Chinese Making Processes

Cloisonné (Jingtailan)

Cloisonné is the name used to describe the process of enamelling or decorating metalwork. The name derives from the French for ‘compartments’ – ‘cloisons’, as Cloisonné is created by soldering wire onto a metal surface in a pattern, and filling the ‘compartments’ made by the wire with vitreous enamel. Cloisonné first developed in Ancient Egyptian Jewellery and body adornment, where they would use a mix of cut gemstones, glass and enamel.  This technique was very popular and through trading it gradually moved around europe, the Anglo-saxon, Roman and Byzantium empires, Russia, and eventually, in the 14th Century it arrived in China.

Cloisonné Making Process

The Chinese name for Cloisonné, ‘Jingtailan’ refers to the Jingtai Emperor during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The most valued pieces of Chinese Cloisonné are thought to have come from this era, although the earliest pieces date back to the reign of the Xuande Emperor (1425-1435). By the reign of Jingtai, the Chinese had developed very advanced skills in Cloisonné, and therefore created some extremely detailed and beautiful pieces.

Chinese Cloisonné Ornamentation

The Chinese have developed a very distinct style of Cloisonné, and although they did not invent the technique, they appear to be the most famous for it. They often use this technique for pots, vases and ornaments, but it is also used to make pendants and beads for Jewellery. Chinese Cloisonné designs, like many other pieces of Chinese art, are often religious or images of good luck and prosperity. Their designs commonly feature images of winged birds, the Dragon and the Phoenix, which were all thought to be symbols of good virtue. Cloisonné in China is full of bright colours and beautiful patterns and motifs. It is often further decorated with gold and brass sculpture, which gives an extremely rich and majestic look to each piece. (As seen below)

Champion Vase from 18th Century (GW Vincent Smith Gallery, Massachusetts)
Cloisonné and Chinoiserie
In the 18th Century, Chinoiserie became a very popular fashion in Western countries. Through trading and ‘The Silk Road’, many pieces of Chinese furniture, art, fabrics and ornaments found themselves in the West. The rich, and mysterious appearance of these Eastern treasures quickly became very popular, and was in high demand not only from the higher class, but also the middle classes of the Western countries of Europe. Hense, Chinoiserie was developed. The Europeans picked up several techniques which would mirror that of the Chinese. An example of this is ‘Japanning’. A somewhat ignorant name used to describe the process of Chinese style laquerwork. And of course, another example is Cloisonné. This was a very popular technique in the Chinoiserie era, as it looked archetypally Chinese. Its appearance looked expensive and exotic, which is what people wanted.

Jade Carving (Yu)

Soft, smooth and glossy. It appeared to them like benevolence; fine, compact and strong – like intelligence”

Attributed to Confucius (551-479 BC)

The process of Jade carving is originally done by drawing a bow string back and forth to propel a drill, while adding water and abrasive to the stone. Jade is extremely difficult to carve and is sculpted by repetitively cutting, grinding and polishing the stone. It also a very expensive material to work with, and jade carvers must be careful not to waste it. They have to think of ways to make a beautiful design while keeping the carving to a minimum. The way Jade is carved is often symbolic. When carved into a pig, it represents prosperity, when it is in the shape of a disk, it represented Heaven, and when a piece of Jade is enclosed in a square, it represents the Earth.

Chinese Jade Sculptures

Carved Jade is thought to have become popular in China over 7000 years ago, when it was used for weaponry and ornaments. According to the Chinese ‘creation’ story, after man was created, he wandered the Earth with nothing to protect him from wild animals. A storm took pity on him and forged a rainbow into two Jade axes, which it tossed to the Earth for man to find and protect himself with. Since the beginning of Chinese history, Jade has been a prominent symbol of wealth, power, security, good health and strength.

An ancient Chinese proverb states, “You can out a price on Gold, but Jade is priceless”.

According to legend, only Emperors were allowed to posess carved Jade, and it is often referred to by the Chinese as ‘the Stone of Heaven’. A piece of Jade was sometimes placed on the tongue of a dead person to represent ressurection. To the Chinese, Jade is a majestic and divine stone.

Jade was commonly used to adorn the body.  During the Han Dynasty, royal members were buried in suits made of Jade. The suit was made up of several square Jade plates, which were woven together with wire, ribbon or silk.

Jade Burial Suit – Han Dynasty

Nowadays, a common trinket sold to tourists in Chinese markets is a faux-jade Buddha Pendant. Although the Chinese still treasure Jade, it is becoming less fashionable and more commercialised.

“But jade carving is very slow, and it takes a long time to sell, because the market for jade carving is narrow: just a few collectors here and in Japan and America.” 

Quote from a Jade Craftsman in an interview with the Smithsonian.

Buddha Pendant
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