All posts in “Chinese art”

Object of the Week: Couplet

Oracle-bone script (jiaguwen) is a form of Chinese writing that emerged during the Shang Dynasty—dating from the 14th–11th century BCE—and is considered the earliest known form of systematic Chinese script.

Some of the oldest oracle-bone inscriptions were short texts inscribed on the flat shoulder blade bones of oxen and shells of tortoises. Such bones were used for divination, a process which involved the inscription of a question with a bronze pin—lending the script its characteristic angularity—and then heating the bone to reveal cracks, which would be divined for answers.

The symbols used eventually became words, which were later developed into a Chinese script that is recognized today as part of China’s long tradition of calligraphic arts. This work by Rao Zongyi, titled Couplet, utilizes the ancient script, brought to life for a contemporary audience.

Rao—a poet, calligrapher, painter, and scholar of the humanities—produced the couplet in 1971 while a visiting professor at Yale University. Composed by Rao, the poem describes in red ink a kun-style operatic performance by Chang Ch’ung. Together the two scrolls read: The wind makes the snow dance amidst the sunlight, the music hangs like clouds on her garments.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection and Provenance Associate

Couplet, 1971, Rao Zongyi, red ink on paper, 74 5/16 x 14 3/16 in., Gift of Chang Ch’ung-ho and Hans Frankel from their collection, 2010.9.6.1-.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

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Birdcage

Object of the Week: Birdcage

In a scene from the 2008 Disney animated movie, Mulan, Mulan’s grandmother holds a caged cricket, closes her eyes, and crosses a bustling street in China. Like the pet cricket in Mulan, the practice of domesticating and keeping animals in cages such as crickets and birds traces back to China’s earliest records.

This birdcage in SAM’s collection, pictured here, was likely created during the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911) or Republican period (1850-1920). In China, a pronounced appreciation for bird keeping arose during the Qing dynasty. During this period, the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) particularly enjoyed raising pet birds, and the emperor’s fascination subsequently permeated China. As aviculture spread throughout the country, many men would stroll through the early morning streets, swinging their birdcages back and forth like a pendulum. To this day, Chinese bird keepers swing cages to encourage birds to grip to their perch, an exercise which prevents birds’ feathers from falling off.

As much as aviculturists value their birds, they equally value the craftsmanship of the birdcages. The maker of this birdcage remains unknown. Crafted from hardwood, ivory, and metal, intricate carvings and patterns are etched into the wood. Ivory insets depict beautiful landscapes, evoking scenes of the world where the bird once flew free. Also notable is the cage’s design, which reflects recognizable architectural features of a pagoda, such as steps trailing up to the door and the two-storied structure. Pagodas originated as sacred places to preserve Buddhist relics, and this distinct structure can be found throughout China’s built environment.

While intricately handcrafted birdcages have diminished recently due to industrialization, the cage markets in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong continue to thrive, allowing this rich artistic tradition to live on. See this work on view at SAM in Pure Amusements: Wealth, Leisure, and Culture in Late Imperial China.

Lauren Farris, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern

Image: Birdcage, 1850-1920, Chinese, wood, metal, ivory, 26 x 12 1/2 x 12 1/2in., Gift of Henry and Mary Ann James, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.11.
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Object of the Week: Disc with dragon motif

From some of the first recorded dragons found in Mesopotamian art, to the dragons found snarling onscreen and in books, numerous cultures have fostered their own myths and beliefs about dragons. Still, most of the dragons we encounter today are the fearsome fire-breathing creatures of the European tradition who lay waste to cities and hoard mounds of gold.

In Chinese culture, however, the dragon is highly revered and a symbol of good fortune. Originally associated with the stars and constellations that appear in the spring, dragons began to represent the seasons of rain and the coming of summer.1 Instead of bringing fire and destruction, Chinese dragons brought rain for crops and livestock.

In many areas of China, the dragon symbolizes harmony and prosperity. The number nine has long been associated with heaven and dragons have often been described in nines—leading to this number being deemed particularly auspicious. Later, dragons even began to be equated to the imperial throne and the reigning emperor through architecture and garments.

Far more sinuous and twisting than their Western European counterparts, Chinese dragons had bird-like wings with long plumes and whiskers. In this jade disc from the 8th century B.C., two dragons intertwine and almost chase each other across the mossy green stone. Each deeply abstracted line flows through one another. If one looks close enough, one can glimpse the dragon’s long coiling snout, the orb-like eye, and the curving jaw. Tangled with their bodies and tails, these two creatures’ plumes function as the outer ring of the disk.

These stone rings, or bi disks, were often carved with sky imagery and buried with the dead. There, dragons signified heaven, harmony, and balance within the natural order of life.2 Rather than functioning as harbingers of doom and destruction, the dragon in Chinese culture and mythology continues to be a symbol of luck and prosperity, hoping to bring balance to many.

  – Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Wilson, J. Keith. “Powerful Form and Potent Symbol: The Dragon in Asia.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 77, no. 8 (1990): 286-323. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25161297.

2 Lopes, Rui Oliveira. “Securing the Harmony between the High and the Low: Power Animals and Symbols of Political Authority in Ancient Chinese Jades and Bronzes.” Asian Perspectives 53, no. 2 (2014): 195-225. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24569921.

Image: Disc with dragon motif, 10th  – 8th century B.C., Chinese, Nephrite, Diameter: 9 5/8 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.11.

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Object of the Week: A Feast

As we continue through summer, a season known for family dinners, picnics, and midnight feasts, food becomes a large figure in our lives. Many are connected to it on an intimate level through memories and desires. Painted on a massive sixty-foot scroll, A Feast (2001) by Li Jin dramatizes this deeply important role that food plays in everyday life, specifically in Chinese life and culture. The scroll begins and ends with an essay in light ink calligraphy, written by the artist’s friend, detailing the cultural significance of food. He bookends both essay halves with the declaration that you must “eat as much as you can.”

Juxtaposing this essay, Li Jin offers a sumptuous feast for the eyes with many paintings of dishes and ingredients. He not only gives us plates of steamed crab, sandwiches, and hotpot, but he also presents pig and chicken heads with whole onions and skewers of radish. Combining raw ingredients with more gourmet dishes, he fashions a work that at once showcases the relationship between the Chinese people and food alongside a dazzling display of the consumption of food.

Surrounding these loosely painted images in bold colors, simplified Chinese characters march through the space detailing many different recipes of foods not depicted. Through this unconstrained method of painting, paired with calligraphy, the scroll becomes more alive with action and realism. In the words of the artist, “the scroll could have been lengthened indefinitely. The continuous presentation of food simulates a real feast, where tables can be added to accommodate more dishes.”[1]

Born in 1958 in Tianjin, China, Li Jin’s work has continually evolved as he reflects upon the ways in which people connect to nature and his attempts to represent life in an honest and lifelike manner.[2] His work in A Feast capitalizes upon these enthusiastic and unapologetic qualities as he crafts a world where everyone is invited to the table to join together and eat as much as they can, a philosophy fitting for the possibilities and simple joys of summertime.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1] “A Feast,” SAM Collection Online, last updated December 2012, http://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/30404/a-feast?ctx=a1efcea2-91cb-470f-a4a4-d9d18c33d912&idx=0
[2] “Li Jin,” Inkstudio, last updated 2019, https://www.inkstudio.com.cn/artists/63-li-jin/overview/
Image: A Feast, 2001, Li Jin, ink on Xuan paper, 33 x 708 5/8 in., Partial gift of Meg Maggio and the Courtyard Gallery, Beijing and partial purchase with funds from Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, John and Shari Behnke, and the Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2003.119 © Li Jin
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Object of the Week: Xing ware-type

Sometimes I find myself struck by the contemporaneity of ancient objects, how something made hundreds or thousands of years ago can embody an aesthetic or message relevant to today. Take this Chinese Xing ware-type ewer, for example. Created during the 10th century, the porcelain vessel—with its white glaze and spontaneously placed markings—feels, to me at least, like it could have been made this past century, alongside works by artists such as Lucy Rie or Mary Heilmann.

Ceramics have no doubt made a comeback in the art world, a trend which suggests that the once rigid division between art and craft (and therefore ceramics) is no more. As art critic Roberta Smith rightly articulated in 2009, “It can’t be said enough that the art-craft divide is a bogus concept regularly obliterated by the undeniable originality of individuals who may call themselves artists, designers, or artisans.”[1]

Though today we might be less inclined to differentiate between artists and artisans, in 10th-century China there would have certainly been a distinction between makers commissioned by imperial courts and those who produced commercially. Xing ware, produced in what would today be China’s Hebei province, caught the attention of the Tang imperial court and epitomizes Tang-era porcelain: the purity of its clay was unusually low in iron and titanium oxides (contaminants) and very fine grained. Fired in the kiln at 1250 degrees Celsius or higher, this porcelain was unparalleled in its sturdiness, translucence, and pure white color.

Similar in form to late Tang dynasty ceramic ware, this ewer is especially unique due to the greenish-brown splashes of glaze on its porcelain-white body. Used as a wine bottle, this vessel bears similarities to many late Tang wares, though it was unlikely to have been produced in a Xing kiln.[2] Perhaps it is the simplicity of form and coloration that makes this work feel so modern, or, conversely, that so many contemporary ceramicists find (for good reason) inspiration in the rich ceramic traditions of China, where porcelain was perfected and produced exclusively for centuries.

– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator

[1] Roberta Smith, “Crucible of Creativity, Stoking Earth Into Art,” New York Times, March 19, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/20/arts/design/20dirt.html.
[2] The shape and glaze of this ewer is similar to Xing porcelain, but the clay texture is not nearly as fine. For more on this work and Chinese porcelain more broadly, see Julie Emerson, Jennifer Chen, and Mimi Gardner Gates (Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 38.
Image: Xing ware-type, 10th century, Chinese, porcelain with white glaze on white slip, green-brown stripes, 5 1/2 x 2 13/16 in., Thomas D. Stimson Memorial Collection, 51.122
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Object of the Week: Scholar’s rock on stand

Wander into a Chinese scholar’s studio at the Seattle Art Museum to find treasures like a masterfully carved brush pot and a tiny cage to house a lucky cricket. This display of Pure Amusements brings together objects and furnishings collected by scholars as a display of learning, a claim to social status, and an inspiration for reflective thinking.

The Qing period Scholar’s rock on stand, a craggy piece of limestone mounted to a carved wooden base, rewards our contemplation, too. Interesting examples of the scholarly collecting impulse, scholars’ rocks were “favored stones that the Chinese literati and their followers displayed and appreciated indoors, in the rarefied atmosphere of their studios.”¹

A very human desire lies at the heart of this tradition. Who, as a kid, does not build their own killer rock collection? In China, too, people have been gathering rocks for a long time. The Chinese practice of decorating gardens with rocks was in place by the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220). The specific tradition of the scholar’s rock has been traced back to the Song dynasty (960–1279), and it continued through the Yuan (1279–1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644–1911) periods.

Before the 20th century collectors referred to them in terms that mean “fantastic rocks.” The type of rock, as well as its texture, form, and color, were all important elements for the collector to consider. Different rocks were most treasured at different moments in history, so the look of these rocks has allowed new scholarship to date them, and also to think about changing tastes in collecting over time. Generally, the darker the color, the more prized the scholar’s rock: black and slate grey were at the top. Limestone came first among rock types not only for its look but also for its sound. Due to its density, it would ring like a bell when struck.²

Scholars’ rocks were used in several senses of the word. Functionally, they might serve as brushrests, inkstones, or censers. But their primary function was to inspire. The form of the rock suggested a mountainous landscape, and like a landscape painting, a scholar’s rock acted as a microcosm of the universe—a small piece of an infinite, natural puzzle—an object on which to meditate and to gain cosmic perspective.³ They would be displayed indoors on a desk, on a table or bookshelf, or perhaps on the floor if they were especially large. Traditionally, a scholar displayed his choice rock on a finely carved wooden stand, both to support the irregular form, and to designate the rock as a special item, like a piece of sculpture.

And sculpted they were. Once chosen from nature, scholars’ rocks were frequently carved, weathered, and burnished to suit their owner’s aesthetic. Collecting a scholar’s rock involved both selection—the finest rock would inherently resemble a painting by the powers of nature—and manipulation—as the scholar imprinted their aesthetic onto the rock form by carving or treating it in some way. There is a fascinating give-and-take here, a loop of influence whose beginning and end is hard to identify. As much as the natural forms of rock, and the mountainscapes they represented, informed styles of scholarly painting, the Chinese literati also made natural rock conform to their vision of a painterly landscape, molding it into their idea of beauty.

I’m reminded of David B. Williams’s reflection in Too High and Too Steep, his account of man-made changes to Seattle’s topography: “We shape the land, and the land shapes us.”⁴

Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Scholar’s rock on stand, Chinese, Qing period (1644-1912), limestone, 15 ¾ x 8 ¼ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Frank D. Stout, 92.47.326
¹Robert D. Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks: An Overview,” in Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholars’ Rocks. Exh. Cat. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Art Museums, 1997; 19.
²Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 20.
³Mowry, “Chinese Scholars’ Rocks,” 21.
⁴David B. Williams, Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.
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Object of the Week: Large Plate

A Harvard-educated scholar with impressive curatorial experience, Henry Trubner came to SAM in July, 1968 to lead its Chinese art department. Sometime later, Trubner selected this Chinese Yuan dynasty Large Plate to present to the museum as a gift in honor of the retiring Dr. Fuller, who celebrated his 75th birthday in 1973, the same year he stepped down after 40 years at the helm of SAM. As they say, the best laid plans . . .

The Large Plate, purchased from a notable Tokyo dealer, arrived at SAM in February of 1973. But Trubner then struggled to gather the funds to make the purchase. Delays and negotiations ensued. Dr. Fuller’s June 1 birthday came and went, though not without art aplenty. It wasn’t until May of 1974 that Trubner and SAM could complete the acquisition of the Large Plate that had been in Seattle for some 15 months.1

From Trubner’s description of the piece in a 1983 publication, we see that much of his interest was related to its look: the swirling decorative pattern and rich red hue.

The museum’s tray shows alternating layers of thin red and thick black lacquer, with a fourth black or highly polished dark brown layer on top. The decoration consists of a cloud scroll pattern (ruyi) on the interior, around a central quatrefoil medallion. The same cloud scroll pattern is repeated on the underside of the cavetto. The base is lacquered a deep blackish brown within a low foot rim. This significant example of Yuan lacquer was acquired from Jean-Pierre Dubosc, noted collector and connoisseur of Chinese and Japanese lacquer.2

We can also confidently say that Trubner chose the Large Plate partly for the relationship it would establish with the many lacquer pieces that Dr. Fuller had collected in the early years of the museum, like this very sculptural snuff bottle. Trubner’s strategic vision for growing the collection was a new thing. Dr. Fuller, as director and his own chief curator, had added to the collection by pursuing what caught his eye, happy to be led by instinct and impulse. While visiting a gallery or museum, Fuller would come upon something that struck him, and in his excitement, would learn a lot about it, and maybe buy something for the museum.

Trubner’s entry to the scene initiated a new collecting era at SAM, one marked by taking careful inventories of the art market, addressing collection gaps, and courting generous donors to support acquisitions. In other words, the collecting program began to look a lot more like it does today. Our Lacquer Plate can serve as a reminder of that transition to intentional growth.

–Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China: Chinese Art in the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 151-154.
2 Henry Trubner, Asian Art in the Seattle Art Museum: Fifty Years of Collecting, Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1983; 12.
Image: Large Plate, 1280-1368, Chinese, lacquer, Diam.: 13 1/4 in. Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 74.21.
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Object of the Week: Black pottery vase in shape of hu

SAM’s remarkable Black pottery vase in shape of hu is among the museum’s earliest acquisitions. The vase’s object number, 33.6, communicates that it was the sixth piece formally accessioned in the museum’s inaugural year of 1933, and of the objects added to the collection that year, the vase is the first to survive deaccessioning; sadly, 33.1 through 33.5 are no longer with us.

Dr. Fuller purchased this Warring States period ceramic jar for $150 from a New York dealer named Roland Moore. Roland, the son of a Chinese dealer named Rufus, continued in the family business, selling mainly snuff bottles and ceramics.1  The vase is just one of 259 items that Fuller purchased from Moore, and though not every one of these selections was a home run, Fuller did benefit from the connection, establishing the beginnings of a strong Asian ceramics collection that we enjoy today.

Dr. Fuller, who has been proven over time a very successful collector, was still developing his taste at this early stage. He landed on the Black pottery vase in shape of hu at a moment when he was moving beyond his initial collecting interest—snuff bottles—and looking to jades and ceramics. While expanding the art forms he considered for acquisition, he simultaneously became interested in adding Chinese works from various dynasties to increase the breadth of the collection. This vase, with its intriguing decorative designs, and its 3rd-century B.C. date, added new dimensions to SAM’s Chinese collection.

For me, the vase is a tour de force in imitation. Though ceramic, it imitates bronze by its burnished shade of brown-black, echoing patina. The taotie mask that adorns two sides of the vase is a typically bronze decorative motif, but here it is, carefully worked onto the body of an earthenware piece. At the historical moment when the vase was made, ceramic offered an economic alternative to costlier bronze; hence we see a ceramic dressed up as a bronze.

Fascinating geometric and animal designs adorn the vase. As our eye scans it, we notice that horizontal ridges attempt to organize the decoration into separate registers. On the neck and on the largest register of the body, scaly beasts look backward toward curling tails. Jagged vertical lines mark the first register below the neck; the second register features nesting triangles interspersed with sawtooth serrations; in another register beneath that, irregular diamonds run across the vase, linked together by script-like horizontal lines.

Throughout the vase, an interesting dialogue occurs between the potter and the decorator—maybe a conflict between a regimented and more freeform approach to artistic decoration. The indented bands that separate the vase into its various registers would have been formed when the vase was initially thrown, probably on a potter’s wheel; the incised decoration was added later. On the middle of the vase, notice how the legs and feet of the dragon creatures transgress the boundaries of their register, creeping over the horizontal bands. I liken this decoration to coloring outside the lines. It’s as if the dragon, mysterious and powerful, refused to be contained by the space allotted to it. Elsewhere, too, we see incised design overlapping the structuring horizontal bands and playfully interacting with the form of the vase, creating a final impression of an artwork that is, itself, a conversation.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

IMAGE: Black pottery vase in shape of hu, ca. 3rd century B.C., Chinese, Warring States period (481-256 B.C.), black earthenware with incised decoration, 13 13/16 in.; girth: 31 1/4 in.; diam. top: 4 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.6, Photo: Paul Macapia.
1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 36-37.
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Object of the Week: Camel

Of the nearly 24,000 objects in SAM’s collection, two sculptures have probably had the broadest impact on visitors’ experience of the museum since it opened in 1933. They have proven a popular attraction for visitors of all ages, newcomers and regulars alike. For a long time, though, they weren’t even physically in the museum. They’re the greeters, the guardians. They are: the camels.

Writing in 1968—35 years after the arrival of our Chinese camels and the opening of our doors—SAM founding director Dr. Richard Fuller proclaimed the camels “unquestionably the most popular items” in the museum’s collection. No doubt this was partly because he enthusiastically encouraged kids to have a go at riding them.

Riding the Camel

Kids on the Camel

Standing on the Camel

Chosen specifically by Dr. Fuller and his mother, SAM co-founder Margaret MacTavish Fuller, to be the symbolic guardians of the museum, they were installed on either side of the front entrance. Former SAM curator and historian Josh Yiu reflected on their significance: “They were the first works of art that children and adults alike experienced at the Seattle Art Museum. The camels achieved an iconic status because they introduced art, the museum, and China to the general public.”1

Asian Art Museum Exterior in 1933

Dr. Fuller also clearly saw in the pair of marble bactrians an impressive aesthetic achievement, one that complemented the striking Art Deco design of SAM’s original building in Volunteer Park and echoed the cultural focus of its artworks. In his personal correspondence from 1933, Fuller wrote the following justification:

“Granting that the sculptor had made no attempt to achieve lifelike forms, I think that there is no question but that his results are great works of art…Viewed purely from the view-point of artistry, I personally think that it would be almost impossible to have modern sculpture designed that could have coincided more perfectly with the spirit that we endeavored to attain in the design of the building, and it seems especially fortunate that they should, at the same time, emphasize our interest in Oriental art.”

Camel

In 1986 conservation concerns won out, and the camel-riding tradition came to a sad, but necessary end (hundreds-of-years-old marble sculptures, folks). We no longer sanction it, at least! The Chinese camels journeyed downtown for the inaugural installation here in 1991, and today replicas flank the front doors to the Asian Art Museum.

Camel replica being installed

You can still see (not ride) the originals in our grand stairway.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Josh Yiu, A Fuller View of China, Seattle, Wash.: Seattle Art Museum, 2014; 46.

IMAGES: Camel, Chinese, late 14th-mid-17th century, marble, each 101 1/2 x 56 x 36 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 33.814.1, 33.814.2, Photo: Jasmine Boothroyd. Photos: SAM Archive.
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