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Happy Chinese New Year! Last year was the reptilian year of the snake, but this year things get all mammalian again—and what a magnificent mammal! Lunar Year 4711 is the year of the horse!

Tang Dynasty Horses at the British Museum

Tang Dynasty Horses at the British Museum

Ferrebeekeeper has shied away from writing about horses because the majestic animals have played such an important role in military and economic history (also I don’t want a bunch of patricians shouting at me about the finer details of fetlocks and snaffle bits), but, since it is now the year of the horse, I would be remiss not to post some equine highlights from those 4711 years of Chinese culture. Horses were (probably) domesticated in next door Kazakhstan about five thousand years ago, and they have had an unparalleled position in Chinese culture.  Not only is Chinese mythology replete with horses, throughout the entire history of the Han people, the great perissodactyls have been pivotal as labor, military mounts, transportation, pets, status symbols, and food.

A Cermaic Horse from the Tang dynasty (618 AD-907 AD)

A Cermaic Horse from the Tang dynasty (618 AD-907 AD)

There are numerous artistic masterpieces which celebrate this long alliance of man and mount. From ancient Zhou bronzeware vessels, to terracotta tombware from the Han dynasty, to deft Sung dynasty brush paintings, to elaborate Quing jade carvings. However I have chosen to celebrate the year of the horse with a gallery of earthenware porcelain statues from the far-flung Tang Empire (which stretched farthest towards what is now Kazakhstan, the original home of domesticated horses).  The Tang was an overland dynasty which looked west along the Silk Road for trade ties, artistic inspiration, and conquest.  It was an era of cavalry patrols, mounted merchants, and riders of all sorts.

Tang dynasty Ceramic Horse

Tang dynasty Ceramic Horse

Tang Horse

Tang Horse

The Tang dynasty was also an era when porcelain glazes grew in color, depth, and complexity—yet the calligraphic exactitude of Ming glazes was still unknown.  These sculptures each seem like a perfect depiction of a proud horse simultaneously coupled with an abstract painting of brown, yellow, orange, and green.  What could be a better metaphor for a new year?

A contemporary knock-off of a Tang Horse

A contemporary knock-off of a Tang Horse

Hopefully you will enjoy these images as you go about your New Year’s celebrations! Start a cultural dialogue with the local constabulary by lighting off some red fireworks! Enjoy “Buddha’s Delight” (a traditional New Year’s Dish made of black algae). Pack some decorative red envelopes full of cash and give them to your loved ones (or your favorite eclectic blogger!).  But as you go about your new year celebrations keep the horse in mind (and spare a few moments of thought for the matchless artisans of the Tang Dynasty as well).

Horse,_China,_Tang_dynasty,_late_7th_to_early_8th_century_AD,_earthenware_with_tri-color_glaze_(sancai)_-_San_Diego_Museum_of_Art_-_DSC06478

In 1837, the American financial system melted down and took the United States into a horrible economic death spiral.  In the same year, on the other side of the world, an obscure Chinese peasant named Hong Huoxiu had a nervous breakdown because he failed to pass the imperial civil service examinations (which only one out of a hundred test-takers passed anyway).  Strangely enough, Hong’s private meltdown ultimately proved far more damaging to humanity than the collapse of the entire U.S. banking system.   The ramifications of Hong’s actions are still being felt (and still being interpreted), but what is certain is that he was directly responsible for the deaths of 20 to 30 million people.

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Xiuquan (drawing from circa 1860)

Hong Huoxiu was born the third son of a poor Hakka farmer in Guangzhou, Guangdong in 1814. He proved to be an apt scholar who had a way with words and concepts and, more importantly, an ability to memorize the Confucian classics which were the subject of the all-important imperial exams (which determined one’s status in life).  His family tried to support him in his studies, and he came in first at the local preliminary civil service examinations, however he failed the actual imperial examinations four times (the exams at the time were very difficult, but they were also corrupt—and many people passed thanks to gold rather than correct answers).  After failing for the fourth time, Hong fell into a serious illness and was tormented by bizarre dreams in which he traveled to the sky to meet a wise father figure and a powerful elder-brother dressed in a black dragon robe.  Because of this dream epiphany, Hong changed his name to Hong Xiuquan (at the behest of the figures in his dreams).  He stopped studying for the exam and became a tutor.

For six years thereafter, Hong scraped by, trying to understand the strange figures and portents from his delirium.  He read and reread some tracts which had been given to him by Christian missionaries, and suddenly everything came clear to him in a startling revelation: the authority figure from his dreams was the Judeo-Christian god and the respected elder brother was Jesus.  Hong realized that he was Jesus’ younger Chinese brother.  Armed with this knowledge, he began to gather disciples and converts among the poor Hakka charcoal burners of Guanxi.  In 1847, he made a formal study of Christianity and the Old Testament (which, not surprisingly, cemented his belief in his own divinity).  Hong preached a strange mixture of communal sharing, Christian evangelism, and fiery rebellion.  He had two immense symbolic swords forged (for the purpose of sweeping corruption and heresy out of China) and he burned Taoist and Budhhist books wherever he went.

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

Hong Xiuquan and followers destroying Kan-wang-ye Idol in 1844

In most other times, nobody would have paid attention to Hong (or the secret police would have noted him and dealt with him in a peremptory fashion), however in mid nineteenth century China the situation was ripe for millenarian craziness and fraudulent prophets.  The corrupt Qing dynasty was floundering badly as crooked ministers feuded with each other and robbed the treasury.  Famine and disaster stalked the land while bandits and rebellions popped up everywhere.  The Western powers were openly squabbled over zones of influence within China.  Opium addiction, religious extremism, and nihilism were popular panaceas.  Against this horrible backdrop, the imperial government did not notice Hong until he had gathered 30,000 followers.  In 1850, they dispatched a small army to dispense his followers, but by then it was too late.  The imperial army was defeated and Hong’s forces executed the Manchu commander.  The rebellion had begun in earnest:  on January 11, 1851, Hong proclaimed the founding of the “Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace”.  He assembled armies which he put in command of family and favorites and began conquering southern China in the name of a communal theocratic state.

Scroll painting from "Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855."

Scroll painting from “Ten scenes recording the retreat and defeat of the Taiping Northern Expeditionary Forces,February 1854-March 1855.”

The subsequent Taiping rebellion—a civil war between the Qing dynasty and the Heavenly Kingdom of Transcendent Peace—was one of the most destructive conflicts in history.  At the height of the movement the Taiping rebels controlled 30 million subjects.  As huge armies clashed, tens of millions of people were uprooted.  Famine and disease became universal and the great cities of southern China were repeatedly besieged and burned.

The increasingly unstable Hong Xiuquan was a distant and hypocritical king to his strange and mismanaged kingdom. By 1853 he had withdrawn from day-to-day control of his kingdom’s policies and administration.  He became an isolated quasi-divine figurehead who ruled through written proclamations and strange religious pronouncements (while being carried from palace to palace in a sedan chair born by beautiful concubines).   For eleven years, his generals, prophets, and revolutionary figureheads fought an internecine war with imperial China, which only came to an end when the United Kingdom became involved and sent gunboats and British officers to assist the Emperor (most famously, Charles Gordon, a British military adventurer who went on to have one of the nineteenth century’s most colorful and infamous careers).  Lead and organized by Gordon and by General Tso (who is forever memorialized as a sweet-sour chicken dish), the imperial forces who were ironically renamed “the ever-victorious army” finally crushed the Taiping rebellion in 1864.

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

The Fall of Nanjing in 1864

Reclining amongst his dozens of wives and hundreds of concubines, Hong is said to have taken poison (or perhaps he died of eating noxious weeds—in accordance with a religious vision).  Whatever the case, the Taiping rebellion was at an end. Thanks to a decade and a half of brutal fighting, southern China was devastated: huge piles of rotting corpses were littered throughout the Yangtze valley.  Jesus’ Chinese brother, a nobody with a messiah complex, was directly responsible for one of the most violent and senseless incidents in history.  By some accounts, he personally outdid the destruction caused by World War I.

Five Quail (Anonymous, 13th century, Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper)

Five Quail (Anonymous, 13th century,
Hanging scroll, ink and color on paper)

Quail are mid-sized members of the Galliformes (the gamebirds) which live around the world, usually staying close to the ground where they hide among the undergrowth and peck out a living eating small invertebrates, seeds, and berries.  Multiple species of the quail genus Coturnix  live in China, where they have long been a favorite of hunters, poultry farmers, gamblers, and, of course, artists.  Quail were associated with autumn and they form the centerpiece of several lovely scrolls and small compositions about the plants and flowers of fall.  The birds also are utilized as a symbol of bravery (since a certain element of Chinese society fought male quail in battles reminiscent of cockfights and bet on the winner).  The painting at the top of this post also utilizes the quail as a symbol, albeit in a way which is extremely obscure to non-Chinese speakers.  The Chinese phrase for 5 quail is “wu anchun”–and the first two syllables “wu an” are a homonym for “no peace” (in China, a land which frequently knows censorship, homonyms are an indirect way of making political of social comments).  The painting above was thus a plangent comment on the fall of the Sung dynasty in the mid-13th century (which felt like a dark autumn to the Chinese literati).   Fortunately the following quail paintings are not quite so somber in tone, but convey instead the beauties of autumn or the simple delight the artists took in the endearing rounded form of the wild quail.

Smartweed and Quails (Qi Baishi, ca. first half of twentieth century, ink and watercolor on scroll)

Smartweed and Quails (Qi Baishi, ca. first half of twentieth century, ink and watercolor on scroll)

Quail (attributed to Li An-Zhong, ca. Southern Song Dynasty, ink and watercolor on scroll) 12th–13th century

Quail (attributed to Li An-Zhong, ca. Southern Song Dynasty, ink and watercolor on scroll) 12th–13th century

Quail painting from the Ming dynasty animal painting model book of Shen Zhou (ca. 1427-1509)

Quail painting from the Ming dynasty animal painting model book of Shen Zhou (ca. 1427-1509)

Bhutan

Bhutan

Until recently Bhutan was an anomaly among world nations.  The tiny landlocked monarchy at the eastern end of the Himalayas was famous for being untouched by time.  Under the absolute authority of the king, the Bhutanese pursued a medieval agrarian lifestyle with few trappings of the modernized world.  However in 2006 the king, Jigme Singye, used his absolute authority to proclaim that the kingdom was transitioning to a constitutional monarchy and would hold elections.  He then abdicated in favor of his Western-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel, who was crowned on November 6, 2008, and is now the figurehead ruler of the world’s youngest democracy.  The young king is the fifth monarch of the Wangchuck dynasty which consolidated control of Bhutan’s warring fiefdoms in 1907.

Ugyen Wangchuk, the first King of Bhutan from 1907 to 1926

Ugyen Wangchuk, the first King of Bhutan from 1907 to 1926, wearing the Raven Crown

The crown of Bhutan is known as the raven crown.  It is based on the battle helmet worn by Jigme Namgyel (1825–81), aka “the black regent” who was the father of the first king (and whose warlike life consolidated central authority over feuding nobles and kept Bhutan independent of Great Britain).  The raven is the national bird of Bhutan and represents Mahākāla, a protective deity/ dharmapāla particularly esteemed in the Buddhism of Tibet & Bhutan.

Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the current King of Bhutan, wearing the Raven Crown

Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the current King of Bhutan, wearing the Raven Crown

The raven crown is a warrior’s hat surmounted by a raven and embroidered with the skulls, which are emblematic of Mahākāla.  The aesthetic effect is striking, but–to anyone unfamiliar with the Buddhism of the Eastern Himalayas—the skulls and ravens make it look like the young king is a dark wizard or a death knight.  Fortunately, judging by the esteem in which he is held, this seems to be far from the case!

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Magpies and Hare (Ts’ui Po, 1061 AD, ink and watercolor on silk)

Here is an exquisite painting by the Song dynasty master Ts’ui Po which shows two magpies haranguing a passing hare.  It is strange to think that this delicate and refined work was painted 5 years before the battle of Hastings.  The word for magpie is homonymous with the word for happiness—so two magpies represent double happiness–shuāngxǐ—which is one of the most universal Chinese concepts. Lucky shuāngxǐ symbols are plastered all over all sorts of Chinese establishments and goods (I put one at the bottom of this post and I’m sure you’ll recognize it).  Ts’ui Po was famed for his ability to find the underlying rhythm in natural subjects and express it with simple fluid brushwork:  the entire painting is structured as a gentle S-shaped curve, but within that compositional framework the hare and the magpies have their own calligraphic energy.  Also note how wind is blowing back the branches, leaves, and weeds in the painting.   Ts’ui Po captured the tao moving within a small ephemeral moment of natural beauty.

Here is one of my all time favorite paintings by the peerless hand of one of history’s greatest painters.  Guo Xi was a Chinese literati painter from the Northern Song dynasty.  He was born and lived in Henan from (approximately) 1020 AD – 1090 AD.

Not only was Guo Xi a matchless scroll painter, he was also a scholar, a writer, a gentleman, and a philosopher who thought deeply about the world he was painting.  Guo Xi’s paintings look a little bit like all subsequent Chinese paintings because nearly every subsequent painter either copied him or (more flatteringly) deliberately set about attempting not to copy him.  He has a position similar to Giotto in the west, and is famous for perfecting “floating perspective” and writing a treatise on how to paint landscapes.

Early Spring (Guo Xi, 1072, ink and light watercolor on hanging silk scroll)

The painting above, titled “Early Spring” is his magnum opus.  Using successive layers of black ink wash Guo Xi has portrayed the wet forests of Henan in March or April, just before the trees and flowers burst into bloom.  The billowing clouds are mixed up with floating gray boulders and mountains.  The melt water and rain of late winter storms is cascading down the mountains in numerous rivulets and waterfalls–which empty out into mountain pools and lakes.  Even though the trees and gorse are bare, there is an impalpable hint of spring in the painting. Though leafless, the vegetation seems anything but lifeless.  The cold of winter has not passed but the first tiny hints of better weather seem to be on the way.

It is easy to miss the extensive human presence in this painting because the temples and pavilions of humankind are dwarfed by nature, but, as one zooms in (which you really should do by clicking on the image), one sees that people are indeed involved in the painting.  On the right, fishermen ply their trade amidst the cold rising water while a second group of boatmen have landed on the left side and prepare to schlep their goods up the mountain to the sacred buildings in the center.  Part way up the hill, a sage listens to a woman play the flute.  The tiny people seem excited for spring to come.  They look cold but happy as the elements and seasons swirl and change around them.

The heights of the mountain which blend into clouds are free of people. Covered in serene pines, they hint at an esoteric realm we can only aspire too.  But even on the rarefied heights the relentless progression of seasons and the world is evident.  The painting shows the of natural flux—of tao—and it suggests that for all of our hauteur, humankind is subject to nature and its relentless whirling change.

Liaodi Pagoda

Built in the 11th century, the Liaodi pagoda in Dingzhou, Hebei is the tallest pagoda still remaining from China’s dynastic past (and the tallest building in China from before the twentieth century).  The stone and brick Pagoda was completed in 1055 AD during the reign of Emperor Renzong of Song.  Although the pagoda was ostensibly designed to store Buddhist religious texts for the (now-destroyed) Kaiyuan Monastery, the name Liaodi means “watching for the enemy” or “forseeing the Liao enemy’s intentions”. The tall structure was built in a strategic location and Song military commanders used it to keep an eye on enemy movements of the nearby Liao Dynasty (a northern empire of Mongolic Khitans).

Including the elaborate bronze and iron spire at its apex, the Liaodi Pagoda is 84m high (276 feet).  It is a pavilion-style pagoda made up of thirteen octagonal tiers. Uniquely, one section of the pagoda’s thick walls is split open to reveal a large pillar in the shape of another pagoda.  I wish I could tell you more about this bizarre pagoda within a pagoda–but internet sources are strangely blasé about the fact that one of the most important historical buildings in China has a section cut away like it was a pilfered cake from the office fridge.  Inside the pagoda are numerous painted murals and carved calligraphic plaques crafted during the Song dynasty (arguably the artistic zenith of classical China).

Liaodi Pagoda's "pagoda within a pagoda"

Armor has played a major role in Chinese society from the depths of prehistory to the modern era. The topic of Chinese armor is so very large that it is hard to choose one aspect of the subject. Should I show the Chinese god of war Guan Yu, resplendent in his plate mail or the gorgeous silk portraits of warrior emperors from yesteryear?  Should I write about the Red Army’s mechanized armor program–which began by producing feeble copies of Soviet tanks and has haltingly evolved in its own direction by adding watered-down copies of NATO tank technologies to Russian designs?  I could write about how China’s medieval military leadership adopted and modified the armored mounted archery tactics of the Mongols or about early pre-dynastic armor suits made from turtle shells.

Perhaps the best way to present this topic as a sweeping overview is through pictures. Therefore, here is a series of photos of Chinese helmets from different eras.  I have tried to arrange them chronologically, but, due to the eccentricity and exiguousness of internet sources, I may not have fully succeeded.  Likewise some of these are priceless museum pieces and others are worthless forgeries (I have my eye on you, peacock helmet).

Chinese Shang Dynasty bronze helmet dating from about 1500 BC found at Anyang.

Chou Dynasty helmet from Emperor Wu Wang tomb complex (circa 1020 BC)

A Bronze Helmet from the Yan Kingdom in the Warring States period (ca. 475-221 BC)

A second bronze helm and an iron helm from the Warring States period (476 -221 BC)

A Qin Helmet (circa 221 to 207 BC.)

I'm afraid this picture was the best I could find for Tang Dynasty Helmets (618 AD - 907 AD). It's a pretty remarkable picture though!

Alleged Song Dynasty style helmet/headdress

A Gold and Iron Helmet from the late Yuan (1271 AD–1368 AD)

Late Ming Helmet (end of the17th century)

Emperor's helmet: Qianlong period (1736 AD-1795 AD)

Mass Produced Chinese Helmet from Late Quing Dynasty (circa 18th Century AD)

British Mark II Helmet Used by Chinese troops in World War II

Chinese Cold War Crash Helmet Based on Soviet Design (1950's)

Contemporary Chinese Combat helmet

Kevlar Combat Helmet (ca. present)

One thing that is striking (other than the loveliness of the helmets) is the liberal borrowing from other military traditions from the Mongol era onwards: the Yuan cavalry helmet is a literal Mongol cavalry helmet; the 1940’s era helmet is a British doughboy helmet with a Chinese symbol, and the cold war crash helmet is a Russian knock-off.  The most recent helmet seems to be quite similar to the Kevlar helmets used by United States forces (which probably owe their shape to “Fritz” Helmets from Germany). It will be interesting to see what comes next on this list as material science meet military necessity in the future…

Anonymous, 12th Century, Painting on Silk (National Palace Museum, Taipei)

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.

Yesterday’s post concerning the Yuan dynasty was in preparation for today’s post about Yuan dynasty porcelain.  The blue and white cobalt porcelain which has become famously emblematic of Chinese ceramics (to such an extent that “China” became the name of the country and the product in England) was first manufactured in the Middle Kingdom during the Yuan dynasty. The blue and white vases and plates from the Yuan dynasty are more robust and bold then the famous Ming blue and white ware which succeeded them, but the lovely pure aestheticism of great Chinese porcelain is fully there.  The best pieces feature a lovely syncretism of cultural motifs and forms which come together around a central symbol.

Yuan Blue and White "Fish" jar sold by Chistie's (12¼ in. (31 cm.) high; 13 3/8 in. (34 cm.) diam.)

My favorite works of Yuan porcelain are those with aquatic themes like this lovely rare fish jar from the middle of the fourteenth century.  On the vase, four intricately painted fish swim gracefully through water poppy, duck weed, water clover, eel grass, and hornwort.  The neck features waves lapping above a peony border while the base shows flaming pearls.  With unerring skill the master painter who made this jar has noted the details of the natural world.  The fish seem alive.  Their expressions reflect the different personalities of the different species. To explain the complicated symbolic/poetic wordplay which underlies this vase (and many of the images featured in classic Chinese art) I will rely on the Christie’s auction website, where the vase was described prior to sale:

The fish on the current jar provide a…complex rebus, since they appear to be qing black carp (mylopharyngodon piceus); (hongqi) bai predatory carp or redfin culter (culter erythropterus); lian silver carp (hypopthalmichthys molitrix); and gui or jue Chinese perch or mandarin fish (siniperca chuatsi). The names of these fish combine to provide rebuses which suggest either qing bai lian gui ‘of good descent, modest and honourable’ or qingbai lianjie ‘of honourable descent and incorruptible’.

Plate, mid-14th century China: Porcelain with underglaze blue decoration (Diam. 18 in.)

A fish, in this case a sea perch, is also the subject of this magnificent plate from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The perch gapes open his mouth to leer at visitors from a bed of eelgrass.  Around the central scene is a particularly vivid cavetto of lotus blossoms.  Archaeological discoveries indicate that the plate was manufactured at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province.  Fish were a popular motif of Yuan porcelain because of a well-known Taoist maxim which compared people who had found their place in the flux of Tao to fish perfectly suited to living in their watery realm.  The Han literati of the Yuan era had been displaced by Mongol elite and they frequently yearned for a more serene and central place in their world, an attitude quietly reflected by splendid aquatic porcelain.

Guan jar: Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province

The final jar (also made in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi during the mid fourteenth century) shows not a fish but a vigorous fish-eating duck.  His feathers are standing up in a fierce crest and he has a wild look in his eye.  A pair of mandarin ducks is the ancient Chinese symbol for love, trust, and happiness in marriage–however this is not a pair of mandarin ducks but a carnivorous merganser hunting alone among the water weeds (although it seems there might be another one on the other side of the jar).   It’s hard not to wonder whether this unusual duck unconsciously represents the Han’s unhappiness in their marriage to their fierce Mongol overlords.

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