Decorative Arts and Leisure

decorative arts objects


The Chinese people use their leisure time in ways very similar to Western lifestyles. They enjoy games and toys, fly kites, enjoy music, and are known world wide for their puppetry arts. As it was in other elements of Chinese culture, the wealthy in particular were surrounded daily by beautiful objects of intricately carved ivory, jade, and blown glass.

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paper bird kite

The Chinese have flown kites for at least 2,500 years. Kites were originally made of wood, then silk and bamboo. After the invention of paper, it became the favored material. According to legend, the military used kites for reconnaissance in the second century B.C. Later, kites became objects for pure enjoyment.

The main flying season occurs from the Chinese New Year (January and February) through "Qingming" (March or April) because of favorable winds. After that, kite flying is halted due to great clouds of yellow dust that blow down from the deserts north of Beijing.

Paper kite - purchased on a trip to China in the 1980s.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of Herbert Hoover III, San Marino, California



framed shadow puppet

Shadow puppetry was an ancient art, first popular in China between the 7th and 9th centuries, and revived in 1949 by the People's Republic of China. Each region has its own style of shadow puppetry. The puppets from Peking, for instance, are intricately carved from the bellies of donkeys and then painted. With removable heads, a character can go through a costume change simply by putting the head on another costume.

The shadows are actually silhouettes projected onto a screen that is known as the "ying chuang" or "screen of death." In ancient times, it was believed that the heads of the puppets needed to be removed when the puppets were not in use to prevent them from coming to life without their puppeteer.

Shadow Puppet - man pushing a cart, Peking. No date.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of the Center for Puppetry Arts, Atlanta, Georgia



Ancestor Worship

From ancient times, jade was the most revered stone in China, believed to be possessed of magical properties and valued for its beauty and indestructibility. By the Qing Dynasty, intensive specialization in the jade workshop made it was possible for an artist to devote an entire lifetime to the perfection of a single task.

Jade is harder than most minerals, and must be abraded rather than carved. After the shape is roughly defined, it is polished with successively finer grits until the desired surface is achieved. Jadeite and nephrite are two different types of jade, also, jade is not always green-hued but is often multi-colored. Examples here attest to the mastery of the Chinese jade carver.

jade animals
glass bird

Miniature animals - carved of many different types and colors of jade. Collected by Herbert Hoover for his granddaughter, Lou.
--Artifact on loan courtesy of Lou Hoover and Margaret C. Hoover, Portola Valley, California

Glass bird - with a blue breast, yellow and brown wings, green tail. Gift to Richard Nixon from the People's Republic of China, 1972.
----Artifact on loan courtesy of the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, College Park, Maryland


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