Semiotics Research: Ancient Chinese Art

By Raymond Liu

The VMFA had a few pieces from China in their East Asian Art section. And since I’m Chinese and know a tiny bit about Chinese culture, I figured, why not learn a little more about my roots?

However, I was actually very surprised to find that many of the works that originated from China, I would not have even guessed were Chinese (The Bactrian Camel I would have assumed was Egyptian). Seeing such ancient Chinese relics and figuring out what their cultural significance at the time, as well as how people back in the day may have read them was a super rewarding experience and has taught me about many aspects of Chinese culture/history I was never really exposed to previously.

Bactrian Camel

This ceramic sculpture of a camel jumped out to me and also confused me the most.

Camels are a desert animal, right? To me, camels are associated with desert areas, especially Egypt. They are definitely not associated with east Asia.

Are there camels in China? I’ve been to China a couple times, and I have not yet seen any traces of camels.

Why did the Chinese make sculptures of this camel? When I think of Chinese art regarding animals, I think of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig).

 

As I expected, it turns out that camels are indeed not native to China. However, they were a vital carrier of goods on the Silk Road that linked China with the middle east. This type of camel would have been expensive, probably only affordable to someone with means, like an aristocrat, a high ranking officer, or a prosperous merchant (“Tomb Figure of a Bactrian Camel”). Because of the reliance of Camels to traverse the Silk Road, they became a symbol for the Silk Road’s prosperity.

Sculptures of Bactrian camels such as this one displayed in the VMFA were burial objects for the tomb of a wealthy person during the Tang dynasty. These burial sculptures were often made with a lead glaze, which means that it would be toxic when used in daily activities, and such objects were prepared especially for burial. It is possible that people believed that the camel’s would help ward off evil spirits from reaching the soul, and also assist the subject in achieving a wealthy afterlife.

This sculpture was created to be a symbol for luxury and wealth, and it still conveys that a partially without completely understanding the historical context. The craftsmanship of the piece is extremely impressive, and the gloss of the material makes it look expensive. However, understanding the cultural significance of this camel during Tang Dyansty (618-906 AD) time period definitely changes the reading of the piece, as then the viewer would understand that the camel was an animal only wealthy Asian merchants could afford to trade via the Silk Road, and the super wealthy people would use it as a burial object. Burial objects, such as this one, offer a unique view of the life of the wealthy during the Tang Dynasty.

Wine Vessel

 

I did not have any idea what this thing actually was until I read the label. Things like this just read as old metal art pieces. The green rust tells me that it is probably made out of bronze. Perhaps it is something that a wealthy person would have, because of the attention to detail on the intricate surface of the thing is quite impressive, and the fact that it is metal means it cannot be cheap. At a glance, however, I could not tell what this object was used for, and what cultural significance it had.

It turns out during the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), common people used ceramic vessels in their households, but bronze vessels such as these were made for the very wealthy elite, and therefore they were associated with power. They were made to serve grain and wine, which played an important role in ritual banquets held at family temples or over ceremonial tombs. “The Chinese believed in the afterlife and ancestral worship, and wanted their deceased relatives to have food and wine to sustain them on their onward journeys.” (Kate 2017).

So my initial reading of the bronze vessel was on the right track. My understanding that bronze would have been pretty expensive back in the day allowed me to correctly guess that this was made for the wealthy. However, an understanding of that the wealthy would use the vessels for afterlife rituals would would have allowed the viewer to see how influential the common belief’s regarding the afterlife was to the luxuries at the time. Bronze vessels from the Shang dynasty are important today as they provide a colorful example of what people, especially the elite, value at that time.

Annular Disk (Bi)

Whenever I see these things (or anything made from jade), I automatically think of jewelry, probably because that is the most common use of jade nowadays (I think). However, this disk is huge (5 1/2 in). What did the Chinese do with this thing? I had no idea.

Well, it turns out again that these discs were commonly buried with dead people. (I’m beginning to notice a bit of a trend within the Ancient Chinese art pieces). These circular jade artifacts originated in the Neolithic period (3400-2250 BC), and the circular form symbolizes heaven, which is among one of the earliest religious symbols. They were placed ceremonially on the body of persons of high status, usually found on the stomach or chest in burials. There are still many mysteries regarding the ancient cultural significance of the bi discs, as the earliest forms were used well before any way of documenting language existed.

Disks such as these are intended to represent heaven, and are yet again typically utilized by the wealthy for burial purposes. My initial reading of the object was quite off, as these disks were not necessarily meant to be worn as jewelry, though they are in a way a form of decoration that was placed on the body. These are yet another valuable relic showing the relationships between art, wealth, and death within ancient Chinese culture all the way from the Neolithic period.

Conclusion

When I initially picked these three pieces, I did not know anything regarding the cultural contexts in which these pieces were created. Therefore, these pieces simply read as decorative objects that were probably expensive and valuable at the time. However, through a deeper understanding of ancient culture and how the objects functioned within it, I have learned that the wealthy used their luxuries in order to honor the dead and to give them a good afterlife. These three pieces all originated from very different periods of Chinese history (Bactrian Camel: Tang Dynasty – 618-906 AD, Wine Vessel: Shang dynasty – 1600-1046 BC, Neolithic period – 3400-2250 BC), yet they all show that the wealthy elites always have used status symbols to honor and assist the dead in the afterlife.

My parents are first generation from China, and they have taught me quite a bit about Chinese traditions and even brought me to China a couple of times, but through this experience, I have learned that I have an extremely shallow understanding of the Chinese culture, especially when it comes to ancient Chinese culture. From these art pieces alone, I now understand how valuable honoring the dead was for the Chinese, as the wealthiest families would invest in such expensive objects in order to better honor their passed loved ones. From here on out, I will keep this in mind when viewing ancient Chinese art, and ask, “Does this piece pertain to honoring the dead? Does it pertain to the elite/wealthy?”

And since so many ancient relics from the wealthy pertain to honoring the dead, it begs the question: in Chinese culture, how do the elite/common people honor the dead today?

Spoiler alert: That would take a whole other article to cover.

Works Cited

Hunt, Kate. “Why Chinese Archaic Bronzes ‘Take Your Imagination to Another Place’: Christie’s.” What Bronze Ritual Vessels Meant to the Ancient Chinese , Christies, 18 Oct. 2017, https://www.christies.com/features/What-bronze-ritual-vessels-meant-to-the-ancient-Chinese-8627-3.aspx.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Bi.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 10 Dec. 2010, https://www.britannica.com/art/bi.

“Tomb Figure of a Bactrian Camel.” Learning From Asian Art: China, Philadelphia Museum of Art, https://www.philamuseum.org/booklets/3_18_29_0.html.

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