Culture (Part 1)
Content: Architecture, Bronzes, Ceramics & Jade
Since the onset of dynastic times, architectural design has been of key significance as an indicator of status within the imperial structure. Buildings have been added to, altered or destroyed according to the mood of the dynasty. Outside influences have also had their part to play and there are prominent examples of Mongolian, Tibetan, British, French and German architecture found in China.
In the last hundred years, wars, the Cultural Revolution and most recently the country’s spectacular economic growth have eliminated much historic architecture. Despite this, a number of outstanding buildings, such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, have survived and are currently undergoing face-lifts in preparation for the Olympics, while amazing modern structures are also being built for the event.
Palaces & Temples
Palaces and temples were mapped out in accordance with the principles of fengshui and were usually walled complexes containing square or rectangular buildings, with a few notable exceptions such as the circular Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Inside the city walls, an inner central walled quarter was used for the emperor and was always built on a number of rising platforms. The highest point seated the great emperor, as this brought him closer to heaven and no other building was allowed to exceed this in the city.
Cities and the traditional buildings within them were designed using a standard set of principles. Harmony was of key importance, as was creating a balance with the environment. Fengshui was essential (see above) and architectural designs were chosen so as not to disrupt the cosmos. Buildings were usually constructed horizontally rather than vertically, in contrast to today’s skyscrapers.
Together, low-rise buildings formed a network of narrow streets known as hutong, including everything from homes to shops. The grid-like rows provided shelter from the elements and were also believed to afford spiritual protection. Solid insulated brick was used in the north while open eaves with internal courtyards were prevalent in the south. To see some of China’s best preserved hutong, head for Beijing.
Although the principal architectural aspects remain the same from north to south, a number of variations can been seen throughout China today. The Dong and Miao of the southwest use local cedar wood, building their houses vertically and it’s not uncommon to see two- or three-story houses. They are also famous for their uniqueWind and Rain Bridges, built to prevent evil spirits from crossing the river and entering the town.
In the southeast the Hakka constructed vast encampments containing huge circular stone mansions. These roundhouses sometimes contained up to 600 people and provided perfect defense from both invaders and the harsh climate; a few are still inhabited today. Some outstanding examples of traditional architecture remain in the Huizhou-style houses of Shexian and Yixian, near Huangshan.
Over the ages many foreign communities have settled in China, bringing outside architectural styles and techniques with them. Islamic architecture retains some of its typical features, but also incorporates Chinese themes –look no further than Xi’an’s Great Mosque, where the minaret resembles a pagoda.
The 19th century saw the arrival of the Europeans. Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai and Xiamen still have wellpreserved examples of colonial architecture and the juxtaposition of Eastern andWestern styles gives a very different feel to parts of these cities. For the best of the British, head to the Bund in Shanghai, which is more akin to Liverpool (UK) than the Orient. Today, it houses some of the most expensive properties in Shanghai and boasts a range of architectural styles from Neo-Classical to Art Deco.
Communism also had its part to play in China’s architecture and saw the development of a bland, boxy Soviet style focused on functionality. Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and Tian’anmen Square remain as monuments to those days, while the ancient glory of the dynastic period looks on from the Forbidden City.
From the late 1970s onwards, China opened its economy, urbanization erupted and simple, cheap accommodation was needed for the masses. As the population swelled, buildings began to creep upwards and, today, China’s urban skylines have been transformed into a lofty wash of neon. Architecture has become a highly competitive field and the tallest, biggest and funkiest all battle it out in the skylines of Shanghai and Hong Kong, albeit still paying homage to tradition in their use of the principles of fengshui.
Excavations to date indicate that bronze emerged in China during the Shang dynasty (1600-1122 BC). Before this time vessels for everyday use were made from pottery, but the increased stability and settlement of the Shang allowed for the melding of copper and tin to form bronze. Craftsmen soon developed sophisticated casting techniques and agricultural equipment, cookery utensils and weapons were all fashioned from bronze.
The Shang also used bronze to produce ceremonial vessels used solely by the king to make offerings to the spirits. These vessels were highly detailed and often depicted animals, although, as time progressed, the images became more abstract. By the time of the Zhou dynasty (1122-221 BC), styles had become more varied and items were cast in different shapes, featuring both simple and extravagant décor.
Some of the best historic bronze exhibits in the country are found in Beijing’s National Museum, the ShanghaiMuseum and the ShaanxiHistoryMuseumin Xi’an. Although the composition now varies greatly from Shang dynasty bronze, the alloy remains popular to this day and you’ll see statuary around the country fashioned from it.
One of China’s most impressive bronze collections was discovered in Henan province in 1976. The tomb of China’s first female general (who was also wife to one of the Shang kings) was unearthed and over 200 bronze weapons and tools, 600 small sculptures, 7,000 cowry shells, 16 sacrificial victims and six dogs were found!
For centuries the Western world has been lured by the splendor of China’s ceramics and it even adopted the country’s name as a title for its most prized product: porcelain. Through the ages different forms and styles evolved that reflect both internal and outside influences, along with technological advances. Some of the best examples of Chinese porcelain are found in the Forbidden City’s display (see p. 155-57), at the ShaanxiHistoryMuseum and ShanghaiMuseum.
It was during the Tang dynasty that ceramic production started to increase and become more refined. With copper and bronze being used for coin production, potters found a rise in demand for practical everyday products. They started to use top quality porcelain and were keen to make their works more colourful and creative, developing a tri-color glaze (san cai) that remains one of the Tang’s greatest legacies. In addition to day-to-day ware, ornaments and statuettes of horses and other animals were modeled in tri-color, and these
techniques are still in use today.
During the Song, the art of ceramics was further refined and many regional styles and specialties began to develop, using a simpler and more elegant style, favoring one color rather than three. However, it was the outside influences of the Yuan dynasty that saw one of the greatest developments in Chinese ceramics – the cobalt blue underglaze. This simple blue and white glaze has become symbolic of Chinese pottery and is common the world over. But, with the collapse of the Yuan and the instability of the early Ming years, both quantity and quality declined.
Once the Ming dynasty asserted its rule, ceramics production was reborn and the Yuan art of cobalt glaze and Tang tri-color technique were reinvented and perfected. The Forbidden City began placing large orders for top quality china and founded an imperial kiln at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province. Only the finest quality porcelain was used and the production of each piece became highly skilled and specialized, depicting intricate scenes of imperial and everyday life, as well as phoenixes and dragons.
The market grew when two Portuguese ships were captured by the Dutch in 1604 and their cargo of 20,000 pieces of Ming pottery went up for auction. Buyers included England’s King James I and the French King Henri IV. Demand for this distant and exotic art form soared. Despite the collapse of the Ming in 1644, the imperial kilns continued to prosper, catering to an international market and, although they were forced to close during the Japanese occupation, they have since re-opened and still produce some of the world’s most highly skilled ceramic pieces.
Jade & Lacquer
Jade and lacquer date back beyond the Shang dynasty (1600-1122 BC). Jade was used to make everything from tools to ornaments and its enduring nature led to it becoming associated with longevity.
As a result of this, the Shang used jade to make pi, flat circular ornaments which were placed in graves. Lacquer is produced using the sap of the lac tree and was another popular decorative art, most commonly used to coat small boxes, which were then inlaid with precious metals.
Both jade and lacquer were so popular that they continue to be fashioned and treasured to this day.
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