Things Chinese: Antiques, Crafts, Collectibles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am


Things Chinese: Antiques, Crafts, Collectibles
by Ronald Knapp

Next time you pick up a pair of chopsticks, take a moment to think about their history. You will have in your hand eating utensils that are one of China's ancient inventions - and oldest exports. Later taken up by Japan, Korea, Vietnam and beyond, the earliest pair discovered, made of metal and bone, date back to the Shang dynasty (1600-1100BC). But it is likely that perishable wood and - almost certainly - bamboo chopsticks predated them by at least 1,000 years.

Things Chinese, an introduction to the country's many and varied cultural objects, provides an absorbing guide to the history of these humble utensils and many other things used in Chinese homes, or to be found in the shops selling antiques, crafts and collectibles.

Ronald Knapp, professor emeritus at the State University of New York at New Paltz, describes the history and cultural significance relating to 60 objects, from woks to wedding baskets and mahjong sets to cigarette posters.

The text to the slender book is briskly written and informative and nicely complemented with Michael Freeman's fine colour photography.

Knapp, an author of numerous books on China, reveals that the traditional word for chopsticks, zhu - which, in the north, inauspiciously sounds like characters meaning 'to stop', or 'be stuck' - led them to be called kuaizi (two characters pronounced the same as words meaning 'fast-moving thing'). Both zhu and kuai use a bamboo radical (word root) - a clue to the first source material.

The English use of the word 'chopsticks' is thought to reflect a link with 'chop-chop' - or kuai kuai - the Chinese pidgin English expression for 'to hurry' and 'be fast'.

Knapp explains fung shui, the use of stone guardian lions outside buildings, and the Chinese fascination with singing and fighting crickets - insects that mark the change of seasons - which is matched only by people's efforts to trap the insects in containers and cages; the similarly sounding Chinese word, xi, for both the insects and joy, means crickets have a history as a propitious decorative motif and as pets in the home.

Kites - adopted as popular recreational activity by ordinary people during the Tang dynasty (618-907) - were actually first used in warfare in China to allow men to soar high enough to spy on enemies more than 2,000 years ago.

We learn that rice-pattern chinaware is not produced by embedding actual rice grains in the clay, which are vaporised when fired; the patterns are made by a skilled, repetitive process using a sharp instrument to repeatedly mark holes, which are slowly closed by layer upon layer of clear glaze.

Confucius valued jade greatly and declared that 'a gentleman always carries a jade pendant'. While Westerners search for luminescent green jade as the only 'authentic' form, Chinese connoisseurs appreciate many different colours, including black, blue and white, says Knapp. Crude jade reproductions found on market stalls are considered commonplace and cheap.

Yet the real thing is rightly prized: at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, athletes making it onto the prize-giving rostrum discovered their medals included jade inserts on the back.

Gram for gram, Knapp notes, the finest jade outpaces even gold in monetary value.