Ancient History & Civilisation


The rôle of art in China—Textiles—Furniture—Jewelry—Fans—The making of lacquer—The cutting of jade—Some masterpieces in bronze—Chinese sculpture

The pursuit of wisdom and the passion for beauty are the two poles of the Chinese mind, and China might loosely be defined as philosophy and porcelain. As the pursuit of wisdom meant to China no airy metaphysic but a positive philosophy aiming at individual development and social order, so the passion for beauty was no esoteric estheticism, no dilettante concoction of art forms irrelevant to human affairs, but an earthly marriage of beauty and utility, a practical resolve to adorn the objects and implements of daily life. Until it began to yield its own ideals to Western influence, China refused to recognize any distinction between the artist and the artisan, or between the artisan and the worker; nearly all industry was manufacture, and all manufacture was handicraft;industry, like art, was the expression of personality in things. Hence China, while neglecting to provide its people, through large-scale industry, with conveniences common in the West, excelled every country in artistic taste and the multiplication of beautiful objects for daily use. From the characters in which he wrote to the dishes from which he ate, the comfortable Chinese demanded that everything about him should have some esthetic form, and evidence in its shape and texture the mature civilization of which it was a symbol and a part.

It was during the Sung Dynasty that this movement to beautify the person, the temple and the home reached its highest expression. It had been a part of the excellence of T’ang life, and would remain and spread under later dynasties; but now a long period of order and prosperity nourished every art, and gave to Chinese living a grace and adornment which it had never enjoyed before. In textiles and metalworking the craftsmen of China, during and after the Sung era, reached a degree of perfection never surpassed; in the cutting of jade and hard stones they went beyond all rivals anywhere; and in the carving of wood and ivory they were excelled only by their pupils in Japan.27 Furniture was designed in a variety of unique and uncomfortable forms; cabinet-makers, living on a bowl of rice per day, sent forth one objet de vertu—one little piece of perfection—after another; and these minor products of a careful art, taking the place of expensive furniture and luxuries in homes, gave to their owners a pleasure which in the Occident only connoisseurs can know. Jewelry was not abundant, but it was admirably cut. Women and men cooled themselves with ornate fans of feathers or bamboo, of painted paper or silk; even beggars brandished elegant fans as they plied their ancient trade.

The art of lacquer began in China, and came to its fullest perfection in Japan. In the Far East lacquer is the natural product of a tree* indigenous to China, but now most sedulously cultivated by the Japanese. The sap is drawn from trunk and branches, strained, and heated to remove excess liquid; it is applied to thin wood, sometimes to metal or porcelain, and is dried by exposure to moisture.28 Twenty or thirty coats, each slowly dried and painstakingly polished, are laid on, the applications varying in color and depth; then, in China, the finished lacquer is carved with a sharp V-shaped tool, each incision reaching to such a layer as to expose the color required by the design. The art grew slowly; it began as a form of writing upon bamboo strips; the material was used in the Chou Dynasty to decorate vessels, harness, carriages, etc.; in the second century A.D. it was applied to buildings and musical instruments; under the T’ang many lacquered articles were exported to Japan; under the Sung all branches of the .industry took their definite form, and shipped their products to such distant ports as India and Arabia; under the Ming emperors the art was further perfected, and in some phases reached its zenith;29 under the enlightened Manchu rulers K’ang-hsi and Ch’ien Lung great factories were built and maintained by imperial decree, and made such masterpieces as Ch’ien Lung’s throne,30 or the lacquered screen that K’ang-hsi presented to Leopold I, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.31 The art continued at its height until the nineteenth century, when the wars brought on by European merchants, and the poor taste of European importers and clients, caused the withdrawal of imperial support, lowered the standards, debased the designs, and left the leadership in lacquer to Japan.

Jade is as old as Chinese history, for it is found in the most ancient graves. The earliest records attribute its use as a “sound-stone” to 2500 B.C.: jade was cut in the form of a fish or elsewise, and suspended by a thong; when properly cut and struck it emitted a clear musical tone, astonishingly long sustained. The word was derived through the French jade from the Spanish ijada (Lat. ilia), meaning loins; the Spanish conquerors of America found that the Mexicans used the stone, powdered and mixed with water, as a cure for many internal disorders, and they brought this new prescription back to Europe along with American gold. The Chinese word for the stone is much more sensible; jun means soft like the dew.32 Two minerals provide jade: jadeite and nephrite—silicates in the one case of aluminium and sodium, in the other of calcium and magnesium. Both are tough; the pressure of fifty tons is sometimes required to crush a one-inch cube; large pieces are usually broken by being subjected in quick succession first to extreme heat and then to cold water. The ingenuity of the Chinese artist is revealed in his ability to bring lustrous colors of green, brown, black and white out of these naturally colorless materials, and in the patient obstinacy with which he varies the forms, so that in all the world’s collections of jade (barring buttons) no two pieces are alike. Examples begin to appear as far back as the Shang Dynasty, in the shape of a jade toad used in divine sacrifice;33 and forms of great beauty were produced in the days of Confucius.34 While various peoples used jadeite for axes, knives and other utensils, the Chinese held the stone in such reverence that they kept it almost exclusivly for art; they regarded it as more precious than silver or gold, or any jewelry;35 they valued some small jades, like the thumb rings worn by the mandarins, at five thousand dollars, and some jade necklaces at $100,000; collectors spent years in search of a single piece. It has been estimated that an assemblage of all existing Chinese jades would form a collection unrivaled by any other material.36

Bronze is almost as old as jade in the art of China, and even more exalted in Chinese reverence. Legend tells how the ancient Emperor Yü, hero of the Chinese flood, cast the metals sent him as tribute by the nine provinces of his empire into the form of three nine-legged cauldrons, possessed of the magic power to ward off noxious influences, cause their contents to boil without fire, and generate spontaneously every delicacy. They became a sacred symbol of the imperial authority, were handed down carefully from dynasty to dynasty, but disappeared mysteriously on the fall of the Chou—a circumstance extremely injurious to the prestige of Shih Huang-ti. The casting and decoration of bronze became one of the fine arts of China, and produced collections that required forty-two volumes to catalogue them.37 It made vessels for the religious ceremonies of the government and the home, and transformed a thousand varieties of utensils into works of art. Chinese bronzes are equaled only by the work of the Italian Renaissance, and there, perhaps, only by those “Gates of Paradise” which Ghiberti designed for the Baptistery of Florence.

The oldest existing pieces of Chinese bronze are sacrificial vessels recently discovered in Honan; Chinese scholars assign them to the Shang Dynasty, but European connoisseurs give them a later, though uncertain, date. The earliest dated remains are from the period of the Chou; an excellent example of these is the set of ceremonial vessels in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Most of the Chou bronzes were confiscated by Shih Huang-ti, lest the people melt them down and recast them as weapons. With the accumulated metal his artisans made twelve gigantic statues, each fifty feet high;38 but not one foot of the fifty remains. Under the Han many fine vessels were made, often inlaid with gold. Artists trained in China cast several masterpieces for the Temple of Horiuji at Nara in Japan, the loveliest being three Amida-Buddhas seated in lotus-beds;39 there is hardly anything finer than these figures in the history of bronze.* Under the Sung the art reached its height, if not of excellence, certainly of fertility; cauldrons, wine vessels, beakers, censers, weapons, mirrors, bells, drums, vases, plaques and figurines filled the shelves of connoisseurs and found some place in nearly every home. An attractive sample of Sung work is an incense burner in the form of a water buffalo mounted by Lao-tze, who bestrides it calmly in proof 01 the power of philosophy to tame the savage breast.40 The casting is throughout of the thinness of paper, and the lapse of time has given the piece a patina or coating of mottled green that lends it the meretricious beauty of decay. Under the Ming a slow deterioration attacked the art; the size of the objects increased, the quality fell. Bronze, which had been a miraculous novelty in the Chalcolithic Age of the Emperor Yü, became a commonplace, and yielded its popularity to porcelain.

Sculpture was not one of the major arts, not even a fine art, to the Chinese.41 By an act of rare modesty the Far East refused to class the human body under the rubric of beauty; its sculptors played a little with drapery, and used the figures of men—seldom of women—to study or represent certain types of consciousness; but they did not glorify the body. For the most part they confined their portraits of humanity to Buddhist saints and Taoist sages, ignoring the-athletes and courtesans who gave such inspiration to the artists of Greece. In the sculpture of China animals were preferred even to philosophers and saints.

The earliest Chinese statues known to us are the twelve bronze colossi erected by Shih Huang-ti; they were melted by a Han ruler to make “small cash.” A few little animals in bronze remain from the Han Dynasty; but nearly all the statuary of that epoch was destroyed by war or the negligence of time. The only important Han remains are the tomb-reliefs found in Shantung; here again the human figures are rare, the scenes being dominated by animals carved in thin relief. More akin to sculpture are the funerary statuettes of clay—mostly of animals, occasionally of servants or wives—which were buried with male corpses as a convenient substitute for suttee. Here and there animals in the round survive from this period, like the marble tiger, all muscle and watchfulness, that guarded the temple of Sniang-fu,42 or the snarling bears in the Gardner collection at Boston, or the winged and goitrous lions of the Nanking tombs.43 These animals, and the proud horses of the tomb-reliefs, show a mixture of Greco-Bactrian, Assyrian and Scythian influences; there is nothing about them distinctively Chinese.44

Meanwhile another influence was entering China, in the form of Buddhist theology and art. It made a home for itself first in Turkestan, and built there a civilization from which Stein and Pelliot have unearthed many tons of ruined statuary; some of it45 seems equal to Hindu Buddhist art at its best. The Chinese took over those Buddhist forms without much alteration, and produced Buddhas as fair as any in Gandhara or India. The earliest of these appear in the Yün Kan cave temples of Shansi (ca. 490 A.D.); among the best are the figures in the Lung Men grottoes of Honan. Outside these grottoes stand several colossi, of which the most unique is a graceful Bodhisattwa, and the most imposing is the “Vairochana” Buddha (ca. 672 A.D.), destroyed at the base but still instructively serene.46 Farther east, in Shantung, many cave temples have been found whose walls are carved with mythology in Hindu fashion, with here and there a powerful Bodhisattiva like that in the cave of Yun Men (ca. 600 A.D.).47 The T’ang Dynasty continued the Buddhist tradition in sculpture, and carried it to perfection in the seated stone Buddha (ca. 639) found in the province of Shensi.48 The later dynasties produced in clay some massive Lohans—disciples of the gentle Buddha who have the stern faces of financiers;* and some very beautiful figures of the Mahayana deity Kuan-yin, almost in the process of turning from a god into a goddess.49

After the T’ang Dynasty sculpture lost its religious inspiration, and took on a secular, occasionally a sensuous, character; moralists complained, as in Renaissance Italy, that the artists were making saints as graceful and supple as women; and Buddhist priests laid down severe iconographic rules for-bidding the individualization of character or the accentuation of the body. Probably the strong moral bent of the Chinese impeded the development of sculpture; when the religious motif lost its impelling force, and the attractiveness of physical beauty was not allowed to take its place, sculpture in China decayed; religion destroyed what it could no longer inspire. Towards the end of the T’ang the fount of sculptural creation began to run dry. The Sung produced only a few extant pieces of distinction; the Mongols gave their energies to war; the Mings excelled for a passing moment in bizarreries and such colossi as the stone monsters that stand before the tombs of the Mings. Sculpture, choked by religious restrictions, gave up the ghost, and left the field of Chinese art to porcelain and painting.

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