Tag Archives: Chinese ceramics

Chinese astrology symbols through Asian art

Like many people in North America, my first experience with Chinese astrology took place when I was a kid in an American “Chinese” restaurant.  Probably someplace called Ming’s or Canton Buffet. You get the picture…overcooked vegetables, lumpy sauces loaded with MSG, special fried rice with everything except the kitchen sink, oh, and fortune cookies. The placemat was covered with pictures of animals below which were little paragraphs describing each one. I always read the one about the sheep first because it covered the year I was born. Now, I know that those descriptions were about as authentic as the dinner I was eating. Of course, I still am a sheep but now I know that I am a Wood Sheep. Actually, there are many more categories beyond elements that affect you, according to this system. My Malaysian friend has promised to do my whole chart and, at first glance, she said it was a good one… Except for the fact that symbols are animal shapes, there’s little difference between Western astrology and its Eastern counterpart. Chinese astrology is rooted in Taoism and it was perfected during the Zhou dynasty, starting in early 1000 BCE. It is based on yearly cycles, the moon and hourly periods, unlike Western astrology, which is based on the ecliptic. I still remember my prof in my Planetary Physics class at the University of Oregon in the mid-1970s deriding astrology as hooey because it didn’t take into consideration the precession of the earth’s axis. That was Western astrology and I don’t know what he would have said about this… For today’s post, I decided to show you a range of beautiful Asian art using Chinese astrological signs as a starting point, relying on Asian Art Mall’s descriptions, with quotations running below. Links for each animal will take you to a bigger description. The site states that in “an excavation in 1955 of a tomb dating back to the Tang Dynasty, a set of zodiac figurines were found, each carefully made from pottery.  Interestingly, these figurines were created with the body of a human but the head of each of the 12 animals.”

Rat (born in 1912, 1924, 1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008, 2020, 2032, 2044)      — The Rat is “considered aggressive, suspicious, ambitious, quick to anger, power hungry, hot-tempered, critical, as well as generous, honest, charming, imaginative, and generous.


The rat statue is one of the 12 Chinese Zodiac portrayed in the Kowloon Walled City Park in Kowloon City, Hong Kong. By HKCpedia (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Ox (born in 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021, 2033, 2045) — “Powerful, unyielding, stubborn, but also born leaders, great parents, typically successful, upright, inspiring, conservative, and easy-going.”

Chinese - Snuff Bottle with Ox Herder Returning Home - Walters 4972

Pilgrim shaped snuff bottle with a mountain landscape and a man riding a bullock (a young steer) on each side. Coral colored stopper and ivory spoon; between 1644 and 1911; porcelain with enameled glaze. Acquired by William T. or Henry Walters. By Walters Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Tiger (born in 1914, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010, 2022, 2034, and 2046) – “Fighting animal, which is aggressive, unpredictable, emotional, yet charming, sensitive, courageous, and capable of giving immense love.  Somewhat of a risk taker, while also carefree.

Tuong gom ho thoi Canh Hung

A ceramic statue of tiger manufactured by artists from Bát Tràng village (Northern Vietnam) in the mid-18th century.By Binh Giang via Wikimedia Commons

Rabbit (born in 1915, 1927, 1939, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2003, 2036, and 2047) – “Affectionate, talented, pleasant, value security, enjoy tranquility, sometimes too sentimental and superficial, cautious, and generally successful in business.”

Puigaudeau, Ferdinand du - Chinese Schadows, the Rabbit

Chinese Shadows, the Rabbit; Ferdinand du Puigaudeau (1864-1930).By Jedudedek via Wikimedia Commons

Dragon (born in 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024, 2036, and 2048) – “The Dragon is highly intelligent, gifted, unfaithful, loud, garish, popular, successful, enthusiastic, although also stubborn.”

Nine-Dragon Screen-1

Nine-Dragon Screen. By Shizhao (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Snake (born in 1917, 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013, 2015, 2037, and 2049) – “People under this sign are clever, determined, passionate, intense, romantic, charming, and wise, but also tend to be vain and guided strongly by intuition.  The Snake will win money but should avoid being stingy.”


Nuwa, Chinese creator goddess; Myths and legends of China by Edward Theodore Chalmers Werner (1922). By Guss via Wikimedia Commons

Horse (born in 1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014, 2026, 2038, and 2050) – “The Horse is friendly, intelligent, popular, cheerful, but also has an impatient, cunning, and selfish streak.”

CMOC Treasures of Ancient China exhibit - pottery horse, detail 2

Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618 - 907) Excavated at Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, 1957 This yellow-glazed pottery horse includes a carefully sculpted saddle, which is decorated with leather straps and ornamental fastenings featuring eight-petalled flowers and apricot leaves. By Editor at Large via Wikimedia Commons

Sheep (born in 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015, 2027, 2039, and 2051) – “Sheep are creative, passionate, artistic, elegant, honest, and warmhearted, but also timid, disorganized, pessimistic, and vulnerable.”

3 sheep Asian Art Museum SF B60J397

Three sheep, white jade, approx. 1900-11, Qing Dynasty. On display at the Asian Art Musem of San Francisco. By BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons

Monkey (born in 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016, 2028, 2040, and 2052) – “Very intelligent, clever, inventive, and entertaining, the Monkey can also be discouraged easily and live dangerously.  Often distrustful of other people, they will guard against many situations.”

Sun Wukong at Beijing opera - Journey to the West

Chinese monkey king, Sun Wukong at Beijing opera - "Journey to the West." By d'n'c from Beijing (Flickr) via Wikimedia Commons

Rooster (1921, 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017, 2029, 2041, and 2053)        – “The Rooster is hardworking, courageous, eager for more knowledge, strong decision-makers, very skilled, and great with details.  However, the Rooster is also arrogant, shrewd, eccentric, and sometimes, reckless”

CMOC Treasures of Ancient China exhibit - black glazed jug with rooster head

Black glazed jug with a rooster head; Eastern Jin Dynasty (A.D. 317 - 420); Excavated at Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province, 1969. Used for storing wine or water, string or sinew was tied through the two small round holders at the shoulder of this jug. The rooster head and shape of the jug appeared during the Jin Dynasty. By Editor at Large via Wikimedia Commons

Dog (born in 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018, 2030, 2042, and 2054) – “People born under the Dog are honest, quiet, generous, intelligent, and very loyal while also being a bit stubborn.  They tend to worry about everything, have a sharp tongue, and like to place fault on others.

Green-glazed pottery dog, Eastern Han Dynasty, 25-220 A.D. Palace Museum (Beijing, China). By Rosemania via Wikimedia Commons

Pig (1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, 2019, 2020, 2031, and 2043) – “Very honest, sincere, tolerant, kind, and affectionate, the Pig is also short tempered and impulsive.  Since people under this sign are eager for knowledge, they tend to be successful.

Pig-shaped pottery gui (vessel) fro the Dawenkou Culture (c. 4200-2500 BC). Unearthed at Sanlihe, Jiaoxian, Shandong Province, 1974. By BabelStone via Wikimedia Commons

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A closer look at ceramic Penjing figurines

When I reported on bonsai or penjing figurines, I was very curious about the production end. Were they all slipcast? Is anyone creating handmade ones, as they were surely made in early days? Most of these figures today are mass-made and the prices can be embarrassingly low. Craftsman make them, yet the wares go for so little, as with the ones offered by this site, According to Arts by Hand, traditional techniques gave way to  slipcasting and the use of press molds. From all accounts, “Pen’Jing is apparently experiencing a revival in modern day China,” states collector Myron Redding. “It is a nearly lost art form that is once again becoming popular with Chinese bonsai enthusiasts.” Redding also states that the figures were originally made by press mold and that sometimes the fingerprints of people long gone can be seen on the back. (I can related to this because I often leave my own fingerprints on the back or bottom of pieces I make…) Describing the pieces, he says, “After the torso was released from the mould, the head, hands and legs or feet would be added.” He explains that
“hair, hats, beards and other items would complete the ensemble. As a finishing touch, eyes, nose and ears would be pierced to add further detail.” The article by Redding is quite good and it is clear that he is a collector who has a great love for the art and craftmanship of antique penjing. If you are interested, take a look, as he goes on to talk about types and colors of clay and glazes originally used. Evidently, the mud women are highly sought after and are a rarity. If you are interested in collecting antique mud figures, click here for a how-to. Further, I am posting two videos, one of a man making fine figurines and another showing penjing figures in a historical overview by Myron Redding.

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Pottery News Briefs, Week of April 10th

Can you believe it’s Friday? Boy, this week just zoomed by. Rainy as it is, the season has officially begun and everyone’s busy doing spring chores. I am very happy to say that my project for the weekend is working on my greenhouse kit.  Soon it will be aching to grow a tomato! That said, let me shift from my own news to a broader view. Looks like some interesting things have been happening in the World of Clay….

Visit the oldest pottery village in Southeast Asia, April 15, 2011, Vietnamnet Bridge. “As one of the two oldest pottery villages in Southeast Asia, Bau Truc is considered a “museum” of traditional pottery of Cham people.” Terrific photo gallery showing villagers making pottery from natural clay deposits found near the banks of the Quao River. Techniques and materials are covered.

Picasso Ceramics go on permanent display, by Rebekah Harriman, April 14, 2011, Creative Boom: East Midlands. “Picasso Ceramics: The Attenborough Collection, will feature around forty works selected from their unique collection.” Show opens April 16th at New Walk Museum & Art Gallery in Leicester, England. “All of Picasso’s activity with ceramics centred around the Madoura pottery factory where he worked on plates, jugs and tiles, often combining aspects of painting and sculpture in their decoration.”

New studio creating real buzz, April 11, 2011, BC Local News. A café studio fusion has opened in Chemainus, British Columbia. Customers can buy pre-fired slipcast pieces and decorate them while they enjoy pastries and beverages. Owner Simon Warne saw similar cafés in the UK and believes the arts community in the Cowichan Valley will support such a venture.

Potters Protest Closure of Studio, April 8, 2011, by Shane Dunau, The Cornell Daily Sun. Continued coverage of last week’s story about the Cornell University ceramic studio that was facing closure to make space for meetings. A petition opposing the closure was circulated and it garnered 700 signatures. Photo shows and amazing studio space. Please consider writing a letter-to-the-editor in support of the studio.

Xiamen based Taiwan ceramics firm faces EU anti-dumping charges, by Hong Chao-jun and Staff Reporter, April 8, 2011, Want China Times. “The European Union will impose a temporary 73% punitive import tariff on more than 90% of ceramic products from the Chinese mainland, beginning from March 17. The move follows a ruling by the EU on anti-dumping charges pressed for by European companies.”

Patterson Elementary School Students Fire Up Native American Pottery, by Alexandra Hill, Apr 8, 2011, WJHG Channel 7 ABC News. This news brief reports on a special event: teaching students “how to make pottery like Native Americans once did over an authentic pit bonfire.” This bit of news is quite endearing to me because Panama City is right next to the town where I was born, Fort Walton Beach, Florida. The tiny photo shows a huddle of children and I can see the sand they’re standing on. This pic doesn’t do it justice; the sand is pure white and as fine as flour. The culture they’re learning about would be the ancient Mississippian Culture.

Ancient settlements delay Jackson County bridge, by Jon Ostendorff, Apr. 8, 2011, The Citizen Times. Construction unearthed artifacts near Asheville, North Carolina. “Evidence points to a Middle Woodland and Connestee phase occupation nearly 2,000 years ago, though at least one find shows settlement around the late Archaic period about 9,000 years ago.” In addition, digging closer to the surface revealed Cherokee pottery.

Vessels of Clay, Centuries Old, That Speak to Modernity, by Ken Johnson, April 7, 2011, The New York Times. Lovely art review of a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition featuring buncheong, a traditional Korean form of ceramics.

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Update: Chinatown lead glazes story


Is this spoon contaminated with lead glaze? Similar spoons found in Philadelphia's Chinatown were contaminated. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recently, I covered a story about lead glazes found in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Chinatown, having learned of it in a New York Times story, which can be found here. There has been an appreciable amount of traffic on the Internet about this issue. Study result numbers have also surfaced and they are startling enough to warrant an update, as over 25% of the samples tested positive for lead. The story centers on Dr. Gerald O’Malley, who saw bright glazes on ceramic cookware as he strolled through Philly’s Chinatown. After cocking an eyebrow, he decided it was worth investigating. The results of his tests are alarming. In addition, he said that if they were found in Philadelphia, similar products could be found in other Chinatowns. Vancouver, B.C. has a big Chinatown and I, myself, have entertained buying products similar to those shown in the photo of the Times article, the porcelain spoons glazed in yellow, turquoise and red. They are accompanied by matching pieces. I cannot say for a fact that the pieces I have seen are contaminated; however, after reading about this study, the chances are high. The story broke in the Daily Dose on Feb. 18, in an article by Josh Goldstein which can be found here. He wrote about Dr. Gerald O’Malley’s study and a previous one which focused on Mexican ceramics with lead glazes. The numbers: “Twenty-two of the items from Chinatown stores were lead-positive – 25.3 percent – compared with 5 of the items from stores outside Chinatown – 10.2 percent.” O’Malley is a toxicologist who works in the Emergency Room at Jefferson University Hospital, one of the best hospitals in the United States. Goldstein writes that “Dr. O’Malley was involved in a study that found lead leaching into food from glazed pottery that came from Mexico and was the cause of a pervasive lead poisoning problem among Denver’s Hispanic population.” O’Malley, Dr. Thomas Gilmore and 14 medical students from Jefferson formed a study team, then proceeded to buy samples. The kitchenware they bought totalled “87 items (plates, cups, spoons, etc) from 18 stores in Chinatown and a comparison of 49 items of similar cost imported from China from five stores outside of that neighborhood,” states Goldstein. After the samples were cleaned, they were tested with LeadCheck, an inexpensive testing swab. O’Malley and his team couldn’t believe what they found. Goldstein reports O’Malley as saying “We were astounded – astounded – to find so many of them positive for lead.” While I was tempted to buy the colored porcelain spoons, I opted for clear glazed ones, which are probably safe because it is the brightly colored glazes that contained lead. I really need to check, though. How many people have been affected by such products, which have been available for years and years? O’Malley thinks this is a source of lead contamination that has gone unrecognized. Which begs the question…how many Vancouver Chinatown residents are affected? According to the 2006 census, Vancouver’s East and Southeast Asian population totals 27.88%, almost 600,000 people. We need to get to the bottom of this and, as O’Malley suggests, such lead contamination is unrecognized. Lead poisoning affects people of all ages, but especially children, causing permanent behavior and learning disorders. It affects bones, intestines, the heart, kidneys and reproductive organs. O’Malley has notified the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and asked that further testing be done. The study team is working with Philadelphia’s Chinatown Health Clinic, too, according to Goldstein. It looks like a mass screening of the Chinatown population will be taking place. Shopkeepers are also being educated about the hidden dangers of lead contaminated from tainted cookware. At no time did O’Malley blame the shopkeepers because, as reported previously, they were completely unaware of the problem. Goldstein also reports the response of the Chair of Emergency Medicine at Jefferson University Hospital, Dr. Theodore Christopher. He said, “This is an important study that will heighten the awareness of lead contamination in many different sources. It also confirms that medical professionals need to do a more in-depth job of assessing a patient’s social history and background, which may play a very important role in diagnosis of symptoms.” A related article can be found in Food Safety News. More follow-up is needed at the local level and I will see what I can find out. But be proactive. If you have ceramic kitchen ware with brightly colored glazes from either Mexico or China, find out if it is contaminated with lead glaze by using a LeadCheck kit that can be purchased at these locations.

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