Chinese Culture and Design

China, located in eastern Asia, occupies almost 9.6 million square kilometers. China makes up one quarter of Asia’s land, making it almost as large as Europe. About 12 percent of China is plains and lowlands, whereas about 33 percent is mountains and high plateaus. China has 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities and 2 special administrative regions.

Human settlements were first discovered in China as far back as 5000 B.C. The first major dynasty was the Shang dynasty, lasting from 1500-1000 B.C. During this time, China’s writing system began to develop- allowing the feudal states to be advanced in comparison with the rest of the world. During the Chou dynasty (1122-249 B.C.) the foundation for Chinese philosophical thought came about by works of Lao-tse, Confucius, Mo Ti and Mencius. During Emperor Ch’in Shih Huang Ti (246-210 B.C.) the feudal states were finally united after constantly being at war with one another, and construction on the Great Wall of China began. The Great Wall proved to be especially important during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) when there was a large amount of trading with the West. The T’ang dynasty (618-907) was a time of poetry, sculpture, and woodblock printing – enabling books to be mass produced. Later, invading forces began to overturn the ruling body of China as the Mongols were overthrown by the Mings who were in turn overthrown by invaders from the North called the Manchus in 1644.

For many years, China remained very isolated from the rest of the world, closely restricting its activities. At the end of the 1700s, Canton (now known as Hong Kong) and the Portuguese port of Maceo were the only areas European merchants could enter . This all changed after the Anglo-Chinese War in 1839, when China began making many concedes to the West.

Imperial Badge – In the Ming dynasty, the emperor would reward imperial badges with creatures such as dragons, deer or fish on them. These badges would be given to noteworthy citizens, people receiving positions in the court, or upper ranks of imperial nobility.

The first coherent Chinese Empire was founded about 1500 BC. Chinese religious ideas are in some ways similar to those of India, in that they too were based on ancient animistic beliefs that center around the cycles of seasons and fertility of plants, animals, and human beings.

The great variation and beauty in the Chinese landscape is often the inspiration for great works of Chinese art.

Confucianism symbol

Confucianism, starting in the 6th Century BC, was centered on the idea of duty and right behavior, a philosophy that recognized and supported the hierarchical nature of Chinese society. Confucianism emphasized a complex bureaucratic and social class system of the Chinese Empire through a systematic moral and social code. One’s personal salvation could be achieved by submerging the individual good in the greater good of the family and the State. It also stressed the family, particularly elders and ancestors, as one’s tie to the sacred. This emphasis on deference to ancestors and the state is a profoundly conservative factor in Chinese culture, making tradition, and established ways of expressing and structuring ideas almost irresistible. Confucian visual symbolism drew upon ancient interpretations of plant and animal imagery and mythology. This can be seen, for example, in the stylized animal and plant images seen on the rank badges of civil servants, or on imperial robes.

Taoism symbol

Taoism, also starting in the 6th century BC, taught that the individual should surrender himself to the vastness of nature in order to find his true place in the world. The preoccupation with nature, and the submerging of the individual in the whole of the natural flow in the world had a profound effect on the development of painting in China. Chinese landscape painting differs in many ways from Euro-American painting. For example, the small scale of human figures in the landscape tends to emphasize the power of nature, and the smallness of the individual in the natural world.

Buddhism statue

Buddhism, started in the 6th century BC as well, offers an inner path to spiritual peace through meditation and study. Although Buddhism arose in India and shared some of the Hindu frame of reference, it also differed from Hinduism in that it accepted the reality of suffering in this world rather than suggesting that this world is an illusion. It offered an eight-fold path, a series of steps to be followed to achieve Nirvana, or liberation of the soul from the wheel of life. Buddhist art, while it shares some features with the art of older religions, tends to stress the teaching and meditation aspects of the faith. Buddha figures, sometimes immense (such as the 44 foot high statue at Sheuxi) and images showing events in the life of Buddha or the saints are most common.

China became Communist in 1949 under the rule of Mao Zedong. The Cultural Revolution in China happened in 1966-76. Mao stated goal was to root out so-called capitalist and imperialist elements that had supposedly infiltrated China and return to the values of the Communist revolution. It was also designed to stabilize Mao’s rule as leader of China. This revolution included targeting intellectuals, artists, religious figures and anyone associated with foreign ideas or institutions. Universities effectively shut down and a generation of young Chinese went sent to live in the countryside. This was intended to teach them about proletarian values and lifestyles. Ideas and objects from China’s pre-socialist past were also targeted. Temples, mosques, shrines and ancient buildings were destroyed or damaged. Countless precious artifacts were destroyed. Religion was suppressed harshly during this period.

Like Chinese culture and religion, Chinese art places less emphasis on the individual and more on the surrounding elements. The manifestation of this belief makes up the basis for one of the main unique elements of Chinese art and design: landscape painting. The scrolls on which Chinese art and writing is typically displayed allow for a unique sense of perspective. As opposed to traditional Western linear perspective commonly found in landscape paintings, Chinese art “stacks” the planes of the landscape. The elements which are farthest away from the viewer sit at the top of the scroll, and as the eye moves down the scroll, elements are implied to move closer in perspective. In this way, Chinese landscape art uses the concept of movement in art to depict the vast power of nature. Typically, brushstrokes in the background can further imply space by creating a kind of mist, emphasizing the broad space which the painting depicts as in Li Cheng’s “A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks” shown below. If figures do exist within the landscape, they are small. The Tang dynasty and Xie He’s Six Laws of Art set the precedent for this style, in which realism comes after an expression of feeling and time in relation to nature. One of the Six Laws, in fact, calls for “spirit consonance and life movement,” or a depiction of how the spirit can move through nature to connect with it.

China continued using scrolls, rather than “codex-form” bookbinding—the type of binding we see today, which has page numbers allowing the reader to open to a specific place in the book by turning a page, not unrolling a scroll—for longer than the Western world, excluding religious use. Perspective in landscape painting gains an added illusion of movement by being printed on scrolls. Calligraphy, a design more easily associated with Chinese scrolls, has its own unique mode of expression. Rather than simply function as a terse communication, classical Chinese calligraphy uses style and brushstroke to convey feeling and style. The speed and continuity of brushstrokes, the hair used for the brush, and even the grinding of the ink stone all affect this expression. Oftentimes calligraphy accompanies other art done with similar expressive qualities, a quality of art less commonly found in classical Western art. The example below shows a work by Zhao Mengfu, who paints animals and practices expressive calligraphy.

As we saw in Helvetica, font depends on the context. In Chinese design, calligraphers find work decorating blessings for entrances above family homes, entrances to temples, and storefronts. The style for houses and temples typically has more expressive qualities, whereas storefronts need to be quickly read, so a calligraphic style similar to Helvetica is commonly used, as seen below.

Blessings above the entrance to a traditionally-styled Chinese home.

Chinese storefront

Calligraphy and “rolling” landscape painting stand out as unique qualities of Chinese art. Both demonstrate the expressive qualities of Chinese art and design: a tendency to convey expression through writing style alone on the one hand and an emphasis on the importance of natural surroundings — as linked to Chinese belief systems—on the other.

One modern example of a Chinese influence on Western design can be seen in the classical children’s storybook Winnie the Pooh. Benjamin Hoff’s book The Tao of Pooh explains the ways in which Taoism can be seen in many aspects of the stories, but the art, especially in more classical versions, stresses nature much like Chinese landscape art.

E.H. Shepard (illustrator for classic Pooh) and one of the more classical images from Winnie the Pooh.

There are many social elements that impact Chinese design. Some major values are the hierarchical nature of Chinese society, a systematic moral and social code and a strong belief in personal salvation by submerging oneself in the greater good and family. The hierarchical nature can be seen when lines or objects are drawn in a vertical pattern. The idea of “submerging oneself” can be seen in many works such as the Western dragon tattoo below, where the dragon is one with time and space. The planets are literally a part of him and that’s something Chinese culture was trying to emphasize the importance of. The small scale of people versus nature represents the power of nature and peoples’ true place. The world is vast and powerful, and Chinese images put this belief into perspective, as seen below in a piece called  Landscape of the Four Seasons by Fu Baoshi.

The ideas of the natural world are prominent in religion as explained above. Confucian symbols often depict images of plants and animals, representing the importance they hold in society.

Taosim also teaches one should “surrender himself to the vastness of nature in order to find his true place in the world.” One must move with natural forces. It’s all about balance, represented by the Yin-Yang symbol. The idea of being one with your surroundings can also be seen in the dragon tattoo below.

Chinese design uses specific animals to symbolize meanings. The crane represents longevity. A dragon represents power and immortality. A phoenix symbolizes renewal and fertility, and flowers have specific seasonal associations. Chinese architecture uses curved roof beams and extended beams to mark the edges of roofs. This is due to the ancient Chinese belief that demons or evil spirits can only travel in straight lines. The prominent colors seen in China are blue, green and red with back and white accents. Even Chinese characters are visual, pictographic representation, causing many Chinese to think visually.

China’s influence on western culture_A tattoo showing a dragon (power) and  the importance of nature/world, balance and chinese characters

The Forbidden City in China with curved roof beams to ward off demons and bad spirits

Another important aspect of Chinese design was its prevalance in their clothing. Emperors were often identified by symbols on their robes, such as the ruler of the Ming dynasty who has a picture of a five-clawed dragon on his robes. During the Ming dynasty, badges symbolizing rank would be sewn on the court robe. In 1759, it was decreed that all members of the imperial hierarchy would wear surcoats with their ranking badge on both the back and front. The highest ranks had dragons on their robes symbolizing heaven and power. Hats also became known as a symbol of rank with color, material and semi-precious stones indicating the rank or importance of the wearer.

Imperial Badge of a dragon


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