At the Beginnings of Art – Precious Cargoes from Cathay

Italian adventurer, Marco Polo, perpetuated the western predilection for exotic goods in the European mind from early in the thirteenth century. He related fascinating stories about visiting a far off luxurious land called Cathay.

It was seemingly filled with precious gems, spices and gorgeous silks and lived in by an amenable people who whiled away their hours posing pleasantly in perfect pavilions set in ethereal landscapes.

It is perhaps extraordinary to us today that just one man’s personal view of the East, played such a vital, and in many ways, unique role in the development of international foreign trade and political relations. But it did.

Marco Polo said words to the effect ‘let us now travel into Cathay, so that you may learn something of its grandeurs and treasures’ inspiring the notion at the turn of the fourteenth century that China was a land, unlike any other.

This was an idea that found fertile ground in the imagination of western people.

Far up river in Szechuan, waters rise as spring winds roar. How can I dare to meet her now, to brave the dangerous gorge. The grass grows green in the valley below where silk worms silently spin. Her hands work threads that never end, dawn to dusk when the cuckoo sings*

Traders-of-the-Silk-RoadInitially Europeans could not differentiate between Chinese, Indian, Japanese, South East Asian or Middle Eastern peoples so their vision was very vast, did not reflect the geographic reality and, most of the time their imagination simply ran on overtime.\

Baron Ferdinand Von Richthofen, an accomplished Austrian geologist involved in extensive research on the geology of China during the 19th century, was the man who coined the term The Silk Road to describe the network of ancient trade routes that stretched from as far away as Japan and China diversifying as they passed through India to meet at Constantinople and then merge into a melting pot of various trading ports around the Mediterranean.

Travelling 7000 kilometers Chinese merchants moved a trickle of Chinese export wares regularly and their arrival in Europe provided an opportunity to establish a continuing dialogue between peoples of different cultures.

We know that as early as five centuries before Christ there were reports of peacocks and parrots from the east in Greece and that the Romans discovered silk during the course of a battle in 53 BC with the Parthians. The unfurling of gleaming silk banners by their enemies made a lasting impression and within seven years silk canopies were in use at Julius Caesar’s triumphal entry into Rome.

During the reign of Emperor Augustus it became the passionate predilection of Roman patricians wives to wear silk scandalizing the more conservative members of the senate, such as Seneca reputedly said “I see garments in which there is nothing to cover either the wearer’s body or her shame”.

Farmers in north central China developed a highly specialized activity the production of silk, or Sericulture. Thinker, political figure and educator Confucius in one of his ancient texts tells us that it had emerged around 2700 BC although today’s archaeologists in China have found fragments dating much earlier than that.

Silk filaments are extremely durable, have a tensile strength greater than steel and when unraveled from the cocoon are about a kilometer long.  However each stage of its labour intensive production demands great skill and co-ordination as it is carefully removed from the silk worm’s cocoon, because if the chrysalis emerges during harvesting the continuous filament is severed.

Once harvested it was wound carefully onto a skein that was carded to form floss for padding winter cloths or, otherwise spun to form threads for manufacture of what we would call raw silk.

Silk was so valuable and precious in ancient China you could pay your state taxes with this important commodity and production was strictly controlled to ensure it maintained its prestige and retain its quality during production. Fine silk clothes and furnishings were worn and used on special occasions in life and to honour those in death.

The evolution of Chinese ceramics began by crafting hand-moulded earthenware vessels from mineral-rich clay, containing kaolinite (Al 2[Si 2O5][OH] 4), silica and feldspar elements that occurred naturally in soil and sedimentary rock.

The crystal structure of the minerals allowed them to adapt easily and readily. They could change and by shaping, moulding and modeling the clay it was possible to create every shape imaginable.

Those that would not decay or fall apart during the firing process in the kiln only emphasized that success.

As in Europe using the dates of Kings or Ruling Houses or in China’s case, Dynasties and Emperors were used to assign dates to ceramic wares and their development. This in reality doesn’t work except as a general guideline, since at all stages during their stylistic, and technical development, there was a good deal of overlapping.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011

*Li Po (701-762)


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