The Hong Kong Museum of Art's current exhibition, "Cruising the Universe: Fantastic Animals in the Arts of China", explores the evolution of animal representation in Chinese traditional arts and crafts, customs, religious rituals, myths, legends and intellectual culture. About 180 artefacts, comprising either representations of animals or objects bearing animal motifs, are on display from today (July 22).
Ancient people relied on animals for their survival and shared a close relationship with the animal kingdom. Today, it is not difficult to find traces of animals having been made divine guardians by many prehistoric tribes with the hope that worshipping them would bring good fortune and protection. In Chinese culture, creatures familiar as objects of worship include the Four Spirits, namely the Blue Dragon, the White Tiger, the Red Bird and the Dark Warrior; the qilin (Chinese unicorn); and the bixie, which resembles a lion but has horns and a pair of wings.
In the Neolithic age, animals were intimately connected to labour and the mundane aspects of human life. They assisted in agriculture and transportation and also provided food and clothing for people. This is why Neolithic cave paintings and pottery featured animal-themed imagery. Useful in transportation, agriculture and animal husbandry, camels, horses, cows and sheep were important elements in everyday life and economic activities, and therefore frequently appear in ceramic and clay sculptures, decorated bricks and carvings in bamboo, wood or stone. The lifelike depictions were not only suffused with decorative interest but also showed the flavour of everyday life.
Divine creatures have a place in Chinese culture and the most significant ones are the dragon and the phoenix. Throughout history, the dragon has represented divine power and authority, and only in later times became a symbol of the monarch. The phoenix was seen as the king of birds and endowed with the wisdom to foretell peace in the world. There is a saying in Chinese, "The phoenixes come to this place and dance with grace", which is taken to be an auspicious omen. In the Ming and Qing dynasties, the phoenix became a symbol of the Empress and was paired with the Emperor's dragon.
Auspicious Chinese animal imagery can always be found in Chinese art and culture and it comes in many forms. Wishing for peace, wealth and good luck, the ancients endowed animals with auspicious symbolism according to their appearance, movement and behaviour, or based on puns using their names. Originally nocturnal and mysterious creatures, bats became symbols of good fortune because the Chinese word for bats, "fu", is a homophone of "good fortune", and so bat images were widely incorporated into crafts, clothing, New Year pictures, and household items. The lion is said to have been brought to China from the Surlag (or Shule) kingdom (in today's Xinjiang) during the Eastern Han. Regarded as the king of beasts, the lion is an emblem of authority and power, and a dispeller of evil. Therefore, from the Eastern Han onwards, imperial mausoleums, temples and residences of the wealthy were guarded by stone lions at the front gate.
Representations of animals also made up an extremely common form of funerary art in ancient China. The ancients believed that a person's soul persisted after death, so they made burial objects based on articles of the deceased in life to enable the individual to continue living in the same way in the afterlife. Among these, the best known is the terracotta army in the mausoleum of the First Emperor of Qin. In the burial pits are many life-size statues of soldiers and horses in grand formations.
Animals are often featured in folklore and fables as elements linking the real world to the realm of the fantastic. Injected with human traits or supernatural powers, they fulfil everyday mortal wishes or serve as didactic and moral symbols. A leaping fish that transforms into a dragon is one of the most common themes in ceramic sculpture and jade carving, and also among accessories in the scholar's studio. "The carp leaping across the Dragon's Gate" became an analogy for success in imperial examinations or rising in officialdom. The auspicious symbol was much welcomed by scholars and officials. The depiction of the transformation process from fish to dragon has therefore become a widely popular motif.
Through the exhibition, visitors will be able to appreciate the beauty of a series of artefacts selected from the museum's collection that have animal motifs depicted in various media including ceramics, jade, stone, wood and bamboo carvings, glassware and metalwork, dating from the Eastern Zhou to the 20th century. Exhibits range from dragons and phoenixes as symbols of power and prestige; bats in rebus form for good fortune; the bixie, believed to ward off evil; and vivid representations of domestic animals such as cats, chickens and sheep. The exhibition will run until mid-August 2012.
The Hong Kong Museum of Art is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm from Sunday to Wednesday and Fridays, and from 10am to 8pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Thursdays (except public holidays). Admission to the museum is $10 and a half-price concession is available to full-time students, senior citizens and people with disabilities. Admission is free on Wednesdays.
For details, please visit the webpage on the Hong Kong Museum of Art's website at www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum/Arts/chinese/exhibitions/exhibitions01_jul11_01.html or call 2721 0116.
Ends/Friday, July 22, 2011
Starting from today (July 22), the "Cruising the Universe: Fantastic Animals in the Arts of China" exhibition is being staged at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. The exhibition features about 180 artefacts including ceramics, jade, glass, bamboo and metal wares, enabling visitors to explore the organic evolution of animal representation in Chinese traditional arts and crafts, customs, religious rituals, myths, legends and intellectual culture. The photo shows one of the exhibits, a pilgrim's flask with a phoenix design in sancai glaze from the Tang dynasty.
The photo shows one of the exhibits, an emperor's dragon robe embroidered with the 12 imperial symbols from the Xianfeng period (1851-1861) of the Qing dynasty.
A bronze gu vase with animal mask and kui-dragon design from the late Shang dynasty. This bronze gu was a wine vessel. It has a wide trumpet mouth above a hollow, splayed foot. The waist is slender and can be held with the hand. The upper section from the mouth to the neck is decorated with a vertical plantain design in the shape of a blade and with a band of snake patterns. The main motif is the animal mask of a taotie, a ferocious mythical creature commonly depicted on bronzes from the Shang dynasty. This animal mask is cast on the waist and the splayed base and is symmetrically divided by raised flanges. The background is filled with leiwen thunder patterns in fine incised lines. Such a complex and dense decorative style is typical of the late Shang period. Also typical are the raised flanges, which have two purposes: hiding the casting marks and emphasising the solemn sense of the vessel.
A bixie-shaped candle stand in celadon glaze from Western Jin. The candle stand is in the shape of a legendary animal called the bixie. It is in a crouching position, with its head raised and fangs showing. There is a small opening on its back. This item is unique to the period between the early 3rd century and the late 6th century, and particularly to the Western Jin period. According to Chinese legend, the bixie was like a winged lion, and could ward off evil with its severe looks. The ancient people used its image to protect them from bad luck.
The photo shows one of the exhibits, a bowl decorated with a fish design in underglaze red and with the six-character mark of Yongzheng from the period of 1723-1735 in the Qing dynasty.
The photo shows one of the exhibits, a tiger-shaped pillow painted in black and yellow on a white background in Cizhou ware from the Jin dynasty (1115-1234).
The photo shows one of the exhibits, an 18th century painted enamel hand warmer with the design of three goats and mandarin ducks in a lotus pond in reserved panels.