000 years.
I think that everybody who sees Chinese art, including artifacts like porcelain and silk clothes, is immediately impressed. Certainly, ancient Romans and other customers of Chinese silk and porcelain around the world were impressed and paid premium prices for the good. However, what most people probably unconciously feel, but do not know the details of, is the incredible breadth and depth in Chinese art. It is probably not matched in any other culture in the world. My study in preparing these notes has opened my eyes to what a huge subject it is. In these notes I want to focus on decorative designs but it merges into art and the technologies of the mediums that the designs are used with.
One of the great things about looking at historic artifacts is that you can you can learn about history from an original source without having to learn an ancient language. When I looked at the ancient bronze ware collection in the Shanghai Museum I really liked the patterns and was very impressed with the workmanship so distant in the past. Nearly all historic artwork has a close connection with nature that I admire and that is constant throughout history. This carries through into very pervasive symbolism in Chinese art. In particular, much artwork has a connection with the identity and role of the people that the the artifacts were associated. Well known examples are the association of dings (a cauldron supported by a tripod) with early Chinese sovereigns and pictures of dragons with emperors right up until the end of the Qing. The design below is one of my many favorites. It is an animal mask design from Shang Dynasty bronze ware.
The Chinese term for decorative design 纹饰 refers to decorative designs on artifacts, typically vessels like dishes, dings, cauldrons, pots, vases. The materials were originally pottery then bronze ware but the same concepts were then applied to other materials like gold and silver ware, jade, stone carving, silk, furniture and wood carvings, and other artistic mediums. Early decorative designs are mostly either geometric designs, animal figures, individual totems, or something in between. Fire designs 火纹 and lightening designs 雷纹 are types of geometric designs. Animal mask 兽面纹, bird desgins 凤鸟纹, animal designs 动物纹, and dragon design 龙纹 are designs that take animal figures, stylize them, and use them to create repeating decorative patterns. The mystical Chinese animal taotie 饕餮, which is the basis for the animal mask design, was one of the most commonly sculptured figures in the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties.
Chinese art has an incredible amount of symbolism. Animals were portrayed with exaggerated features or a mixture of features from different animals. It seems like they were being used to portay human characteristics like greed with the taotie 饕餮 and hopes for the future with lucky animals 瑞兽. With Neolithic art we may only be able to speculate. However, unlike European art, commentary and appraisal of art has been a part of Chinese art since writing began. For example, bronze ware often carried inscriptions, porcelain was stamped with information about its source, and caligraphic and other fine art often included dedications from the author and stamps from other people who appreciated the art. All of this gives an insight into the society and life of people in historic times, which is very rewarding.
It is interesting to speculate why people created art works. What could ancient people have been thinking about without TV soap operas, the Internet, and cell phones? According to the book The Third Chimpanzee [Diamond 1993], the origins of art are in selection of a mate. Certainly, we can imagine how beautiful jewelry and clothes can help people select partners in ancient times and we have direct experience in modern times as well. Much ancient art is intended to be opulent and for display of wealth and social position. This is apparent in imperial art, where much porcelain (from imperial kilns), symbols (dragons), and numbers (nine) were reserved solely for the emperor and his immediate family. By contrast, religious art is more about expressing devotion and ideals of balance and harmony, which can be seen in Buddhist art. Other art binds communities, such as the numerous symbols of good fortune, happiness, and long life in Chinese art. Certainly, the purpose is not always clear.