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Traditional Chinese craftsmanship favors implicit, functional beauty

LIANG MEI | 2019-05-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Surviving Ming-style furniture offers a chance to see ancient Ming craftsmanship, which is known for its simple elegance. Photo: CHINA DAILY

Chinese craftsmanship has a long history and many remarkable achievements. In primitive society, the forms and artistic techniques of colored pottery and jade-ware were already mature and diverse, and they represented the unique aesthetic pursuit of the Chinese nation. In later dynasties, bronzeware, lacquerware, ceramics, furniture, textiles and gold- and silver-ware also reached high standards of excellence.
As early as the Pre-Qin era (prior to 221 BCE), there was the Artificers’ Record, or the Kao Gong Ji, documenting the highly advanced skilled-production civilization in China more than two thousand years ago.
At the same time, the aesthetic appreciation of objects came into being along with the formation of Chinese philosophy. The founders of Chinese philosophy and cultural thought expressed a clear aesthetics for daily-use tools. In short, Chinese culture, represented by Confucianism and Taoism, emphasizes functional beauty in the production and design of tools. Or in other words, the beauty of tools should lie in their instrumentality. They openly criticized redundant ornamentation as obstructing the practical function of the tools and regarded simplicity as the highest standard of beauty. These viewpoints have had a significant and far-reaching influence on the aesthetics of Chinese design.
In the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420), the class of intellectuals and officials emerged, indicating the high level of Chinese culture and art. After the Song Dynasty (960–1279), officials and scholars dominated discourse over the appreciation of art and design, and they guided styles of culture and art, the content of spiritual life, and the aesthetic taste, standard values and fashions of the times.
Because of different lifestyles and cultures, people have various requirements for the usability of crafts, and these opinions reflect their attitude, perspective and thinking toward life. The ancient Chinese spared no effort in the production of crafts, striving for pure functionality. Han Feizi, a representative of the Legalist school of philosophy, put forward that the most important function of a tool was its instrumentality. Wang Fu, a writer in the late Han Dynasty (26 BCE–220 CE), distinguished high and low tools according to their function and ornamentation, also believing that “craftsmen should prioritize instrumentality over ornamentation.” At the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Li Yu expounded on the practical aesthetics of craftsmanship in his book Sketches of Idle Pleasure.
Ancient China was an agricultural civilization for a long time, and the design of artifacts was mostly related to people’s lifestyle. The essential goal of the production and design of traditional tools was to meet the practical needs of daily life, so applicability became the foundational principle. If we analyze the influence of Chinese philosophy on the aesthetics of objects, the concept of benevolence (ren) in Confucianism should translate into the goodness (shan) embodied in the beauty of objects. In the practical spirit of taking goodness as beauty, ancient Chinese design always adheres to a people-oriented principle, advocating the concept of pragmatism as beauty in production, which reflects rustic cultural characteristics and scientific spirit.
In Sketches of Idle Pleasure, Li Yu said that the aesthetic principle to be followed in the production of traditional Chinese artifacts is “simple and not complicated.”
In the history of Chinese craftsmanship, those vessels that are extremely complicated and extravagant in shape and decoration are not only frowned on by aesthetics, but also associated with the rise and fall of the country and good and bad folk customs. Objects that were too decorative became symbols of the nation’s decline.
Ming furniture grasped the essence of “less is more” and followed an elegant and natural taste. Decoration for decoration’s sake was a lowbrow skill. In quality furniture, the texture of wood was taken advantage of to reveal natural beauty. Simple design had nothing to do with cheapness.
Ming furniture features durable and precious woods such as red sandalwood and scented rose wood, which emit pleasant aromas, naturally adding a touch of taste and grace. Simple structure and minimal decoration set off the natural beauty of the wood. This meaningful simplicity was achieved without sacrificing comfort. Ergonomic support for the bodily form was reflected in details such as curvature, line, height and size.
Following Chinese traditional culture’s emphasis on the synergy between nature and human beings, craftsmen in the Ming Dynasty devoted their wisdom and passion to reflecting this golden rule in furniture, leading to classical furniture’s golden era.
Jade culture
Jade has been a part of Chinese civilization from the earliest days. Chinese jade was used as a material for practical and ornamental purposes at an early period in history, and it continues to be very popular today.
Chinese people love jade not only because of its aesthetic beauty but also because of what it represents regarding social value. In the Book of Odes, it is written that “a wise man’s merits are like jade.” In the Book of Rites, Confucius says that there are 11 virtues represented in jade: benevolence, justice, propriety, truth, credibility, music, loyalty, heaven, earth, morality and intelligence.
“The wise have likened jade to virtue. For them, its polish and brilliancy represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of intelligence; its angles, which do not cut, although they seem sharp, represent justice; the pure and prolonged sound, which it gives forth when one strikes it, represents music. Its color represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through its transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountain and of water, represents the earth. Used alone without ornamentation, it represents chastity. The price that the entire world attaches to it represents the truth.”
Thus, beyond monetary worth and materiality, jade is greatly prized as it stands for beauty, grace and purity. 
In Chinese ceramics, many great achievements have been made in production process, form and decoration. However, due to the Chinese love for jade, the highest aesthetic appraisal for ceramics is still “jade-like.” 
The ceramics of the Song Dynasty constitute perhaps the foremost expression of ceramic art. The shapes from the Song Dynasty are simple and sedate by comparison to what preceded them and what was to follow. Likewise, the glazes tend to be monochromatic and subtle, a fluid, integral part of the form of the vessel they cover, with a depth of color and texture that invites the spectator to both touch and contemplate.
Though China has achieved a great deal in the development of the artistic techniques of skilled craftsmanship, the aesthetic pursuits of traditional Chinese crafts never lie in this. On the contrary, Chinese traditional culture is extremely opposed to ostentation and novelty. In general, moderation in craft and decoration are most advocated in traditional design.
“The doctrine of the mean” is an important concept in Confucian culture and also the source of the traditional aesthetics of moderate craftsmanship. There needs to be a proper balance between material and adornment, striving for a harmonious and natural beauty in things. Traditional moderation has greatly influenced the design and production of traditional Chinese artifacts and contributed to the formation of the integral and harmonious view of traditional Chinese design aesthetics.
The key in striking such a balance is capturing the “natural state” of things. A natural state is not without any processing or decoration, but neither is it ostentatious or artificial. It can only be achieved through an understanding of the law of nature.
Elegance is often the highest aesthetic appraisal of traditional Chinese artifacts, which not only refers to the high aesthetic taste of historical artifacts but also refers to the style and character reflected in craftsmanship today. Chinese aesthetics emphasizes the beauty of implicitness and self-containment, as does excellent design and craftsmanship, which intrigues people and makes them want to linger.
Hanfu, or Han clothing, is one of the most representative examples of the traditional Chinese spirit. It encompasses the entire dress code and clothing system of the traditional Han ethnic group. A complete set of hats and clothing were formed during the Han Dynasty based on the Four Books and Five Classics. Circular-cut long sleeves represent heaven, displaying a sense of graceful generosity and elegant movement. Cross collars represent earth, which reminds people to follow discipline. The belts on the gowns extending to the ankle symbolize integrity, and the hems dropping down to the ground represent balance. Traditional Chinese dress conveys the characteristics of the Han ethnic group, which is quiet and poised. Their aesthetic taste is simple, natural, implicit and mild.
Different from Western clothes which emphasize gender and physiological difference, the beauty of Chinese traditional clothes reflects the temperament of the owner and even the rhythm of life, which is a kind of implicit and vivid beauty.
Modern industrial production and ways of thinking have had an important impact on the lives of Chinese people, and new ideas have flooded into the aesthetics of daily necessities. In the face of mass production and standardized machine production, how to maintain the national style and traditional elements in the making of products and how to make the commodities in the industrial age with “Chinese aesthetics” have become relatively difficult and urgent problems to be solved. Only through understanding the aesthetics of traditional vessel design can today’s designers and manufacturers create new crafts and products that reflect the essence of Chinese culture, so as to better suit the Chinese way of life.
Liang Mei is from the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
edited by YANG XUE