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Asian History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Chinese Art and Culture

Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China Gansu and Ningxia Provinces, Fourth-Seventh Century by Annette L. Juliano, Judith A. Lerner (Abrams) with 334 illustrations, including 214 plates in full color. Stunning works of art in gold, silver, glass, clay, and stone many recently excavated and virtually unknown in the west illuminate a pivotal epoch in Chinese history, the tumultuous centuries between Chinas two great empires, the Han and the Tang, when Buddhism took root in China and trade in exotic goods flourished along the Silk Road. Although there had been earlier contact between China and the west, the collapse of the Han Empire in 220 CE and the subsequent conquest of north China by nomadic invaders, as well as the inroads made by the Buddhist religion, forged links with regions as far west as India. Rome, and Byzantium. Foreign traders and missionaries carried new religions, relics, trea: snres, and above all new artistic traditions, all of which firndamen, tally transformed important aspects of Chinese society and culture. This groundbreaking volume, published to acc ontpany a major exhibition organized by the Asia Society in New York features more than 120 rare objects from Chinese collections, most of them never before published in English.

The northwest region of China comprising the modern provinces of Gansu and Ningxia was crucial to this process. The only section of the Silk Road within China proper, Gansu and Ningxia formed a natural geographically defined corridor to China's heartland, a highway for this traffic of ideas and artifacts from the west. Gansu, in particular, still offers the largest surviv: ing concentration of spectacular Buddhist cave temples and the earliest examples of other art objects shaped by diverse western influences. Monks and MercIzants, the first book to focus on this region, firmly establishes the crucial role it played in the trans, formation of Chinese civilization between the Han and Tang periods (618-906).

Annette L.Juliano and Judith A. Lerner, the primary authors of this book, and the other contributors are eminent historians and archaeologists. Albert E. Lien addresses the contribution of the nomadic tribes to this region and to Chinese history. Judith Lerner, Boris 1. Marshall, and Luo Feng discuss from different perspectives the role of the Sogdians as Silk Road traders arid later as Chinese officials, while Michael Alrarn analyzes the gold and silver coinage found in a Sogdian cemetery in Gansu. Annette Juliano assesses the role of Buddhism as a catalyst both in the art of the cave temples and in their bold new sculptural styles, examining the significance of some of the lesser-known Gansu grottoes, including Maijishan. The essays and photographs are complemented by object descriptions that are invaluable for the light they cast oil the sources and connections of Chinese and non-Chinese objects.

Monks and Merchants will appeal to readers interested in the role played by trade and religion in the cultural transforma< tion of Chinese society in the centuries between the dynastic periods of Han (206 BCE -220 CE) and Tang (618-906). The book also enhances our knowledge of the Silk Road and its travelers and deepens our understanding of the cross-cultural influences between Asia and the west.

Chinese Calligraphy: From Pictograph to Ideogram: The History of 214 Essential Chinese/Japanese Characters by Edoardo Fazzioli (Abrams) Many great civilizations have punctuated man's presence on earth, but only the Chinese civilization has survived into modern times with its principal characteristics intact. Also--and this makes it unique--it retains a language more than 6,000 years old. This is undoubtedly the outcome of a series of happy coincidences but, first and foremost, it results from the Chinese system of writing: those fascinating, mysterious characters, each of which hides a snatch of history, literature, art and popular wisdom.

Never has the word calligraphy been so aptly used as here, even though it is still difficult for the Western eye to appreciate the full beauty and depth of this writing or to understand the aesthetic message contained in its lines. The nature of the written language and the use of the same instruments, brush and ink, has ensured that the writing of characters has formed an integral part of the history of Chinese painting.

Wang Xi Zhi (321-379), the "calligrapher sage" who lived under the Eastern Jin (317-420), is regarded as the greatest master of all time and the model for all those wishing to become engaged in the art of character-writing. His rich poetical and imaginative style is conveyed in his portrayal of writing as a real battle. In his work The Calligraphic Strategy of the Lady Wèi, he writes: "The sheet of paper is a battleground; the brush: the lances and swords; the ink: the mind, the commander-in-chief; ability and dexterity: the deputies; the composition: the strategy. By grasping the brush the outcome of the battle is decided: the strokes and lines are the commanders' orders; the curves and returns are the mortal blows." An exciting battle, but fortunately a bloodless one: one of the few that mankind can enjoy and be proud of.

The first characters were incised, using wooden sticks, pointed stones, jade knives or bronze styli. These are the marks we find on ceramics, on bones, inside vases and on bronze artefacts. The graphic transformation of characters was caused by changes in the implements used for writing or the introduction of new writing surfaces such as wood, silk and paper. On a Shang bronze (16th-11th century B.C.) we find a design for a pen with a reservoir; it takes the form of a cup-shaped container attached to one end of a hollow straw which deposited the colouring liquid on strips of bamboo. The result was a thick, uniform line. Around 213 B.C. widespread use appears to have been made of brushes with a fibrous tip suitable for writing on silk: these worked faster, but were still too rigid and gave a thick, square line.

During the same period a further advance was made by replacing the fibrous tip with one made of leather, which was softer and more flexible. It is to a general in the imperial army of the Qin dynasty (229-206 B.C.), however, that we owe a marked improvement in the quality of writing instruments. Meng Tian, who wielded the sword as skilfully as the brush, replaced the leather tip with a tuft of soft animal hairs. His intuitive innovation was linked to the discovery of a new writing material: paper. This quickly absorbed the water, making it possible to create lines of varying intensity. He maintained that the brush, with its very soft, pliable tip, could create every sort of effect when placed in the hands of a skilled calligrapher: everything from a thin, thread-like line to a thick one; from a full, rich stroke to a broken, fading one; from a squared line to a rounded one with either a sharp or blunted point. This moment marked the birth of calligraphy, which now entered the history of Chinese painting and was treated with the same honour and dignity accorded to figurative works.

Chinese Art and Culture by Robert L. Thorp and Richard Ellis Vinograd (Abrams) Lucid, authoritative, written with verve by two respected American scholars, this generously illustrated work provides an introduction to more than 7,000 years of Chinese art-from the pottery-making and jade-carving cultures of the Neolithic Age to contemporary Chinese artists working in video, installation, and performance media.

By placing the arts in context-in active engagement with societies, economies, and wider fields of culture-the authors of this much-needed general survey introduce a dynamic and continually evolving tradition rather than a sequence of isolated museum masterpieces. Although the story of Chinese art unfolds chronologically, the authors introduce relevant themes for each era that will deepen the reader's understanding of and appreciation for what they describe as arguably "the most abundantly productive, continuous artistic culture in the history of the world." Chinese Art and Culture is a refreshingly clear look at the oldest and most productive continuous artistic tradition on earth. From 7,000‑year‑old Neolithic pot­making and jade‑carving cultures to contemporary artists' installation, video, and performance pieces, this engrossing survey embraces the richness and complexity of Chinese art.

In all the right ways, this is a different kind of book on Chinese art. Departing from the predictable narration of dynasties and styles, Robert L. Thorp and Richard Ellis Vinograd present art as a cultural expres­sion of societal expectations, politics, material culture, belief systems, and wider fields of culture. They empha­size works of ancient art and architecture found in their original archaeological settings. Where that is not feasi­ble, they reconstruct interconnections among individual pieces and with their contexts of production. To the broad cultural picture, they add considerations of the material of which an object is made and the distinctive tech­niques used to make it. Thus an early Ming vase is shown as the product of a new advance in firing tech­nology that enabled control of copper red glazes and as a reflection‑in its shape‑of the lingering taste of the Early Ming emperors for things Tibetan.

Chinese art is one of the most active and mutable areas of cultural scholarship today. Thorp and Vinograd are leaders in a generation of scholars who are re­examining long‑held conceptions about Chinese art­ for example, the notion that Chinese art has essential and permanent char­acteristics and the idea that Chinese art and culture were un­touched by outside influences. Just as important, the authors give pop­ular, religious, and craft arts their just due. Richly illustrated­ some of the objects have almost never been pictured before‑and enhanced with special‑topic sidebars, this long‑awaited book answers the needs of students, collectors, and lovers of Chinese art for a work that is current in approach and scholar­ship and is at the same time reader‑friendly.

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