Archive for 'Chinese culture'

The Lettering of Letters

Lee gallery, Out of Character

I find it fascinating that in China letters provide some of the earliest evidence of calligraphy being considered a visual art. As Bai Qianshen points out in a recent essay, the earliest extant personal letters in China date from the time of the First Emperor (221–210 BCE—be sure to visit our exhibition, coming in February). Early in the first century CE an emperor of the Han dynasty is said to have sent a special envoy to request ten letters from a famous calligrapher who was on the verge of dying. By the late fourth century, the famous calligrapher Wang Xianzhi (344–404) finished a letter he was sending to his emperor: “my calligraphy in this letter is quite good.  I wish it to be kept and stored away.” Letters like his and many, many others serve as an example of two different functions of calligraphy: as writing and as a visual art.  The content of most letters tends to be personal and private; on the other hand, the calligraphy is intended for public consumption.

By the Ming dynasty (1369–1644) treating letters as works of art was a well-established tradition. Special colored and decorated papers were designed specifically for them and letters were collected and bound together in large albums. An example of such a collection is on display in Lee Gallery. We can only show two pages each from two of the five albums in the collection, which features letters written by a remarkable array of Ming dynasty scholars, court officials and calligraphers. A discussion of these letters can be found in Xiao Yanyi’s essay in the exhibition catalogue (see pages 118-127).

Water Stains on the Wall

Xu Bing in front of his video installation 'Character of Characters' at the Asian Art Museum

Xu Bing in front of his video installation ‘Character of Characters’

Our book on Xu Bing’s fascinating animation The Character of Characters will be arriving in the museum store soon.  Featuring essays by Britta Erickson, a leading expert on Chinese contemporary art, and by the artist, as well as a version of the actual animation, its arrival will be something to keep on your radar.

We have just finished translating Xu Bing’s essay, which makes clear the artist’s intellectual as well as artistic depth.  It follows the order of the animation and makes many aspects much clearer; it is also full of delightful and sometimes challenging references to writings from the past.  An example is the simple sentence: “The stroke’s force should convey the aesthetic sensibility of ‘water stains caused by rain on the wall of a country cottage’.”

If you’ve seen Out of Character already, that quotation may sound familiar. Included in the exhibition is a video of contemporary dance work Water Stains on the Wall, by Cloud Gate Dance Theater from Taiwan.

The title of Cloud Gate’s work and Xu Bing’s reference both derive from a legendary conversation between two of the most respected Chinese calligraphers of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907):

“Where do you get inspirations for your calligraphic style?” asked Yan Zhenqing, whose signature style of standard script brought Chinese calligraphy to a new height. “I observe summer clouds that resemble mountains with spectacular peaks,” replied Huaisu, the young monk who later became the most renowned master of wild cursive style. “The most exciting parts remind one of birds flying out of woods and snakes slithering into bushes. . .” “How about water stains on the wall?” asked Yan Zhenqing. “Right on! You old devil!” exclaimed Huaisu.

Water stains on a wall are the result of a long process of natural, organic, and fluid evolution. The legend of the conversation established “water stains on the wall” as a popular metaphor that represents the highest aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy. Inspired by this metaphor, choreographer Lin Hwai-min and the Cloud Gate dancers create an abstract work of spellbinding beauty and breathtaking technique that stands sublimely on its own.

We’re thrilled that in Out of Character you can experience both of these contemporary works in the context of the artform that inspired them. And be looking for the publication on Xu Bing’s The Character of Characters at the museum store soon.

Xu Bing: The Character of Characters, coming soon

One of Xu Bing's sketches for The Character of Characters

One of Xu Bing’s sketches for The Character of Characters.

One of the most exciting things about Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy is without doubt the new work acclaimed Chinese artist Xu Bing is creating for the exhibition.

Xu Bing’s work is an animation, but as it is being created right now there’s not a whole lot more we can tell you about it yet. However, we did just receive some amazing stats from the artist.

Each day 14 people (including Xu Bing) are working on the project. They work 10 hours per day and have worked 35 days thus far; a total of 4900 person hours to date. Given that work will continue through September, they expect a further 5600 hours to be added to this number.

Xu Bing has drawn approximately 50 drafts and more than 1000 hand drawn sketches. There could be thousands more sketches by the end of the project.

Given all of that, we’re expecting something extraordinary. Don’t miss it.


Chinese Calligraphy: Beneath the Surface

Thousand Character Essay in Clerical Script, Wen Peng (1498-1573). China. Ink on paper. Courtesy Guanyuan Shanzhuang Collection. 2012.2.028_01

Thousand Character Essay in Clerical Script, Wen Peng (1498-1573). China. Ink on paper. Courtesy Guanyuan Shanzhuang Collection. 2012.2.028_01

Sometimes it seems like Chinese calligraphy is everywhere. From David Beckham to Din Tai Fung to Hero, calligraphy has found its way into popular culture in the West. But calligraphy isn’t just a design element to be used in decor and tattoos. And it’s not just writing. Calligraphy is China’s highest art form, and our next exhibition, Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, will show you why.

We’ll have plenty to share as we approach opening day on October 5, but we want to start by showing you a video we created a few years back. Enjoy this taste of what calligraphy has to offer; we hope it whets your appetite for more.

A Gallery Guide to Dragons

Snuff bottle with dragons - China - Qing dynasty, approx. 1800-1900 - Glass; white with blue overlay

Snuff bottle with dragons, Qing dynasty, approx. 1800-1900.

Lunar New Year will be celebrated on Monday, January 23 this year. It is the Year of the Black Water Dragon, which many people believe will bring good fortune and prosperity. Dragons are considered good luck because they symbolize fertility and bring rain – given the weather we’re experiencing in San Francisco today it looks like the dragon has arrived a little early.

In Chinese tradition the dragon is an ancient symbol of rank and power and emperors wore dragons on their robes. Dragons with five claws represent the Emperor, and dragons with fewer claws represent other members of the royal family.

We have a lot of Chinese dragons here at the museum, so we’ve highlighted a few you can visit this weekend in anticipation of the Year of the Dragon. The snuff bottle above and the two pieces below are in our China galleries.

Rug  - China | Ningxia - Qing dynasty, approx. 1700-1800 – Wool

This glorious rug is from Qing dynasty China, approx. 1700-1800.

Bottle with dragon and phoenix - China | Jingdezhen | Jiangxi province - Ming dynasty (1368- 1644), Reign of the Wanli Emperor (1573-1619) - Porcelain with underglaze cobalt decoration

Detail from bottle with a dragon and a phoenix; Ming dynasty.

There are more Chinese dragons to be found in the Loggia at the top of the grand staircase. Here’s one you can look out for:

Jar with dragons amid clouds - China | Jingdezhen | Jiangxi province - Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Reign of the Jiajing Emperor (1522-1566) - Porcelain with overglaze multicolor decoration.

Jar with dragons amid clouds, Ming dynasty. From the Avery Brundage collection.

There are many more dragons, large and small, in the museum’s collection. Tell us about your favorite in the comments!







New Year Food

With humans, it always comes back to food. We love our feast days, and most of our celebrations have some kind of special food associated with them.

New Year is no exception. I celebrated new year recently with a friend for whom sour cream and cheddar chips are an integral part of the evening. He also cooked us a Chinese roast duck; much closer to my ideal celebration.

We spoke to a couple of Bay Area experts about two specialties that are close to us at the museum: Japanese mochi and Buddha hands.

Last weekend, we celebrated the new year here at the museum with mochitsuki (mochi pounding). Local Japanese teacher Yoko Hara writes:

I am from Tokyo, but I’ve never seen mochitsuki there. We bought freshly made big square mochi (Tokyo style) and my father used to cut it into small rectangular pieces. So mochitsuki by Kagamikai was a surprise and delight.
We used to live pretty close to the old site of Asian Art Museum so when my children were still young, we used to enjoy the mochitsuki with Taiko drumming every year. Being a Japanese Teacher, I now spread the word about this lovely event to all my students and friends.

Mochi pounding at the Asian Art Museum, Kagamikai
Kagamikai guide visitors in making mochi to celebrate the new year.

Buddha’s hand has become a common sight at Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, which takes place on Wednesdays and Sundays right behind the museum. Former curator Terese Bartholomew, now a board member of the San Francisco Botanical Garden, shares her knowledge of this funny-looking cousin of the lemon:

One interesting citrus that has appeared in the farmers’ markets in recent years is the Buddha’s hand citron (Citrus medica ‘Sarcodactylis’). This yellow citron with wavy tentacles takes its common name from the shape of its fruit, which resembles the idealized fingers of the Buddha. This fragrant fruit is used as an altar offering during Chinese New Year. The fruit runs completely to rind, and is not edible unless preserved with salt or sugar. Sliced into pieces, the fruit can be prepared the same way as candied citron; dipped in chocolate, these make a most delicious snack. The Buddha’s hand citron is beloved by the Chinese because its name, foshou, puns with blessings and longevity.

Buddha's hand citron by ancient history on Flickr.
Buddha’s hand, by ancient history on Flickr.

Tell us what’s on your Lunar New Year table – or share your recipes for Buddha’s hands.

Rhino Horn Art

It is an awkward fact that great artworks are sometimes created amid deplorable circumstances. Next week the popular PBS program Antiques Roadshow will air a segment featuring a record-breaking appraisal of Chinese rhinoceros horn carvings (check their site for local scheduling). It is hard not to think of the current plight of the rhinoceros when viewing artworks made from rhino horns, or indeed of that of the elephant when viewing objects made of ivory. The rhinoceros was almost extinct in China by the time of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) due to hunting and habitat destruction. On November 10, 2011, the western black rhinoceros was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and all rhino species are currently endangered. So what are we to make of rhino horn art?

Chinese bronze rhinoceros from the Asian Art Museum's collectionThe rhinoceros was of special importance to the ancient Chinese, as the museum’s famous rhinoceros-shaped vessel, which probably dates from 1100–1050 BCE, attests. Rhinoceros horn was (and still is) valued for its medicinal properties, and considered an antidote to poison. Often carved into cups, it became a prized medium of artistic expression, and Chinese artists created great works of art from it; the period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was one of particular excellence.

Rhino horn cup, Chinese, Ming dynasty, app. 1600.This example from the turn of the seventeenth century, which depicts an immortal paradise, closely follows the shape of the original rhinoceros horn.

More examples of rhino horn objects are on view in Gallery 17, on the second floor of the museum. By displaying these objects we hope to improve understanding of traditional Chinese art and to heighten awareness of the current threat to an animal long esteemed in Chinese culture, and admired by people the world over. For information about rhino conservation visit the World Wildlife Fund.

What do you think? Use the comments to share your views on antique art works that use materials from endangered species.

UPDATED Chinese Calligraphy Meets Haute Couture

Thanks to all who participated in this little word game. Actually, you guys are right on the mark! The characters read:

Take out the hairpin,
See the reflection of the stream.
Lie in bed with books around,
Wake up to comb hair, half drunk.
— Xu Bing

These lines are adapted from a Tang-dynasty poem by Yu Xuanji 魚玄機 (842-72) titled, “Curing Yourself of Lovesickness” 遣懷.

Contemporary art and high fashion have long been partners-in-crime. Browsing the September 2011 issue of Vogue, I was delighted to come upon contemporary artist Xu Bing 徐冰 in one of the editorials! Xu is pictured here with a modeled Calvin Klein Collection shift, which, in my opinion, is a perfect pairing of a master of line and form in fashion (Klein) with a master of line and form in calligraphy (Xu). In fact, we are hoping to have Xu participate in our upcoming Chinese calligraphy exhibition (so, fingers crossed!).

Vogue Magazine (September 2011)

Read more



In order to read a Chinese newspaper, around 4,000 characters must be committed to memory.  According to one of my favorite professors who spent time in China during the Open Door policy of the late 70s: “Give yourself about a dozen years to get a good grasp of it.”

Chinese, for anyone who has studied it, is a highly complicated language that requires a reader to quickly glean from the root (or radical) some piece of meaning.  Consider that every foreign concept that comes into China requires a new word.  The word for computer, then, is not computer, but closer to “electric brain.”  Try this link for a clearer breakdown of the process.

If this seems like a strangely digressive introduction of artist Xu Bing, who will be speaking at the Museum this Friday, maybe you don’t know Xu’s work.

Read more

International Chinese food

Culinary historian Cynthia Clampitt has made an interesting post about variations in Chinese food around the world. An excerpt: “The Chinese Exclusion Act might have slowed Chinese immigration into the United States, but it didn’t stop the Chinese from leaving China. They simply began to go everywhere else, including South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and India.” Read the whole post here.