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year-of-horse-zodiac_1389986758

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

Song Dynasty celadon vase (circa 1100 AD)

Song Dynasty celadon vase (circa 1100 AD)

Celadon is a lovely muted shade of pale green which became famous as a porcelain glaze long ago in ancient dynastic China.  Although the technique for making the glaze was invented during the Tang dynasty, the zenith of celadon porcelain making was attained during the Sung dynasty when so many of the aesthetic conventions of Chinese culture came into flower.

A 'longquan' celadon 'lotus' bowl. Song dynasty. photo Sotheby's

A ‘longquan’ celadon ‘lotus’ bowl. Song dynasty. photo Sotheby’s

The perfect serenity of well-made celadon vessels has been compared to Buddhist enlightenment. Additionally, according to ancient folklore, celadon serviceware and drinking vessels would change color in the presence of poison.  Sadly this latter fact is an outright myth, however if the lie resulted in more celadon being produced then perhaps it was worth a few surprised dead Chinese nobles.  Celadon porcelain is magnificent.

A Longquan meiping vase with celadon glaze, (Early Ming dynasty)

A Longquan meiping vase with celadon glaze, (Early Ming dynasty)

Italian plums

Italian plums

Some colors are more subtle than others.  In fact some colors are so subtle that they are wholly ancillary to others.  Fine artists are attuned to all manner of delicate films, coatings, glazes, and washes which are added to a deeper color in order to produce a sense of depth or the illusion of texture. Subtle color-words—those which describe a texture, a mood, or a translucent quality are deeply appreciated.  Today’s color describes a secondary color which was known deep into classical antiquity and earlier.  The word glaucous derives from the Latin “glaucus” which in turn derives from the Greek “glaukos” (all of which mean the same thing)–a waxy, shiny gray/green/blue neutral color such as the blush found on fresh grapes.  If you have ever eaten fresh grapes or plums you will be familiar with this color as the delicate coating on purple plums and grapes (and if you have not eaten fresh grapes and plums, who are you? Live better!).

Grapes

Grapes

Certain plants also have a glaucous coatings—such as cacti and other succulents.  Ornithologists, ever in a bind to come up with Latin and Greek words to describe the numerous species of bird have also taken to the word.  Birds which have waxy neutral gray-blue feathers often have “glaucus” in their binomial names (just as yellowish birds are often known as fulvous).  The glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) of the Pacific Northwest is a fine example.  The birds’ grey wings look as though they were glazed on by a gifted confectioner.

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

I like the word because I like plums, cacti, and birds (obviously in different ways) but I also appreciate the concept of a pale color which is always delicately brushed across something else.  With a poke of the finger or a good washing in the kitchen sink, the color glaucous would vanish.

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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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