China’s Unsung Heroes of Ancient Sculpture and Pottery

Had these unsung heroes of Chinese sculpture and pottery been born in the West, instead of in the more rigidly hierarchical old China, many would surely have become household names there too on the sheer merits of their artistic genius, alongside such European fine art titans like Michelangelo and English potter Josiah Wedgwood.

While China’s 2200-year-old terra-cotta army guarding the colossal mausoleum of its First Emperor, of the Great Wall fame, has been hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, ironically, its teams of  ingenious creators have remained nameless and forgotten by posterity. The same is also true of the master sculptors, whose hands fashioned its world-renowned Buddhist cave masterpieces at Dunhuang, Maijisan, Longmen, Tatung, Yunkang and Dazu. To these must be added numerous other sculptors and potters whose outstandingly varied extant works still proudly adorn China’s ancient temples, shrines, pagodas and significant burial sites spread throughout this vast land.

The ever impressive terra-cotta warriors (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

The ever impressive terra-cotta warriors (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

Just take the cave sculptures as an example. Most of these were commissioned by devout Chinese Buddhists in praise of the glory and benevolence of their faith. Spanning from the 5th to 14th centuries, thousands of these works of unsurpassed artistry have survived China’s turbulent history to haunt and uplift its sacred mountains. In terms of both the quality and quantity of its sculptural wealth, including those buried beneath the ground awaiting future discovery, China must rank as the most prolific and versatile ancient sculpture producing nation on earth.

Who were these unsung heroes and why nothing is known about their antecedents and considerable professional accomplishments? What inspired them to create such things of enduring beauty that have earned them worldwide acclaim? According to Qian Shao Wu, one of China’s leading sculptors of international repute, what is so unique about their artistic achievements is that they were mere common paid workmen who toiled for nothing more than three square meals for themselves and their families. It is therefore not surprising that they were despised by the elites of the land. In old China, where Confucianism and classical learning held sway, only gentleman scholars and officialdom were the creme de la creme of the community. To get there, they must pass successive rigorous imperial examinations and have other recognised credentials.

These hapless sculptors and potters were employed mainly on a project basis. An important prerequisite was that they must have multi-skills. First, they would construct a temple or shrine. That done, they would then cast images of Lord Buddha, other deities, and also famous personages or celebrated folklores in Chinese history. These completed, they would be paid their meagre wages and sent home to await another project work. It was never the Chinese tradition to allow these lowly artisans to carve their names on their creations, as in the West, much less would written records be kept as public recognition for their works. They were paid for their labour and artistic skills and nothing more need to be done for them.

Sadly, the harsh reality was that the works of these ancient Chinese sculptors and potters, exquisite as they are, were unfairly classified as crafts in traditional China, and not as fine arts like calligraphy and painting which were, and still are, regarded as the most exalted art forms in China. These art forms were the favourite pursuits of the Emperor, followed by his high officials, Confucian literati and other elites.

To a large extent, this tradition has continued into the present era, except for those with fine art school qualifications who would not only proudly sign their names on their works but would also seek public endorsement as a concrete testimony of a successful career.

Like the sculptors, ancient Chinese potters were also lowly regarded, even though their best works were coveted by no less than the Son of Heaven himself and the privileged classes. They, too, stayed virtually nameless and forgotten by history. The powerful German Elector of Saxony was reputed to have bartered a battalion of his Grenadier Guards for a set of rare 18th century Kang Hsi Famille Verte vases as a status symbol to adorn his palace. Some of their masterpieces now fetch millions of US dollars at international auctions or at well-known antique shops.

Today, apart from Chinese calligraphy and painting, fine Chinese sculptures and ceramics are also enthusiastically sought by discerning collectors everywhere. Especially valued are Wei and Tang sculptures, ceramic Tang horses and figurines, Song monochromes, Ming blue and white and Qing famille rose porcelain pieces. Their choicest specimens can easily command a king’s ransom or even exceeding it as their finite availability falls far short of the insatiable worldwide demand for them.

If these ancient Chinese sculptors and potters were to be resurrected from their graves and be told the astronomical sums that their erstwhile mundane products are now commanding in the world of collecting, they would surely die an instant second death due to severe sudden shock!

Michelangelo’s Statue of David (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

Michelangelo’s Statue of David (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

On the other side of the globe, the Europeans had always shown more pride and reverence in their sculptors. Western art reached its full bloom in Renaissance Europe of the 15th and 16th centuries. Leading sculptors like Michelangelo became an instant celebrity and a national icon after he created David statue. On the day that his immortal work was first unveiled in the city square of Florence, the mayor and the entire city turned up to marvel at this pristine 5-meter tall  marble statue and to lionise him as its illustrious son. Today, David still proudly presides over Florence’s town square, looking even more stunning and mellowed with age. Millions of tourists worldwide flock there in order to gaze and savour it. As John Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.”

Across the English Channel, England’s 18th century trend setting potter, Josiah Wedgwood, was the foremost practitioner of his days. His works adorned the elegant country estates of the rich and famous and eagerly sought after by the leading museums there. This made him a very wealthy man and a British household name to the present time.

Had these unsung heroes of Chinese sculpture and pottery been born in the West, instead of in the more rigidly hierarchical old China, many would surely have become household names there too on the sheer merits of their artistic genius, alongside such European fine art titans like Michelangelo and English potter Josiah Wedgwood.

Fortunately, perceptions of fine art in China have changed drastically with time. As it becomes increasingly more affluent and open to outside influences, and as Chinese art continues to fascinate art lovers universally, promising Chinese sculptors and potters have already earned their rightful place in society and need no longer hide behind anonymity like their long suffering, forgotten and unrecognised predecessors of the past ages. This should, hopefully, spur the Chinese sculptors and potters to create objects d’art that are as good and enduring as those of the ancient masters.

Among China’s current leading sculptors are Qian Shao Wu, Zhang Yayi, Le Wen Ling, Wu Shaoxiang and Lei Yixin, to name just a few that I know of. Their works are well sought after, both domestically and internationally. It is worth special mention that Lei Yixin won a very significant accolade by being commissioned by the US Government from an international field of eminent candidates to be the sculptor of the 9.1 meter Martin Luther King, Jr statue, which will be erected in the Lincoln Park in Washington DC, the nation’s capital. Dr King was the indomitable civil rights leader whose unwavering effort and unshakable conviction ultimately led to his fellow African-Americans being granted equal rights before the law as the dominant white Americans throughout this vast multi-ethnic country.

Lei Yixin’s “Stone of Hope” at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo source: US National Park Service)

Lei Yixin’s “Stone of Hope” at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo source: US National Park Service)

Lei Yixin’s signature (Photo source: US National Park Service)

Lei Yixin’s signature (Photo source: US National Park Service)

The seemingly controversial choice of Lei was fully justified by the Government as he was the best man for this important national monument and this decision was supported by the King family as well as a large cross section of the American public, despite the protest of a cross-section of Americans who believed that such a national honour ought to be given to an American sculptor. The entire statue project cost amounted to a staggering sum of US $120 million, with a substantial donation from the Chinese Government to help defray the overall expences. It was cast in China in white granite stone, which took Lei two years to complete. It was officially opened for public viewing in 2011 by the first African-American president, Barrack Obama.

Lam Pin Foo

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