by Hugo Munsterberg
WHILE our grandparents thought of sculpture in terms of the marbles of the ancient Greeks, the carvings of the Gothic cathedrals, and the masterpieces of the great Renaissance sculptors, the 20th century, becoming aware of the beauty both of exotic and primitive civilizations, has broadened its outlook to include such diverse traditions as those of India and China, Negro Africa and Pre-Columbian America. Abandoning the classical premise that all great art was concerned with the beauty of the human body, we have discovered whole new worlds of aesthetic sensibility and enjoyment.
Among these, Chinese sculpture is one of the most remarkable and varied. Although the Chinese themselves have always regarded sculpture along with architecture as a mere craft rather than a major art form like painting and calligraphy, even they, influenced by Western appreciation of sculpture, have come to cherish it as one of the great manifestations of their artistic genius. The history of sculpture in China is a long and distinguished one, extending over a period of three thousand years from about the end of the second millemum before Christ through the 18th century, a history far older than that of European sculpture and covering a longer span of years even than that of the Egyptians.
Because of its long history, Chinese sculpture shows a great variety of styles, including some which are abstract and symbolical as well as others which are quite realistic. The choice of subject matter is also extremely varied. It may be derived from such diverse sources as the traditional Chinese nature deities, the gods and saints of Buddhism, the immortals of the Taoist legends, the sages and teachers of Confucianism, and, especially during the last centuries, the daily life of the Chinese people. The appeal of the sculpture is not confined to its artistic interest, for these carvings, which are a storehouse of traditional Chinese religion and folklore, serve as an ideal introduction to Chinese civilization.
The plastic arts of China are also remarkable for their diversity of media and techniques. Most common are such traditional materials as wood, bronze, glazed and unglazed clay, and various kinds of stone ranging from hard, highly polished marble to soft sandstone. At the same time the Chinese artist employs such peculiarly Chinese media as jade, which the Chinese love above all other stones, ivory, lacquer, bone, coral, soapstone, rock crystal, quartz, enamel, and porcelain. Although reproductions tend to reduce all these works to the same scale, they vary greatly in size, ranging from the monumental rock-cut sculptures of the cave temples to exquisite little carvings intended as jewels or ornaments. All of these different types have found enthusiastic collectors in China as well as in the West, and it is not uncommon to find connoisseurs who interest themselves in one particular medium, such as jade or ivory, almost to the exclusion of any other aspect of Chinese art.
The beginnings of Chinese sculpture go back to the earliest historical Chinese dynasty, known as the Shang, or Yin, wliich ruled from about 1550 to 1050 B.C. The most outstanding art works of the Shang period were the magnificent ceremonial bronzes ornamented with symbolical designs. These vessels, which no doubt had some primitive magical purpose, were sometimes made in the shape of animals such as the tiger, the water buffalo, the owl, and the pheasant. Their exact meaning is no longer known, but they probably represented the forces of nature which were worshipped by the Shang people. Their shapes are always strong and solid, perfectly balanced, yet dynamic with a wonderful feeling for die design as a whole and a perfect handling of the medium which reflected a highly developed bronze culture. At the Shang capital of Anyang, modern archeologists have also unearthed some stone sculptures representing various animals such as tigers, elephants, and owls, works which are of a cruder and less finished appearance than the bronzes, suggesting that stone sculpture was still in its beginnings, although these, too, show an instinctive sense of design and plastic form.
The Shang rulers were overthrown by the Chou dynasty which ruled China from about 1050 to
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Publication information: Book title: The Art of the Chinese Sculptor. Contributors: Hugo Munsterberg - Editor. Publisher: Charles E. Tuttle Publishing. Place of publication: Rutland, VT. Publication year: 1960. Page number: 3.
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