Welcome to our first installment of Panel Introductions, a new series where we interview OCF2021 Panel Directors, summarize key topics, and showcase the upcoming Forum‘s exciting topics.
In this week’s Panel Introduction we talk to our Culture Panel Directors, Xilin and Rachel, about traditional art and their travels through China. In addition, we discuss modern iterations of China’s diverse traditional cultures. Read on to learn more!
Panel Directors’ Interview
Q1: How do you develop an interest in traditional Chinese culture?
Xilin: In middle school I read a book called The Journey of Beauty, which pretty much was my artistic awakening. I still remember the first chapter of the book talking about painted pottery and ritual bronzes from thousands of years ago; of course, I’d seen potteries and ritual bronzes in museums before, but I used to always think they were dusty and lacklustre, so I had never really paid much attention. The Journey of Beauty starts with discussing the evolution of fish patterns, which helped me see how decoration patterns went from realism to abstraction, then from abstract back to historical styles.
Ever since then, I’ve realized that many artworks (including painting, sculptures, poetry, and music) may not seem pretty or intricate at first glance, so we often underestimate them. However, once you slow down and patiently appreciate them for a few minutes, giving a little extra thought to the meaning behind patterns and colours, you will be instantly touched. I’ve always believed that art is the best avenue for communication between the past and the present.
Q2: Is there one particular cultural site in China that left a deep impression on you?
Xilin: Definitely the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang!
First of all, they’re just so beautiful. Someone once said that it’s simply impossible not to love the beauty of Dunhuang. Especially the Buddha statues from the early Tang, with their calm and content smiles, as if they’re extending love and empathy to the entire universe. In the past people would have knelt down to worship the statues, so when visiting you can also try kneeling before looking at the buddhas’ eyes: you’ll almost feel a gaze from utopia itself. If it weren’t for the sheer volume of tourists in Dunhuang, I could spend hours in a single cave.
The colours used in Dunhuang’s murals are also mesmerizing. After thousands of years these murals are still brightly coloured: my favourites are lapis lazuli blue and malachite green. The two photos below only show a small section of one cave, but just imagine an entire cave decorated with such pure blues and greens, it’s really just like being in the Buddha’s world.
Apart from such pure beauty, another thing that makes Dunhuang moving for me is the synthesis of cultures. For me Chinese culture has never been Han culture only; in fact, it is precisely through encounters and tolerance that Chinese culture managed to survive for millenia. Dunhang is just such a utopian place where many cultures and religions melted into each other and different time periods coexist.
A great example is the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra in No. 3 Yulin Cave. Its top section is painted in the Song-Dynasty shan shui style, which is full of masculinity and openness. The part right beneath that depicts architecture, which is common in Dunhuang murals. The main section, however, is in the transcendent and elegant style of Tang painter Wu Daozi, which almost resembles wind. In that save cave there are Tibetan mandala murals and a thousand-hand, thousand-eye boddhisatva. The cave itself was built during the Western Xia period, so you can still find traces of the Tangut language. In this one cave there are contributions from Han regions, the Western Xia, Tibet, and the art of Tang and Song, which truly astounded me.
These incomparably delicate and brilliant murals tell stories from diverse places, with mutual celebration rather than conflict, and I think that is the ideal of culture.
Q3: Do you have recommendations for a cultural travel route through China?
Rachel: This would be my recommendation:
- 1st stop: Xi’an, Shaanxi
- Xi’an City Wall: These were built during the Ming Dynasty and are a spectacular sight. Tourists can rent bikes and cycle there, which takes around 2-3 hours.
- Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor: This is where the terracotta warriors are housed; best appreciated with an audio guide!
- The Stele Forest/Beilin Museum: Many famous calligraphers’ steles are collected here, and visitors can buy beautiful paper copies outside.
- Shaanxi History Museum: This museum has many ancient potteries with a wide variety of patterns (like the fish patterns mentioned earlier) and places of origin, making it a highly worthwhile destination
- 2nd stop: Luoyang, Henan
- Longmen Grottoes: One of the three largest grottoes in China, Longmen has buddha statues commissioned by historical rulers as well as common people; the most impressive site there is the Locanabuddha statue, allegedly modelled after China’s only female emperor Wu Zetian.
- White Horse Temple: This is the first Buddhist temple built in China, and tourists can learn lots about culture and history from their guides.
- Luoyang Ancient Tombs Museum: This place houses almost all of the ancient tombs around Luoyang; with an audio guide you can learn about how people from different dynasties conceived of life and death, as well as the different structures and murals in historic tombs, which is fascinating.
- 3rd stop: Hangzhou, Zhejiang
- Lingyin Temple: During the pandemic, the monks there recited holy texts in the Hall of the Medicine Buddha for three months in order to bring healing to mankind.
- West Lake: It’s always full of tourists, but it’s a very culturally significant place with lots of classics, so still very much worth a visit.
Q4: How do traditional Chinese culture and art affect your life?
Rachel: There’s one line from the movie Dead Poets Society that really resonated with me: ‘Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.’
As a Chinese person, there is something uniquely moving about the unbroken line of Chinese culture and art, transcending generations. I often find myself remembering lines from classical Chinese poetry when enjoying the outdoors, feeling as if I’m in the company of poets themselves. Later on I studied abroad and encountered English poetry, and began consciously comparing styles of subject matters in Chinese and Western poetry. In reality there are lots of connections across time and continents. Both Tao Yuanming and Wordsworth express a longing to escape banal reality and return to innocence among nature. One of Tao’s lines go: ‘Long trapped in the cage of the city, now I finally shall return to nature’; it’s almost identical with Wordsworth’s ‘A captive greets thee, coming from a house/ Of bondage, from yon City’s walls set free,/ A prison where he hath been long immured.’ There are lots of other examples like this.
In today’s world, where relations between China and the West reach new heights of tension, both sides harbour deep antagonism and xenophobia toward each other without recognizing each other’s shared humanity; surely, there are still many commonalities in human experiences. I hope that this Culture Panel will help more Westerners access Chinese culture, hence learning about a version of China different from the one portrayed by media.
Traditional Culture in Modern China
Chinese culture traces its origins from one of the first human civilizations on Earth; over the centuries, its form and variety have evolved alongside sociopolitical developments and interactions with diverse peoples. For these reasons it is difficult to define ‘traditional’ Chinese culture in a few words. In the 21st century, the most well-observed Chinese traditions are likely the key festivals of the lunar calendar:
- Lunar New Year/Spring Festival (春节), the largest of all Chinese festivals, celebrates the beginning of a new year. Extended families gather for important reunion dinners and festivities.
- Lantern Festival (元宵节) occurs 15 days after Spring Festival; sweet, round glutinous rice balls are eaten, and in the evening cities and towns display ornate paper lanterns with riddles attached.
- Qingming Festival (清明节), the most sombre Chinese festival, falls in early April. Families sweep the tombs of ancestors and make ritual offerings to show reverence.
- Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) occurs in June and commemorates the death of poet and statesman Qu Yuan. Usually zongzi (sticky rice stuffed with fillings and wrapped in bamboo leaves) are eaten and people attend dragon boat races.
- Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) occurs in September or October. Its themes of moon-worship and harvest have inspired art for millenia; nowadays, Chinese people celebrate by lighting lanterns, playing traditional games, and eating mooncakes.
Beyond these key festivals, celebrations of traditional culture differ widely depending on geography, ethnic origins, and socioeconomic conditions. While dumplings are an essential on the New Year’s dinner table in much of the north, in southern China many have rice cakes instead. Minority communities celebrate unique traditions, such as the Dai’s Water-Splashing Festival, Eid al-Adha (known as Corban in China) for Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhist festivals.
Lunar-calendar festivals in China are largely rooted in agrarian motifs such as seasonal rotation, harvest, and regional cuisine. As appreciation for traditional culture revitalized in the last decade, many are turning to the countryside for inspiration. With 14 million subscribers on YouTube and 7 million on Bilibili, vlogger Li Ziqi exemplifies the phenomenon of fugu (“returning to the ancients”): her videos document traditional agricultural processes, cooking, and handicrafts from her home in northern Sichuan, presenting an aestheticized version of rural life to an urban millenial audience.
This trend towards the past also found its way into fashion, most notably in the early 2000s’ hanfu movement. Young people formed online communities to study and promote traditional clothing, and modernized aspects of Han robes to suit modern life. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see people wearing modified hanfu to scenic spots or photo shoots. While some believe that the hanfu movement demonstrates a young generation’s earnest interest in traditions, others point out its historical inaccuracies and argue that it politically amplifies Han nationalism as a subtle backlash against the Manchu-origin cheongsam/qipao.
The 20th century saw colonialism and Westernization profoundly affect Chinese traditions, and 100 years later ancient culture seems to arrive at another crossroad. The speakers at OCF’s ‘Culture’ panel will explore such issues, and offer both academic and personal interpretations of contemporary China’s fraught relationship with its cultural past.
Xiao, Fang, et al. “The Predicament, Revitalization, and Future of Traditional Chinese Festivals.” Western Folklore, vol. 76, no. 2, 2017, pp. 181–196. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44790971.