Treasures of China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 April, 2008, 12:00am

Treasures of China

by John Chinnery

Duncan Baird, HK$295

With fast-paced, globally connected lives now de rigueur, the intricacies of a carved bowl or a hair adornment that may have been part of a burial ritual 2,000 years ago provoke a particular fascination. One wonders how the people of the Song or Yuan dynasties lived, the sense of what their world was like and the art and culture they created. Lives would have been far shorter than today's; for most people, their lives would have been about their village or town and the surrounding area. They would have died where they were born and their children after them.

But as John Chinnery shows in Treasures of China, The Glories of the Kingdom of the Dragon, China throughout the millennia has produced artefacts, sculptures, paintings and jewellery that show a civilisation that has left travellers and observers from afar awestruck for centuries.

Chinnery guides the reader through 4,000 years of China's civilisation, through its art, culture and religion; the text is interspersed with sumptuous illustrations of paintings and maps of the rivers that provided the fertile land, plus photographs of sculptures, artworks, carvings, pottery and porcelain.

Chinnery begins with the Shang and Zhou dynasties and explains the landscape of China. It becomes more interesting in the past 1,000 years and the surprise of seeing how just under a millennium ago how many people were on the move and travelling long distances.

For example, he describes how many people from different parts of the world made their way to China during the Yuan dynasty; this was the era of Venetian traveller Marco Polo, although there are doubts about his China travels. But many Chinese were also travelling to other parts of the world to set up communities and businesses.

However, there's not a word about Chinnery, which is a shame because apparently he has been teaching Sino topics for more than half a century.

There are illustrations and beautiful maps and no money has been spared on the printing, with often a gold background. Seeing such intricate and sumptuous items that required often hundreds of hours of patience makes it all the more tragic to think of the revolution that was to follow that would think nothing of destroying such precious work.

There's the first use of polychrome for carving in the 15th century and the intricate gold items during the Ming period, including intricate filigree items that were used for headdresses.

Chinnery includes the embroidered mandarin squares - embroidered badges of rank used on the robes of civil and military robes until the end of the imperial period in 1911. While there are

some impressive jade and gold items in the early times, the delight is in looking at the beautiful and intricate patterns of the Qing dynasty porcelain, particularly under art enthusiast emperor Qianlong. These items took months to craft, paint and glaze, a concept that is a bit beyond our manufacturing age.