Print Study Room: Chinese Civilization

“Material Culture and the Literature of China” with Professor of Chinese Language and Literature and the Courtney and Steven Ross Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies Mao Chen

In this course, a study of Chinese civilization allowed us to examine “all under heaven,” including topics as varied as: scrolls and paintings from late medieval China, the art of writing, healing and medicine, traditions of music and poetry, the Confucian canon, gardens of delight in the Ming court, and trade and the exchange of knowledge by land and sea. The class explored different approaches to the study of Chinese civilization through an interdisciplinary lens and critical analysis.


Students in Professor Chen’s class conducted research on material objects from China in order to create label text for works in the Tang collection. We hope you enjoy reading the results of their research below.

A rectangular piece of ivory with a small arch on top is inscribed with black Chinese text on one side as well as a deeper engraving located on the bottom.
Feng Wu, seal with Chinese lettering and design, mid 18th century, ivory, 2 1/8 x ¾ x ¾ in., Tang Teaching Museum, 1998.134
Jodie Xu ’24
A Chinese seal, or yìnzhāng in Chinese, is a stamp containing Chinese characters and is used like a signature to prove identity on documents, art, or any items where authorship is considered important. Ancient Chinese seals are typically made of stone, metal, wood, bamboo, plastic, jade, or ivory, and are used with red ink or cinnabar paste. This seal from the Tang Museum collection is carved from ivory.
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Seals were first used in the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600–ca. 1050 B.C.) in government offices, a representation authority and power. Much later, in the Qin Dynasty (221–206 B.C.) Qin Shi Huang unified China and commissioned a seal to be made resembling the shape of Heshi Bi, an important carved jade stone. This shape became the imperial seal of China.

Seals were made by specially trained, sophisticated artisans or craftsmen in China. There were strict rules about the materials used to make seals that differentiated class ranks. For example, seals used by the State were made of jade, a precious stone. Government officials were also allowed to acquire seals known as yin, which would normally be made of bronze. From the Qin Dynasty on, seals began to play an important role in Chinese culture and are used to the present day.

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A light rough gray naturally formed stone, flat and rectangular shaped, sits atop a dark brown wooden base.
Unrecorded artist, scholar’s rock, n.d., stone on wood, 2 x 3 3/8 x 2 in., Tang Teaching Museum, EL2019.2.2a-b
Maya Manaktala ’21 and Ella Siff-Scherr ’24
The Scholar’s Rock, also known as gongshi, is an important object of Chinese Civilization. Gongshi represent mountain ranges in a small, tangible form. Individuals, many of whom practiced Taoist ideology, admired and meditated with these objects indoors in small studios when being immersed in nature was not possible.
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The first depiction of the Scholar’s Rock was in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.). Religious and aesthetic interest led these rocks to be displayed in courtyards and gardens. Gongshi of the Han Dynasty were large and usually placed outside. The Scholar’s Rock is also seen in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). During this time, four main qualities expressing the choice and use of the rock were distinguished: thinness (shou), openness (tou), perforations (lou), and wrinkling (zhou). Gongshi were thought to be analogous to reality, many individuals believe they are inhabited by immortal beings. Depictions of the creation of Gongshi were found in the early Song Dynasty (960–1279) as well, rocks were pitted and hollowed and connected to trees or bamboo at the base.
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Ceramic statue of a horse reeling back with a blue, green, and yellow saddle.
Unrecorded artist, rearing Bactrian horse, c. 680-750, terracotta with three colored glazes, Tang Teaching Museum, ML1982.273
Arthur Lin ’23
Horses are an animal that represent nobility and character in China, and for this reason they were often depicted in art and sculpture throughout many Chinese dynasties. This particular piece, a stallion in a ready position, highlights both the elegance of the horse and its abilities. With three main colors (green, grey, blue), it resembles a Bactrian steed.
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Molded clay ceramics are a common material for sculpting during the Tang Dynasty (618–906). A decorative piece such as this could be found in many households in China, but with the absence of mass production, sculptures such as this are also quite unique.

At this time this was made, horses were commonly recognized as a form of transportation or companions for high-ranking soldiers in the military. When serving such important roles in ancient China, it makes sense to see the horse presented as aggressive and proud in this sculpture.

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A white jar, with black lid and base, depicts colorful paintings of different shaped vases with the center one being the largest and full of peacock feathers.
Unrecorded artist, ginger jar, c. 1800, porcelain, wood, and jade, 10 ¾ in., Tang Teaching Museum, LS101
Colin Mahoney ’21 and Maxim Sussman ’23
This ginger jar was created during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) and likely would be used to hold herbs. The jar is painted with the famille rose (pink family) color palette which is thought to have originated in Europe and introduced to China by Jesuits in the early 18th century, where it would then supplant the dominant blue and white porcelain style.
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The bright colors and glossy white of this porcelain ginger jar were achieved through the use of high temperature kilns. The whimsical painted design expresses the range of subject matter Qing potters depicted. The vibrant white glaze is contrasted by the dark carved wood base and lid. A jade stone sits at the top of the jar, serving as a handle.

Famille rose is characterized by the use of rose-pink colors created by lead-arsenic which allowed painters to soften the hues of their paint. This style was known in China first as yangcai (foreign colors) and then later as fencai (pale colors). Rather than for use by the imperial court, famille rose ware was often created with the intention to be exported to Europe. During the course of the Qing Dynasty, trade and cultural exchange between China and Europe grew rapidly. Eventually, famille rose porcelain manufacture in China would suffer due to competition from European potters, who imitated the Chinese style.

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A light blue glass bottle decorated with painting of a flowering tree and Chinese lettering with green stone stopper on top.
Unrecorded Chinese artist, snuff bottle, paint on glass with green stone, 2 ½ x 1 ¼ in., Tang Teaching Museum, 1979.21
Elissa Miller ’24 and Matt Williams ’24
This Snuff Bottle was likely created during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), the final imperial dynasty of China. Snuff bottles were produced in China during the early 18th century. Originally, these small jars were made for the emperor and court, often a symbol of middle or higher status, however, over time they became more common among all social classes.
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These exquisite miniature bottles would be used to hold tobacco in a dried powdered form called snuff. Tobacco during this time was believed to have important medicinal value as an effective remedy for many illnesses. To ingest this powder, it was scooped from the bottle with a small spoon inside the cap, and snorted through the nose.

Snuff bottles were made from a variety of materials in China, including glass, porcelain, jade, and other stones. This example of a glass bottle was painted using a special technique known as inner painting. The Chinese art form of inside painting involves painting the inside surface of the glass through the neck of the bottle. Artists painted the inside image backwards, using either bamboo or a fine brush. This precision took from weeks to several years to complete.

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A rough gray naturally formed stone, thinner at the bottom but expands at the top into a curve, sits atop a dark brown wooden base.
Unrecorded artist, scholar’s rock, n.d., stone on wood, 6 1/8 x 3 ¾ x 2 ½ in., Tang Teaching Museum, EL2019.2.1a-b
Ben Simon ’23 and Livi Schmahmann ’23
Scholar’s rocks aren’t carved, but instead are chosen for their natural form. The rocks are limestone that was shaped by mildly acidic soil in its environment; this along with water erosion and calcification processes is what sculpted the Scholar’s rock. Scholar’s rocks first appeared during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and most of the limestone found for these objects came from the Yingde and Lingbi caves, as well as in the Quinshi Mountain mudflats in Eastern China.
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Little is known about this specific object, but it could relate to two of the three virtues of Taoism: simplicity as virtue, as well as humility or modesty. This piece isn’t flashy or ornate, but rather simple and pure in its original state from nature. Interest in the natural world became increasingly popular with the rise of Taosim.

Scholar’s rocks were studies as microcosms of the universe. With that in mind, we can see features of the natural world in the way it curves, almost looking like an ocean wave or crescent moon. It looks both chaotic and serene at the same time, as it stands perfectly still like a captured moment.

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An ornate porcelain vase painted in a floral motif depicts a scene of seven men together under a tree.
Unrecorded artist, moon flask, early 18th century, porcelain, 14 in., Tang Teaching Museum, LS91
Lindsey Raimondi ’23 and Audrey Powell ’23
The moon flask is a blue and white porcelain flask created in the early 18th century in Yangzhou. After the fall of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Yangzhou became an artistic center known for painting. Within this artistic center, artwork was painted both on canvas and on moon flasks. Instead of being used to hold liquids, this flask was likely admired as a decorative artwork.
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Moon flasks require an extraordinary amount of skill to create and are valuable objects. They are difficult to fire in the kiln due to their weight and top-heavy structure. Porcelain was one of the largest cultural accomplishments of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), therefore, the moon flask symbolizes the achievements this era.

All of the moon flasks from this time were decorated with bright cobalt blue glaze and often painted with flowers. The flowers were symbolic of the season or of the quality of the current Yongzheng emperor at the time the object was made. Because of its challenging form and symbolic imagery, the moon flask is of great value within the Chinese community.

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A square bone china base depicting blue storks and clouds forming a circle around the center of the piece.
Unrecorded artist, stork bone china stand, late 19th century, bone china, 10 x 10 x 1 ½ in., Tang Teaching Museum, LS92
Pablo Rodriguez ’24 and Teddy Seguin ’23
This artifact depicts stork birds encircling one another in a cloudy sky. The material used, bone china, is a mix of bone ash, clay, and stone. Bone china is much harder than traditional porcelain, and is called bone china due to its resemblance to ivory and because of the use of bone ash.
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Bone china was first made by Josiah Spode in England in 1796. The English did not know how to make traditional porcelain, and so they adapted bone china to imitate it. You can often distinguish porcelain from bone china by looking at the designs, as the later is not as intricate as porcelain ceramics made in China.

This item reveals the impact of Chinese culture in the West and how aesthetic design from China became familiar in the Western home. Having a bone china ceramic object in your home would perhaps be seen as exotic, or a symbol of status.

It is interesting to consider how significant an impact Chinese culture has had on Western civilization. For example, in the U.S. the term “china” itself is regarded as a fine material. Goods sold across the world provide evidence of cultural exchange in many different ways.

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A lumpy naturally formed gray stone, with two diagonal offshoots pointing upwards in opposite directions forming a letter V shape, sits atop a dark brown wooden base.
Unrecorded artist, scholar’s rock, n.d., stone on wood, 2 ½ x 2 ¾ x 1 7/8 in., Tang Teaching Museum, EL2019.2.3
Amr Fatafta ’23 and Ethan McNamara ’23
This Scholar’s Rock is made of wood and stone, most likely limestone. Objects such as this date back as far as the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Such objects were owned and collected almost exclusively by those with extensive literary knowledge, as reflected in the name, and were considered a status symbol. Scholar’s Rocks were displayed as a sign of great knowledge and were judged, during the Tang Dynasty, on four key features. These features were thinness (shou), openness (tou), perforations (lou), and wrinkling (zhou).
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The rock’s natural formation is aesthetically pleasing because it imitates nature. They are free flowing, full of flaws and tracing lines, uneven and linear similar to art from early Chinese history. The beauty of these rocks comes from the fact that they are made by nature and not man. They are uncontrolled, and not formed by technical skill, which inspires awe in their beauty. This difference between Scholar’s rocks and other forms of Chinese art makes them distinct. Their placement within Taoist gardens serves to contrast between the flowing currents of life and the constant stillness of mountains, by surrounding the still scholar’s rocks with ponds, flowers, and trees to attract life.
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Pattern by Emma Fritschel ’19
Inspired by the exhibition Twice Drawn
The Tang Pattern Project celebrates the Museum’s 20th anniversary. Organized by Head of Design Jean Tschanz-Egger, past and current Tang Design Interns created patterns inspired by the Museum’s exhibition and event history.