Jaded pieties

Mongol Jewellery - The Arts of China to AD 900
December 8, 1995

The Art and Architecture of China by Lawrence Sickman and Alexander Soper in the Pelican History of Art used to be the staple text for academic courses on Chinese art in western colleges and universities. Published in 1956, it was in print for nearly 40 years. William Watson's volume is the first of three that will seek to replace Sickman and Soper.

The study of Chinese art has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, not least because extensive excavations have revealed a range and depth in China's culture hitherto undreamed of. In no other part of the world has such a wealth of archaeological finds been made in these decades. Two conditions have brought about such revelations. First, the ancient Chinese believed that after death their existence would continue in much the same form as it had in this life. Therefore, vast numbers of worldly goods were buried in tombs of the rich and powerful. Jade ornaments, bronze vessels for ritual offerings and chariots are only some of the early burial goods from about 1200bc. In later centuries, fine lacquers, silken clothes and armies of soldiers and servants in pottery were interred. The second and very different condition is China's modernisation. Towns, factories, roads and canals have all been built on top of or dug into China's ancient cities and cemeteries. The finds have been dramatic, especially when tombs of rulers or of high officials have been struck by the spade.

The most renowned discovery has been that of the terracotta warriors in pits alongside the tomb of the unifier of China, the First Emperor, who ruled in the late 3rd century bc. His army in pottery replica was set out as if for battle. Indeed, all ancient Chinese tombs present such pictures. As with the terracotta warriors, tomb contents depict some aspects of the lives of their occupants literally, and also indicate the status and roles of the dead by the wealth of fine bronzes, jades and silks and lacquered furniture. Such works should, therefore, be seen and interpreted as part of a greater whole.

This whole is denied the reader of The Arts of China to ad 900. The author takes instead a stylistic approach. Watson's concern with style was originally set out in Style in the Arts of China, published in 1975. In that much shorter work, he identified three primary styles: the "hieratic style" of ancient ritual objects; the "realistic style" of Buddhist sculpture and secular painting; and the "decorative style", as the later jades, lacquers and ceramics were described. This simple three-fold division has been elaborated with many switches of direction.

As in his earlier book, the direction of the description and argument is concerned with traits of shape and surface design of objects and sculpture and with parallel preoccupations in pictorial representation. These traits include form, linear or other surface ornament, subject matter and pattern. The chapters are divided by media, and within each medium, subdivision is made in stylistic terms. With splendid illustrations, the book is a feast for the eyes. The text describes carefully and sensitively aesthetic features of the items depicted. Historical context is little explored and the social, political and technological context is avoided. Who made the objects, for whom and by what means are questions given little or no space.

Inevitably the earlier part of this first volume, about the periods of the neolithic (6000-1500 bc) and the early dynasties of the Shang and Zhou (1500-771 bc), is rather restricted by this approach. Almost nothing is made of the extraordinary neolithic jade-using cultures of the east coast, or of the powerful bronze-casting states of the Shang period. Indeed, several of the most famous recent finds have been completely omitted, including the jade dragon carvings of the neolithic cultures of Liaoning province 3500bc and the extraordinary human-like figures in bronze from western China, 1200bc. Such discoveries have changed our perceptions of the history of China and of the use of works of art within that history. Perhaps the author would argue that these finds are extraordinary precisely because the peoples who made them contributed relatively little to later Chinese art and artefacts. But by building his story with the traditional components, the author abandons any attempt to revise that story in the light of recent research.

The account becomes fuller with the arrival of Buddhism in the early centuries ad. About half the volume is devoted to sculpture. The author evidently feels more at home in this area. The greater ease may simply arise from the belief that in a sense sculpture is art and requires no justification, while bronzes and jades are "decorative art" and need emphasis on aesthetic qualities to explain their presence in a history of Chinese art.

The dichotomy between art and decorative art is false, however. The Chinese devoted huge resources of material and skilled labour in the period 6000 bc100 ad to what we call decorative art. Yet the ceramics, jades and bronzes were made for the highest ceremonies of society and consumed vast quantities of material and manpower. Like the bronzes and jades, these sculptures were functional. Their aesthetic qualities, linear drapery in the 6th century and solid forms in the 7th, were developed as part of that function - to show the piety of those who commissioned the sculpture and to inspire awe in the viewer. Sculpture in China was not, and is not even now considered art. Indeed bronzes and jades, which were later collected by the educated elites, entered the Chinese framework of revered materials far more easily than did the sculptures of the Buddhist church. Perhaps later volumes in the series will consider in more detail what should be considered art in China.

Martha Boyer's catalogue of Mongol Jewellery is of a quite different character. It concentrates on just one topic. With detailed description and large photographs, the book examines ornaments from Mongolia region by region. This approach is highly informative and vivid. The abundant use of colour photographs, with drawings to show decorative detail, is excellent. The photographs of Mongolians wearing the jewellery is also critical in providing a rounded picture. Indeed, these photographs show how different from Chinese traditions these ornaments were. Yet there is clear evidence of contact with China in the detailed motifs on the silver that provides the framework of many items. Coral and turquoise, used abundantly, are traits that Mongolia shares not with China but with Tibet. There are useful sections on silversmiths and their techniques. This is a book for specialists, not just specialists in Far East culture, but all those interested in jewellery and its role in society.

Jessica Rawson is warden, Merton College, Oxford, and former keeper of oriental antiquities, British Museum.

Mongol Jewellery

Author - Martha Boyer
ISBN - 0 500 01660 7
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £32.00
Pages - 269

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