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Forget for a while the barbarities of the current ruling regime and take a step back in time to a land of refinement and culture. China's wonderful culture has given rise to countless exquisite creations in the domain of the visual arts, the influence of which has left its mark on the art of well nigh the entirety of East Asia, and even on Persian and Western art. There are no Macho Man paintings and sculpture, though ― at least not in ancient times and not on the same page as Michelangelo's David or Rodin's Thinker. Which is not to say that Chinese art is bad, only that it's different.
Below is a small survey of some of the fruits of the Chinese artistic genius which I have discovered and found to my liking. Hope you'll find them to your liking, too.
Decorative Design Motifs
Suitably adorned with traditional Chinese decorative designs, any man-made article instantly becomes an object of interest and fascination, be it cloisonné or porcelain, woodwork or lacquerware, carpetry or embroidery. A sense of vitality and vigor often infuses the visual forms employed in Chinese decorative art, though restrained and guided at all times by requirements of beauty and finesse.
Rich meanings accumulated over centuries have been assigned to the symbols lining the decorated surface. Bats for example symbolize prosperity (and not evil — please don't think of vampires here :)); cranes signify long life; the lotus flower serves as an expression of spiritual purity; plum, pines and bamboo represent steadfastness in the face of adversity (the three plants are often collectively called the 'Three Winter Friends'); and so on. Inverting a symbol, as is still practiced today with certain symbols during the lunar new year, is supposed to enhance its potency, not reverse its meaning and turn it into something perverse, as in the Western tradition!
Being among the most frequently used design motifs, mythical creatures such as dragons have so much meaning and significance that to elaborate would take more than a few paragraphs. Suffice it for now to say that here again, unlike their Western counterparts, they are emphatically not to be considered as evil creatures!
Below is a selection of traditional Chinese designs taken from different sources. Enjoy!
Many of the above designs are taken from Stanley Appelbaum's Traditional Chinese Designs and Joseph D'Addetta's Treasury of Chinese Design Motifs. These two slender volumes contain between their covers a glittering array of lovely black-and-white designs all useable in art projects or for decorative purposes. D'Addetta's renderings of Chinese designs tend to be a bit sketchy at times, but he also manages to produce some very finely done work. If you liked the above designs, you really should consider getting these two titles!
For those more interested in the meanings and messages underlying the designs, the ultimate reference work would have to be Patricia Welch's Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. The well-researched volume is filled with full-color illustrations and covers virtually all of the traditional design motifs of the Chinese tradition. Even the historical origins of the symbols and their meanings have not been neglected. This work is a must-have for both the scholar of Chinese art and culture and the general reader interested in things Chinese.
Contemporary art scholar James Cahill rightly identified landscape painting as "the characteristic product and chief glory of the whole tradition" of Chinese art. Endless awe-inspiring panoramas of misty mountains, dark ravines and winding streams greet the viewer, who can only stand agape at the sheer sorcery a mere ink brush can evoke on paper (and often in monochrome at that).
Largely an art of the urban intellectual elite, the beginnings of landscape painting in China could be traced back to the tumultuous years witnessing the decline and eventual collapse of the T'ang Dynasty in the Ninth and early Tenth Centuries AD, wherebefore human figures and Buddhist iconography were the primary focus of Chinese art. By the time of the succeeding Sung Dynasty (960 ~ 1279) the central place of landscape painting was firmly established and has remained so to the present day.
The traditional Chinese landscape artist emphatically does not seek merely to produce a visual likeness of mountains and rivers; of equal if not greater importance is the empathy with and expression of the spirit underlying these natural forms, the life force coursing through the totality of existence. Also worthy of remark is the practice of leaving appropriate areas of the painting surface unmarked to create the illusion of vast, empty spaces beyond.
The cultured and exquisite world of traditional Chinese painting forms all too jarring a contrast with the squalid sociopolitical reality of China today. Learning of this reality and of the historical turns of events leading to it ― leading to the untold destruction suffered by the cultural tradition which gave rise to such superb works of art ― an heir of this tradition can only be filled with speechless sorrow, incomprehension and outrage. Perhaps it amounts to no more than a daydream, to imagine that history and the nature of things have any regard for the values we cherish, whether cultural, aesthetic or even just human values...
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