Posts tagged: Qing Dynasty

Just For Fun: The Printed Image In China – 8th to 21st Century

From The Printed Image in China: Qing Dynasty "Folkloric" Print

For many, wood block prints are synonymous with all things Japanese.  But as “The Printed Image in China” – a traveling show from the British Museum currently on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – demonstrates, such a perception is totally wrong since it was China that first developed the technology, allowed it to flourish and made it an integral part of its culture and history.  The Printed Image in China is a must see, but must be seen by the end of July before it closes on the 29th.

This small, six gallery show begins with the earliest known prints in the world.  Although the Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1454, is commonly referred to as the first printed book, in reality, China was printing books, through wood block printing technology, as early as the 700s (likely even earlier).  The Diamond Sutra, purchased by Hungarian-British explorer Marc Aurel Stein in 1907 from a monk in the Dunhuang region of China, is the earliest, dated printed book in the world, with a date of 868 A.D.

Although the Diamond Sutra is not part of the show, some of the thousands of other ancient manuscripts that were a part of Stein’s Dunhuang purchase and estimated to have been printed around the same time if not earlier, start this phenomenal show.  For prints from the early Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. – 907 A.D.), the detail is truly astounding.  In particular, “Bodhisattva Mahapratisara with the Text of ‘Da Sui qiu tuoluoni,‘” gives one pause, reciting an entire sutra within the print along with detailed pictures of Guanyin, making one wonder about the difficulty of carving it and the patience required.

The show then jumps to prints to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), where the technology of wood block truly began to thrive and the industry flourished.  During the Ming, the use of multiple colors on a print – by carving different blocks for each color – developed, producing glorious prints that accurately copied the famous paintings of the day.  Later on in the show an entire gallery – and a highlight – is dedicated to demonstrating the genius of this technique with actual replicas of the differently colored blocks that would be used to create a single picture.  It’s easy to linger in that room, studying the intricacies of the method.

Wood block printing continued and peaked as an art form during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  By the middle Qing, wood block printing was

Etching of Qianlong Battle (c. 1770) in the European Style

becoming its own art form.  Whereas the goal of the Ming artists was to make the wood block prints appear as much as a painting as possible, the Qing artists began to experiment with more vibrant colors (think hot pink) and thinner paper which resulted in an embossed, tactile texture to the print, making it obvious this was not a painting.  In addition, under the Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), China experimented with the use of copper plates, prevalent in Europe at that time, Viewing some the etchings of famous European battles that the Jesuits priests brought with them to court, Emperor Qianlong (1711 – 1799) commissioned Matteo Ripa to create copper-plated etchings of Qianlong’s own battles.

A high point of the show is the “folkloric” prints found in the third gallery.  Unlike the pieces found in prior galleries, these prints – exploding with color – would have been everyday art, hung for New Years in an average person’s home.  Depicting the doorway gods and the Kitchen God, these prints – dating to the mid to late 1800s – were likely purchased directly by British that were in China at the time and viewed them as art to be maintained.  For the Chinese, these pictures were utilitarian in that they warded of the spirits for that year and, in keeping with tradition, would have been burned in preparation for the next New Year.

Li Hua's Raging Tide - Example of Modern Woodcut Movement

The final century, the 20th century, saw a renaissance of the wood block not just once but twice.  With the fall of the Qing, the uncertain rule of the Nationalists and the impending invasion of the country by the Japanese, the average Chinese was suffering.  Author Lu Xun (1881 – 1936), along with Li Shutong, were the major proponents of the “Modern Woodcut Movement” which used the sharpness of the woodcuts to reflect the harshness of daily existence in China.  By the 1920s, woodcutting was on the rise throughout the world and would become a common medium for many artists attempting to depict and democratize the misery of the average individual.    China was right along with Western nations in using the art form to communicate democratizing thoughts.

Wood block printing had a second 20th century renaissance under Chairman Mao Zedong (1949 – 1976).  With the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government became the only patron of the arts and art was there to only to serve the government.  With the Communists, mass production became essential and where as in the past, wood carving was only one technique an artist might used, under the Mao, with its ability to create rapid reproductions for wide dissemination, wood carving would become a sole medium for many of the state-employed artists.  As a result, a talented pool of woodcutters emerged, taking the skill of the craft to the next level; the artists were able to use the wood block prints to create a feel to the different materials and emotions depicted in the print.

With the death of Mao in 1976 and the re-emergence of the market economy, these artists have continued with their crafted, creating new wood blocks prints that express their own emotions instead of the Party line.

The Printed Imagine in China is a must see show before it closes on July 29 but not just for the astounding prints that fill every gallery in this show.  What also emerges from this show and the careful way it has been laid out and described, is how this art form is an integral part of China’s political and cultural legacy and will be a part of its artistic future.  From the first gallery, wood block prints were printed for political reasons –

Post 1980 Woodcut: Wu Jide - Chatting over Tea

with the Tang, the politics was religion.  Spreading Buddhism was essential to the Tang Dynasty and the wood block prints, with its quicker way to reproduce the Buddha’s teaching, was important to that goal.

Under the Ming, spreading the literati culture became its own mission.  Across the Empire, a cultural language arose amongst the elites – an educated man needed to have certain books on his shelves and certain paintings on his walls.  Wood block printing created that mass culture among the literati.  With the Qing dynasty, a foreign dynasty ruled by the Manchu people as opposed to the Han Chinese, wood block printing was used to solidify its rule, especially with the  battle depictions of Emperor Qianlong.  For much of the 20th Century, first under the Modern Woodcut Movement of Lu Xun and then the Communists of Mao Zedong, the political message was clear; under Mao, it was required.

Unlike the centuries before, the 21st century finds the art form – perhaps for the first time – unhinged from any political purpose.  As the final gallery, with its post-1980s wood block prints, confirmed, the art form has exciting, new places to go that will do justice to its long history.

Tang Dynasty Wood Block Print - ca. late 700s A.D. (from the Dunhuang Purchase)

The Printed Image in China: 8th through 21st Century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(on loan from the British Museum)
1000 Fifth Ave (at 82nd Street)
New York, NY
Through July 29, 2012

Movie Review: Zhao Liang’s “Petition: The Court of Complaints”

By , February 8, 2010

Petition - Poster2In Petition: The Court of Complaints, director Zhao Liang (pronounced Zhwow Le-ang) takes on a huge and important subject – the Chinese petitioning system.  While the documentary fails to produce a cohesive story, it does successfully portray vignettes of a society very much in turmoil and tells the story of the many people left behind by China’s progress.

In China, the petition system is a way for individuals to lodge complaints against corrupt government officials or corrupt governmental process to higher authorities.  Also known as “Letters and Visits” (from the Chinese xinfang and shangfang), it’s a form of extrajudicial action that can trace its origins to imperial days.   If an individual believes that a judicial case was decided not in accordance to law or local government officials illegally violated his rights, he can complain to officials in a higher level of government to hear his case, re-decide it and punish the lower level officials.  In some ways, every country has a similar process – if you don’t like the way a government official in New York City is treating you, you can complain to your city council member or write a letter to the mayor.  But what makes the petitioning system different in China is the fact that it is a formal process.  Every level and office in the Chinese government has a bureau of “Letters and Visits.”

The petitioning system is vital to the Chinese government’s success, be it today’s Communist government or to the

Beijing's new Letters & Visits Office - near the South 4th Ring Road

Beijing's new Letters & Visits Office - near the South 4th Ring Road

imperial courts of the past.  By ruling a large country through an authoritarian dictatorship, the Chinese central government inevitability leaves much discretion in the hands of local officials.  But through the petitioning system, complaints of local official corruption will eventually make its way to top levels of government and allow the government to solve the problem, satisfy the aggrieved individuals, and by getting rid of corruption, solidify its rule.  The petitioning system serves as a safety valve in a system that does not allow popular participation or protest.

But as Zhao’s documentary successfully shows, the petitioning system, which receives over 5 million petitions a year according to Chinese statistics (many outside of China speculate that the number is closer to 10 million), is largely a failure.  Zhao focuses on the thousands of petitioners who travel from the provinces to lodge their complaints in person with the highest petitioning body, the State Bureau of Letters and Calls in Beijing.  But many of these petitioners are there for years, repeatedly getting the brush-off by state officials.  With one petitioner, Qi, who is in Beijing to seek compensation for her husband’s death after local officials beat him, we watch her daughter, Ju’an, grow up before our eyes on the streets of Beijing.  Only twelve at the start of the movie, Ju’an eventually leaves Beijing with her boyfriend and returns years later with her husband and son only to find her mother still petitioning.

If all that was lost was time, the petitioning system might not be so bad.  But there is also violence, and a lot of it.  Zhao captures many of the “retrievers” beating petitioners.  Retrievers are thugs hired by the local officials whom petitions are being filed against.  Because each petition to the central government is a black mark on a local official’s advancement, these local officials are desperate to prevent the petition from being heard.  An easy way is through

A "lawyer" of sorts to help others with the petitioning process - Beijing, China

A "lawyer" of sorts to help others with the petitioning process - Beijing, China

intimidation and violence.  In one particularly troubling scene, Zhao films an overhead shot of a group of retrievers chasing and beating a single petitioner.  Zhao also juxtaposes one scene of a petitioner discussing his case with another scene where the petitioner has a black, bloody eye after a day of beatings.

Petition also raises the issue of forced psychiatric confinement of individuals the government deems “difficult,” something that is becoming more common in China.  Petitioner Qi is repeatedly detained and forcibly sent to a mental hospital.  Another petitioner describes the treatment at the psychiatric hospital – forced medication of drugs that have not been tested.  After a stint at a Chinese mental hospital and a diet of untested anti-psychotic drugs, one wonders if these women are still in fact sane.

While Zhao successful portrays many of the horrors of the petitioning system, he never describes if this system works for anyone or if there are any redeeming characteristics of the system.  If the petitioning system is abolished, would that mean the people would be better off if this is their only outlet?  At one point, Zhao shows a group of petitioners calling for democracy.  After a female petitioner is hit and killed by a train while running away from a group of retrievers, her neighbors in the petitioners’ tent village decide to launch a protest in her memory.  Zhao films the rhetoric of some of these protest-petitioners, with many of them discussing the prevalent corruption, the need for transparency, and the desire for democracy.

But these calls for democracy should not necessarily be seen as a new revolution in China.  The petitioning system relies on the average citizen’s belief that the government system has failed on the local level but that the highest levels in Beijing still work; each petitioner thinks the same thing – if only President Hu Jintao could hear what I have to say, he would understand that this isn’t just a violation of my rights but is also terrible for our country.  They have to believe this; if petitioners believed that the central government was just as corrupt as the local level, they wouldn’t petition.  Zhao’s focus on these protesting petitioners and their calls for democracy are certainly attractive to a Western audience.  But it’s unclear how these petitioners define their “democracy” and whether that democracy excludes a role of the Chinese Communist Party.

While there is room for improvement (especially the 2 hour length), in all, Petition: The Court of Complaints is worth the watch if only to feel the frustrations of a multitude of people and to allow them to finally be heard.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Unfortunately, as of March 3, 2012, Petition: The Court of Complaints is not available with English subtitles on DVD or for streaming. It appears that it may be forthcoming as part of a three-movie box set of Zhao Liang’s documentaries, however no pre-order option is yet available on Amazon: Zhao Liang Collection – 3-DVD Box Set (Petition / Crime and Punishment / Paper Airplane ).

For those who speak French, it appears that the three-movie box set is already available on the French Amazon website here (note that subtitles appear to be all in French).
 

Happy Birthday China!

By , September 30, 2009
Chairman Mao Zedong proclaims the founding of the PRC, Oct. 1, 1949

Chairman Mao Zedong proclaims the founding of the PRC, Oct. 1, 1949

October 1 marks the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and to all our friends in China, China Law & Policy wishes you a happy birthday!

China’s history spans over 2,000 years, but the existence of China as a communist country has only been for the past 60.  Up until 1911, China was ruled by various different Chinese dynasties.  The last imperial dynasty, the Qing, ruled China from 1644 until its overthrow in 1911 (The Last Empror tells the story of the final days of the Qing).  While the Kuomintang (pronounced Gwo-Min-Dang and also known in English as the Nationalist Party) nominally ruled China, control really rested with the various Chinese warlords.  It was not until 1927 that Nationalist leader and Republic of China president, Chiang Kai-shek, was able to eliminate the warlords and truly unify a modern China.

However, while the Nationalists unified the country, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which was founded in 1921 as

The Last Emperor of China, Child Emperor Puyi, 1909 (3 years old)

The Last Emperor of China, Child Emperor Puyi, 1909 (3 years old)

an urban intellectual movement, was quickly becoming a revolution in the countryside under the leadership of Mao Zedong.  Soon, the Nationalists had to contended with the growing forces and guerilla tactics of the CCP, beginning the Chinese Civil War.  However, both sides came to a truce in order to fight the Japanese invasion and World War II (1937-1945).

At the conclusion of the War, the Nationalists and the CCP resumed their civil war.  By 1949, CCP victory was all but certain and the Nationalist forces began to flee to Taiwan.

Sixty years ago, On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood on the gate of Tiananmen in Beijing and declared the People’s Republic of China.

60th Aniiversary festivities have already started in Beijing and will continue throughout the day Thursday.  Pictures have yet to be released from the celebrations (it started 10 AM Beijing time), but Reuters has a great live blog going.  According to Reuters, President Hu Jintao has dusted off his Mao suit and is going retro!  Only question remains – is it a blue, green or a black Mao suit? Inquiring minds want to know.

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