From: Heritage Daily 26 September 2015
Sunday, 4 October 2015
Saturday, 3 October 2015
Two Arabic Travel Books combines two exceptional exemplars of Arabic travel writing, penned in the same era but chronicling wildly divergent experiences. Accounts of China and India is a compilation of reports and anecdotes on the lands and peoples of the Indian Ocean, from the Somali headlands to China and Korea. The early centuries of the Abbasid era witnessed a substantial network of maritime trade—the real-life background to the Sindbad tales. In this account, we first travel east to discover a vivid human landscape, including descriptions of Chinese society and government, Hindu religious practices, and natural life from flying fish to Tibetan musk-deer and Sri Lankan gems. The juxtaposed accounts create a jigsaw picture of a world not unlike our own, a world on the road to globalization. In its ports, we find a priceless cargo of information; here are the first foreign descriptions of tea and porcelain, a panorama of unusual social practices, cannibal islands, and Indian holy men—a marvelous, mundane world, contained in the compass of a novella.
In Mission to the Volga, we move north on a diplomatic mission from Baghdad to the upper reaches of the Volga River in what is now central Russia. This colorful documentary by Ibn Fadlan relates the trials and tribulations of an embassy of diplomats and missionaries sent by caliph al-Muqtadir to deliver political and religious instruction to the recently-converted King of the Bulghars. During eleven months of grueling travel, Ibn Fadlan records the marvels he witnesses on his journey, including an aurora borealis and the white nights of the North. Crucially, he offers a description of the Viking Rus, including their customs, clothing, tattoos, and a striking account of a ship funeral. Mission to the Volga is also the earliest surviving instance of sustained first-person travel narrative in Arabic—a pioneering text of peerless historical and literary value.
Together, the stories in Two Arabic Travel Books illuminate a vibrant world of diversity during the heyday of the Abbasid empire, narrated with as much curiosity and zeal as they were perceived by their observant beholders.
The ancient art of Chinese painting is one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in history.
Kate Bryan, former Hong Kong resident and the Fine Art Society's head of contemporary, travels to China to find out more about this tradition, a journey which coincides with a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, 'Masterpieces of Chinese Painting'. In China, Kate learns about the golden age of Chinese landscape and discovers why ink is still favoured over paint. She also learns how the country's unique aesthetic was heavily influenced by age-old standards of class and politics.
AMONG ancient Chinese master landscape artists, Fan Kuan (AD 960-1027) stands head and shoulders above most. His best-known painting, “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams,” has long been deemed a seminal masterpiece of the Northern Song School.
Fan was born in Huayuan, now in Tongchuan area in northwestern China’s Shaanxi Province. It is said he hated urban life and loved to travel among towering mountains and live close to nature. He also loved wine and Taoist thinking, eventually becoming a Taoist recluse in his later years.
Today, however, Fan is remembered chiefly as one of the top landscapists in the early Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279).
Traditional Chinese ink-wash landscape painting began to appear in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and reached its heyday during the Song Dynasty.
Two major landscape art schools — the Northern Song School and the Southern Song School — had emerged by that time. Fan was a chief representative of the northern school. This style features clear, emphatic compositions and rich details that make the painting look very realistic.
A half-concealed temple on a foreground promontory serves as the “eye” of the landscape.
Chinese landscapists then began to follow some conventions such as what was defined as the “rule of scale” by Wang Wei (AD 699-761), a poet, musician, painter and statesman of the Tang Dynasty.
In one of his essays on landscape painting, Wang said if a mountain in a painting is one zhang (about 3.35 meters) tall, then a tree should be about one-tenth the size and a horse one-tenth of the tree and a figure even smaller.
Fan first modeled his work after those of earlier masters such as Jing Hao (circa 850-?) and Li Cheng (AD 919-967), but later he felt “observing and learning from nature is better than learning from man.” Eventually, he realized “the human heart is an even greater source than nature for learning.”
He gradually began to change his painting style. For instance, while his predecessor Li Cheng painted landscapes that “open like windows onto distant and attractive vistas,” Fan’s works tend to press close to viewers, blocking out their view like walls.
Fan had also developed a number of new landscape painting techniques such as using various texture strokes to create three-dimensional forms and overlapping ridges and contours to make a mountain appear to project forward.
Fan utilized many of his superb skills in “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams,” which is widely recognized as the greatest example of the monumental-landscape style of painting.
To embody the Taoist principle of man being just a small part of nature, Fan made the human figures rather small in order to dramatize the awesome power of nature.
To embody the Taoist principle of man being a small part of nature, the artist made the human figures rather tiny. The use of scale dramatizes the awesome power of nature.
In this ink on silk, 103.3cm by 206.3cm large hanging scroll, the central majestic mountain occupies nearly two-thirds of the total space.
The tiny human figures and a mule train can barely be seen walking out of a wooded area near the bottom of the painting.
A half-concealed temple on a foreground promontory serves as an “eye” of the landscape.
To evoke the Taoist idea of the interplay of yin and yang and add energy to the composition, Fan generated many sharp contrasts such as those between the foreboding mountain and miniature figures and animals, richly textured mountains and rock forms, as well as flowing streams and drifting mist.
The painting also features rich shades and tones, along with imposing and vigorous brushwork. It later became a model for numerous Chinese artists in the following centuries.
Many ancient masterpieces of traditional Chinese painting are today believed to be remakes of later years, but not Fan’s “Traveler” painting. In addition to some inscriptions by famous artists on the painting attributing it to Fan, the artist’s half-hidden signature was rediscovered in 1958, confirming its authenticity.
The painting belongs to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Thursday, 1 October 2015
BEIJING — An hour before the Forbidden City opened to visitors one recent morning, the stone courtyard just south of the ancient imperial palace was abuzz. Within the vermilion walls, the usual mix of uniformed palace workers, tour guides and tourists milled about beneath a pale blue sky. Loudspeakers blared a recording about ticketing policies.
But at the center of it all was an atypical sight: a phalanx of more than 1,000 people, flanked by palace workers whose job was to keep the ranks in line. Unlike most visitors, this small army had come with only one goal: to see “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” an early 12th-century painted scroll considered so iconic that it is often called “China’s Mona Lisa.”
Since an exhibition celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Palace Museum opened in early September, people have been waiting for up to 10 hours to see this 17-foot-long masterpiece attributed to the painter Zhang Zeduan, an intricate ink-on-silk tableau of life in the Northern Song dynasty capital, Kaifeng. The best-known painting in the museum’s vast collection, it has been shown in public only a few times, in Beijing most recently in 2005 for the museum’s 80th anniversary.
The fanatical interest in the work coincides with a concerted push by the Chinese government to encourage interest in traditional culture and values, as a way of emphasizing its links to a history that goes back thousands of years.
And the crowds lining up have been widely covered both in the news media and on social media, particularly after photos began circulating of people frantically racing from the Meridian Gate entrance of the palace toward the exhibition hall. (Chinese news outlets were quick to label the phenomenon the gugong pao, or “Imperial Palace run.”)
“There’s been so much hype about this painting, so I decided to come early to check it out myself,” said Jacqueline Zhang, 25, who works at a bank in Beijing and came at 5 a.m. to secure a place at the head of the line. She added, “This just shows how easily excited Chinese people can get.”
Past exhibitions of the scroll have attracted huge crowds, but the heightened fervor these days comes as the term “wenhua,” or culture, and the desire to appear cultured have become increasingly prominent in China.
“Now that people have money and social status, they want to show other people that they understand culture,” said Chen Yimo, an expert in Chinese calligraphy and painting.
“Chinese people have a lot of respect for the term ‘culture.’ No matter how much money you have, if you don’t have culture, then you’re just a tuhao,” said Mr. Chen, using a popular term for the crass nouveaux riches.
The growing emphasis on culture, however, stems partly from the government’s efforts. In recent years, education officials have made a number of proposals, including revising elementary and middle school textbooks to increase the proportion of guoxue, or the study of Chinese culture, and reducing the importance of English on some versions of the gaokao, or university entrance examination, in favor of a greater emphasis on the Chinese language.
The commitment to promoting Mandarin has even extended abroad, as evidenced by the announcement last week by President Xi Jinping and President Obama of the “One Million Strong” initiative, which aims to have a million American students learning the language by 2020.
In a speech last year, Mr. Xi called traditional Chinese culture the lifeblood of the nation as well as a “foundation for China to compete in the world.”
“People and the government talk about culture a lot more now, so it’s become a kind of social trend,” said Ma Weidu, a prominent antiques collector and the former host of several popular television programs on China Central Television about Chinese antiques.
surface-level interest. A lot of people want to see ‘Along the River During the Qingming Festival’ because it’s very famous, not because they are actually interested in art. It stems from the Chinese tendency to follow the masses.”
The public fascination with traditional culture, some experts say, has another element, too: the realization that many ancient objects would fetch millions in the marketplace.
“Taking pride in cultural heritage is an important factor, but there’s also a huge interest in the monetary value of classical Chinese paintings,” said Freda Murck, a scholar of Chinese art who worked at the Palace Museum for nine years. “Now when I talk to my Chinese friends, a lot of people ask me, ‘How much would this be worth at auction?’ ”
Most, however, would not dare to ask that of “Qingming Festival,” a national treasure that has “taken on a mythic quality because it’s shown so little and is so widely available in publications,” Ms. Murck said.
As the day that began in the already crowded courtyard wore on, a steady stream of visitors ignored signs estimating the length of the wait — as well as a worker with a bullhorn warning people to “please make a careful decision about getting in line.”
They instead made their way to the back of the line that snaked around the mostly tree-lined path leading to the Hall of Martial Valor, where the exhibition is being held. Many, having seen the reports online, had brought folding stools and snacks.
Museum officials estimate that the exhibition has about 3,000 visitors a day — a small number compared with the tens of thousands who flow through the sprawling palace complex each day. But the line moved slowly “because viewers in the exhibition hall move too slowly,” the museum said in a statement.
“So why exactly is ‘Qingming Festival’ so famous?” asked Audrey Cao, 40, who had arrived late to meet her friends, a group of fellow mothers, and was in line by herself.
“Because it captures what life was like during the Song dynasty, the peak of Chinese civilization,” said Yin Yi, 61, the director of an art research center in Beijing standing in front of her.
“Oh, so it’s like an iPhone panorama!” Ms. Cao exclaimed.
Viewers can spend only a few minutes looking at the scroll. They are repeatedly urged to move along by palace workers speaking in stern voices, but almost everyone left the exhibition beaming.
When Mr. Yin, the director of the art research center, finally reached the painting, the Forbidden City had closed for the day and the sun had disappeared. After his several minutes were up, he lingered to look at some of the calligraphy on display. Asked whether seeing the scroll for the first time, after spending so much time poring over reproductions online and in books, was worth the nearly nine-hour wait, he replied softly but without hesitation. “Yes. It was completely worth it.”