Sunday, December 18, 2011

Chinese Paper Cuts

The history of the art of cutting decorative cuts in paper would naturally begin where paper was invented. Paper's origins are thought to be in ancient China during the Han Dynasty around 105 A.D. At least that is the tradition and it says that Cai Lun, an official attached to the royal court, made a sheet of paper out of various fibers, old fish nets and hemp waste. But there is a piece of paper found made of hemp that dates ca. 170 B.C.E.   Before this there existed papyrus, but it was not paper as we know it as it was a lamination of plant fibers as opposed to paper which is made from fibers that have been broken down.
The earliest examples of paper cuts date back to the 4th century A.D. in the southern provinces of China. The art form became popular as a decorative item in the homes and palaces of royalty, especially at times of festivals and holidays. The art eventually spread to other parts of the world such as Japan, India, and Jewish culture. The art is different in each country it was produced in, according to traditions and art culture of the country.  China is the country with the longest known continuous tradition of paper cutting.  In the rural countryside in China paper cutting was traditionally a female activity.  But many professional paper cutters are now males that work in shops.

The designs cut into paper are varied. From traditional Chinese decorations like Dragons, Phoenix, Cranes, but the subject matter is only restricted by the paper cutters imagination. Many times the paper cuts are in red paper, but there are also multi-colored cuts made with different colored papers and paint. They are all made with simple hand tools, a very sharp-pointed pair of scissors or a very sharp small knife. The paper is sometimes folded and cut, sometimes cut without folding according to the design. It is an exacting art that takes a deft hand, strong fingers and an imaginative eye.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bronze - Ancient And Modern Alloy

Bronze is an alloy that goes back at least to the 4th millennium B.C. Bronze artifacts have been found in what is now known as Iran and Iraq. It was one of the most innovative and important alloys ever created by humans.

It is much harder than pure copper or stone, and for this reason bronze was used to make many different kind of tools, weapons, other kinds of implements, armor, decorative tiles and statues.

Bronze was used to make cannons because it causes very little friction in metal to metal applications. Iron cannon balls could be used in a bronze cannon without any fear of the ball sticking in the barrel. The relatively low melting point of the alloy and its malleability made it the most used type of metal for centuries. So many things were made from it that a period of human history is known as The Bronze Age.

The two main metals that comprise bronze are copper and tin. As these two metals are not commonly found in the same areas, historians think that when the alloy became more widely known and in demand, that this led to increased trade in the ancient world. Most bronze is 88 percent copper and 12 percent tin.

Bronze is still used to make many items today. As it does not generate sparks when struck against a hard surface, it is used to make mallets, hammers, wrenches and other tools used in high explosive areas and areas with flammable vapors. It is also used for springs and all types of bearings, especially bearings for use in small electric motors.

One of the most common uses of the alloy in ancient and modern times is the casting of statues. Highly detailed molds can be used because bronze has some unique characteristics. It expands slightly before it completely sets, thus filling all the finely detailed areas of a mold. Bronze also shrinks slightly when it is completely set, thus making it very easy to remove from molds.

The progression of human learning has created many new things to replace the old. While bronze is not so extensively used as it was in ancient times, there is no modern replacement for it. It is still the best material for certain uses. It is truly an ancient and modern alloy.

Chinese Art and Its Hidden Meanings

Whether it is a painting, wall scroll, hand fan, porcelain or other object, Chinese art can be enjoyed for its unexplainable qualities that make it pleasing to the eye. But the subjects of Chinese art also have ancient meanings. Three Chinese have long taken these meanings into consideration when giving or receiving gifts. Here are a few objects used as subjects in Chinese art, and their meanings:
  • Bats - Bats in western culture most always are thought of in a negative sense. But in China, the bat is a sign of good luck. Two bats are even better - double good luck. The depiction of five bats represents the five blessings of wealth, health, virtue, a long life and a natural death.
  • Carp - In ancient China, Carp represented endurance, perseverance and fortitude. Fish in general were a symbol of happiness, for a fish is always happy in its own environment.
  • Cranes - The crane represents longevity. A pair of cranes represents longevity in a relationship as cranes mate for life.
  • Dragons - Like the bat, dragons in western culture are thought of as bad creatures, while in China they represent positive attributes. The dragon can represent many things. Good fortune, energy, power, and success.
  • Bamboo - The attributes of bamboo are taken from the way it grows in nature. Bamboo is a plant that is delicate yet strong. It bends in the strongest of winds, but seldom breaks. Its delicate leaves over slender stems represent the combination of vitality and durability.
  • Peony - Most Chinese flowers are associated with love and female beauty. The peony is also known as the 'flower of wealth and honor' in China.
  • Lotus - A sacred symbol of Buddhism, the lotus rises out of the muddy river and lake bed into a representation of purity and perfection.
  • Pine Tree - Holds it greenery year-round thus represents longevity and endurance. It is also a hardy tree, and represents ongoing life in the face of adversity.
  • Tiger - Bravery, courage and strength.
  • Duck - A symbol of married bliss. A pair of ducks also brings longevity to the marriage. Most birds that are represented in pairs have the attribute of longevity for a relationship.
  • Peach - The fruit of a long and healthy life.

Lost Wax Casting of Bronze

The traditional process used to cast bronze, developed and used 4,000 years ago, is called lost wax casting. This method results in highly detailed, quality castings and has changed very little over the centuries. The method was used by craftsmen and artists from every culture from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt up to today.

This process begins with the object that is to be cast. An artist creates a sculpture from clay or wax as these substances remain soft. These sculptures can be very intricate and finely detailed. A mold is then made of the sculpture, usually in two pieces, sometimes more when a sculpture is very large. Plaster is used on small pieces, but fiberglass is also used, especially for larger sculptures. After the molding material has been applied and it has dried thoroughly, the mold is then opened and the original sculpture is removed. Usually the original is destroyed in this process, as the molding material is very rigid. That is why the original sculpture is made of a soft material so that it can be removed from the mold.

After all of the original sculpture has been removed and the mold cleaned, a thin coating of wax is brushed onto the inside of the mold. This is done to capture every intricate detail of the mold. The mold is then put together, and wax is poured in the mold while it is being slowly rotated. After a layer of wax at least three quarters of an inch forms on the inside of the mold, the rest of the wax is dumped out. When the wax has thoroughly hardened, the mold is removed. The wax cast is then worked on by artisans to ensure that it is as perfect as possible.

The wax casts are then dipped into a mixture of plaster and sand. This is repeated many times. Each dipping has to dry thoroughly before the next. With each successive dip, the sand and plaster mixture gets more coarse. This results in a very strong shell being built up over the wax cast. After these shells have hardened, vents and 'runners' are added to allow the molten bronze to enter the shell, and for gases and excess metal to escape. The shells are then placed into a kiln and baked at very high temperatures. This heat causes the wax inside of the shell to melt away, leaving an exact image of the sculpture in the shell. This gives the process its name of 'lost wax casting'. After baking, the shell is now a mold ready for molten bronze.

Once the bronze has been poured and has cooled, the shell is then carefully chipped away, leaving a cast of the original sculpture in bronze. Any flaws are removed, the sculpture can be buffed and left its natural bronze color, or painted. This process is very labor intensive and expensive, but it results in such fine quality castings that it is still used after 4000 years.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jade - Stronger Than Steel

Some facts and folklore about Jade:
  • What is commonly referred to as Jade is actually two different stones, Nephrite and Jadeite. The difference between the two is in minor chemical composition. Both stones are so similar that only gemologists and mineralogists usually differentiate between them.
  • Pure Jade is white in color. Minor impurities create the familiar green but also the colors yellow, pink, red, violet, orange, brown and blue-green.
  • Although the stone is mostly used for jewelry and decorative items today, in ancient times the toughness and hardness of it made it useful for making tools and weapons. While diamonds and rubies are harder, they are more brittle than Jade. Some say that high quality Jade is harder and tougher than steel.
  • The stone was found in the mountains and river beds of ancient China, and was called The Stone of Heaven. Archaeologists have found objects made of Jade that date back to 5,000 B.C.E. It symbolized the noble bearing of a gentlemen, and served as a talisman for protection. The stone was a treasured gift, and the ancient Chinese also thought of it as a link between the physical and the spiritual world. Ancient Chinese Emperors would use Jade disks in rituals to speak to the gods.
  • The stone was not only used in ancient China for tools and weapons, but in Europe as well. As other materials were developed for tool and weapon making, Jade fell out of use in ancient Europe and was abandoned. Other materials for tools and weapons were also found in China, but the Chinese did not abandon the stone. They used it to make objects for ornamental and ritualistic purposes.
  • The working of Jade was already highly developed during the Shang Dynasty in China, 1751 B.C.E. - 1111 B.C.E.
  • Jade is currently found and mined in the following locations: The mountains of western China, Poland, Burma, The Alps in Italy, India, Switzerland, Alaska, and Russia.
  • One school of thought concerning the origin of the word Jade says that when the Spanish Conquistadors came to South America they saw the stone being worn on the loincloths of the natives, and called it piedra de hijada, which means the stone of the loin, but there is much conjecture about this word origin.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Chinese Dragon Tortoise

Dragons and tortoises are two of the most powerful symbols in Chinese mythology. The Dragon itself stands for many things. Wealth, fertility, positive energy and immortality are but a few of the symbolic meanings. The Dragon is a positive influence, most often a benevolent creature in Chinese mythology, unlike the fire-breathing evil dragons as portrayed in Western mythology.

The tortoise represents longevity, of steadfast effort, of deliberate action that inevitably leads to success. The combination of the Dragon and Tortoise combines the qualities of both animals into a potent symbol of success and longevity.

The Dragon tortoise is portrayed with the head of a dragon and the body of a tortoise. There is usually a small turtle on the back of the tortoise shell, and the dragon tortoise is standing on a pile of coins and precious metal ingots. There is very often a coin in the dragon's mouth.

This symbol is used in Feng Shui for decorating homes and offices. Because of the incredible energy this symbol represents, it is recommended that it not be placed in any room of rest, such as a bedroom. Have the painting or figurine of the dragon tortoise hanging on or near the east wall of the room it is used in. Any area that is used as an office is a good place for a dragon tortoise. Also any area that creative work or research is done is a good place for one.

Whether represented in a painting, or a figurine of wood, metal, crystal or stone, the Dragon Tortoise symbolizes good fortune and longevity.

Quan Yin - Total Compassion and Loving Kindness

Quan Yin is the Chinese translation for the Indian Sanskrit name of Avalokiteshvara, one of the four great Bodhisattvas (true enlightened ones) of Buddhism. The original Sanskrit name means "He who looks upon the world with compassion". The Chinese name means "One who hears the cries of the world".
In India, Avalokiteshvara is portrayed as being male. Some statues to him have many heads, many arms and hands with an eye in each palm. This represents his ability to hear and see anyone that needs help, and his ability with his many hands to help.

Since the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907 AD), Quan Yin is most often portrayed as female, perhaps because compassion and loving kindness are traditionally feminine traits in China. She is represented in many different ways. Sometimes pouring a stream of water from a vase, representing the healing power of loving kindness that she gives to all. Other times holding a sheaf of wheat or rice, representing fertility. Very often she is accompanied by dragons, an ancient symbol of spirituality, wisdom and virtue. She has also been portrayed with an infant in her arms or on her lap. As in India, she is also portrayed on occasion with many arms, hands and heads.

Quan Yin is but one way to spell her name. She is also known as Kuan Yin, Guan Yin, Kannon, and many others. While the names are varied, the compassion and loving kindness she represents is common to all Buddhist philosophies. In Buddhist tradition, Quan Yin vowed to stay in the earthly realms to help everyone, until they have all completed their cycle of birth-death-rebirth, and found enlightenment. It is why she is also beloved as a mother figure, for she has decided to stay in the earthly realms to help as a mother would with her children. Her role has been compared to that of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus.

Folk beliefs in some areas of China believe that she has her own sacred place, a mountain called Putuo Mountain, in Zhejaing province. There are many legends of her that tell of the miracles she performs, miracles that convey the idea of a truly enlightened being that consists of an all inclusive, unwavering compassion and loving kindness given freely to everyone. She hears the cries of everyone and can appear in any form whenever and wherever a being needs help.

The meditations to Quan Yin by Buddhists are simple. A focus on treating everything with loving kindness, of being compassionate and helping all that are in need, are the Quin Yin truths. To meditate on the positive attributes of compassion for all, treating all with genuine loving kindness, can transform anyone into it, and bring more peace into the world.

About Me

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Worked in a steel mill for 30 years. Amateur chef, piano player, book reader, letter writer, gardener, peace advocate.