Lavishly illustrated history of Chinese floral art provides practical suggestions for applying traditional methods to modern settings. Features include: selecting flowers for symbolic qualities and beauty, complementing an arrangement with an appropriate vase and accessories, plus 42 illustrations that span centuries of Chinese paintings, prints, tapestries, porcelains.
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Chinese Flower Arrangements
By H.L. Li
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Influences Producing the Chinese Style
THE FLOWER AND GARDEN ARTS of China, like Chinese painting and music, like Chinese poetry and philosophy, are expressions of the artistic and literary genius of the people, an aspect of Chinese culture. According to the basic concept of Chinese philosophy, man is conceived as only one of the manifestations of nature and he is designed eventually to return to the cosmic element. This basic feeling of harmony, with nature, furthered by the introduction of Buddhism from India in the first centuries after Christ, has become the dominant force in Chinese culture and history.
Because of the universal love of natural scenery and beautiful plants, ornamental gardening in China has largely developed along the line of idealization of natural scenery. Nature in the Orient is remembered in its entirety, the hills and streams as well as the trees and blossoms. Thus gardening becomes an effort to bring mountains and lakes to one's own courtyard by arranging rocks and trees and water to suggest an image of nature. In the quiet seclusion of these gardens, a man can repose in peace, contemplating the diverse moods of nature, and be inspired by its beauty and serenity. And by identifying himself with the cosmos, he can find new strength and happiness.
This naturalistic pattern of the Chinese garden has become the traditional style and remains to this day. Limitation of space imposed upon the average Chinese garden is apparently responsible in part for this trend.
Naturally, not every Chinese home could boast of a garden, yet the universal and intense appreciation of natural beauty has made it desirable that every home have some sort of planted area. Those who have limited means make their own small courtyard a miniature landscape. A few trees, artistically arranged with some shrubs and flowers, bring nature to the doorway of nearly every house. Thus developed the miniature courtyard gardens.
This tendency is carried further into the development of table plants or dish gardening and flower arrangement, designed primarily for interior decoration. It is a real and final effort to integrate nature with the daily life of every household desirous of having such an enjoyment.
The culture of table plants is collectively called in China "P'en-tsai," meaning pot or tray culture, or "P'en-ching," meaning tray landscape or scenes in vessels. Introduced into Japan, the former becomes "Bon-sai" in Japanese pronunciation, and the latter "Bon-kei," terms now better known to the western world than their Chinese prototypes.
Development of Floral Art
The exact origin of the art of tray gardening in China is not known. The art was evidently already quite advanced in the T'ang dynasty (618-906 A.D.). Tray gardens were frequently depicted in paintings of the Sung dynasty (960-1279). They appear even on porcelains of the sixteenth century preserved to this day, indicating their long and wide usage as decorations by that time. (Plate 3.)
Apparently flower art was well developed in the early T'ang dynasty, at the end of the seventh and especially during the eighth centuries.
During the T'ang period, China reached the most powerful and prosperous age in her history, and her boundaries were expanded greatly in all directions. The prosperity and grandeur of T'ang China attracted emissaries, traders, and travelers from such distant countries as Greece, Arabia, India and Persia. The culture spread to Japan, Korea, Annam and Tibet. In China, during the short-lived Sui dynasty (589-618 A.D.) preceding the T'ang, printing was invented. In the T'ang dynasty, the greatest accomplishments were achieved in literature. Also at this time, there occurred a fundamental change in art, especially in painting, as flowers became more commonly represented, replacing animals and other motifs of mystic origins of the early arts. Garden art was also highly developed. Many new flowers, such as the celebrated Moutan Peony, were domesticated in the gardens for ornamental purposes.
The artistic Sung dynasty, which lasted for nearly three centuries from 960, was politically and militarily a weak one, but culturally one of the most splendid. It was a creative epoch in literature, philosophy and art. Garden art and floral art were both most highly developed. The use of flowers and plant materials for ornamentation and decoration, such as dish gardening and floral arrangement, also reached the highest level.
Construction of Dish Gardens
Dish gardens or miniature landscapes, developed at least thirteen centuries ago, are still very popular today. They are now generally made of stones and small plants placed in wide tray-like containers of bronze, porcelain or marble, varying in size from several inches to about two feet in length.
The construction of these tray gardens, from the oldest as depicted in ancient paintings, to the latest as appear in the market today, is very similar to that of a large garden. The main part is made up of curiously shaped rocks, suggesting in miniature jagged mountains and towering cliffs. A few plants or dwarfed trees or tufts of mosses grow out of the rock crevices, suggesting a forest. Miniature toys, such as little temples, houses, bridges, cottages, boats and figures, give life to the scene. The whole scenery is composed according to the principles and conventions of landscape gardening.
Pottery and Porcelain
The early development of floral art in China was apparently stimulated and aided in part by the artistic pottery and porcelain. It is but natural that ancient artists and craftsmen exploited fully the versatility and utility of these wares as vessels for growing and arranging plants and flowers. The relative inexpensiveness of ceramics in comparison with bronze, ivory and marble profoundly extended the popularity of floral decoration as an art among the general populace.
Influence of Buddhism
Although garden art was originated in China indigenously from very early times, it was subsequently modified by foreign influence, notably the introduction of Buddhist culture. Buddhism, infiltrated into China from India, exercised at about the fourth and fifth centuries profound effect on Chinese garden and floral art, as well as on other aspects of culture. The great appreciation of nature was intensified by monastery architecture and gardening. New symbols and ideas in decorative art were gradually adopted. Flower arrangement received new inspiration and designs from the Buddhist passion for flowers and the carefully executed temple offerings. The artistic inclination and infinite patience and leisure of the priesthood contributed much toward the perfection of the art of dwarfing trees for miniature gardening.
Differences in China and Japan
Chinese horticulture and floral art were introduced into Japan around the sixth century and continued for several centuries thereafter. The effort of Buddhist missionaries was most significant. In Japan, floral art eventually developed into a quite distinct and much more stylized form than in China, heavily vested in rituals and conventions. Various schools have since appeared developing different techniques and using somewhat different materials. The different types of productions have also received distinct names and codes.
Floral art, though of much lesser importance than painting, the dominant art in the Orient, is primarily a form of pictorial art and follows the same general principles. In China, through the centuries, floral art has not become so restrained and formalized as in Japan. Its aim is to charm and to delight. There are no rigid codes and rules or ceremonial formalities. It, like Chinese painting, is primarily subjective, expressing the artist's own emotions as well as the intrinsic nature of the scene. It does not require rigorous observation of conventions as in some schools of Japanese arrangement.
Furthermore, floral decoration in China is not considered in itself an isolated object. It is but one of the details that merge into a complete scenery. For this reason, it is important that the arrangement of plants and flowers be made with due respect to their surroundings. Flower arrangement is closely associated with other table decorations, such as rocks, feathers, and all kinds of curios. It is also closely associated with furnishings, either flower tables to be used for it exclusively, or other furniture, such as tables and bookcases, that are often designed for combined use with floral decorations.
Effect of Architecture
The widely varied architecture of the Japanese and Chinese houses accounts to a very great extent for the differences in the flower arrangements of the two countries. The Japanese house is generally a frame house. The rooms are small and are usually separated by sliding removable screen walls. They are covered with mats on the ground and are without chairs and other furniture except a few low tables. Floral arrangement is the main objective of decoration and the dominant feature of the living room. At the corner furthest from the entrance is a small alcove, on the rear wall of which hangs a picture scroll. In front of the scroll is a single vase with an appropriate flower arrangement. (Plate II.)
As a result of the dominant importance and, consequently, the specialized development of flower arrangement in Japan, some of the influential schools have gone far into extreme and exaggerated curves so that the lines often appear too unnatural. In China, flower arrangement is generally more simple in nature and is more like that of the older schools in Japan, which were actually closer to their Chinese prototypes.
The architecture of the Chinese house is quite different from that of the Japanese. The Chinese house is built of brick on a wooden frame. Because of the customary large families, it is often of very large size, divided into many compounds, each with its own enclosed courtyard and sharing the one or more large reception halls. The rooms are permanently partitioned by walls. All rooms are furnished according to their nature. The interior decoration of the reception hall is more or less formalized, while that of the study and other rooms is not. The different rooms, with wide assortment of furniture and other decorations, offer innumerable possibilities for interior arrangement. Floral ornamentations are made in complete harmony with the surroundings. They are never the only or dominant feature of decoration, but something to be integrated with the entire interior, thus forming an indispensable background of the household life. These floral decorations for the interior include ordinary potted plants and lasting or temporary table gardens, as well as arrangements of flowers and plants in vases and other containers. (Plate I.)
Flower arrangement is thus closely associated and is to be made especially in harmony with furniture in interior decoration. A large vase invariably stands on the long table set against the inner wall of the main reception room. Table plants and vase flowers are often placed on large or small tables, combination book-curio cases, or flower stands. (Plates 4, 20, IV & V.)
Special Flower Stands
Flower stands are exceedingly variable in size and pattern. They may range from small ones to be placed on large tables to larger ones that stand on the ground by themselves. They are generally of "mahogany" color and with a highly polished surface like most other furniture. Though of endless variations, on the whole these stands emphasize the idea of simplicity of line, as is characteristic of Chinese furniture in general, and are strongly in conformity with the idea of contemporary furniture. There are also some special novel pieces for flower decoration. There is a type of detachable and divisible curio-and-flower- stand, or table, which offers a great diversity of arrangement. These have different patterns, such as triangular pieces which together form a square, rectangular or polygonal shaped table in infinite variations. There is also a round table consisting of two semi- circular tables. When combined, the table is big enough for playing cards or for serving tea. When separated into two pieces and placed against the wall, the pieces can be used for table plants or vase flowers.
Scenes with Plants "P'enching"
The culture of table plants undoubtedly had its precise origin in ordinary potted plants. In some cases the distinction between potted plants and table plants is not at all clear. However, in table culture, the chief aim is to present a naturalistic scenery in miniature, whether it consists of one or more plants, or whether it is decorated with stones or other objects. A single culture portrays a scene or scenery that is reminiscent of some famous mountain retreat, or suggestive of some general aspects of hills and forests and lakes, the general idea of which being most appropriately conveyed by the name "P'en-ching" or tray landscaping. (Plate VIA.)
On the other hand, some table plants, especially those that are not of lasting nature, are not clearly distinguishable from flower arrangements. The use of cut flowers and twigs in vases, which is the most important version of flower arrangement, is clearly distinct. But the use of whole plants in trays and dishes is on the borderline between table culture and flower arrangement.
In general, table plants are more permanent plantings consisting of naturally small-sized plants or of larger plants dwarfed for the purpose. Frequent use of rocks is made, while flower arrangements include the use of all cut flowers and branches as well as the temporary use of plants of natural size. The distinction is not entirely necessary, as the two types can often be combined into one or used side by side, and the making of these cultures and arrangements follows exactly the principles of pictorial art.
Flower Arrangements in Old Books
The sources of our information on flower arrangement as practiced by the Chinese in the past can be derived from scattered references to the subject in the very voluminous literature on horticulture. There are also several outstanding books on flower arrangement. The most important is P'ing Hua Pu, or A Treatise of Vase Flowers, written by Chang Ch'ien-tê and published in 1595. It is the best work devoted exclusively to flower arrangement. It deals with vessels of all kinds, grading of flowers, technique of cutting and arranging branches, and methods for preserving flowers in vases. Another important work is called P'ing Shih, or History of Vases, by Yuan Hung-tao (known also as Yuan Chung- lang), who also lived at the end of the sixteenth century. He was a scholar and painter, and this work was also highly valued in Japan. It, also, deals with various kinds of vessels, grading and arranging flowers, and technique in watering and bathing flowers. It describes certain conditions that are compatible and incompatible to flowers, and circumstances in which flowers can be best enjoyed and appreciated. A third work entitled P'ing Shih Yüeh Piao, or Monthly Calendar of Vase Flowers, written by T'u Pêng-tsün in the early seventeenth century, lists in tabular form the different kinds of flowers available for arrangement in the twelve months of the year.
Many treatises on plants and flowers for arrangement are also found in books dealing with the art of living. For instance, Tsun Shêng Pa Chien, or Eight Discourses on the Art of Living, written by Kao Lien-shêng in 1591, has interesting studies on vases, flowers, and flower arrangement. Another book called Ch'ang Wu Chih, or Records of Excellent Creations, written in the early seventeenth century by Wen Chêng-hêng, contains an excellent chapter on choice flowers and ornamental plants and their uses in making arrangements and table cultures. A more recent work is Fu Shêng Liu Chih, or Six Chapters of a Floating Life, by Shen Fu of the nineteenth century. In this now famous notebook, there is also a very interesting section on flower arrangement and related subjects.
A translation of Chang Ch'ien-tê's complete text is given in Appendix I. Excerpts from Yuan Hung-tao's work, as well as from other references mentioned above, are freely translated and quoted in the other chapters of this book.
In Paintings Prints Wood Cuts
Classical flower arrangement can also be studied from Chinese paintings and prints. The artistic Sung dynasty of the eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the greatest manifestation in painting as well as gardening and flower art. Flower paintings became very popular. From among the works of artists of the T'ang, Sung and later dynasties, many fine compositions of flower arrangement are now preserved in museums and private collections around the world. Flower arrangements are especially common as details in interior and courtyard scenes in painting. (Plates 2, 4 & 20.)
Excerpted from Chinese Flower Arrangements by H.L. Li. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Table of Figures,
About Chinese Floral Arts and This Book,
I - Influences Producing the Chinese Style,
II - Hsieh Ho's Six Canons,
III - Design and Composition,
IV - Selective Association and Mechanics,
V - Symbolism in Flowers,
VI - Flowers and Plants for Arrangement,
VII - Table Landscapes,
VIII - Plants for Table Decoration,
IX - Vases, Pots and Trays,
X - Rocks and Other Accessories,
XI - Enjoyment of Flowers,,
Appendix I - A Treatise of Vase Flowers by Chang Ch'ien-tê,
Appendix II - A List of Common Chinese Flowers,,
Appendix III - Chinese Dynasties,