Treasures of China and India - two wonderful ancient civilazations

Qing Dynasty Chinese Ceramics

Image by Ivan Walsh via Flickr

By Alok Deshwal
Deputy Director (M&C), Press Information Bureau, New Delhi

New Delhi, Feb 24, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB-India) Cultural contact between India and China, the two wonderful ancient civilizations of the world, is more than two millennium years old. The two countries were connected through the ancient ‘silk route’. But introduction of Buddhism in China from India was the most eventful incidence in the mutual relationship that triggered making of Buddhist art and architecture in China and the travel to India by the Chinese Buddhist monks like Fa-Xian, Zunzang and Izing.

To extend the historical tradition of friendly exchanges between the two countries, the year 2006 was declared as Indo-China Friendship Year and a significant component of it was the organization of exhibition on “Treasures of Ancient India” during 2006-07 in the four cities of China-Beijing, Zhengzhou, Chongqing and Guangzhou. The exhibition of about 100 artifacts was a microcosmic presentation of India art offered to the Chinese people at their doors. In reciprocation, an exhibition on “Treasures of Ancient China” has been organized in the year 2011 in four cities of India- New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. The exhibition has been jointly organized by the Archaeological Survey of India and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage of China. It showcases about 100 antiquities in various art forms ranging from Neolithic to the Qing Dynasty. The range of Chinese exhibits in the exhibition, which is currently on at the National Museum in New Delhi till 20th March 2011, is very large, covering jade objects, porcelains, decorative elements, terracotta, metal ware etc.

The exhibition is aimed at further strengthening the bond of friendship between people of the two nations.

China has always been a world of fascination for its culture, art, architecture, beliefs, philosophies, etc. it witnessed the evolution of early man as evidenced by the remains of Peking man. In Neolithic age, it defined the beginning of settled lifestyle that later on culminated in complex civilization.

Taoism and Confucian schools of thought are China’s gifts to world’s two major philosophical streams. The massive mausoleums of ancient Chinese emperors built on the concept of “life after death” are unparallel. China has astonished the World by a wonder architecture that is the “Great Wall of China”. Paper, silk, ceramics and bronzes are some of the notable class of objects over which the Chinese commanded masterly in early periods of history. In terms of the quality, variety and richness of ancient cultural relics, and the brilliant technologies associated with it, China is placed at a significant position among the world’s old civilization.

The Neolithic age that started in China about, 12000 years ago, saw the shift from acquisition type economy (gathering, fishing and hunting) to the production type economy. Evidence from Peiligang culture, Liangzhu culture and Yangshao culture in central China are significant in this context. The development of settled farming supported many related activities including pottery and tools. The polished stone implements took precedence over the chipped stone implements.

Spades, millstones, sickles, hoes, ploughshares, axes, adzes, etc. were the stone implements to meet the agricultural and associated needs.

With the progress of time the ancient people produced pottery and so substantially improved their everyday life. Painted pottery of remarkable refinement made appearance. The painted patterns reveal people’s activities as well as artistic talent of early age.

The Chinese bronzes specially from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (18th century BCE to 3rd century BCE) rank with the finest metal work of ancient world. The number of bronze vessels produced in ancient China is truly amazing. Bronze gives a bright gold coloured appearance when polished appears beautiful to the eyes. But the alkaline soil of China is favourable to bronze turning it into an attractive green or bluish grey colour, which appears even more pleasant to the eyes than the original metal.

Use of bronze started for weapons (axes, spears, daggers, swords), tools (scrapers, chisels, adzes, drills, saws) and farm tools (pickaxes), shovels, sickles, fish-hooks). When weapons appear in burials, they represent the power of their owners and were presumably the weapons they had used in daily life. But it is the ritual vessels (cooking vessels, food containers, wine and water vessels, etc.) which by their elegance and high craft have drawn most attention in China and abroad. They were used in sacrifice to gods and ancestors and they were buried with the dead.

As the bronze was cast, objects were made into thick walled rounded vessels. Chinese have also used bronze for making musical instruments, weights and measures, chariots and harnesses, ornaments and other miscellaneous articles for daily use. They were made in complicated forms with extra knobs and handles and dense decoration.

A separate outstanding class in the bronzes is the bronze mirror. The viewing side is remarkably bright and the reverse is covered with varied decorative designs and inscriptions sometimes. Most are round, others are square, some are in shape of flowering petals, some have handles. They belong mostly to the Warring States periods, Han dynasty and the T’ang dynasty.

Jade objects occupy a special niche in the Chinese art objects. Jade is a dense stone with a pleasing appearance that glows in subtle greens, greys and browns. Thus, it is beautiful to the eyes as well as the touch. It started as an extension of stone industry in the Neolithic age. The Chinese regarded jade as imbued with virtue and goodness and believed that such qualities could be passed on to the owner. Therefore, jade was frequently used for special rituals or ceremonial versions of utilitarian items, but it was also used for ornaments, pendants and small animals. In general, jade artifacts can be categorized into ritual objects, wearing objects and the burial objects.

For technical reasons jade was fashioned into heavy rounded shapes as it was not suitable for slender, sharply angled forms.

Ceramics are the most enduring of China’s decorative art for which availability of variety of high quality clay was of prime importance. They are remarkable for their fine surface and wonderful colours achieved by sophisticated techniques in firing. High fired green glazes produced by addition of a little iron oxide to the glaze and firing the vessel in a smoky reduced atmosphere are generally called “Celadon” glaze.

The appearance of porcelain began a new era in the history of Chinese pottery. In the Shang period about 3,500 years ago, a White Stone ware made its appearance similar in composition and proportion to what we call porcelain which subsequently developed in the late Eastern Han, T’ang, Sung, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty periods.

From pottery came the primitive white porcelain and from the white porcelain came underglazed blue and white porcelain. Underglazed red painted porcelain was also in vogue. Subsequently polychrome porcelain became prevalent. Chinese porcelain has been valued for its variety in shape and design, brightness of ornaments and the fitness and whiteness of its fabric. In ceramics the porcelain industry has made China world famous.

The monochrome glaze earthenware of T’ang dynasty emphasizes the elegant lines of the vessel and strikes harmony between glaze and shape. But the period is remarkably known for a distinguished class of opulent polychrome glaze generally called three coloured or tri-coloured pottery, although the hues are not strictly limited to that number. These wares were decorated in dark sky and violet blue, turquoise, light and dark green, yellow ochre and light yellow, maroon and aubergine glazes. The colours were obtained by adding suitable metal oxide during firing at low temperature. This multicolour added special charm to the tricolor pottery which became the most popular burial object in the T’ang dynasty period. The human and animal figurines are the best expressions in this class of pottery.

From the Qin and Han dynasties came the trend of burying the dead with luxurious honours and pottery figurines were used in large quantities as burial articles. Chinese emperors believed that people would go to live in an afterlife world when they died and so they wanted to bring everything in their lifetime to the afterlife. Therefore, radiating from the burial mound of the emperor’s tomb, there are many burial pits with various objects such as pottery figurines, pottery animals, daily utensils, granaries, weapons, horses and chariots, seals, etc. The Terracotta Army or Terracotta Warriors are the most explicit examples of the ancient Chinese burial custom to attend to the dead as if to attend to the living. They fulfilled the ritual protocol of the imperial funeral. Buried in the underground pits, rows of warriors holding weapons in their hands and clad in heavy armour are ready to sacrifice their own lives at any time for the safety of the emperor, thousands of female courtesans in their beautiful silk dress are dancing elegantly, hordes of pigs, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, dogs and chickens are packed together for the use of emperor feasting.

The introduction of Buddhism from India to China brought with it the carving of religious sculptures which ultimately developed into a class of its own and reached excellence in the Wei, Sui, T’ang, Sung, Ming and Qing dynasty periods. These Buddhist sculptures are made in stone as well as bronze with equally brilliant craftsmanship reaching its climax in the T’ang period. During the course of its development, new forms and styles got assimilated to provide variety in the Chinese sculptural art. The Yun Gang, the Longmen and the Dazu grottoes are only a few examples of the masterpieces in this field.

(PIB Features)

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