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Appreciation of Chinese Art and Design

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6 Appreciation of Chinese Art and Design - Symmetry in Chinese Art and Design

Symmetry has been widely used in various contexts. In traditional Chinese art and design, the concept of symmetry is one of the most important aesthetic principles. Symmetrical beauty is derived from nature, i.e., law of nature in Taoism. The human body and almost all animals are symmetric, which shows a beauty of health and balance. Rather asymmetry leaves people an impression of displeasure. Symmetry is also the manifestation of Chinese philosophy of harmony and zhongyong (the Mean thought) in Confucianism. The aesthetic principle of symmetry in Chinese art is similar to the “Golden Rule” in the West, the aim of which is to achieve balance. This essay aims to discuss the aesthetic principle of symmetry used in Traditional Chinese Art and Design, including ancient Chinese Bronze artwork, ancient Chinese architecture and Chinese paper cutting.

I. Symmetry in Ancient Chinese Bronze artwork
Bronzes basically can be classified into four types in terms of function: food vessels, wine vessels, water vessels and musical instruments. Various shapes and designs can be found in each type, fully demonstrating the creativity and skills of the ancient people. Despite of this, symmetry was used as a universal basic aesthetic principle. Ancient Chinese bronzes stressed balance and symmetry of form, and communicated solemnity and ceremony.
Among the various kinds of bronze vessels, ding is a significant category. Originally ding was used as food vessel and later evaluated to sacrificial vessel. Ding was describes as a kind vessel with three feet and two ears in Shuo Wen Jie Zi by XU Shen. Actually, most of the ding have three feet while some have four, like the famous Si Mu Wu Ding. In the Age of Copper of the Chinese history, Ding was regarded as ware of nation founding and the symbol of nation, representing supreme royal power. With the extinction of a nation, Ding must be moved. When Shang Dynasty extinct and Zhou Dynasty flourished, Dings were moved from Bo Jing to Hao Jing, which is the capital of Zhou.
Figure 1
The pattern applied on ding basically consists of taotie and clouds. Taotie, also known as “beast of gluttony”, is a ferocious creature combining all sorts of animal characteristics in the natural world. Usually taotie is at the center of the centre, surrounded by clouds. The fierce beast taotie is overlooking the mortal world from the sky, with its body hidden in the clouds. Thus only the head of taotie appear on the bronzes, and the body never appears. The taotie mask patterns have appeared frequently since Liangzhu Culture and are diverse from one to another. Despite the various types, the taotie mask patterns are usually symmetric. Generally, the patterns mark the bridge of nose as the center line and both sides are situated in a symmetrical fashion. The integral shape of taotie pattern usually appears to be gorgeous and gives people a feeling of solemnity. Figure 1 shows a bronze tripod ding, which was cast in the Shang Dynasty, used as a food vessel. Raised on three columnar supports, the deep rounded body of the ding was cast in low relief between the legs with three taotie masks below a band of four pairs of bird-headed dragons, all reserved on a leiwen ground and centered on and separated by vertical flanges, with a pair of bail handles rising from the rim, with mottled greenish patina. From this figure, it can be discovered that the taotie pattern is symmetric and leaves people an impression of ferocious, mysterious and terrible. Actually, symmetry adds to the majesty and prestige of the taotie pattern.

II. Symmetry in ancient Chinese architecture
Although only a small portion of the Chinese architecture survived from antiquity, it can be determined that symmetry has been adopted one of the basic principles of traditional Chinese architecture design, using archaeological evidence.
Figure 2
The basic feature of Chinese architecture is rectangular-shaped units of space joined together into whole. Quadrangle dwelling in Beijing is a model, as Figure 2 Shows. It can be seen that the main structure of the quadrangle dwelling is the axis, and the secondary structures are positioned as two wings on either side to form the main rooms and yard. In spite that the content of the quadrangle dwelling can be complex, consisting of meticulous design of the eaves and walls as well as windows and doors, the structure is quite simple. LIU Xiaoshi, a leading architect active in the preservation of old Beijing, once said "The design, layout and material of the old houses here reflect the ancient philosophy of harmony between humans and heaven."
Figure 3
Quadrangle dwelling in Beijing demonstrates the combination of units of space in traditional Chinese architecture abiding by the principles of balance and symmetry. Similarities can be found in other examples like the Forbidden City. Figure 3 shows the air view of the Forbidden City. It’s apparent the whole Forbidden City is bilateral symmetrical on the axis. The axis is from Meridian Gate to Xuanwu Gate, and is coincident with the axis of the city of Beijing. On the axis situated the most significant palaces of the architectural complex, consisting of the three front halls and the three back halls of both outer and inner courts. Symmetry to some degree adds to the stateliness and magnificence of the architectural complex. More importantly, symmetry helps to divide the different palaces into different status according to the function and the master.
The concern with symmetry in ancient Chinese architecture not only can be seen from the integral structure, it can also been viewed merely from the archways or doorways of many buildings.
Paifang is an example of bilateral symmetry which is by far the most common form of symmetry in architecture. It is an ancient arch made of wood or stone and inlaid with glazed tiles. Its origin can be dated back to Zhou Dynasty. Originally Paifang served as a marker for the entrance of building complexes, temples, parks, or towns. Later it was built as decoration. In many situations, paifang are also made in memory of someone for their merits and virtues. Figure 4 shows the Zhishi Xuanyue paifang located in Hubei Province. It is the first gate leading to the Wudang Mountain, symbolizing the partition of mortal world and fairy land. From the figure it can seen that the Figure 4 paifang is symmetric, which shows the beauty of balance and leaves people an impression of virility, stateliness and primitive simplicity.
Figure 5
Apart from bilateral symmetry, Rotational symmetry can also be seen in ancient Chinese architecture. Figure 5 shows the round house made of earth in Fujian Province. The round houses, also known as Toulou, is a large, enclosed and fortified earth building, circular in configuration, with very thick load-bearing rammed earth walls between three and five stories high and housing up to 80 families. It is a category of Large-scale residential buildings. The architectural composition of rotational symmetry of round houses not only appears to be majestic from the outside, but also involve precise and ordered design of the interior. The rotational symmetry design fulfilled the creation of centripetalism, emphasizing the significance of the central position of the huge patio, which demonstrating the Hakka’s value of clan collectivism.

III. Symmetry in Chinese Paper Cutting
Paper Cutting is a kind of folk art in China. The origin of paper cutting can be dated back to the story of jiantongfengdi in Shih Chi by SimaQian. In the story, phoenix tree leaf was used as the material instead of paper to cut the image of jade tablet, which is used for ritual services more than two thousand years ago. Primarily, symmetry is adopted in Chinese paper cutting as a skill. With the method of replicating, paper cutting become more efficient and as consequence the image become symmetric. As Figure 6 shows, the pattern is 4-fold rotational symmetry, but actually it only costs the cutting in 1-fold area.
Figure 7
Figure 6
However, symmetry in Chinese paper cutting is more than a skill, it also serves as an aesthetic principle and has rich connotations.
Chinese culture values even number since it conveys the meaning of completeness and jollity. The paper cutting shown in Figure 7 involves the Chinese letter “Red Double Happiness”. It adopted reflection symmetry and thus the bilateral sides of the pattern are mirror symmetrical to each other. It is apparent that the paper cutting successful expressed the theme of feast by adopting the principle symmetry.

As shown through the analysis of various examples in Chinese art and design, including ancient Chinese Bronze artwork, ancient Chinese architecture and Chinese paper cutting, symmetry perpetuates itself for its mark of balance, Zhongyong, harmony. The three topics discussed in the essay demonstrated the various category of symmetry, the significant role it plays in Chinese art as well as its rich connotation. Hence it can be seen that symmetry as an aesthetic principle has close relationship with the core value of Chinese culture and philosophy and that the significance of symmetry in Chinese art and design cannot be ignored.

References: Hakka Earthen Fortresses (tulou), (2008), Retrieved on 29th, November, 2010 from Ancient Arches (Paifang), (2003), Retrieved on 1st, December, 2010 from The Art of Chinese Bronzes - ancient Chinese bronze artwork, (2007), Retrieved on 1st, December, 2010 from Cultural-China: A Bronze Tripod Ding, (2007), Retrieved on 28th, November, 2010 from Dorothy K. Washburn & Donald W. Crowe, (1998), Symmetries of Culture: Theory and Practice of Plane Pattern Analysis, United States of America: University of Washington.

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