Thursday, May 6, 2021

Chinese Puzzle Ball

The art of ornamental design has been part of China's culture for thousands of years. Art and craft have gone hand in hand to create items of great beauty and functionality. Beauty and functionality are inseparable from each other, for beauty itself is a function in Chinese culture. Each shares in equal importance. Intricately painted wall scrolls, highly ornamented hand fans, and other items of Chinese art are well known. Not so the Chinese Puzzle Ball. 

The Chinese Puzzle Ball is one of the summits of Chinese ornamental design and beauty. These complex objects are thought to have an influence on the unity of the family. These puzzle balls come in many sizes, and can be made of ivory, wood, resin, soapstone or jade. Most are handmade, and consist of an outer sphere that contains smaller, movable spheres. They generally come in balls of 4-18 layers.

Whatever the material the ball is made from is first shaped into a ball. Then conical holes are drilled in to the ball, and the layers are separated with L-shaped tools and small power grinders. After the layers are separated, the outside of the ball is carved with dragons, scenery, or other subjects. The ancient puzzle balls that were made of ivory also had each inner ball carved as well, a difficult task in any era, but especially when there were only hand tools to do it. 

The layers of the ball can be thought of as symbolizing the four basic elements of earth, wind, fire and water, or the four directions of the compass. These multi-layered balls are one of the wonders of Chinese craftsmanship, practiced since ancient times. They are also rightfully known as Mystery Balls. Once they are seen and it is remembered that these balls are created out of a single sphere, you may consider them a mystery too!

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Maitreya And The Laughing Buddha

 Buddhism is most often associated with Japan, China, and other countries of that area of the world. But Buddhism had its beginning in India in the 5th century B.C. Buddhism was the result of challenges to traditional Hinduism, and these challenges culminated with the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a wealthy tribal chieftain. He renounced his wealth and became the awakened one, the Buddha Buddhism came to China circa 60 A.D., but it did not become well known and popular until the third century A.D.

Maitreya, the future Buddha, is a bodhisattva which is a Sanskrit word that roughly means wise, enlightened being. A bodhisattva is dedicated to helping others achieve enlightenment. Some sects of Buddhism believe that Maitreya will appear when the teachings of Gautama Buddha are no longer taught and are forgotten. But the meanings and beliefs about Maitreya are many and varied within Buddhist beliefs.

The laughing Buddha was a Ch'an Buddhist Monk that lived in China over 1000 years ago. The Ch'an sect of Buddhism is called Zen in Japan. Tradition says that this monk's name was Hotei, or Pu Tai (which means cloth sack) as he would carry a large cloth sack with him on his travels. He very seldom stayed in the place where he became a Buddhist monk and constantly traveled. Whenever he met someone that offered him something, he would always accept it
and put it in the bag across his back. Conversely, whenever he met someone that asked for something, he would give it to them out of the sack. Tradition also says that he was a man of good and loving character, and as such he was linked with the traditions of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Because of his large belly and smile his name is also The Laughing Buddha. 

Traditional depiction of Maitreya
The Laughing Buddha is often times portrayed as carrying a cloth sack which is filled with various things. Money, candy for children, food, even the woes of the world. Sometimes he is portrayed as sitting, fanning himself with a type of fan called a 'wish giving' fan. He is sometimes portrayed with a begging bowl. But whether sitting or standing, he is always bald with a big pot belly and a smile on his face.

Belief in The Laughing Buddha is mostly based on legend. It is said that rubbing his protruding belly brings good luck. Statues of Maitreya are displayed in Buddhist temples, Chinese and Japanese homes, and other places around the world. When a learned Buddhist monk was asked why a statue of The Laughing Buddha was usually by the front door of a Buddhist temple, he said that the laughing, smiling face made people feel welcome.  

Maitreya was linked to the original Buddhist Maitreya because the paunchy smiling face with his large bag filled with many different things reminds Buddhists to emulate the spirit of the bodhisattva; to be big-hearted and compassionate, one who cheerfully accepts all and gives all. 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Chinese Cork Carving

 Chinese cork carving is a traditional art form in Fujian province in China that uses cork to make landscapes and dioramas that quite often include wildlife such as pandas. Unlike some truly ancient Chinese art forms, cork sculpture is relatively new. Wood carving artist Wu Qiqi of Xiyuan village in Fuzhou, the capital city of  Fujian province, around 100 years ago was impressed by the wooden carvings brought back from Germany by travelers.  These pictures in wood were the inspiration for Chinese artists to make their own examples, but theirs were made of cork.

Cork harvesting

Cork has been used for millennia. Its natural bouyancy has been utilized for flotation devices, fishing equipment, and stoppers for wine bottles. Cork is harvested from a type of evergreen oak tree and is the outer bark of these trees. It is a renewable resource as the trees can live as long as 300 years, with the outer bark being able to be harvested periodically throughout its lifetime. The harvest is done manually so as not to damage the underlayer of the bark because that is the part of the tree that will produce more cork bark. Most cork is produced in Spain and Portugal, with the majority of cork used for stoppers in wine bottles. Although there is a type of cork tree that grows in China, cork carving artisans usually get the material from Europe. 

It takes 3 years for an apprentice to learn the art, but the artform was in decline a few years ago in Fuzhou when Chinese exports were curtailed. Now that the market has improved, cork carving has made somewhat of a comeback, although there remains few artists who still do it. Cork carvings are now available from very small objects that are reasonably priced, to pictures that take up an entire wall which are very expensive.  Chinese cork carving

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Reverse Glass Painting - Centuries Old Art Form

Reverse glass painting is the art of painting an image on the reverse side of a piece of glass or glass object so that the image can be viewed from the unpainted side. It has been done since early in the sixteenth century in Europe, and was known in China during the early 18th century.

This style of painting has been used for religious art, abstract art, clock faces, realistic landscapes, and scenes with people and portraits. It is a very exacting art form, especially when done as a realistic painting. The image is actually painted in reverse order on the glass. The finishing details of the painting must be put on the glass first, and must be done accurately as this is immediately covered with the next phase of the painting. So for a portrait reverse glass painting, the pupil of the eye would be painted first, then the eye, and so on in reverse order, finishing with the background. When the glass is turned over, the actual intended image is viewed from the unpainted side. Unlike stained glass, these paintings are meant to be mounted on a wall with light shown on them, instead of light going through them.

As best as art historians can determine, reverse glass painting evolved in Austria, the Black Forest region, and Romania in central Europe. And northern Spain, central and southern Italy in southern Europe. These paintings were generally created in small village family workshops, with fewer paintings produced by larger shops in large cities. Many of the images painted were of religious subjects in the beginning of the art form.
In the early 19th century the art form spread to other areas and appeared in the Middle East and West Africa. Areas where Islam flourished produced many reverse glass paintings. These paintings depicted scenes from Old Testament stories, stories and quotations from the Qu'ran.

The first documentation of reverse glass painting in China is in the writings of some Jesuit missionaries stationed there in the middle of the 18th century. Some say that it was the missionaries themselves that introduced the art in China, but art historians doubt that. The missionaries wrote about various art forms known in China when they arrived, and reverse glass painting was already being done in China upon their arrival. The exact time when the art form reached China is not documented in any known Chinese art history literature. There is evidence that Chinese glass painting was never considered a serious form of art by the Chinese themselves. Glass paintings used in China were usually located in restaurants or other public places and seldom in homes of the Chinese themselves. Much of it was also done for sale to tourists and foreigners.

With the innovations of photography and forms of printing in the middle of the 19th century, glass painting began to decline. There has been a recent resurgence in the art form, and reverse glass paintings are now being done in China, India and the world over.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Dragons - Angels Of The East

Stories and myths about dragons run through most cultures, ancient and modern. Was there ever a beast that walked the earth that could account for these myths? Some say that the ancients may have found fossils of dinosaurs, and by the use of their imaginations 'created' a beast from this evidence. Another theory is that dragons were merely the creative embellishments of large snakes and reptiles. We will never know precisely what triggered ancient peoples to come up with these myths. The first references
to dragons can be traced to approximately 4000 B.C. and perhaps before that.

In Western culture, the dragon was usually seen as a beast to be feared. Dragons lived in the sea waiting to devour ships that sailed too far. They lived in caves and protected treasure with their breaths of fire. In the Middle Ages, the story of St. George fighting a dragon to save a princess entered the mythology of the west, and has been retold and depicted in art for centuries.

The dragon in Eastern culture is quite different. Instead of a beast to be feared, the dragon is a positive symbol that represents many things, some of which are intelligence, persistence, optimism and energy. Most Asian dragons are creatures of beauty and wisdom. They are loved, and in some areas worshipped. They have been called the Angels Of The East.

Dragons have been represented in all forms of art, and been used to decorate pagodas, temples, shrines, palaces and private homes for millennia in China. The Emperors of Japan traced their ancestry back to a daughter of a dragon king of the sea. Many Emperors of other Asian countries also claimed lineage from dragons. In China, many people think that the entire Chinese people are descendants of dragons. Many things associated with Asian royalty involved depictions of dragons. To call an Emperor 'Dragon Faced' was a very high compliment. Everything connected with the dragons of the east was blessed.

In China, the dragon is seen as a symbol of protection, and is regarded the Supreme Being among creatures. It can live in the sea, fly through the sky, coil up on land and take the form of a mountain. It is also a symbol of good fortune. The Chinese believe that having a statue of a dragon in the east part of their home brings good fortune and success in life. But the dragon can be placed anywhere in a home, except areas of rest such as bedrooms. The dragon can also bring great energy, and if placed in a bedroom could interfere with sleep. These ancient Angels Of The East are among the most beautiful of Asian home decor items, whether as a statue, wall scroll, or figurine.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Tibetan Singing Bowls - Centuries of Resonance

Although they are commonly referred to as bowls, they are technically a standing bell. They are not hung upside down or put on a handle, but stand alone on the bottom side. By tapping with a wooden mallet, or rubbing the rim with a leather covered piece of wood, a Tibetan singing bowl can be made to sound. They have been used for centuries by Buddhists and others as an aid to meditation, health care, relaxation and certain religious practices. They are also more correctly known as Himalayan Singing Bowls, for their traditional ranges of occurrence are Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, India, China, Tibet, and Afghanistan.

Although they are associated Buddhism, they date before Buddhism. Some scholars believe their beginnings were in India. A Buddhist master traveled to Tibet and introduced Buddhism and the bowls to that region in the 9th century A.D. Ancient bowls were made from a combination of precious and semi-precious metals and stones, from 3 to 12 different ingredients, including pieces of meteorites, were used to make the ancient bowls. They were hammered by hand into shape. The ancient metallurgy and hammering techniques to make these bowls is now considered a lost art.

Because of all the different ingredients in the alloy, ancient bowls have a much richer, more complex sound than Tibetan singing bowls made today. Ancient singing bowls are still available, but they can be quite expensive. Most singing bowls available are modern creations, and are not made from the exotic alloys of ancient bowls. They are usually made from a combination of bronze, zinc and iron. They are usually not hand hammered, but are cast. Modern singing bowls are made in Nepal, Tibet, Japan, Korea and India.

If you have ever rubbed a wet finger around the rim of a wine glass, or gently tapped the side of it with a finger, the sounds you heard are vaguely similar as sounds from a singing bowl. The wine glass vibrates in the air, and emits sounds. So does the Tibetan singing bowl, but the sound itself is different. Research has been done that suggests that the sounds coming from these bowls, especially the ancient ones, resonate with certain brainwaves and can help calm the mind and relax the body. The sounds of Tibetan singing bowls resonate with people today as they did with people of centuries past. The music they make is the sound of meditation, calm mind, and relaxed body. Tibetan Singing Bowls

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Chinese Paper Cuts

The history of the art of decorative cuts in paper would naturally begin where paper was invented. Paper's origins are thought to be in ancient China during the Han Dynasty around 105 A.D. At least that is the tradition and it says that Cai Lun, an official attached to the royal court, made a sheet of paper out of various fibers, old fish nets and hemp waste. But there is a piece of paper found made of hemp that dates ca. 170 B.C.E.   Before this there existed papyrus, but it was not paper as we know it as it was a lamination of plant fibers as opposed to paper which is made from fibers that have been broken down.
The earliest examples of paper cuts date back to the 4th century A.D. in the southern provinces of China. The art form became popular as a decorative item in the homes and palaces of royalty, especially at times of festivals and holidays. The art eventually spread to other parts of the world such as Japan, India, and Jewish culture. The art is different in each country it was produced in, according to traditions and art culture of the country.  China is the country with the longest known continuous tradition of paper cutting.  In the rural countryside in China paper cutting was traditionally a female activity.  But many professional paper cutters are now males that work in shops.

The designs cut into paper are varied. From traditional Chinese decorations like Dragons, Phoenix, Cranes, but the subject matter is only restricted by the paper cutters imagination. Many times the paper cuts are in red paper, but there are also multi-colored cuts made with different colored papers and paint. They are all made with simple hand tools, a very sharp-pointed pair of scissors or a very sharp small knife. The paper is sometimes folded and cut, sometimes cut without folding according to the design. It is an exacting art that takes a deft hand, strong fingers and an imaginative eye.
Chinese Paper Cuts