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Wednesday, June 20, 2001

A Chinese treasure-trove of beauty

Centuries of artistic ingenuity may explain a historical conundrum

The most astounding piece in the ongoing exhibition of Chinese ceramics, art and objects at Shibuya's Shoto Museum is the large, partially glazed ceramic camel, expressively molded, that greets visitors as they enter.

A ceramic camel (Tang Dynasty, 618-907)
A gilded bronze Buddhist statue (Northern Wei Dynasty, 386-534)
A lacquer dish featuring dragons (Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644)
"Lady, in the Style of a Tang Dynasty Wall Painting" (1936) by Zhang Daqian
"Lotus, in the Style of the Tang Dynasty" (1938) by Zhang Daqian

Dating from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), it is in mint condition and immediately conjures up visions of caravans traversing the Silk Road through Central Asia to the Middle East and beyond.

The Tang, with their infusion of Turkish blood, were perhaps the most vigorous of the many dynasties to rule over China. At the height of their power, they ruled over a state eager to trade, expand, explore and enter into relationships with other countries -- this at the very time when Europe was still living in the twilight of the Dark Ages.

It has always been one of the conundrums of history why a superior civilization like this was later overtaken and outstripped by the "barbarians" of the West.

Some insight into this question is given by the rest of the exhibition. The outward-looking impression created by the camel is counteracted by the other exhibits, most of which give an impression of an inward-looking, conservative and self-satisfied China. The results of this national attitude can be seen in some of the most recent works, traditional Chinese paintings, including some by Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) that just happen to be in the Tang style.

His "Lady, in the Style of a Tang Dynasty Wall Painting" (1936) and "Lotus, in the Style of the Tang Dynasty" (1938) are tributes to a past the Chinese clearly cherished.

Although all the items on display come from the Chang Foundation, a private Taiwanese collection, there is great variety in object and era, with perhaps a sense of delicacy and beauty as the common factor.

The overall abiding impression is of the meticulous skill and patience with which these objects were made. There are gilded bronze Buddhist statues from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), lacquerware pieces from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and dark tea bowls from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), so colored to contrast with the paler tea.

Underlining this Chinese obsession with tea, there are also a wide variety of teapots from different dynasties. One of the most charming is a Yixing brown teapot from the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911) modeled to look like a section of a pine trunk. The technique is highly evolved, but the end result strives to look like something you might find in a forest.

In most works, however, the craftsman is obviously trying to outdo nature. This is seen in the many works of cloisonne, a form of enamel work where colored areas are separated by fine metal bands.

Like porcelain, cloisonne also relies on being fired in a kiln to get its final glaze, but whereas porcelain always looks a little too fragile to feel comfortable about, Chinese cloisonne was usually overlaid on metal surfaces to create brilliantly colored and attractive objects of great durability, such as the censer with a hinged cover modeled as a mythical animal.

This was one of the most advanced techniques evolved by Chinese craftsmen, but here, yet again, the focus is firmly on the past. A square vase and a rectangular censer in cloisonne from the 17th century stylistically hark back to one of China's oldest dynasties, the Shang (1766-1122 B.C.).

Perhaps the most ornate work at the exhibition is a black-lacquer, tiered octagonal box inset with thousands of tiny pieces of polished shell to create 24 scenes of "filial piety."

In the same way that the Chinese were taught to respect their parents, the nation as a whole was taught to revere the past. So while other nations concentrated their energies on trade and overseas expansion, China was content to maintain its traditions and spend its ingenuity turning out elaborate objects of exquisite beauty.

"Chinese Treasures From the Chang Foundation" runs until July 8 at the Shoto Museum of Art, (03) 3465-9421, a 10-minute walk from Shibuya Station. Admission 300 yen, children 100 yen.

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