Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Lotus Flowers in a Wood Vase: Qing Dynasty Art Schools

      Art under the Qing dynasty was divided into two major schools: The Individualist school and the Orthodox school.
      The Individualists consisted of artists who remained dedicated to the fallen Ming dynasty. These artists produced highly personal works that dealt with their personal feelings in reaction to the conquest of China by the Manchus. Individualists held a very low opinion of Manchus, viewing them as uneducated barbarians unworthy of exercising control over Chinese culture. Members of this school often retreated from governmental roles and society, and many isolated themselves by becoming Buddhist monks.
      The Orthodox school was populated by artists dedicated to the preservation of Chinese artistic style and culture. Under the early Qing dynasty this school was led by Wang Shimin. Shimin was accomplished in the art of traditional Chinese painting and was also a collector of Chinese artwork. His influence led members of the school to study masterworks of the past and then incorporate these styles into their own art works. Members of the Orthodox school often combined poetry and painting. A typical Orthodox work would contain a poem describing a beautiful landscape together with a painting of the same scene. Chinese painting was basically an extension of the art of calligraphy. Chinese painters sought to depict natural scenes using the same brushwork that they had developed while practicing calligraphy. Synthesis of written and visual work follows logically since the origins of Chinese painting are directly linked with the art of Chinese writing.
      It is possible that our piece was created by a member of the Individualist school since the lotus flower is a very important Buddhist symbol. The lotus flower grows in muddy ponds, but once it blooms it is pure white. In Buddhist tradition the flower symbolized achieving freedom from the vices of the material world. As a result, much Buddhist art, especially depictions of Buddha himself, contain images of lotus flowers to symbolize the quest for nirvana, and to demonstrate the achievability of this quest despite the impurities of the material world. It is quite possible that our piece was crafted by a Buddhist artist contemplating his journey towards enlightenment. The use of natural materials suggests the hand of an individualist artist. Individualists prized natural mediums because they conveyed the beauty of the natural world. The quite meditation of individualists was often motivated by exploration and contemplation of nature. Often times Buddhist monks would spend long periods of time meditating within nature just as Buddha himself had done to achieve enlightenment. Furthering their connection with the natural world was a common pursuit of individualist artists and a relic such as this one would have been a great way to incorporate nature into the study of an artist or scholar. The use of natural materials to depict a Lotus flower strongly indicates that an individualist may have been responsible for our piece.
      However, the presence of the lotus flower does not guarantee that this is an Individualist work. The lotus flower holds great symbolic importance outside of Buddhist tradition as well. The lotus flower was used to adorn the Confucian temple at Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius. The pillars of the Dachengdian, or main temple building, are decorated with multitudes of lotus flowers. This temple was erected in 479 BC demonstrating the long held significance of the lotus flower in Chinese culture outside of the Buddhist tradition, which did not surface until the first century CE. Chinese reverence for the lotus is often linked to its medicinal properties. Every part of the flower was utilized in Chinese medical practice, making it one of the most important natural products of the Chinese landscape. 


This page has paths: