Henan Province ‘gold rush’ features on social media

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Chinese social media site WeChat has today been featuring photographs of a ‘gold rush’ under way in China’s Henan Province. Excavation of a site for new construction has unearthed a treasure trove of ancient artefacts and locals have flooded to the area in search of riches.

The top picture shows a general view as locals set about digging. Below is what appears to be an interesting bronze mythological animal, plus some rather more modest finds. In the background are what would appear to be the walls of an ancient city. The locals appear determined in their efforts despite the presence of warning notices!

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A magnificent 18th century European view of China


10 Audience of Chinese Emperor                        This intricately worked piece is “The Audience of the Chinese Emperor” (c. 1766), a small-scale hard-paste porcelain sculpture of a group of figures, from the Höchst porcelain factory. The German factory had been established in the late 1740s and employed a number of modellers before Johann Peter Melchior (1742/47-1825) became head of the sculpture workshop in 1767.

It is believed that this group was Melchior’s first work for the factory and its composition inspired by François Boucher’s oil sketch of 1742 entitled The Audience of the Chinese Emperor. It is likely that this group of figures was intended to decorate the table during the dessert course and would have been accompanied by additional single figures or smaller groups, all reflecting the popularity of chinoiserie themes in the second half of the eighteenth century. Dimensions: overall, 39.8 x 33.2 x 21.7 cm. Accession number: 50.211.217

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Orientally Yours (Tumblr)

Unusual Chinese art image 75 The modern world in traditional form

7 TV set

An examples of Chinese sculptor, 马军 Ma Jun’s (1974-) Qing dynasty-style porcelain wares in the shape of a1980s-era TV. He uses porcelain to depict modern technological advances like boomboxes, radios, and sports cars. Each of Ma’s sculptures is covered in traditional designs that include flower patterns, birds, dragons, clouds, and scenes from mythologies and classical stories.  Via Orientally Yours on Tumblr

Sources: Ma Jun’s websiteL.A.Galerie Lothar Albrecht, Iona Whittaker

Chinese artist recreates the art of straw

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Zhong Shuying and her straw art creation of a Han Dynasty everyday scene

Straw is such an everyday material, common throughout the countryside, that is difficult to envisage its role in Chinese art. But a recent article in the Chinese magazine New Culture Daily sheds light on the unusual work of a Chinese artist.

Zhong Shuying, a 50-year old craftswoman from Changchun in northeast China, has spent the past two years creating a work of art out of straw, reproducing a part of a painting from the Han Dynasty, titled, ‘Along the river during the Qingming festival.’

“My greatest regret is I didn’t have enough time to finish it so my teacher could see it,” Zhong told New Culture Daily. She used the work to commemorate her teacher, Dong, a well-known straw artist who passed away a month ago.

Straw art is a part of Chinese folk culture that dates back to the Han Dynasty almost two thousand years ago, and was given royal patronage during the culturally aware Song Dynasty a thousand years ago.

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Keeping the tradition alive Zhong’s part of ‘Along the river during the Qingming festival’ project is about 1.5 meters long and one meter wide, and shows a bustling street in China’s ancient capital. Each person’s shape is authentic and lively with some riding horses, carrying loads, and some others sitting or carrying sedan chairs.

The work was built on both sides along the river, where some figures playing chess and traditional instruments, as well as others chatting, eating and napping. According to a rough counting, about nine rooms, 24 people, six trees, four horses, two bridges, one boat and one ox cart appeared in her work.

“Because straw-plaited figures cannot express themselves through their faces, I have to reveal their characters through their bodies,”Zhong explained.

11 Chinese art of straw

Zhong’s studio has been filled with various straw paintings and artworks such as the traditional figure God of Fortune and the Goddess Chang’e flying to the moon. She was attracted to straw art only three years ago after she met her teacher Dong. To her Dong seemed to bring new life to the withered grass.

Zhong has walked around all the bodies of water in Changchun in order to collect various plants for her creation. Apart from grass, she even tried melon seed, maize leaf and Chinese medicine to burnish her works.

Zhong now has her own studio and in an effort to ensure that this ancient art continues she has started to write schoolbooks about straw art. She has received several apprentices and has promised to carry on the legacy of her teacher further. In her able hands, the future of this Chinese tradition would appear to both bright and beautiful.

With thanks to the New Culture Daily and Tumblr Orientally Yours

Unusual Chinese art image no 74 Yarn bombs in Shanghai

19 fabric tree waraps

A couple of trees in Shanghai became a local delight after they were draped in yarn knittings last year. However, the beauty and fame didn’t last long, as the Shanghai government promptly removed the much adored accessories.

The phoenix trees on Nanchang Road were “yarn bombed” by a group of expats, the Shanghai Daily reported. Yarn bombing, also known as graffiti knitting or “kniffiti,” is a kind of street art that uses colorful displays of knitted yarn on public facilities. The movement is believed to have originated in Texas, US, in 2005 after Magda Sayeg first covered the door handle of her boutique with a knitted cozy.

As the colorful outfits successfully stunned passersby the next morning, netizens also showed their admiration towards the creative works, saying “they added beauty to the city.”

However, the city government removed the outfits, citing concerns that they would cause harm to the trees’ healthy growth.

This decision has triggered heated discussions online. While some say the government made the right decision, others are arguing that the city should be more open to creative minds.

“The sweaters that fit human bodies may not suit the trees as well,” argued @Yueluoxishanby on Twitter.

Winner Takes All in the World of Antiquities

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I reckon it must have been some twenty years ago. A sunny August afternoon (highly unusual for Scotland) found me playing cricket in the grounds of a great Scottish country house. After tea on the lawn, we were invited inside to view the crowded interior and, there, lo and behold, high up on the wall of a reception room, above the dado rail, was a marble panel. Although I was surprised at the time to be told it was a part of the so-called Elgin Marbles, stripped out of the Parthenon in Athens, I did not feel affronted to find it there. After all, the Greeks are a thoroughly charming but, ultimately, unreliable lot and I was confident that the titled owner of the house would do all in his considerable power to preserve the panels. A rather more po-faced member of our team muttered darkly about moral obligations to return such items whence they came, but the general view was that it probably had been  rather better off there than rotting in some Greek glory hole.

In more recent years, the debate has really hotted up on the issue of repatriation of culturally important items to the countries which lost them in troubled times. In this new book, Tiffany Jenkins, a writer and academic, examines individual historic events and the issues, moral and legal, surrounding them. She casts her net pretty much worldwide to engage with specific occasions on which items were removed from the custody of their owners. This was, of course, in a world rather different from our present one. It was a world where winner took all. If you got beat on the battlefield, the victor was perfectly entitled to make off with all your clobber: treasures, art works, military gear and, if they took his fancy, your wives, concubines and, even, your pet dogs.

Such was the case, of course, with one of the Imperial Pekinese dogs which was ‘dognapped’ during the sacking of the Chinese Imperial Summer Palace in December 1860. It was hauled off to Britain by the victors and presented to Her Majesty Queen Victoria at her summer home in Scotland, Balmoral. The captive animal was, somewhat insensitively, named ‘Looty’ and came to symbolise British superiority over the Chinese, and is immortalised in paintings held in the Royal Collection.

Rt Hon Lady Loch

The present Lady Loch, descended from Henry, 1st Lord Loch who was aide de camp to Lord Elgin who ordered the destruction of Yuanminguan. In the background are two Imperial roof tiles taken from Yuanminguan.

This was not the real prize, of course. It is estimated that up to one and a half million artefacts were hauled off from the dozens of buildings and pleasure grounds which made up Yuanminguan. This was intended as a signal punishment to the Chinese (who had imprisoned a truce party headed up by Henry Loch, later Lord Loch, and killed some of his group and horribly tortured the others). It turned out to be a wanton orgy of mass destruction and pillage. Tens of thousands of objects were removed from the site by British and French troops. Sadly, far more were simply destroyed which was, of course, unforgivable. The commander who ordered the destruction was Lord Elgin, whose own father had claimed the Elgin Marbles. The whole incident is well dealt with by Tiffany Jenkins at some length and in rather more detail than other currently available accounts (and, hooray, she has footnotes which are something of a dying breed these days).

As far as provenance goes, items removed from Yuanminguan enjoy just about as good a provenance as it is possible to get. That is largely because the incident still deeply rankles with the Chinese and is conspicuously high on their consciousness. They want all their stuff back and have, in the last few years, been buying back Imperial Summer Palace pieces; been in receipt of donations and, indeed, some Yuanminguan pieces held in public and in private have been specifically stolen, quite possibly to order.

s200_tiffany_jenkins Author Tiffany Jenkins

There are, of course, very many issues to be raised. Theft is, rightly, a crime in the context of our private lives. States, however, are not private individuals and are allowed to wreak revenge on behalf of their subjects. Quite apart from legal implications (and China and the UK rarely cooperate in the field of legal obligation hence the widespread intellectual theft which goes on), there may be moral considerations. It is here we get into very deep water indeed. Should items be returned to the country of origin where they arguably constitute an irrevocable part of its culture and history? Or, should museums, where pieces remain more or less permanently on display, be regarded as international centres of knowledge in demonstration of the fact that no object has a single home and no one culture has an inalienable right to its own culture which might be seen as a part of a shared global heritage?

This book is really strong on the examination of the difficult issues posed by culture and the supposed rights of ownership of part of it. The individual case studies make good reading and it is written in an easy style which will serve to make it widely available. Unlike the statues and columns of Palmyra and Nineveh. They would have been rather better off in The British Museum.

Paul Harris

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John Henderson’s Chinese and Japanese collection

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Two photographs of John Henderson’s collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain and pottery, taken in London,England, ca. 1868 by Cundall & Fleming.

Henderson (1797-1878) was a London-based art collector and in 1868 donated a series of 20 of these photographs to the South Kensington Museum (today the V&A) as a visual record his collection that ranged from Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. he was a great benefactor and left both his collection and photographs of them to institutions like The British Museum and The Victoria & Albert. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and although he read for the bar (legal) he devoted his life to archaeology and the collection of works of art. His collections, in his lifetime, were held at 3, Montague Street, in London’s Bloomsbury district. He never married and lived until the ripe old age of eighty (not necessarily a result of remaining unmarried). Upon his death, his will decreed that most of his oriental collection went to the British Museum.

4 Henderson Collection

Source: Victoria & Albert Museum via Orientally Yours (Tumblr) Below: Iznik bottle vase in the collection of the British Museam


Unusual Chinese art image no 73 Magnificent Chinoiserie interior

The Chinese Room with its elaborately carved doorcase and Pagoda.

The Chinese Room with its elaborately carved doorcase and Pagoda.

One of the most elaborate Chinoiserie interiors in Britain is the Chinese Room at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire. The plasterwork and carved pine wood decorations were designed by Luke Lightfoot (1722?-1789) in 1769, a remarkable stonemason and woodcarver. There is a pagoda motif with Chinese figures above each door, faces carved among the flowers around the chimney-piece, and the painted latticework with intricate Chinoiserie details in the tea alcove. The Chinese export furniture and statuettes date from the late 18th or early 19th century.

Sources: The National Trust, Simon Quinton’s Flickr, Orientally Yours (Tumblr)

Cizhou ware can make a stunning study in black and white

13 cizhou ware

This is an example of stunning Cizhou ware with a design of peony flowers and leaves, produced using the sgrafitto technique. Song ceramics often take the names of their areas of production. The Cizhou kilns were located in Ci Prefecture, Hebei Province and Cizhou wares such as this bottle are typically thickly potted, boldly decorated ceramics that were made for popular consumption.

The light gray body of the vessel was first coated with a white slip, which was then covered with a black slip. After the outlines of the design were incised into the black slip, portions of the top layer were shaved away to reveal the white underneath. Finally, when the decoration was complete, the entire body (except for the foot) was coated with a thin, slightly whitish transparent glaze. The shape of this bottle is known as a meiping, and although Western scholars have described these vessels as vases, they were most likely bottles used for storing and serving wine.

They occasionally turn up at auction these days but good examples like this one will, inevitably, command big prices to match their outstanding appearance.

Northern Song (12th century), Dimension: 31.8 h x 21.6 d cm. Rockefeller Collection, Asia Society Museum in New York. Accession number: ASIA.1979.141

Source: Asia Society Museum via Tumblr Orientally Yours

Published today, an atmospheric fictional account of the days of Mao and the Stars Art Movement

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Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta, Claret Press www.claretpress.com Paperback £7.99

I suppose I did not find this an easy read. This is a story which starts in that most turbulent time in 20th century China during the days of the excesses of the Red Guards and The Gang of Four, all presided over by Mao Tse Tung at his most ruthless and insouciant. Many of these passages are intensely disturbing to the reader: a mark of the success of the author, Sylvia Vetta, in taking us back to this traumatic time of fear and loathing. As the book moves on to the late 1970s and the short-lived The Stars Art Movement, there is time for some humour amongst the repression of the artists and their supporters. For a while, optimism flourishes.

At one level it is a bitter critique of the political process in China, at another a reminder of the tortuous development of the artistic process in a country which had long repressed individualism. At yet another, it is the story of the young and sensitive Xiaodong (trs. ‘Little Winter’), her loss of innocence and her painful rites of passage. The schoolgirl Xiadong recounts, ‘I went on the rampage. At the back of an old temple were niches filled with little statues of Buddha. Over excited, we smashed the heads off. It didn’t feel right but my friends were screaming with excitement . . . Our holy places were where Chairman Mao had walked, lived or swam . . .’.

Seen through the eyes of a young girl born to be an artist, there is a constant disturbing ring of authenticity about this book. Much of that, I giuess, can be traced back to the genesis of this book when Sylvia Vetta met Qu Leilei, himself one of the Stars, and a series of long interviews resulted.

Brushstrokes in Time066

The climax of this book comes as The Stars display their paintings, woodcuts and sculptures outside the National Gallery in 1979 in an act of impetuous boldness. That, of course, actually did happen. But we have to remember this is a novel and not a factual account. Perhaps because it is so skilfully executed by Sylvia Vetta, I had considerable difficulty in seeing this book just as a novel: the suspension of disbelief is challenging as we meet the various real participants in the Star Art Movement, including the now internationally renowned Ai Weiwei. When the author writes of the actions of the fictional characters like Ai Weiwei, Qu Leilei, Ma Desheng, Huang Rui, Yan Li, Bo Yun and Wang Keping, who were actual participants in the Movement, I found myself saying, ‘Did Ai Weiwei really do that?’, ‘Is this drawn from fact, or is it simply fiction?’ Of course, it is a bit of both.

This is a problem with this book, the problem of the invisible coalescing of fact and fiction. For me that raises more questions than answers. Perhaps I am being over critical. It should certainly be on the ‘must read’ list of anyone interested in the politics and the art of 20th century China. The Stars were crucial in provoking change in China: not just in art but in politics and consciousness. What about another book, drawing upon your excellent sources, Sylvia: the real story of The Stars Art Movement?

Paul Harris