About Charlie Parsons

In 3rd year Illustration at Duncan of Jordanstone College. Click here to view online portfolio.

Country of Origin

The manufacturing industry is driven by demand. The demand for cheap products is higher than ever and China’s supply of low cost labour and raw materials mean it can capitalise on the growing potential of the budget market. Because the emphasis is moving more towards value for money, a product’s origin becomes less important to us, and we’ve gotten to the point now where many of us barely know anything about where our belongings came from. Despite this, China maintains its reputation as a global power in mass-production.

A survey was set up to ask students about the origins of products in their homes. It was immediately clear that it was a matter of guesswork. Electrical products and plastic items were generally thought to be made in the East, while furniture and musical instruments were assumed to have been made somewhere in Europe. The brand name on the item was also a factor – brands like Sony and Fender have strong connections with the countries they were founded, but they both own manufacturing plants in China. This leads to confusion about where the item actually came from.

The majority of items in a room had been bought from chain retailers. These shops promote their products’ value for money, which is the often the main focus of the student shopper. Deluxe items often use the country of origin as a selling point, usually to help promote a product’s quality, which is often considered not as important. Because cheaper products are of generally lower quality, a cheap product’s country of origin isn’t used as a selling point, so the consumer never finds out where the product was made.

It’s becoming cheaper to make things, especially in Eastern countries where cheaper labour and resources are available. Because of this, many countries such as Vietnam, Taiwan and China gain a reputation for producing cheap, low quality items. There are questions about the ethics of some factories in the East, but the whole industry is built on consumer demand for cheap products and China is at the centre of this movement. The Made in China label appears on a huge range of items but in the survey, China wasn’t always guessed as the country of origin.

China was mostly guessed for electrical products, clothing and plastics. It is the world’s largest consumer of copper, which is used extensively in the production of electrical appliances, and cotton which is used in the textile industry. Another issue is that fact that many products a labelled as being made in China, but were actually only assembled there. This leads to further confusion. Basically, a lot of us don’t know where our belongings were made, but it doesn’t matter to us because stuff is so cheap, and China is happy to sell it to us.

 

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Dragons in Chinese Art

Dragons have been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years and today Chinese dragons are recognised the world over as positive symbols of power and prosperity.

The earliest Chinese dragon depictions discovered so far date back some 7000 years. An ancient Yangshao burial site found in the 1980s in Henan Province showed an adult male skeleton lying between images of a dragon and a tiger made with clamshells. Ancient dragon imagery has also been found on clay pots and jewellery at many sites in China. There are only theories as to where dragon images came from but dinosaur bones were being dug up in ancient China and are referred to in documents from the time as ‘dragon bones’ and were often used in medicine. However, dragons may only be the artistic interpretations of wild animals – crocodiles and snakes. Although their source is still unknown for certain, dragons were common in Chinese mythology and legend.

In Chinese culture, dragons are commonly associated with water in all its forms: rainfall, snow, clouds, storms and oceans. Because the weather was very important to farming and fishing, dragons were respected and even worshipped. They becomes symbols of strength and power and so many emperors adopted dragon imagery to show off their might and superiority. Dragons adorned clothing, buildings, furniture, walls, flags, paintings and were considered sacred.

Depictions of dragons tend to follow certain rules. They are usually shown as serpentine creatures with four limbs, each limb having three to five talons or claws. There was a time when the four and five clawed dragons were used only by senior figures in the palaces while the three clawed dragon was permitted to be used by common citizens. It was even considered treason during the Ming Dynasty to use a five-clawed golden dragon image, which was permitted for use only by the Emperor.

The dragon traditionally has 117 scales comprising 81 yang and 36 yin (9×9 and 9×4). The number nine is frequently associated with dragons – nine being the highest single digit number. Nine represents the sky in the I Ching (Book of Changes) and dragons are often shown in groups of nine. Chen Rong was a painter in 13th century China and was most famous for his images of dragons. Perhaps his most recognised work is a handscroll, ‘The Nine Dragons’, which shows nine dragons all in their natural element. The ‘Nine Dragon Wall’ is a large screen decorated with nine relief sculptures of dragons that can be found at many historical sites in China such as the Forbidden City in Beijing and Pingyao theatre in the city of Pingyao. Some of these elaborate walls date back to the late 14th century, during the Ming Dynasty.

The dragon is sometimes shown holding a flaming orb. This may represent the sun, as many Chinese people believe dragons have a mythical connection with the sun. However many sources refer to it as a pearl. The pearl is a symbol of good fortune and is often a feature of dragon designs. It also resembles a miniature moon, and the moon has links to water, particularly tides, which ties in with the dragon’s connection with the sea. The Chinese dragon image is now quite familiar in the West. Although the spiritual and cultural meanings of the dragon are sometimes lost, it is universally recognised as a symbol of China and the East. It is often used in branding and marketing food products that claim to be authentic. It is also used frequently in the Chinese tourism industry. Basically, the dragon image is used wherever possible to help sell any product or service that has any link to China, as if it were some kind of seal of authenticity. In some ways the Chinese dragon has become what you might call a gimmick.

The iconic dragon image might be loosing it’s meaning the way many symbols do, but the fact is that it’s visually appealing, and the depiction of a golden dragon still sparks the imagination, inside and outside China.

Chinese Philosophy in the Western World

Ancient Chinese thought was a blend of two philosophical movements. In 500 BC, Kung Fu Tzu (Confucius) was teaching from the Six Classics, ancient Chinese books about art, philosophy and history. He combined these books with his own ideas to make what would be called Confucianism – a philosophical system studied all over the world. Within China this system would become a part of society, affecting the education system, influencing social behaviour and developing customs and traditions in family life.

In balance with this was the school of thought called Taoism, established at about the same time by Lao Tzu. The Taoists drew their inspiration from nature and focused on observing and understanding its Tao, or ‘Way’. The Way is interpreted as the ultimate force that pervades all matter and events. It is the process of the universe and is known as Brahman in Hinduism, Dharmakaya or ‘Suchness’ in Buddhism, and is what Christianity might call God.

These two different philosophies both appreciate the underlying principle of balance in the universe. The idea that any two opposites are bound together. In the West we are familiar with the ‘Yin and Yang’ symbol. It illustrates the endless cycle of change, which is the main focus of the I Ching – a Confucian Classic that has a following in the western world. I Ching translates as ‘Book of Changes’ and focuses on understanding the flow of change in the world. The system described in the book can also be applied in day-to-day life, and for this reason it seems more accessible to Westerners.

In attempting to study Chinese thought, the main problem is with the vast difference in language. Mandarin is an emotional language – the characters are pictorial. They haven’t totally lost their visual meaning the way the western alphabets have. Words in Mandarin seem to be sung in tones, their words have different meanings and can be nouns, verbs, adjectives. The language conveys emotions and feelings on a level that is hard for Westerners to pick up on unless they are fluent.

Because Mandarin is fundamentally different from Western languages, it is very difficult for people in the West to access the wealth of philosophical and mystical knowledge available in China. This is the same reason the ‘Yin and Yang’, known in China as T’ai-chi T’u (‘Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate’), is recognised in the West as an icon  depicting the constant flow of change and the balance of opposites. It was designed, like many logos and motifs, to transcend language.

Another way to bypass the language barrier is using physical movement and meditation. In Taoism, as in Hinduism and Buddhism, meditation is used to clear the mind and find balance, and ultimately to observe and understand the universe. But as well as having spiritual value, meditation can be helpful in everyday life. T’ai Chi Ch’uan is a meditative martial art that has close links to Taoism. Its philosophical aim is to combine the two opposites, yin and yang, into a Supreme Ultimate, but T’ai Chi Chuan has become popular all over the globe for its health benefits and as a self-defence technique, as well as its value as way to clear the mind and relax.

Both Taoism and Confucianism have become recognised and studied in the world outside China. Books such as the I Ching are available online anywhere. Confucius is a big name in philosophy studied and appreciated internationally, and T’ai Chi Chuan is practised in many places in the world. But because of their complex, malleable language and very different customs, much of the knowledge and wisdom of the old Chinese masters seems unobtainable in the West.