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            Ancient art not just for looking

            Author  :  SHANG GANG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-12-12

            From left to right: a wine decanter and a warming bowl from the Song Dynasty and a copper ox lamp inlaid with silver from the Eastern Han Dynasty Photo: FILE

            Gongyi Meishu is a Chinese expression meaning “applied art.” The expression didn’t originate in China. The Chinese adopted it from Japan during the early 20th century. Although this expression appeared in China much later, works of applied art have been produced in China for a long time, dating back even to the Neolithic Period. 

            In ancient times, applied art could be found in hand crafted products with artistic designs. The works of applied art in question were often functional objects, used on a daily basis. These objects could be aesthetically pleasing, while decorative artworks largely overlapped with more practical, utilitarian objects. Applied arts can be found in six different categories of products in terms of materials: textiles, pottery, jadeware, metalware, lacquerware and others.

            Textiles were the most important works of applied art in ancient China, when half of the population was engaged in the textile industry, and many products were made of silk. Silk was politically significant. People wore different types of silk clothes according to sets of strict rules that corresponded with their social class. 

            The second type of material was pottery, accounting for the largest proportion of existing antiques due to its durable material. The third type was jadeware. The criterion for determining what was referred to as jade was first established in France and was unknown to the Chinese prior to the 18th century. Therefore, the jadeware that the ancient Chinese were accustomed to was different from today’s classification. The Chinese used the generic term yu to cover a variety of related jade-like stones, including nephrite, agata and jadeite. Jade was ranked as the top material for making works of applied art in ancient times. In the Tang Dynasty, only the imperial officials of the top three ranks were allowed to wear yudai (belts decorated with jade). The fourth type was metalware. Its early form was bronzeware, later involving gold, silver and enamel. The enamelware consisted of a kind of artwork made of roughcast brass. Chinese cloisonne, also known as Jing Tai Lan (Jing Tai was the reign name of a Ming Dynasty Emperor during whose reign mass production of such articles began; Lan means blue, the background color of Jing Tai Lan in most cases), was the most famous type of enamelware that was made in China.

            The last category included works of bamboo, glass, ivory, rhino horn and other materials that were not so common to the ancient Chinese. Glass was made in China very early. Chinese glass varied greatly in chemical composition from the Western glass. Because of the poor transparency and heat resistance of the indigenous glass objects, high-end glass markets were dominated by imported glass objects for a long period up until the Qing Dynasty. During the reign of Emperor Kangxi (r. 1662–1722), the court invited Belgian missionaries to introduce glass artworks according to the Western chemical composition, thus creating the impetus for indigenous glass-making. A Westerner once blamed the underdeveloped status of science and technology in ancient China on the poor quality of indigenous glass, which could not be used to produce microscopes, telescopes, test tubes, beakers and other scientific equipment. 

            Aesthetics and functionality

            Works of applied art were often functional objects. They should be judged differently from pieces produced within the fine arts. Usually, a work of applied art was valued by the merits of its design and decoration.

            The value of design in works of applied art is relative to the functional benefits the object provides to the user. Design varied to cater to the mass-market. Take the wine decanter and the warming bowl from the Song Dynasty for example. In the past, the Chinese often drank warm liquors. In order to keep the liquors warm, the decanter for carrying liquor was usually put in a bowl filled with hot water. 

            The works of applied art that passed through generations were usually composites of art, aesthetics and functionality. For instance, the copper ox lamp inlaid with silver of the Eastern Han Dynasty is known for its distinctive design and elegant taste. The pipe that links the lamp and the ox together was used to suck the smoke into the hollow body of the ox. The lamp is equipped with a flexible lampshade so that the direction and intensity of the light is adjustable.

            The gilt silver perfume sachet with flower and bird patterns made in the Tang Dynasty is another example of aesthetics not being sacrificed to mechanics. The Tang people were very particular about their daily lives. They didn’t only scent their houses with aromas but also wanted the fragrance to permeate their lives. Since holding a censer seemed cumbersome, they created this ingeniously constructed perfume sachet. This object was made in the shape of a 5-cm diameter ball that was divided into two hollowed hemispheres with a chain to hang it on the wearer’s belt. What is known today as the system of Cardan’s suspension was set inside the ball, keeping it constantly horizontal and preventing the perfume powder from spilling when the sachet moved with the wearer. The hollow-carved pattern of flowers, honeysuckle, grapevines and birds on the ball were not merely decoration. These holes were used to allow air in for burning perfume powder and to let the aroma out. This gilt silver ball is a marvel of engineering. Perfume sachets of this style were desired objects among higher classes at that time. Evidence shows that this kind of device was still produced during the Ming Dynasty. 


            Materials have a strong influence over the design of works of applied art. For instance, the shapes of metalware, jadeware and lacquerware items varied, but pottery items usually had ball-like bodies. This was because the ceramic bodies were often shaped imperfectly when heated in the kiln. Human eyes can easily detect whether a line is straight or not, but it’s hard to find out whether an ovoid body is perfectly round. Therefore, most of the pottery objects had an ovoid body. Some of the finest pottery artifacts had cubic bodies, but they were produced at the expense of a large number of defective products in ancient times.

            Official manufacturing

            In ancient China, the making of applied art involved official and non-official systems. The works produced primarily for official use had long been considered the mainstream of applied art, because official creation usually involved the most skillful craftsmen and was funded by the government. Their products were fastidiously designed, representing the top-level craftsmanship of the time. The non-official manufacturers, though unable to produce artworks as exquisite as that of the official manufacturers, tried to “copy” the official designs from time to time. Governments often prohibited non-official manufacturers such as by forbidding the copying of the patterns and techniques employed by official creators. However, trends of copying the official creation would rise again at times these prohibitions weren’t effective.

            Aesthetic value

            Applied art was aesthetically significant in ancient China. Compared with the fine arts, in which the main purpose was to be beautiful or to stimulate the intellect, applied art may not have been so inspirational. However, some of the ancient Chinese had little chance to appreciate fine artworks due to underdeveloped transportation, a lack of adequate information and being illiterate. Works of applied art, which made mundane everyday items “pretty” and in many instances pleasing, attractive and affordable, became the most assessable artworks to the ancient Chinese. These works have played a significant role in shaping the understanding of beautiful things in ancient China.


            The article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Shang Gang is a professor from the Academy of Arts & Design at Tsinghua University. 



            (Edited by REN GUANHONG)

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