The Jiangsu Intangible Heritage Troupe Arrives!

January 31, 2013

Today we welcomed the delegation of the Jiangsu Intangible Heritage Troupe, who have come all the way from China to celebrate the Lunar New Year with us. As a prelude to Saturday’s Lunar New Year Festival, the artists and performers gave our visitors a sneak peek of their talents.

Xiao Hong Hua (“Little Red Flower”) Arts Troupe is a group of children who study at one of China’s first performing arts schools. They attend regular classes in the morning and attend performance classes in the afternoon. In addition, six renowned artists from Jiangsu are experts in their crafts, which range from sugar art to papercutting to Chinese knotting. Check out the slideshow below for a sampling of their work!

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The Jiangsu Intangible Heritage Troupe will be at Pacific Asia Museum tomorrow, Friday February 1 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Little Red Flower troupe will perform in the auditorium at 11 a.m. And if you miss them tomorrow, make sure you come to our Lunar New Year Festival on Saturday, February 2! ~CM


Welcoming the Year of the Snake

January 24, 2013

Our Lunar New Year Festival is fast approaching! Make sure to mark your calendar for February 2, when our huge festival takes over the museum and parking lot for a full day of fun. (And if you’d prefer to celebrate with a more low-key approach, check out the artists and performers of the Jiangsu Intangible Heritage Troupe on Thursday, January 31 and Friday, February 1.)

As this event was looming last year for the Year of the Dragon, we looked at how Lunar New Year is celebrated around the world. This year, we look forward to the Year of the Snake beginning February 10. While snakes don’t always have the most positive connotation in the U.S., in many parts of Asia they’re an auspicious symbol. Zodiac mythology holds that snake years are of steady progress after the dragon years of good luck.

dragon bowl

Chinese bowl from the Ming dynasty with a dragon motif.

In China, the snake is closely associated with the dragon, and it’s not hard to see why from artistic representations of dragons (see left). Especially in rural or farming communities, snakes are considered good luck and command respect. If a snake comes into the house, it is said that the family living there will not starve. The snake represents wealth and fortune, and because of this, people born in the Year of the Snake are said to be good at business, as well as introspective and intuitive. However, they can also be jealous and stubborn.

The Chinese legend of the White Snake is one of the most well-known traditional stories, and has been repeatedly adapted for stage and screen. While there are many versions, the basic plot follows a white snake who transforms into a woman and falls in love. A disapproving monk discovers her secret and conspires to reveal her secret and imprison her. Though he does both, the white snake, her husband and later her son triumph over the evil monk and are reunited. In most versions of this story, the snake is a positive character that demonstrates love, dedication and determination.

Japanese snakeAs in China, in Japan snakes are also associated with a good harvest and fertility. Snakes protect crops by eating mice and other pests, resulting in better chances for a good yield. Because snakes shed their skin, they are also symbols of regeneration. Japanese legend also associates the snake with jealousy, a trait ascribed to those born in a snake year. The story of Kiyohime tells the tale of a woman so infatuated with a monk that she follows him far and wide, even transforming herself into a snake to swim across the river she encounters. In our recent exhibition Masterpieces of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi we featured a woodblock print telling this story, which we wrote about previously here.

So while in the West snakes have an almost universally bad reputation, in many parts of Asia they’re considered quite lucky. Here’s hoping that your Year of the Snake is an auspicious one! ~CM

Bowl, China, Ming dynasty; Wanli period (1573-1620 AD), Porcelain, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal, 1998.67.74

Snake, Japan, c. 1860, Ink on paper, Gift of Mrs. Herrad T. Marrs in honor of Professor Ludwig Doederlein, 2001.24.5


The Three Friends of Winter

January 18, 2013


Though it may not feel like it today, it’s technically still winter in Pasadena. But nicer weather means it’s a great time for you to investigate these plants in our courtyard garden!

The Three Friends of Winter, or bamboo, plum and pine, have inspired the visual and literary arts of East Asia for centuries. Because these plants flourish in the winter, they are symbols of perseverance in the face of adversity. Pine and bamboo stay green throughout months of cold and snow, and plum trees are often the first to flower as the weather warms. Because of the inspiring symbolism, these Friends are a common motif in East Asian art and are often associated with the scholar in private life. One of the earliest uses of this phrase is found in Lin Jingxi’s (林景熙, 1241-1310)  Record of the Five-cloud Plum Cottage (五雲梅舍記) from The Clear Mountain Collection (霽山集) in which is written, “For his residence, earth was piled to form a hill and a hundred plum trees, which along with lofty pines and tall bamboo comprise the friends of winter, were planted.”

Right now at Pacific Asia Museum, you can see the Friends in both our courtyard and our galleries! Our exhibition The Garden in Asia (more in this recent post) showcases these plants among others in its examination of how the garden and nature have influenced artists in Asia over the centuries. In China, gardens were and still are venues for quiet reflection or social gatherings, as well as the pursuit of knowledge and the arts such as calligraphy, music or painting. Such pursuits would often be guided by a manual like the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (芥子園畫傳), seen here at the top. First published in 1679, the Mustard Seed Manual became one of the most well-known painting guidebooks in China and beyond (this version dates to 1908, demonstrating its ongoing popularity). The manual gave painters wide-ranging templates for how to render many kinds of plants, animals, architectural and natural features of gardens, as well as historical examples of paintings to study. These pages feature paintings by Chao Xun (1852-1917) after examples by Tang Yin (1470-1523) and Shen Zhou (1427-1509). The manual can also be understood to highlight elements that should be included in thinking about and designing gardens. The lower page shows a scholar-recluse in a small hut surrounded by ‘essential’ elements such as rocks, water, an enclosing wall, a banana plant and bamboo (far right). On the top page, the pine serves as the centerpiece of the composition.

Flowering Plum Branch

This large scroll painting of a flowering plum branch by Jiang Tingzhen can be seen at the beginning of the exhibition. In addition to perseverance, the plum also is a symbol of trustworthiness: it blooms in snow, before other flowers, and promises the return of spring every year. The strong brushstrokes in the branches create a contrast with the soft petals, emphasizing the visual metaphor for a warm spring after a harsh winter. This painting likely had a personal meaning for Jiang, who was likely one of the scholar-recluses of the late Ming dynasty. During periods of political uncertainty, scholar-gentlemen retreated into their gardens and focused on study and arts. The end of the Ming dynasty, when this was likely to have been painted, was certainly one of these periods. European trade had increased dramatically and had sparked an increase in silver from Japan, the New World and Europe. In the early 1600s, however, new policies in Spain and Japan sharply restricted the influx of silver to China. This threw the economy into chaos as the value of silver dramatically increased as compared to copper, another metal used as currency. Around the same time, an ecological event now known as the “Little Ice Age” brought climate changes, floods and famine. A widespread epidemic and an earthquake made matters worse, and it was thought that the emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven (the divine approval of an emperor’s rule). Shortly after, a Manchu invasion and a peasant uprising ended the Ming era. Given the desperation widely felt at the time, it is not surprising that scholar-gentlemen would have retreated to their gardens and immersed themselves in the arts.

the Three Friends in the gardenIn our courtyard, you can see all three Friends of Winter for yourself. As our Southern California “winter” begins to warm into spring, it’s the perfect time to experience the anticipation of renewal. The plum tree is already forming buds, and the green pine and bamboo maintain a lush ambiance among the bare trees. After visiting the exhibition, take a moment and place yourself in the mind of the scholar-recluse among the Friends in the peaceful setting of our courtyard. ~CM

Jiang Tingzhen (dates not known), Flowering Plum Branch, China, late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644); c. 17th century, Ink on paper, Gift of the Grilli Collection, 1986.79.24

The Mustard Seed Garden Manual, China, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911); 1908, second month of lunar calendar, Publisher:  Zhang Fu Ji Shu Ju Shi Yin, Shanghai, Ink on paper, Gift of Harvey House, 1976.35.58

Indonesian Ceremonial Textiles

January 10, 2013

Kain Lelok

Now halfway through its run, the exhibition Marking Transitions: Ceremonial Art in Indonesia has our visitors enjoying the varied ceremonial objects produced in Indonesia. Previously, we’ve Buddhism’s history in Indonesia and explored the bronzes in the exhibition. Today, we’re exploring another category: textiles.

Click to enlarge. Image credit: Wikipedia

The exhibition features three ceremonial textiles for women from Sumatra (Lampung Province), Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), and the Lesser Sunda Islands (the island of Flores in East Nusa Tenggara). While you can see from the map the distance between their origins, these textiles all similarily hold great ceremonial importance. Textiles similar to these are still worn in various parts of Indonesia today.

In many parts of Indonesia, handmade textiles have been an integral part of rituals and ceremonies. Both men and women would dress in specific textiles for rituals like weddings and funerals, and textiles were often given as gifts or passed through families as heirlooms. In Kalimantan weaving ceremonial textiles was regarded as being as important as going into battle since some textiles were believed to provide protective power. The skirt shown at top, or kain lekok, is understood to “screen” the woman from danger during rituals.


Ceremonial skirts made in the Lampung Province of Sumatra, or tapis, are worn by elite women at special events and ceremonies such as marriages or coming-of-age rites. Along with a matching jacket, tapis were the ceremonial attire of unmarried women who were required to make them before marriage. Preparing tapis is an elaborate process, taking up to a year with the final garment weighing more than ten pounds. As lavish ceremonial textiles, tapis are a symbol of the social status of the wearer and her family. More elaborate skirts, with their extensive use of gold threads, sequins, and cermuk (small mirror pieces), indicate more wealth and higher social status.

Tapis begin as a large rectangle made of two woven cotton panels, as seen here. It is then sewn together to form a tubular skirt, like the útang mérang below. Stripes, geometric forms and star/flower patterns are standard for this type of tapis.

‘Utang Mérang

Across Indonesia, textiles are one of the most important gifts in ceremonial exchanges, especially those around marriage and death. ‘Utang mérang, or women’s red cloths, are reserved for such exchanges among the Sikkanese (from the Sikka Regency of Flores), whose marriage traditions involve a complex gift exchange system. Given by the bride’s family, textiles are considered an indicator of wealth and the social status of her family. Since dyeing and weaving require years of experience, girls start training at an early age, and unmarried young women spend much of their time producing textiles.

This ‘utang mérang is an example of the ikat dyeing technique. Before weaving, the warp threads (the longitudinal threads that remain stationary as the weft threads are woven back and forth) are resist-dyed to create the motif. The main ikat bands of ‘utang mérang are dyed with indigo before they are dyed with morinda (a flowering plant in the madder family) for a deep russet background. Each band in these textiles holds specific meanings that reveal the identity of the weaver and ceremony. In Sikkanese society, the warp threads are considered masculine whereas the weft threads are seen as feminine, suggesting a woman’s role in marriage as the one who binds the household together.

These beautiful textiles are best appreciated in person, alongside the other ceremonial objects in this exhibition. Don’t miss the chance to see them before the exhibition closes in March! ~CM

‘Utang Mérang (Women’s Ceremonial Cloth), Flores, Sikka Regency, mid-20th century, Cotton with warp ikat with natural dyes, Gift of anonymous donor, 1997.43.2

Kain Lekok (Woman’s Ceremonial Skirt), Kalimantan, 20th century, Cotton, flannel, beads, cowrie shells, trade cotton, Gift of the ARCO Corporation Art Collection, 1995.54.13

Tapis (Ceremonial Skirt), Sumatra; Lampung Province, c.1875-1900, Cotton, silk, gold thread, sequins, cermuk (mirror pieces), Gift of the ARCO Corporation Art Collection, 1995.54.9

Looking Forward to 2013

January 4, 2013

Last week we looked back at the highlights of 2012, and this week we’re looking forward! There’s a lot to be excited about in the year ahead. Here’s what’s coming up:


eagleIn addition to the exhibitions currently on view, The Garden in Asia and The Art of Continuity: Revering our Elders, we’ll open four additional exhibitions featuring both traditional and contemporary Asian art. Beginning April 5, 2013, pieces from the famed Harari Collection will be featured in the exhibition Focus on the Subject: The Art of the Harari Collection in the Frank and Toshie Mosher Gallery of Japanese Art. Masterpieces from the collection will be featured alongside other objects from the Pacific Asia Museum collection for close study of themes in Japanese art, including landscape and writing. We’ll also present a series of exhibitions in the Focus Gallery of contemporary Asian art throughout 2013. Works by Japanese, Korean and South Asian artists will examine trends in contemporary Asian art and introduce lesser-known traditional art forms that are still practiced today. Check out the full exhibition schedule on our website, and check back here for previews of each show!


Lunar New YearThere’s always something to do at Pacific Asia Museum! Whether it’s one of our popular ongoing classes (we talked about our yoga class a while back) or one of our popular series like Authors on Asia or Free Family Festivals, we hold many programs throughout the year to deepen your understanding of Asian art and culture. In the immediate future, we’re looking forward to our annual Lunar New Year Festival on February 2 (schedule soon to be posted here) and the return of Art and Coffee on January 11 (check out a recap of a previous Art and Coffee events here). And of course, we’ll bring back Fusion Fridays and hold several Free Family Festivals throughout the year (mark your calendar for the first Free Family Festival of the year on March 17). Make sure you don’t miss any of our great upcoming events by checking out our online Events Calendar and signing up for our bi-weekly e-newsletters at the bottom of our home page.

More Renovations

statueIn addition to temporary exhibitions, Pacific Asia Museum will continue renovations of permanent galleries. In keeping with the successful installations in the Introduction Gallery and Gallery of Korean Art, both renovated within the past two years, the Chinese and South Asian-Himalayan Galleries will be renovated and re-installed with thematic permanent exhibitions intended to rotate periodically. We’ll be posting a lot more about these renovations in the coming year as well!

We’re certainly excited about 2013, and hope you are too. Keep checking back as we explore all these great exhibitions and events with special behind-the-scenes looks and deeper exploration of artworks. ~CM