Monday, October 28, 2013

Decoding pumpkins, butterflies and Buddha's hand lemons

What a timing - look what I found yesterday at one of my favorites "junk" haunts in Singapore, just before I'm having a lecture of symbolism in Chinese art tomorrow on my course at the museum...
Even more coincidentally, the lecture will be given by Patricia Bjaaland Welch, whose treasure trove of a book "Chinese Art - A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery" I've often used during the last year to decode my surroundings here in Singapore, from artifacts and imagery in Buddhist temples to decorative motifs on furniture and paintings to porcelain.
Covered with dust, worm spilling and spider webs, I found this little wood carving on the bottom of a cardboard box under many similar ones, though none of them was as lively and skillfully carved. Made of dark wood, it is painted with red, with gilded details that are now almost worn out. Originally, it probably was a part of a cabinet, window shutter, or even door in a Chinese home, that has now probably been demolished and replaced by something more modern.
Dusting off the surface to reveal the carved fruits, a fluttering butterfly and an musical instrument between, I suspected that there would be some "higher meaning" that I wasn't able to understand, but felt excited to decipher as soon as I got home to my books. And my intuition was well rewarded, as the carving had a much more lovely message than I would have imagined. Let's take a closer look....

A golden pumpkin with leafs and tendrils, a cheeky little butterfly (I love the smile on its face!), and a character reading 'shou'...
Typically, the motifs and designs in Chinese art and crafts are seldom chosen only to be decorative, but because of the meaning they convey. To make things more layered, a design or motif can have several meanings depending on how it is depicted or what other motifs it is combined with, much like the Chinese characters of writing that can be read in several ways depending on the context. Verbal 'puns' are also typical - the Chinese language is full of homonyms, words pronounced the same than another, but with completely different meaning (and often spelling). So, just to mention of the most common and loved ones, "fu" that means both "bat" and "good wishes", so a depiction of a bat has become a symbol for "good luck". So how does any of this apply to my carving?
Despite its small size (only 14x40 cm), it is loaded with symbolism that Chinese viewers would have understood in the olden days. Starting from the left and proceeding to right, the first motif in the carving is a pumpkin, accompanied by a happy little butterfly and adorned by an almost stamp-like Chinese character dangling by the feet of the butterfly. Naturally, the butterfly could just be happy to see the pumpkin, but for the Chinese, fruits and vegetables that grow on vines and have many seeds (like the gourds, cucumbers and melons) are associated with fertility.
The leaves and tendrils around it, known as wan in Chinese, is also a homonym with wan meaning "10,000", which makes the depiction even more auspicious, adding an expression of "many" to the wish of fertility. The butterfly - hudie - is also a homonym with die, meaning "repeatedly" or "again and again" So combined with the pumpkin here, the butterfly expresses the desire for many births, and for repeated generations of children. And what about the stamp-like Chinese character dangling by the feet of the butterfly? It is the simplified, round form of character shou, representing longevity that can actually be read "live one's full span and die a natural death".
A five-stringed zither with a gracefully flowing ribbon over it, accompanied by a lotus flower peeking from the leaves of the citrus further to the right...

In the middle of the panel, there is a five-stringed musical instrument that reminds of a zither, with a gracefully flowing ribbon over it, and with a lotus flower and a bud peeking from the leaves of the citrus to the right, like they were listening to some music picked from the instrument by an invisible player. Now, in Chinese art, musical instruments often symbolize matrimonial harmony and mutual affection between the husband and wife - not a far-fetched suggestion really when thinking of the melodies provided by their harmonious strings.
Together with the lotus, another symbol for marital harmony, they become the thematical symbol of consistency - and again, in Chinese art, nothing exists in isolation of its surroundings, which means that the overall theme of marital harmony must be the right interpretation of this combination.
The ribbon itself, so common that it often is overlooked purely as a decorative element, of course is not so. Ribbons play an important role in emphasizing the auspicious messages of the motifs surrounding it (or like here, under it). They can also tie them together, accentuating their connected meanings. Ribbon - dai in Chinese - has also two phonetic twins: "to bear, bring along", and "generations", so it adds the joyful wish for successive generations to follow - something that again goes well with the overall theme of the carving.

 Two Buddha's hand lemons.

The last motif represents two Buddha's hand lemons, hanging among abundant leaves. These inedible fruit (well, you can candy the peel, but that's about it) are said to resemble the hand position of Buddha while he was meditating. So there is a wink to Buddhism, one of the most important religions in China. Also, there's yet another verbal allusion: the similarity of sounds in fo (Buddha) and fu (happiness), and shou (hand) and shou (longevity - which we already met above in the pumpkin picture), create together the favorable combination of "happiness and longevity".
And if I haven't tired you out yet, I still want to say that the more I learn, the more interesting "decoding" Chinese arts gets. Just look what I found in the dusty cardboard box: not only a old wooden carving, but a beautifully coded message of marital harmony with joyful wishes of many descendants and a happy, well-lived and long life. As Patricia writes in her book, the Chinese love auspicious symbols and have a great belief in that pictures function like "lucky charms", encouraging all the good things they depict. Which means that I need to find a place of honor for this little carving in our home so that it can freely "emit" its happy message around!
Most of the information above was taken from Patricia Bjaaland Welch's book "Chinese Art - A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery". If you have the slightest interest in symbolism in Chinese art, do buy this book, it is a beautifully illustrated source of well-researched information.
PS - Please oversee the western spelling of Chinese words - I do not have the correct programs to write down them correctly.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ramblings from the Sri Mariamman Temple

A pantheon of Hindu gods, the more colorful, the better - according to the lecturer who gave a tour here, a Hindu temple should appeal to all of our senses - sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and thought, which is the sixth of our senses.... This is the gopuram, the massive entrance tower leading to the Sri Mariamman temple in the middle of Chinatown in Singapore. 

Long time, no posts... I'm not sure if I've been too busy, too lazy, or just too distracted to write anything for almost six weeks - the longest blog silence since I started this little "blog journal" in June 2008. Early September, I started the so called "Docent training" at the Asia Civilizations Museum, and together with my part time work and other things happening, I just haven't been able to jot down even the smallest of posts here.

A colorful and loud profession honoring the gods - scented tuberose and rose petals were thrown on the holy man, who was chanting loudly accompanied by small drums and other instruments and shielded by a colorful umbrella... truly an attack on the senses, if you are not used to high levels of noise.

Baby Krisna sucking his toes on a banyan leaf, contemplating the creation of the world... the full story and its meanings are really quite complicated, and would take far too much place here. The background was probably the only white surface in the temple... The Hindu imagery and pictorial language - from the lavish forms and decorations to the gaudy colors - are so extravagant, that my "Scandinavian minimalist eyes" have never really enjoyed them as art, but I still find them interesting from the cultural point of view.
I'm not sure how my studies are going. Despite the fact that I love the arts and cultures of Asia, and was amazingly happy to have been accepted to the program (it is on volunteer base, no specific academic requirements), I've been struggling with the course, many times feeling like a complete failure. Especially the "practical exercises", where you need to "recite" details of given weekly concepts and artifacts in front of your group has been a challenge. You need to do this without notes or seeing the actual object, so I tend to get lost, forget my words in front of the group, and/or just generally feel like an complete idiot, forgetting all beautiful details that I'd written and practiced about them for days before. Even if I'm definitely not an extrovert, I wouldn't describe myself as shy either, and I've held many presentations in the past quite successfully, something that is just not happening now. Also, I actually do have a degree in Art History and love the subject dearly, so my discomfort and general unhappiness about how I'm managing has been a great surprise and a disappointment to me the last six weeks. The group is quite competitive, and I'm often a bit uncomfortable with large gatherings of females anyway (somehow, I've always worked better with groups of men, however competitive they might be), so maybe I'm just having hard time adjusting... Anyway, I'm hanging out there, hoping that things get better with more practice. And even if I'll never be the best of the class, I am still learning a lot and adding to my "capital of knowledge", which will be my reward when the training ends.

Just inside the entrance to the temple - a riot of colors and forms, together with gods and sacred animals... Our lecturer told that Hinduism in not pantheistic, despite often being mentioned as such, but that the gods are all parts that together form one eternal god - like drops of water that together make an ocean...The different "gods" just highlight different aspects of the one eternal god, and can be venerated separately according to what feels right for one who is praying.  

Goddess Meenakshi, an Avatar of Parvathi, god Shiva's consort, holding a green parakeet, with the ferocious eyes of Kali beaming from above (both Kali and Parvathi are consorts of lord Shiva - the Hindu religious mythology really is quite complicated!). Again, eye-scorching colors and extravagant decorations to wake your senses...
Otherwise, I've been busy at work. The Minister of Economy and Trade from Finland will be visiting Singapore on Wednesday and I've been arranging a seminar for the Finnish Business Community here. So in addition to the studies, you probably understand that I've not been able to do much cultural exploration for the moment and desperately need to get back on track... Until I get going again, here are a couple of pictures from a Docent training lecture at the Sri Mariamman temple in Chinatown. It is the oldest Hindu temple and also a major tourist attraction in Singapore. "Skammen den som ger sig", as they say in Sweden, which means something like "shame on the one who gives up'. That will be my motto for my studies and all other things cultural for the next couple of months.  

 A holy man in a very pretty pink cloth, watching over visitors inside the inner temple.

All these tummies... Ganesha, easily recognized because of his elephant head, is widely known as the "remover of obstacles". He is also the patron of arts and sciences, and Lord of the Letters and Learning -  amongst many other divine duties. Ganesha is an extremely popular deity amongst Hindus, and in Singapore, statues of him are commonly found by the entrance of Hindu homes. For the moment, I could definitely use some little help from him in my studies...
And last - Sri Mariamman herself, decked with flower garlands and with incense and other offerings on the table in front of her. On the right, there is even a small ceremonial cradle - this mother goddess is worshipped as the goddess of fertility, and offerings are left for her in hope that she brings rain and prosperity - all quite logical connections really.