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Here are three Chinese paintings of mallard ducks from 3 different eras. Coincidentally, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is one of the quintessential success stories of animals alive today. It lives throughout Asia, Europe, North America, and North Africa (in addition to places where it has been introduced) and it was the ancestor to most domestic ducks. However we will leave an in-depth wild duck essay for later this year (seriously, they really are magnificent & fascinating animals) in order to appreciate these three watercolor on silk paintings.
The first (and greatest) comes from the Song dynasty which ruled China from 960 AD to 1279 AD. As mentioned earlier, the Song is regarded as a glorious apogee of Chinese art and poetry and the simple court painting of a duckling makes the reasons self-evident. The animal is foreshortened and painted with effortless naturalism.
The Second painting comes from the Yuan dynasty—the era of Mongol occupation. Although the duck is presented from the side as though diagramed, it still has a charming naturalism. Additionally the bird has an amusingly insouciant look. His magnificently rendered plumage and feet also serve to give him character while the autumn vines in the background further serve to give the painting piquancy.
Finally we have a lovingly rendered contemporary painting. Even though it is separated from the others by nearly a millennium, the brushwork is similar. The feathers have been painted with swift sure strokes. The background though vibrantly colored has been sketched in to suggest a landscape (rather then rendered in detail. Although and there is a touch more photorealism in the duck’s plumage there is also a touch less charisma and personality in the ducks’ faces.
Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain. Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties. At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).
Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time. During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace. The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.
During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins). The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.
Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art. Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism. Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on. A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand. Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats). Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.
Behold a dreadful strangling monster! This entity cannot be easily killed by conventional means and it reproduces both by asexually spawning duplicates of itself (at first attached to the parent by runners) and by releasing tens of thousands of wind-born flying pods. When these pods land on something they take root and start to grow—even if it is another tree or a roof or a bit of concrete. This monster comes from the primeval forests of China, indeed it is mentioned in the most ancient Chinese texts, but today it has spread everywhere. It eats toxins and is not affected by most pollutants or even by high doses of toxic metals. It produces a poison which kills plants. If you live in a major city there is probably more than one outside your door right now!
Thanks to the title at the top of the page, perspicacious readers will probably already have guessed that the monster I am writing about is Ailanthus altissima, aka the tree of heaven. This is one of the most successful invasive species out there. People unfamiliar with the plant are probably chortling at my rhetoric, whereas people who do know this tree, especially gardeners, are most likely making murderous gestures and exclaiming wild oaths. The tree reproduces like crazy and it grows with seemingly supernatural speed. Anyone who has tried to garden anywhere near a tree of heaven has spent a great deal of their time pulling up saplings or sawing them down only to see them rise again and again like the fearsome horde of hellspawn which they are. When chopped down the tree grows back with redoubled vigor and produces suckers (basal shoots which grow from the roots and produce independent trees). The tree of heaven may not be a massive clonal colony like Pando, but fighting the suckers and the seedlings and their many offshoots makes it seem like a single malevolent entity. And it is everywhere—when you see a tree growing on top of an abandoned building or sprouting improbably from sheer concrete, it is most likely the tree of heaven.
The tree was not always despised. Eighteenth century European gardeners (under the spell of Chinese gardens and all things Chinese) were beguiled by its swift growth and elegant looks. They brought the tree to Europe in the 1740s and to the United States in 1784, but, as soon as the tree was planted, the honeymoon ended. In formal gardens Ailanthus trees tendency to sucker and set seed became very apparent as did the abominable smell of the male trees which produce a urine-like stench to attract unsavory pollinating insects (European botanists should probably have translated the Chinese name before planting: 臭椿 literally means malodorous tree). The tree’s prettiness though undeniable is not as great as that of other Chinese invasive trees like the lovely Empress tree (which is not nearly as aggressive or malodorous).
Aesthetic concerns were not the sole motivating factor which caused European gardeners to import the fearsome tree. Although the finest silk comes from the silkworm, Bombyx mori, which feeds only on the mulberry tree, a more durable and coarse silk can be produced from the cocoons of the ailanthus moth (Samia Cynthia) which, of course, eats ailanthus leaves. Ailanthus silk is distinctly inferior to true silk in that it does not readily take dyes, but it is durable and pretty in its own right. Unfortunately it proved to be too labor-intensive for western production. Ailanthus moths, the huge saturniid moths, which produce these cocoons also went rogue and are now spreading across North America and Europe in tandem with the trees.
The discerning reader may have apprehended that I am no fan of the tree of heaven. Even literary allusions to the ailanthus are problematic (it is the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel about alcoholism, poverty, cheating, and misery in early twentieth century immigrant life). However, having said that, Ailanthus altissima demands respect as a supremely effective life form. It is probably the fastest growing tree in North America and is able to grow 2 meters (6 feet) in a year (as I know from cutting down 15 foot tall suckers in my tiny garden). Additionally the tree produces a chemical, ailanthone, which inhibits or prevents the germination of other seeds and is toxic to other trees. Ailanthus altissima can live in locations that are dry, salty, or toxic and can survive on water as acidic as tomato juice. For these reasons as well as its staggering number of wind-born twirling seeds it can be found in industrial or urban wastelands where nothing else grows. It is impossible not to feel a bit of awe for a 50 to 90 foot tall weed.
Not only is the tree is an opportunist which can live by itself in places too dry or poisonous for other trees but its incredible rate of growth allow it to compete with other deciduous trees by quickly growing into unoccupied canopy space (although adult forest trees in healthy woods can probably out-compete it in the long run). The tree of heaven pays a price for its quick growth and heavy suckering. Its life is short and specimens rarely live past 50 years. However one individual tree is not the problem—if you have one tree you already have many. Like the Lernaean Hydra, the tree of heaven is a exponentially increasing monster, but something so tough must have a use. Perhaps a future generation of space colonists living in Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s fantasy will spend their time wrinkling their noses and wandering why anyone chose to plant such a thing.
Whenever I have walked to or from the subway this last week, a particular patch of pavement stands out because it has been dyed a ghastly blackish purple. This is where the sidewalk runs beneath a mulberry tree, a medium sized deciduous fruit tree which produces copious quantities of black multiple fruit. Ten to sixteen species of trees are accepted by botanists as true mulberries. The three most commonly known species are black mulberries (Morus nigra) which were exported in great number from Southwest Asia to Europe, the red mulberries (Morus rubra) which grow wild in Eastern North America, and the white mulberry (Morus alba) which has been domesticated since ancient times in China as food for silkworms. The different species readily hybridize into fertile hybrids so I have no idea which sort I am walking under every day. The Mulberry trees give their name to the Moraceae, the mulberry family, which includes figs, banyans, breadfruits, and Osage-oranges.
Mulberry foliage is the preferred food for silkworm larvae (although the caterpillars will also tolerate foliage of the Osage-orange and the tree of heaven). An ancient Chinese legend relates that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor (himself the mythical progenitor of Chinese culture), discovered silkworm cultivation as she was drinking tea beneath a mulberry tree. A silkworm wrapped up in a cocoon fell into her tea. She removed the cocoon from her beverage and was amazed at how the fiber unwrapped around her fingers as a lovely thread.
Mulberry leaves, sap, and unripe berries contain 1-Deoxynojirimycin, a polyhydroxylated piperidine, which acts an intoxicant and mild hallucinogen (and produces nausea). However when mulberries ripen they turn black and become edible. Mura nigra and Mura rubra allegedly have the tastiest fruit which is said to resemble blueberry in taste and appearance when cooked into pies and tarts. Cooked mulberries are rich in anthocyanins, pigments which are useful as natural food colorings and may have medicinal value.
Mulberry also gives its name to a lovely purple pink which resembles the color of mulberry jams and pies. The word mulberry has been used to describe that particular shade since the 1770’s. I remember it fondly as a Crayola crayon which I always used up before the others (although apparently the color was discontinued in 2003–so today’s children will have to make do with less poetic purple pinks).
Once again I am shamelessly trying to seize the attention of the internet’s kitty-loving throngs, this time via the unconventional path of Song dynasty artwork. The Song dynasty flowered between 960 AD and 1179AD. It was a great age for China and the great age for Chinese art. Traditional Chinese painting reached its zenith during this time: all subsequent Chinese painters have looked back to Song paintings either for inspiration or in rebellion.
Although Song artists found antecedents in the styles of Five Dynasties Period and the Tang dynasty, they vastly outdid their predecessors. Their age has become synonymous with exquisite deft naturalism. Here an unknown painter from the twelfth century has perfectly captured the likeness of a little tabby kitten. The painting accurately portrays the delicacy, naïve curiosity, and cuteness of a kitten–and yet there is also an ineffable hint of wildness in the animal’s mien which suggests what a fearsome predator a cat can actually be.