Jewellery and traditional beliefs

Today, China is known for being one of the largest producers of pearls. It is a very ancient artistic tradition, but China began to use precious metals relatively late. Rare references for ornaments date from the Tang period (618-906). At the beginning of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), the Chinese showed great interest in jewellery influenced by Persia and India. Only toward of the end of the 11th century, we can see local characteristics. The most important type of jewel was worn on the head like tiaras and diadems. We can see many influences in Chinese jewels from the Himalaya region (Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan), where the traditional skills were trekked from village to village, tribe to tribe. The jewellery traditions of the Far East reflect this immense environmental, cultural and economic diversity. However, many jewellery traditions were stopped during the time of communism, where personal adornment was severely criticised by the government. Only official badges and medals were authorized, in order to show one’s pride and loyalty to the party. Since the end of Mao Tse Tung reign, the Chinese have recovered the skills and knowledge to make ancient and traditional jewellery work.

Punched work, pierced work, and filigree are characteristics of Chinese jewellery. Their jewellery is seen to provide power and strength to the wearer. Animals were representative and symbolic. For example,  the dragon symbolized power and good luck, the goldfish for abundance of gold, the phoenix for good fortune, opportunity and luck, and many others like bird, tiger, monkey, bat, peacock. Clouds, flowers and twigs were also symbols of good luck. Colours and semi precious stones were worn in order to give power, but also to cure some diseases, give longevity, and to be healthy.  The most famous stones used for many centuries are coral, turquoise and jade.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Hair ornament, gilded silver, turquoise, coral and seed pearls.

Turquoise is seen as a “living stone” that shares the ultimate fate of the mortal that wear it. Its colour symbolizes water, air and sky. This stone can counteract devil forces and make the wearer brave and invulnerable. In addition, seeing it in a dream may bring you good luck.

Coral is supposed to bring good luck, strength to women, and favourable effects on menstruation. The most desired variety is the Italian coral. It was brought by the Silk Road and was only worn by the wealthiest class. Marco Polo noted that Tibetans ranked coral among the precious stones and used it to adorn the necks of their women and idols.

Turquoise and coral were used to make amulet boxes in silver, gold or copper. Hidden spells or prayers in the boxes were used to appease evil spirits, while the decoration was symbolic to strengthen power content.

amulet box made with turquoise and coral stones

The blue turquoise colour was also given by enamel or by the very traditional Chinese process: using Kingfisher feathers. The technique, called tian-tsui, means “dotting with kingfishers” that involves using glue to adhere the feathers onto vermeil, or silver. The Kingfisher bird is highly esteemed by the Chinese for its colour and celebrated in poetry and song by Chinese from ancient times. Over the centuries, the Kingfisher’s blue colour feather became highly prized and extremely sought after as an inlay in decorative arts. Kingfisher feather were used by the Chinese to denote status, wealth and royalty. Today that tradition has disappeared; many birds were killed during the Qing dynasty just in order to collect their feathers and the skill of tian tsui has disappeared as well. But we can still see very wonderful pieces in museums.

hair ornament made with kingfisher feathers

chinese necklace and earings made with coral beads and kingfisher feathers

This portrait of the wife of a high dignitary is painted on silk. It was made during the 1st Ming dynasty (early 15th century). She’s wearing a traditional headdress, which constituted with phoenix, clouds and flowers. The red beads were probably coral and the clouds in blue are made with kingfisher feathers to symbolize air and sky. We can also see turquoise beads on the pendants and pearls.

Turquoise, coral and pearls are very famous in Chinese jewellery. But the most famous stone is obviously the Jade. Not only for jewellery making, also for decorative objects, dishes, vases, hair comb… We found utilization of jade as jewel since Palaeolithic (hunter-gatherers) period with perforated beads at Zhoukoudian. But it’s during the Neolithic period the “art of jade” have started, caring in the Zhejiang province (5000 BC). The massive production of finely polished pendants and beads were being produced in South-East China during the 3rd millennium before Christ.  In ancient time, Jade was most expensive than gold. For example during the Imperial China, the first prize for an athlete was jade, after gold for the second place and at the third place ivory.

Jade often has a green colour, but the most rare and luxurious one is the white jade.  Many colours can be found: pink, orange or light brown, blue, black. The different colours are created by different types of chemical components: the green jade contains chromium salts, the blue-green jade contains cobalt salts, the black jade contains titanium salts, and the pink jade contains salts of iron and manganese.

traditional jade bangle made in various colours

In ancient China, jade was used in rituals and sacrifices. According to ancient Chinese beliefs, the sky was round and the earth was square. A jade ornament with a round hole in the middle, called “bi”, symbolized the sky. A jewel of long hollow jade with rectangular sides, called “cong”, symbolized the earth. The bi was often placed with the corpse before burial as jade cicada was used to symbolize rebirth.

China, late Eastern Zhou dynasty or early Western Han dynasty 3rd – 2nd century BC Diameter: 5 1/8 inches, 13 cm Thickness: 1/8 inch, 0.4 cm

In the Han Dynasty, some leaders were buried in suits made entirely of jade. It was made of many pieces with various shapes, usually square, that were held together by thin threads of precious metal or silk, like the shroud of King of Chu. These extremely expensive structures were reserved only for elites. It is estimated that it took several years to achieve this kind of ritual costume that consists of 2000 to 5000 pieces! The Chinese believed that jade had magical properties and protected the corpse from decomposition.

jade shroud made with white jade and gold thread, Han dynasty.

Jade is still being used today, although the techniques have changed with technology the jade objects as talismans, “bi” or decorative objects are still used in Chinese culture, and popular with tourists as souvenirs.

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The China Wide Web

Designing for the Chinese when it comes to websites is not as easy as converting the information into the Chinese language, there are many barriers to be considered. Here some light will be shed onto the Chinese web design world, the focus and reasoning behind website creation along with understanding parts that westerners would see as bad practice, or horrible design.

Chinese web design will not work for the western world, why? Culture, the Chinese web could be seen as a reflection of Chinese culture. The way people interact with each other and information to honour that is held in high regard to the local people, this along with other barriers creates more personalized web interactions.

Censorship, a driving force in the China wide web, could be seen as a hindrance and a blessing to the web design world, where websites are banned a new website can be created purely for the Chinese people, centred on their own preferences. “It limits your freedom, but meanwhile, it has a positive effect on UI design and content presentation. There is less room for gimmicks. It forces you to concentrate on useful content and how to present your content.” – Whitecrow Zhu

Before getting deeper into the cultural aspects of China it would be good to see an example of a popular Chinese website:

Sina could be seen as a copy of Yahoo as we know it, providing news, mail, blog platform, instant messaging, communities etc. At first glance of this site, most western users would leave; the website is cluttered and full of images and text, general ‘bad design’.

Many websites in china follow this style, and are popular and well used, why you may ask yourself, well this could be because of cultural influences and web design practice that is used in china.

The above website example is based on a design principle called “Designing for clicks” this form of creating websites is placing as much recent information on the front page as possible allowing the user to interact with what they find interesting, also allowing people to see an over view of everything at once.

The concept of ‘Face’ plays a role here, this could be likened to what we know as honour, and you can gain it or lose it. This cultural aspect affects the design of websites, having a website trenched in text and links is showing people what your site has to offer, nothing is hidden from the user, this leads to trust of the site, unlike western counter parts where the user is lead down a path to where the designer wants them to go, this could be seen as dis-honest to the average Chinese user.

Other cultural influences on designing for clicks can also be understood when seeing how the Chinese interact with information, at school there is more focus on memorizing facts, rather than understanding the information they are being given. The idea that later in life this information can be understood and put to use when it is needed this is reflected in how websites are read. Upon logging onto a site information can be digested then the user can go deeper into the site at their leisure.

In the same way the western world would shun Chinese web design the same could be said the other way around,  upon logging onto a minimalist website Chinese people are more likely to leave thinking there is nothing of interest, so would  Chinese web design ever be seen in the western world?

An opinion here would be no, simply because Chinese web design focus’s a lot on the Chinese people, traditions, celebrations and festive past times. Colour use holds different meanings to them as it would to us. Acceptance of cultural differences is as positive as it has been in the past, diversity is the spice of life as we like to say, Chinese culture has a lot to offer us, including new ways to create the web, but understanding the way Chinese people use the internet can help us branch out into their culture and vice versa.

Has Chinese animation been influential on a global scale?

Since the advent of traditional animation over a century ago many notable figures and companies within the field have left their mark on the world. Disney, Warner Bros., Pixar, and DreamWorks, to name a few, have all made enormous contributions throughout the years to the field of animation and have gone on to achieve massive international success. This success is not limited to Hollywood or even the Western world. Japan’s Studio Ghibli has also gone on to captivate viewers across the globe, proving that animation is something that can be enjoyed universally and that the Eastern world is also more than capable of creating animated masterpieces.

Since the 1920’s China’s animation companies have produced and released many animated films domestically, all to varying degrees of success. However, China’s animation industry is practically unknown overseas. Perhaps this is due to the stories translating badly when released internationally. Or perhaps this is due to Chinese heritage taking over the focus of the film rather than the story itself. Whatever the reason, China’s animation history is still noteworthy and fascinating.

The earliest innovators in Chinese animation were the Wan family, twins Laiming and Guchan with their brothers Chaochen and Dihuan. Drawing inspiration from American and Western cartoons, The Wan family produced The Camel’s Dance in 1935, the first Chinese cartoon with sound. The Wan brothers later went on to create China’s very first animated feature length film, Princess Iron Fan.

Princess Iron Fan; a film about a princess whose fan is urgently needed to extinguish the flames surrounding a mountain village, was released on January 1, 1941 and took three years, 237 artists and 350,000 yuan to make. Historically significant, yet somewhat flawed, Princess Iron Fan never achieved the same global impact or success as say Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Over the years there have been many animated films released in China, including Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979), Monkeys Fish For the Moon (1981), or Feeling From Mountains and Water (1988).

And while these films were all fairly successful within China and some other parts of Asia, they did not go on to receive the same success internationally. I feel the reason for this is because of the sheer scale and dominance of Japan and America’s global animation success which has sadly overshadowed traditional Chinese animations.

The work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in particular is worth mentioning as these films are quintessentially Japanese in their style and feel, yet these cultural influences never overpower the story, but rather compliment it, thus allowing Western audiences to enjoy the film while experiencing Asian culture. Spirited Away was the first foreign language animated film to win an Academy Award, proving Japan’s talent with regards to creating a harmonious balance between national heritage and the art of story-telling.

Happy Lamb and Grey Wolf or Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf is a Chinese animated television series created by Huang Weiming, Lin Yuting and Luo Yinggeng, The show revolves around the story of a group of joyful goats and an inept wolf who wishes to devour them. The show is not only aired across China, but is also aired in Taiwan, India and Singapore. The show has also gone on to spawn a fairly successful movie franchise too, however neither the Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf television show or the movie franchise have seen an international release outside of Asia. The reasons for this are unclear.

After all, it’s not as if there isn’t a thirst for Eastern flavoured cartoons in the West. Foreign animations such as Pokemon have already seen worldwide success, generating enormous financial figures.

The worldwide animation industry is dominated by American and Japanese films and cartoons, meaning that China faces more competition now than ever. It is a shame that Chinese animation has been considerably overshadowed as there are some truly beautiful pieces of animation that not only highlights the dedication and hard work that goes into making these cartoons, but it also highlights China’s grand yet mysterious heritage that I feel would fascinate and entertain Western audiences of all ages.

Innovations of Graphic design in China

    Printmaking and papermaking innovations that influenced the development of graphic design

China innovated the key features of graphic design, printmaking and papermaking. Both of these inventions were essential to the development of graphic design. Without them the development of the written word would not of developed from writing on stone and other materials, which don’t have the same qualities as paper, and the development of print and moveable type meant that the mass production of written communication such as books and propaganda could happen creating vital elements in the history of graphic design.

In AD 105 the invention of paper was cited and reported to the Chinese emperor by an official of the imperial court, Ts’ai Lun. However recent archeology discovers show the invention of paper in China to be around 200 years earlier during the reign of Emperor Wu. Whether Ts’ai Lun invented paper is for debate but how developed it as a material revolutionized China. The main development was using a smooth material in the mold covering this meant the mold could immediately quickening production. Other developments included adding yellow dye that acted as an insect repellant and using starch as a sizing material creating a stronger material overall.

Printing in China was developed long before it was developed in Europe some of the earliest examples of woodblock printing text, images and pattern originated in China early 220 A.D. These surviving woodblock printed fragments are of silk printed with flowers in three colours from the Hans Dynasty and in the mid seventh century the earliest example of woodblock printing on paper was also discovered in China.

China was ahead of Europe in developing printing and colour printing by hundreds of years. They also developed the first moveable type. Bi Sheng developed moveable type in China in 1040 using porcelain. He used clay type but this broke easily, but Wang Zhen later carved a more durable type out of wood in 1298. He developed a complicated system using revolving tables and number association with written Chinese characters making the process of typesetting and printing more efficient. Woodblock printing remained the main method in use in China for a long time due to the hundreds of Chinese characters. Copper moveable type was developed in China in the twelfth century and was used on a large-scale to produce printed money in the Northern song dynasty.

In 868 the Diamond sutra was the first completed printed book and printing on paper had taken off. A skilled printer could print up to 2,000 double-page sheets per day and by the tenth century 400,000 copies of some sutras and pictures were printed. In the British library amongst the Dunhuang manuscripts the Chinese version of the Diamond Sutra and it is the earliest version of a dated printed book. By the beginning of the eleventh century moveable type was being used to produce longer scrolls and books making books widely available in the Song Dynasty.

The earliest dated printed book

Printing spread of China and Japan countries that used Chinese logograms and developed for other scripts into Vietnam and Turpan. But it didn’t reach the Islamic world.

Moveable type eventually made it from China to Europe and in 1450 Johannes Gutenberg developed the Gutenberg press and introduced what was seen as the first system of moveable type in Europe. He was the first to create type pieces from alloy lead and steal the same materials that are still used today. Aldus Manutius developed his book structure and this became the foundation for western publications. This era of graphic design is known as Humanist or old style.

Gutenberg bible

These innovations relate directly to what I study as a Graphic design student from editorial and typography work to large-scale imagery and photography. If this wasn’t developed communication on a large-scale would not be possible and it all developed out of China and has created the modern design industry.

Chinese Embroidery

Embroidery is one of China’s traditional styles of decorating fabrics, especially silk. China was the first country to develop and make use of silk fabric which eventually lead to embroidery. I’ve chosen to look at Chinese embroidery as i feel it’s quite a distinct feature in Chinese textiles and artwork. Some of the oldest pieces of Chinese textiles were created using embroidery techniques. Chinese embroidery has a long history dating back thousands of years to Neolithic times and they always used silk because of its strength and durability. There is not a precise date when embroidery was first practiced in China but many pieces have been discovered at archaeological sites. Some pieces have been discovered in tombs which date back to as early as the second century B.C.  One of the oldest and largest pieces of Chinese embroidery was the image of Shakyamuni preaching on the Vulture Peak ( see below).  This was discovered in Mogao, Gansu Province, 8th century AD. This piece of work was made from hemp cloth which was then embroidered with very fine woven silk.

The images used in Chinese embroidery can symbolise and represent lots of different meanings. Images such as animals, dragons, birds, florals were embroidered onto various items including robes, theatrical costumes, purses, shoes, wall pieces and interiors etc. Embroidery is a very skilled and intricate style of artwork and some pieces could take up to several years before they were completed. Finest pieces of embroidery were very expensive and only wealthy men and women could afford to buy them.

There are different styles of embroidery used in china. These are the 4 major regional and historical styles of Chinese embroidery.

Suzhou Embroidery ( Su Xiu )

This style dates back 2000 years and originates from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. Suzhou embroidery was one of the first embroidery styles to be developed in China, but its detailed needlework and intricate images are still produced today. Some of the distinct features of Suzhou embroidery is that it was often two-sided, where the image was embroidered on both sides of the silk. Its beautiful patterns and images, subtle colours, variety of stitches were very skillful and time consuming (in some cases taking years to finish). The images used on this style of Chinese embroidery were quite typical using nature and environmental themes-flowers, birds and gardens with pastel colours. I’ve noticed that the main animals used in chinese embroidery are tigers, pandas and dragons.

Hunan Embroidery ( Xiang Xiu)

Xiang embroidery was created in Changsa, Hunan Province and has been used for hundreds of years. This style has been influenced by other embroidery styles however it has many characteristics which make it unique. The embroidery uses a lot more loose threads compared to the Suzhou style. There are several distinct needling techniques used in embroidery but the Xiang style uses a more ‘random’ way of needling, where the randomness results in colours and textures being mixed togther. Its distinct features include black, white and grey colour palettes with strong focus on the contrasts between light and dark. There is also a strong use of tigers and landscape scenes used on Xiang textiles. Xiang embroidery is still practiced today and has become very popular around the world being used on clothing, interiors and art pieces.

Guangdong Embroidery ( Yue Xiu/ Guang Xiu)

This originates from Chaozhon, Guangdong Province and dates back 1,000 years. This style of embroidery contains intricate and symmetrical patterns, using strong contrasting colours and varied stitches.  The main influence of this style was national folk art and the images most commonly used were of flowers and plants.

Sichuan Embroidery ( Shu Xiu)

This style originates from western areas around Chengdu, Sichuan Province. This is the oldest known embroidery style in chinese history and has been used for thousands of years.  As with most embroidery they always used silk and satin, as they were very strong and would last a lot longer than other materials. The distinct features of a Sichuan style piece were- emphasis on even stitching, pastel colours using, images of young women and the environment. Sichuan embroidery is used to decorate interiors such as quilt covers, pillowcases, curtains, fashion garments, shoes and painted screens. All of these embroidery styles are extremely beautiful and have characterisitics which make them very unique and interesting to look at.

Silk Production in China

Chinoiserie is a French word that means “in the Chinese taste”. It is used to describe a European style of a decorative ornament, mainly popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it still looks great today. Oriental scenes and images were bound onto textiles, wallpapers, porcelain and the famous lacquered painted furniture. If you owned a piece of Chinoiserie at the time you were seen as very fashionable. The thing that makes Chinoiserie different is the tremendous range of decorative details, including intricately detailed pieces with layer upon layer of pattern. Elaborate traditional signs, tassels, landscapes, bells, and numerous animals were used to create these patterns.

Back when transportation was difficult, exotic goods such as silk, carpets and porcelain reached Europe via the trading route known as the “Silk Road”, which carried goods by cart or camel. Chinoiserie decoration combines real elements with fantasy, to give a more unique design.

Back in the nineteenth century, entire rooms were covered with the Chinoiserie style, to give of the impression of wealth. It was seen to be more of a wealthy women’s taste (as lacquer was extremely expensive) and would realistically be seen in a dressing room, bedroom or drawing room, in large stately homes.

“Taking tea (perhaps the major commodity brought back from China) was becoming a fundamental part of polite society and also stimulated the growth of our ceramics industry. Potters endeavoured to discover the secret ingredients for making Chinese porcelain and developed their own forms for teapots, bowls and cups, decorated with imaginative chinoiserie motifs, whilst silversmiths created exquisite pieces such as caddies, pots and epergnes, also decorated in the Chinese style. Playful ‘Chinese’ structures, such as pavilions (with upswept roofs, bells and dragon finials), as well as seats and bridges, first appeared as features in the fashionable gardens of private and royal estates.”

Asian Art, Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650 -1930

Traditional Chinese textiles reveal that nearly every image or scene on a Chinese robe, would have a particular symbolic culture. They aimed to make to robe not to just be seen as a decorative piece but something of social standing and tell a historic story or moral message. Emperor’s robes consisted of ‘Twelve symbols’. The symbols consist of, in order of importance, the sun, the moon, the constellation, mountain, dragon, flower creature, sacrificial vessel, water, plant, flames, grain, axe-head, and the “Fu”. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), however elevated the symbol of the dragon, as the main symbol used on imperial robes.

Textile Designer with a Chinoiserie style – Vivian Cohen

Chinoiserie Birds – This hand painted textile collection was inspired by Chinese bird and cloud motifs, traditional found on the embroidered textiles. The saturated, multi-coloured palette makes this a statement piece in the collection.

Intricate Chinese textile art ranges from large silk embroidered wall hangings, table frontals to small panels or garmented. Natural images and traditional designs appear, even amongst geometric patterns.

“China is so far ahead of other countries as a production source for clothing that its dominance seems likely for many years. But it is not all easy going for Chinese manufacturers. Most recently, China has been seeing a shortage of labour, high has been fuelling salary rises and is leading to higher apparel prices. Factories in southern China talk of employees who simply don’t return from annual holidays. The new generations of young factory workers are more ambitious than their predecessors: they want a better quality of life and are keen to set up their own businesses back home in the inland and western regions of China, from where they migrated originally in search of work. Wage costs are steadily being pushed upwards, reflecting the progress China has made in recent years.

A poll in the China Daily newspaper in April revealed that 90 percent of 300 companies surveyed had raised wages in recent months to attract workers. The options for companies sourcing from China include: reluctantly accepting price increase; sourcing from cheaper regions of the country, particularly the inland; or sourcing more from cheaper locations in Asia.”

Textile View Magazine.

There are also more problems for Chinese clothing companies, especially in the region of Southern China, where the majority of clothing and footwear is made. The government is also under a large strain to allow its currency (the Yuan) to strengthen. Emerging economies such as Brazil and India are especially showing a large competitive streak.

Silk printing and weaving

Silk was one of the luxurious items which were transported along the “Silk Road”. It was seen as a prized good and is produced by various insects but the largest quantity comes from the silk worm. They feed on mulberry leaves and then when ready form a cocoon of Silk before pupating. The threads are then unwound to form a single strand of raw silk. This fine thread is the basic component of all yarn and fabric.

The silk strands are then weaved together by interlacing the warp and weft yarns to create the end fabric. There are two main types of silk fabrics: those of which the yarn has been dyed before weaving and those when the fabric is dyed after weaving. In both cases when the yarn/fabric is being dyed at boiling temperatures, it allows the gum (sericin), from the worm to be removed off of the fibre. A pattern can then be transferred onto the piece of fabric using different methods of printing.