Posts Tagged 'design'

Object: Jade Carving

willshannah_124974_9597796_28275482_1964890397172609_176426160_oAccession Number: E/1995/18/041

Object: Jade Carving: This object is made up of a water buffalo, two female figures, a bird, and a ‘mysterious’ figure

Location: China

Date: Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 C.E.)

Materials: Jade (nephrite)

Keywords: China, Jade, Ming Dynasty, water buffalo, symbolism

It is important to know what exactly is being talked about in order for the whole symbolism of the piece which is so important to be understood. With that being the case, the two female figures are stood at the front of the piece, the one on the left as you look at the piece front on, seemingly more elderly than the other. Behind them, on a podium, stands the water buffalo. On this creature’s back is the bird, seemingly holding a branch of some sort. Covering the bird almost entirely from the front, but above the more elderly woman, is what has been dubbed the ‘mysterious’ figure for reasons that will be discussed later. This piece is carved from jade, giving it a primarily pink color, though there is brown in the stone on the bottom of the podium, and green on the bird’s head and the front of the ‘mystery’ figure. This use of jade also gives it a very smooth feel. All of this can be seen in Fig. 1.

For the discussion of this piece, it is also imperative to have some background knowledge on the culture and time it is coming from. It is known that this piece came from the Ming Dynasty (1) which ran from 1368-1644 C.E. this being the time between the Yuan and Qing Dynasties. While both of these have important connotations politically for China, the Yuan is better known for its founding by Genghis Khan and his regime. It is after the Qing Dynasty that the current politics of China were founded, putting the Ming Dynasty right at the end of dynastic rule in China. Culturally, this piece is also significant for what the figures symbolize for the Chinese people, as will be discussed in depth in the rest of this post.

When discussing the symbolism of this piece it is simpler and easier to break down into three sections; the buffalo figure, the bird figure, and the jade material. These then are used in combination in this piece to create a whole new meaning and give more insight into what this particular piece may have meant for the Chinese people and also what we can learn about them from it.

Beginning with the buffalo figure, this piece has layers of meaning. The first layer comes from early Chinese history, just like every other civilization, China was founded on agriculture. In agriculture, water buffalo were very important for the Chinese people as they were used for plowing the fields. The second layer comes later in history, c.11th-12th century C.E. At this time the buffalo/ox figures had a kind of revival due to the publication of a series of songs, Ten Oxherding Songs, that talked about the path to enlightenment. This path is by finding, sighting, and herding an ox/buffalo (2).

willshannah_124974_9597797_elderly women

The next figure to examine is that of the bird. There are multiple variations of what exactly a bird means but they are all centered around the idea of death and the soul. They were considered to be the guide into the afterlife for a person’s soul for many years in China (3). This may also give an explanation for the ‘mystery’ figure; it may be that this non-descript figure is meant to be a soul that is being guided by the bird behind it, the seeming face on this figure also gives credence to this idea.

Finally, the material used must be considered. Jade, or nephrite specifically, was commonly seen in China as a precious stone, with connotations to heaven (4). It has also always been a very hard stone to work with and shape due to its structure (5). These combined have meant that jade has formed connotations with rich elites as they were the only ones with the means to buy anything so costly. We also know that jade has always had ceremonial connotations (6), specifically with funerals, from early dynasty tombs holding simple jade discs, to later tombs holding intricately carved pieces similar to one in this project.

When all these elements are combined a whole new meaning to the piece as a whole is presented. What becomes clear is that this piece is a rare and precious ceremonial piece, likely from an elite’s tomb, possibly with the goal of showing how the deceased wishes to go to heaven, showing they are worthy of such a thing through their enlightenment and respect for their origins.

Another possible conclusion of fusing these sub-categories is mentioned in the donor file document, “this carving represents the source of life” (1). This is also a suitable conclusion to draw when taking the symbolism into account; the buffalo means the source of agriculture and therefore life, the bird guides the spirits into the people, and the ‘mystery’ figure is still representative of the souls being guided. In fact, this conclusion may even account for the two female figures in the foreground of the carving (as seen in Fig. 2), although I have not mentioned previously them due to lack of information, one could make the argument for them possibly being mother figures and nurturing the animals and/or souls, or possibly having some other similar kind of role.

For more information on the value of jade throughout history, as well as more modern uses for jade please watch the following short video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnBY6JfuUM0

((Shannah Will))-Written as part of the ANTH1253 2018 Spring Semester Class Project

Bibliographic references:

  1. Matzene-Wentz donor file. Sam Noble Museum.
  2. Pik, Chan Lai. 2011. “Jade spiders and praying mantises of the Western Zhou Dynasty: Reconstructing an ancient cultural mindset.” Ars Orientalis 41: 165-185.
  3. Leidy, Denise P., Sui, Wai-fang Anita, and Watt, James C.Y. 1997. “Chinese decorative arts.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. The Metropolitan Museum.
  4. de Groot, J.J.M. 1897. The religious system of China: its ancient forms, evolution, history and present aspect, manners, customs, and social institutions. Leiden: Brill.
  5. Meeks, Nigel D., Michaelson, Carole, Middleton, Andrew P., and Sax, Margaret. 2004. “The identification of carving techniques on Chinese jade.” Journal of archaeological science 31 (10): 1413-1428.
  6. Boy with water buffalo statue, accession no. 02.18.438. The Metropolitan Museum.

 

Object: Shadow Puppet

bellaspen_106967_9644650_blog post image 1

Object: Shadow Puppet of Hindu Epic Character

Accession Number: E/2004/2/001

Object: Multicolored and metallic gold painted shadow puppet made of hide with 3 controlling rods.

Location: Java, Indonesia

Date: Pre-1980

Materials: Hide (possibly buffalo), possibly horn, string

Keywords: Shadow Puppet, Wayang, Shadow Theater, Southeast Asia

 

The “Shadow Puppet of Hindu Epic Character” in the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Museum exhibits many features that identify it as Javanese. These features include the joining of the feet at the base of the figure; the combination of a front-facing perspective of the shoulders with a profile view of the face, feet, and body; and the elongated neck and arms. In comparison to other images, Javanese shadow puppets share other features, including cupped hands, wrist and sometimes ankle bracelets, upper-arm adornments, complex head shapes, and elongated noses. [2]

[2][1]

Shadow Puppet in the Sam Noble Museum’s Ethnology Collection (left) and other Javanese shadow puppets with similar features

This shadow puppet is dated as pre-1980, and it is in good condition. The cutout figure is made of thin but sturdy hide, possibly buffalo hide as this is traditionally what shadow puppets of Java are made of. [2] The rods connected to the body and each hand are probably some type of horn because this is the material that was traditionally used. There are several small bands of elastic-like material attaching the main rod to the hide body, and bright blue joints at the shoulders and elbows that may be made of plastic. The rods that control the hands are connected to the hands with a string that is still very clean. Metallic gold paint is used most extensively compared to the multitude of other colors and covers the neck, chest, arms, and legs. The other colors include red, pink, dark blue, light blue, white, dark green, yellow, and light purple. The face is painted black with red and gold details.

Pictures showing more detail of the head, face, and torso of the puppet, taken at the Sam Noble Museum

The origin of shadow puppetry, which is practiced in distinct ways throughout Europe and Asia, is unclear, however, theories include precedents to Indonesian shadow puppetry from ancient Greece and nomadic tribes. For example, Plato described plays in ancient Greece in which figures were used to cast shadows on cave walls, probably as part of religious ceremonies. Nomadic peoples of Central Asia may have used shadow puppets made of leather as part of religious rites and ceremonies as well, using firelight to cast shadows onto the tent walls that they used as screens. The use of these puppets may have been continued among the nomadic peoples because of the ease with which the small figures could be packed up to use in ceremonies in their next location. Shadow puppetry may have been brought to Java, an island in Indonesia, by Buddhist missionaries accompanying Indian kings that invaded the island in the 6th century. Despite being introduced by an outside culture, shadow puppetry rapidly became a sophisticated and complex art form in Java that was distinct from other cultures’ puppetry traditions. [1]

Traditional Javanese shadow puppet (or wayang kulit) performances would take place over a course of up to 41 days and told epic stories that communicated philosophical and moral values of Javanese culture. The master shadow puppeteer, or dalang, would start each performance with an incantation. The solo puppeteer would be accompanied by an extensive musical ensemble that helped set the tone for each scene. The ensemble also played specific tunes to announce the entrance of new characters in the play. [1]

bellaspen_106967_9644658_blog post image 7A shadow puppet master, or dalang, mid-performance (http://beta.indonesia.travel/en/post/the-riveting-wayang-kulit-shadow-puppet-shows-of-java-and-bali)

In Javanese culture, the shadow puppet exhibits multifunctionality by serving as a theatrically functional tool of Javanese shadow puppetry while also serving as a store of philosophical and religious values. The “theatrical functionality of figures” is vitally important to the continuation of the shadow puppetry tradition in Java. [1] The assembly of Javanese shadow puppets includes movable joints and controlling rods because the main component of any shadow puppet’s value is its functionality. The shadow puppet in the Sam Noble Museum’s collection exemplifies ease of mobility with operating joints and coordination rods. The puppets are viewed as tools for the trade-like tradition of shadow puppet performance. As with any other traditional trade or art form, masters of shadow puppetry mentor young Javanese citizens who are their apprentices and aim to carry on the art form for the next generation. [2] In this way, the tradition and knowledge are passed down from one generation to the next with individual variation, as is indicative of folk culture. In addition to being functional tools, puppets serve as meaningful works of art. Shadow puppets were traditionally considered sacred objects, or pusaka, in Java. [2] Although the puppets are elaborately and intricately constructed and decorated, as exemplified by the Museum’s painted shadow puppet, the puppets also store cultural values that are most clearly communicated through every performance in which the puppets are used.

Shadow puppetry in Javanese culture is used to emphasize moral and philosophical values. One tradition that relates to this function is that Javanese shadow puppet plays begin with the evil characters on the left side of the screen of the play, and noble characters on the right. [1] Another traditional custom is the use of a 2D screen for performances to separate the audience from the play and emphasize the other-worldliness of the events and characters depicted in the show, although 3D screens are among the adaptations included in some modern performances. [2] Today, shadow puppetry is used to communicate the cultural importance and value of global topics such as deforestation and climate change. This is just one example of how new stories are emerging in Javanese shadow puppet repertoire that use many traditional elements and themes but addresses modern-day concerns [3].

 

This is a short video that summarizes the Javanese practice of wayang kulit, and includes clips of actual shadow puppet performances:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfydro4X2t0

 

 

Works Cited:

[1] Chen, Fan Pen. 2003. “Shadow Theaters of the World.” Asian Folklore Studies 62

(1): 25-64. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1179080.

 

[2] Cohen, Matthew Isaac. 2007. “Contemporary ‘Wayang’ in Global Contexts.” Asian

Theater Journal 24 (2): 338-369. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27568418.

 

[3] Diamond, Catherine. 2014. “Whither Rama in the Clear-Cut Forest:

Ecodramaturgy in Southeast Asia.” Asian Theater Journal 31 (2): 574-593.

URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43187442.

 

Additional Reading:

Cohen, Matthew Isaac. 2014. “Introduction: Global Encounters in Southeast Asian

Performing Arts.” Asian Theater Journal 31 (2): 353-368. URL:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/43187430.

 

((Aspen Bell)) Written as part of the ANTH1253 2018 Spring Semester Class Project


Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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