Cloisonné and its Significance in Ancient and Modern Chinese Art

Cloisonné is the name used to describe the process of enamelling metalwork. The name derives from the French word ‘cloisons’ which means ‘compartments’. Cloisonné involves soldering a pattern of copper or bronze wire onto a similar metal surface, to form ‘compartments’, which are then filled with vitreous enamel. This technique first came to China in the 14th Century via trade routes from Eastern Europe, and through the years has become an exceedingly popular and iconic feature in Chinese art.

The Cloisonné technique is thought to have started in the ‘Near Eastern’ countries such as Egypt, the Byzantine and Roman empires, and even spreading to the more northern Anglo Saxon countries, where the earliest pieces of Cloisonné have been recovered. Some of the oldest traces of Cloisonné work can be found on small rings and brooches from the Byzantine and Roman eras, and are often very simple designs. In these early stages of metal enamelling, metal cloisons were rather bulky and therefore limited the technique’s potential.

Cloisonné is better known to be the main technique featured on many of the Egyptians’ ‘Pectorals’ or neck plates. Ancient Egyptian Cloisonné involves thicker metal plates than those you may see on the classic Chinese Cloisonné, and they preferred to use crushed gemstones and glass rather than enamels for their narrative neckpieces. As a result these Pectorals are vibrant and bold in colour yet, in comparison to Chinese Cloisonné, they are relatively simple designs.

A Piece of Anglo-Saxon Cloisonne Jewellery

As Cloisonné travelled further east to countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Morocco, the wire forming the ‘cloisons’ became thinner, and their pieces became smaller and more delicate. Hence, Cloisonné became a popular jewellery making technique. There are several pieces of Cloisonné Jewellery from the Roman and Byzantine eras which are very similar in technique and in subject. They feature narrative yet simplified designs depicting biblical characters and stories, and are often red in colour due to their repeated use of Garnet stones – a well-known symbol of Christ. Cloisonné is thought to have been developed during the Byzantium period, where the wire compartments became a lot more elaborate and detailed, making it harder to set gemstones and glass, and therefore use of enamels became more prominent.

Cloisonné is thought to have been introduced into China in the 14th Century, during the Ming Dynasty via a network of trade routes from as far as Northern Africa and Eastern Europe. However some say it was introduced during the previous Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty, which suggests that Cloisonné came into China through the exchange of goods from Mongolia and its surrounding countries.

At this point in time, Cloisonné had developed and evolved into a delicate and skilful art, and the first pieces that were imported to China were likely to have been relatively detailed and elaborate. The Chinese then developed their own unique style of Cloisonné, which we recognise today as a popular form of Chinese art. The Chinese name for Cloisonné is ‘Jingtai Lan’. They originally chose the name ‘Jingtai’ but soon added the word ‘Lan’ – Chinese for ‘Blue’ – to the name, when they discovered a new vibrant turquoise blue enamel, which thereafter featured largely in many Chinese Cloisonné pieces.

Jongtailan Cloisonne Vase, unknown artist, Brooklyn Museum

The content of Chinese ‘Jingtailan’ pieces is what makes them so unique. Their pieces often feature imagery of dragons, ‘foo dogs’ (a mythical Chinese creature with the body of a dog but the head of a lion), plants and flowers, ‘Ho Birds’, cherry blossoms, good luck symbols, and repeated oriental pattern motifs. Their designs are distinctive, beautiful, and usually reminiscent of the Chinese countryside.  Another identifier of Chinese Cloisonné or ‘Jingtailan’ is its colouring. There is no Cloisonné as vibrant and bold as Chinese Jingtailan. Their use of ivory, turquoise blues, and rich reds and yellows juxtaposed with ebony-black enamel and the shimmering linear forms of the bronze or copper wire cloisons is simply an outstanding style unique to China.

Temple of Heaven Interior, Beijing

Temple of Heaven exterior, Beijing

This mysterious new technique from the West was in high demand from the emperors and higher classes of 14th Century China due to its splendour and vivid colouring. It was used to its highest potential to decorate and furnish the interior and exteriors of their palaces and temples. The most famous example of this is Beijing’s ‘Temple of Heaven’, constructed during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, 3rd emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The exterior of the temple simply generates richness. Situated in a vast courtyard, its presence is somewhat overwhelming, and the eye is immediately drawn to the rich red, gold and turquoise blue Cloisonné tiles which cover its walls. However, the interior of the palace is really the most exquisite part. The towering internal pillars are covered in a repetitive floral pattern, in red and gold enamel, while the ceiling is an array of blue, jade, red and gold oriental and geometric patterned tiles. It is almost reminiscent of Islamic tiling, and is likely to have been influenced by pieces imported from middle -eastern countries. This historical monument is a fantastic example of not only the extent to which Cloisonné can be used, but it is also a great example of how valuable and prized this technique was, not only in 14th Century China, but in Chinese history as a whole.

In later years, Cloisonné in China was somewhat dismissed to being a ware only suitable for the likes of décor for lady’s chambers and smaller ornaments, however it was still a greatly prized technique. In this period Cloisonné was developed on smaller pieces and therefore designs became even more detailed. Hence, much of the Chinese Cloisonné that can be found today is in the form of vases or pots with elaborate designs. During this period, many new Cloisonné techniques were invented; the most significant being the Diaper technique, developed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). This is the name given to a design applied to large areas of ‘background’ on a piece of Cloisonné. There are many forms of this technique including ‘scroll’, ‘wave’ and ‘cloud’. The process is similar to regular Cloisonné in the sense that wire is soldered onto the metal surface in a pattern. However, the wire does not join up to create compartments, it is purely a form of decoration within larger compartments, and the enamel is simply filled in around the pattern.

Champleve

Basse Taille

Another popular technique created by the Chinese in this period is, ironically, named ‘Base Taille’ after the French for ‘low waisted’. This process involves much more shallow wire compartments, so that the enamel is able to leak over the top of the compartments. The cloisons are still visible beneath the enamel but at a lower relief. Similar to this is a technique named ‘Champlevé’, which is French for ‘raised areas’. No wire is used to create the compartments but instead the metal is raised in a ‘repoussé technique (denting and raising metal) to create areas to fill with enamel.

 

Although created by the Chinese, many of these techniques have names deriving from the French language. This is where we begin to see the influence of ‘Chinoiserie’. During the 17th Century, trading had gradually increased in Europe and Asia, and a complex network of trade routes had been created, stretching from Western Europe to the Far East. The well-known term for this is ‘The Silk Road’, named after the popular Chinese silk trade. As importing and exporting goods between countries became more and more prominent, techniques such as ‘Japanning’ (laquerwork) and ‘Jingtailan’ were exchanged between the East and West. Eventually, Jingtailan reached countries such as France and Germany, where it became an extremely popular form of Chinoiserie. Although Western European countries were aware of the Cloisonné technique (popular during the Medieval period) it was the Chinese designs, techniques, symbolism and colours which were in such high demand, and artists used it to create pieces of art displaying their own fantastical vision of the Far East.

Chinoiserie-style Cloizonne Snuffbox, Claude de Villers, 17th Century, V&A Collection

This snuffbox dates back to 17th Century Paris, and was created by an artist named Claude de Villers. It is a perfect example of Chinoiserie-style Cloisonné, featuring images of ‘Chinese’ houses, people, vessels and plants. However, it is somewhat lacking in authentic Chinese Jingtailan style. Although the content of this piece looks Chinese, the technique is still reminiscent of early European Cloisonné styles such as the Roman Empire. Rather than copying the vividly coloured enamel of Chinese Jingtailan, this artist has used a mix of shell and gemstones, similar to that of Roman and Byzantine Cloisonné.  Overall, the content of the piece is very similar to what you may find on a piece of authentic Chinese Cloisonné, however the style is blatantly European Chinoiserie.

Parisian Cabinet featuring 'Japonism' Laquerwork and Chinese Cloisonne

This Parisian Cabinet is of Oriental influence, and features many of the techniques taken from the East, such as laquerwork and Jingtailan, as well as oriental-style motifs and imagery reminiscent of Chinese designs. However its excessive ornamentation and decoration makes it European, and is extremely similar to the Brocade style, which was so fashionable in the 17th Century. Chinese furniture was often more simple in form but with elaborate pattern.

Authentic Chinese Cup, unknown artist, 17th Century, V&A Collection

This item was made sometime between 1736-1795, and is a great example of classic Jingtailan (Jingtai Blue). The design of this piece is elaborate and vivid in colour. Rather than the narrative imagery of Chinoiserie Cloisonné, this Chinese cup features oriental patterns and motifs. There is a classic mix of reds, yellows, blues and jades on a base of copper, which gives the piece an exquisite and authentic look. Chinese Cloisonné was more popularly used as a way to decorate vases, jugs and other ornaments, whereas Chinese-style Cloisonné in Europe was often used to decorate pieces of jewellery. For example, snuffboxes and lockets.

Although European Cloisonné is not authentically Chinese, it is a significant part of the Chinoiserie fashion era of the 17th Century, and a good example of the impact Chinese techniques had on other countries.

Japanese 'Shippo' Vase

The Japanese were also highly influenced by Chinese Jingtailan, arriving in Japan shortly after it arrived in China. There is a very small but significant difference between Chinese Cloisoné and Japanese ‘Shippo’. The main differences are the unique techniques within Shippo that were developed in Japan. These include the popular ‘Musen Jippo’, a name used to describe Cloisonné where the wire cloisons are removed shortly before firing, so the enamels blend together but still keep a faint replica of the pattern from the wire. Similar to the Chinese ‘Champlevé’ technique, the Japanese developed ‘Tsuiki’ which involves a repoussé technique rather than use of wire cloisons. However, the biggest identifiers of Japanese Shippo are features such as ‘Kiku No Mon’ – the name for a Japanese emperors crest. These are largely featured on ancient Japanese Shippo pieces as they were often created for emperors or the higher classes, and required a symbol to represent their name.

The content and design of Japanese Cloisonné is more narrative than that of Chinese Jingtailan. Their designs feature detailed paintings of animals, houses and plants, while Chinese Jingtailan is often more pattern-based, focussing on Oriental motifs and colours. However, these two styles have been shared between China and Japan, making it hard to tell the difference between the two. Nonetheless, Chinese Jingtailan has made a significant impact on Japanese Shippo.

It is clear that Cloisonné has been a significant part of Chinese art and history for several generations, and is still a popular technique today. It has had a great influence on almost every country from Western Europe to the Far East, and is by far the most popular type of Cloisonné to be found. There is a large market for ancient and modern Chinese Jingtailan pieces throughout the world and it has remained one of the most exquisite arts within Chinese culture. Having personally had several failed attempts at making my own Cloisonné, I can appreciate what a divine skill it is, and why it is so valued.

Tomb Sweeping Festival

TombSweeping

China is currently having a three-day public holiday and 4th April is the Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Festival. Chinese communities across Asia visit the graves of their families to pay respects and this begins with a thorough cleaning, hence the name.

The BBC News website has some images from the ritual.

It is traditional to burn representations of things the deceased may need in the afterlife, such as paper money. Over time these have become much more elaborate and you can buy paper houses, paper furniture and paper phones. In this image, a relative is burning a paper iPad, iPod Nano and iPhone for their relative to use in heaven.

PaperiPad

China faces ‘timebomb’ of ageing population

elders

China’s economic miracle has been fuelled by its “demographic dividend”: an unusually high proportion of working age citizens. That population bulge is becoming a problem as it ages. In 2000 there were six workers for every over-60. By 2030, there will be barely two.Other countries are also ageing and have far lower birth rates. But China is the first to face the issue before it has developed – and the shift is two to three times as fast.

“China is unique: she is getting older before she has got rich,” said Wang Dewen, of the World Bank’s China social protection team.

Tens of millions of workers have migrated to the cities, creating an even worse imbalance in rural areas which already suffer low incomes, poor public services and minimal social security.

Most old people there rely on their own labour and their children. China not only needs to support more older people for longer, but to extend support to new parts of society.

[…]

A team from Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University are trialling a bed that turns into a wheelchair, giving residents more independence, and a robot “dog” to keep them company. “The robot can have simple chats with them, play music and opera, or even dance for them through sound controls. It says ‘It feels so good!’ when they pet it,” said researcher Zhang Guanxin.

 

(Read more at China faces ‘timebomb’ of ageing population | World news | guardian.co.uk: .)

Generational Traditions in China

Tradition, this word means something different to everyone, but the same general traditions are upheld in a culture. To us in the UK, tradition could be the local parade, Christmas celebrations or even as close knit as family traditions that have been happening for generations. Traditions stretch across a culture, and as they are intimately linked to each other. Tradition affects culture, and as new generations pick up traditions things change. Some traditions being forgotten or changed into something different.

This blog post will look into the traditions of China, and how some of the generations celebrate tradition, change or have even stopped them all together. When deciding on what aspect of life I wanted to focus on for this report most of the generational differences would of been seen as bad, or sad. I wanted to show a nicer side to the generational differences, where tradition is upheld and still seen with respect.

Chinese new year is the first tradition that comes to mind when thinking about China,  as a child I thought it was odd as it did not happen on the same day as our own new year. The Chinese new year is never on a set date but between the 21st January and the 20th February this is due to the Chinese running on a lunar calendar rather than a fixed one like the west.

In China the tradition of new year is celebrated with the exchange of money in red envelopes, exchanging gifts with the family, firework displays and much more. This tradition has been happening in China for generations, a time to gather with the family. Generations have celebrated the new year in different ways, as each generation is raised it seems that the customs of a Chinese new year are dwindling. Not that far in the past Chinese new year was hugely celebrated, the older generations in China would still remember them to this day, grand fireworks displays, 15 days of celebration to bring in the new year. During new years lantern processions would take place in the streets, as people welcome another year. The modern Chinese new year consists of a 7 day holiday from work, of which all socializing is mainly done through the internet or use of mobile phones and even ordering in food from a restaurant instead of cooking themselves. The family still gathers though and younger people travel in from there place of work to spend this special time with family.

The Chinese new year festivity’s have changed through generational jumps, still being revered by the elderly but the younger generation not embracing all of the older customs, not enough time, having a work place to go back to. This generational gap of technology and longer working days/working away from home shortens the festivity’s and some of the older customs. Here we see things such as the lantern processions dying, cooking the day before new year is also a dying tradition, as there is more money it is easier and more relaxing to let a restaurant cater for the big day. This being said the Chinese new year is still celebrated and embraced by all generations even if the tradition is slowly getting smaller in size.

Traditional Chinese medicine is also a generational tradition, the Chinese believe in their medicine and the role it plays. To the west this could be seen as alternative  medicine but in China it is used in some of the health care delivered. As generations pass the knowledge and willingness to use traditional medicine changes, the practice is still in use and taught. A survey was carried out by the Prince of Wales hospital in Hong Kong on the attitude of 91 students who study medicine towards traditional Chinese medicine. The survey showed that 40% were positive, 59% neutral and only 1% was negative. This shows that the youth of china are picking up the tradition from the older generation, where the use of traditional medicine may be changing in china, the generational gap is a lot smaller than to be expected.

China, known for many traditions, has born 1 tradition that won the west over, took over the big screen and bought about a new era of movie hero’s.  Kung Fu has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, but as the modern era approaches China this may be a tradition that is due to die off or fade into the background. While watching a documentary for a previous report i made note of the attitude of a kung fu master and his students. The film crew focused on his top student, along with his attitude towards learning kung fu, the message was clear; he did not want to learn kung fu, he would rather go to the city, get a job and lead a rich life in the new China. The master was also interviewed about this, and he seemed sad that the art was dying out, but wishes his student a good life, as long as the master had passed on the lessons he only hoped they would be continued as such a tradition had been alive for so long. This shows a decline in the quest for knowledge, rather the yearning for a life outside of the school where a job can be gained. This is kind of sad in a way, the traditions of old masters may be dying out, people who put their  lives into the advancement of kung fu and only wish to pass on this knowledge. Who knows we may see a day that kung fu is only taught the way it is here, in weekly lessons or even just become a memory.

There is a lot to talk about on this subject of tradition, as China is rich in its cultural heritage but i hope i have portrayed some of the better sides to the generations as traditions are passed on, old customs live on in the hope that people remember where they came from and more importantly why the customs exist in the first place. Things change as time goes by, each generation will drop parts of traditions due to time or even not believing in them anymore.

More Chins than a Chinese Phonebook

It’s an old joke, but for the Chinese it is no laughing matter.  In the past 30 years not only has there been an explosion in the Chinese economy, there has been an explosion in the ever-increasing size of the collective Chinese waistline.  There are now more overweight or obese people in China than ever before.  British economist Paul French and author of “Fat China” explains;  “In the last 30 years they’ve gone from famine to feast in just two generations”.  There are now around 200 million people in china that can be classified as being overweight.  Around half of those are regarded as being obese.

It is not simply the vast number of overweight or obese people in China that is concerning, it is the speed at which the problem has developed.  Obesity and the resulting health problems are now becoming more common in children.  The Chinese government now faces the real possibility of a major health crisis in the coming years if this issue is not tackled.  It is hard to believe that in the 1960’s, China had one of the worst famines in its history.  Between 1959 and 1961, millions of Chinese died through starvation.  This disaster has been attributed to a combination of drought, poor weather conditions and political policy at the time.  The exact number of those who died has been debated over the years with conservative estimates at around 15 million while others believe the figure to be as high as 43 million.  The truth is that it is now impossible to calculate.  Even death in China is on an incredible scale.

What are the reasons for this increasing obesity problem and how have the attitudes towards food changed through the generations to arrive at this point?  Like any major social and health problem, there is no single reason, but rather a combination of factors.

Social Divide and Employment

Despite the economic boom, many people in China still find it hard to make a living and feeding and clothing themselves is a daily struggle.  For many in the big cities however, this is not such a problem.  There is a huge financial divide between people in the cities and people in rural farming communities.

China was once an extremely lean society.   Even since the mid 1970’s the vast majority of people still scraped a living off the land, working long, backbreaking hours to barely be able to feed themselves.  Since the country began to allow free trade there has been a huge shift in employment opportunities.

The numbers of Chinese people working in agriculture has decreased since 1950 and there has been a sharp decline since 1970, with more people working in Manufacturing and Services.  This has been due to the changing ideology of the Chinese hierarchy and the reconstruction of the country.  More people are now working in factories, construction sites and offices in the cities.  This shift from agricultural work has meant higher wages and on average less physically demanding jobs.  That’s not to say that the Chinese don’t work long and physically demanding hours however.  Many people travel many hundreds of miles to find work and send much of their earnings back home for their families.  On average the standard of living has improved sharply though the generations and people now enjoy the benefits of a better economy and the perks that come with it.  The perks are higher earnings allowing people to eat whatever, whenever they want.  A developing middle class in China has meant that many people have a much more disposable income than ever before.

The emergence of this middle class has meant more people spend much more on commodities and luxuries than they could hope to dream of 30 years ago.  People in China can now shop, where and when they want.  There is no real surprise that a more westernised outlook to business and free trade has brought a more westernised style of living.  Mass produced food products and the emergence of supermarkets and a 24 hour lifestyle has meant the Chinese diet is of a much poorer standard than previous generations.

Fast Food

The arrival of the Americanised fast food industry in China certainly hasn’t helped.  McDonald’s, KFC and Taco Bell are now commonplace throughout the big cities in China.  The Chinese knack for copying has meant that replicas of these types of fast food restaurants are appearing all the time.  There is now a copy of Starbucks called Bucksstar, a rip off version of Pizza Hut called Pizza Huh and a knockoff McDonald’s called McDnoald’s?  Although none of these can rival KFC, which is the most popular fast food restaurant in China.

Higher income has meant bigger portions too.  Bigger portions and less physical exercise will inevitably lead too a bigger waistline.  China is well on track to emulate the Americans in this respect.  Children and young adults are the ones most likely to frequent these fast food establishments shunning more traditional foods for the quick, sugar rich alternatives.  Sweets, which were typically an uncommon treat, only a generation ago, are now a common daily snack among young people.

The One Child Policy

Interestingly one of the more bizarre reasons attributed to the rise of obesity has been the Chinese “one child policy”.

Many have argued that this results in parents overindulging their children.  Parents with comfortable incomes will lavish their children with snacks and big portions.  This may not be the case if there were more mouths to feed.  It is the younger generations that are suffering the most with a large increase of diabetes in children across China.

Parallels

It seems that many of the reasons for the increase of obesity in China are very familiar to us.  There are many parallels with us in that respect.  Too many calories consumed and not enough burned off is the simple explanation.  However the psychology of over-eating is the difficult part to explain.  It seems that the Chinese problem is in that in trying to emulate the success that the west, they forgot to drop the parts that have been our undoing.  The younger generations in China are eating more, doing less exercise and as a result are getting unhealthier.  People have higher wages and an improved lifestyle, so they eat more and more often.  The introduction of Americanised fast food restaurants and their Chinese copycats has meant more choice but at a price.  China only has to look at the West to see where this current path will lead.  To their credit, China has invested Billions of Dollars into a new national health service, but they risk jeopardising that investment with the burden of an overweight population if they cannot halt what has already been set in motion.