Art and Death: The Chinese
Portraying death to children
In the preschool age, educators seldom broach the topic of death. However, some picture books for kids directly address death and related issues. Their current approach is worth utilizing as reference. Book presentations follow the steps: comprehending death with preschoolers’ internal experiences, slowly probing into what death means in the eyes of preschoolers, and expanding on the subject by seeking the continuance of love. The above three elements serve as references for Chinese picture books with death as the central theme. Such books depict a child’s world using children’s language and culture-specific images. The concept of death is taught to students in the form of interesting stories, which portray children’s pure world, characterized by curiosity and innocence. Adults are also deeply affected by their simplicity, love and care (Chen, 2012).
Thesis: Death has been incorporated, as a theme, into Chinese books, contemporary artworks, paintings, cemetery architecture, and other elements of Chinese culture.
Expressing death in contemporary ways
The artworks of Liu Bolin have a distinct political message to impart, and are often interpreted as a criticism against political oppression. The artist holds that, in his works, he engages the political facet as an important one among the numerous living conditions. Further, his primary interest is humanity’s development. As such, Bolin is more interested in encouraging audiences to evaluate, using concrete situations presented by his works, how the modern society has made the ‘individual’ invisible. Bolin’s broader critique has been expressed in the following way (Wang, 2015):
Economic development complicates the meaning of ‘humanity’ in the present-day world. Death only takes with it a person’s body; however, rushed economic growth gradually destabilizes a person’s very spirit.
If one goes along with Bolin’s perspective, the predicaments faced by the Chinese, which he believes will, by any measure not be limited only to the Chinese under the nation’s social and political specificities. In contrast, the conflict between urban and economic growth, and the accompanying unfairness and inadequacy resonates across the globe with the impending domination of international capitalism. This simply implies that an increasing number of “invisible bodies” will be created as part of the existing global economic structure (Wang, 2015).
Circle of life and death
Following the circulation principles of ancient Chinese philosophy, the Feng Shui system maintains the belief that death marks the start of another life, and does not represent an end. The various descriptions of people’s pre-existence, in addition to their visions of later life, illustrate the strong influence of such a viewpoint. In keeping with this, the Feng Shui system holds the belief that our dead ancestors continue to live in a different world, watching over and protecting their descendants. From the Qi perspective, the energy that is emitted from a dead, buried forebear has extraordinary impacts on the living generations’ quality of life. Hence, choosing the right site with a suitable Feng Shui atmosphere and background for the family cemetery represents a means of respect, whilst also being an indication of the entire family’s expectations of prosperity and health, in addition to that of the general community. That is, people give much greater value to having an immaculate environment for the resting places of the bereaved. Memorial halls’ creation, maintenance, and protection guarantee a thriving, healthy, and fortunate destiny for the living generations. Feng Shui stresses protecting the environment, defending the landscape, and maintaining quality Qi in their ancestral burial grounds. Feng Shui settlements’ spatial configurations are basically guided by the system’s principles, and prove to be a critical factor in the local community’s sustainable development, and that of the entire ancient Chinese agrarian society. The Feng Shui notion of seeking the best living environment by balancing nature with humans also constitutes a systematic strategy towards realizing pure sustainable growth within conventional Chinese communities (Zhong & Dr. Ceranic, 2007).
Art and death
The continued integrity of the body is linked to spiritual purity and holiness — purity of the mind concurrently influences the material body’s purity, and eliminates defilements, which result in decomposition following death. Buddhist masters’ bodies that defied the natural decomposition following death were thus worshipped by their followers as reserves of spiritual power and worthy karma. A “flesh icon’s” possession had the capability of converting a far-flung, secluded temple into a prosperous center for pilgrimage attracting followers of the religion from all over the country (Sharf, 1992).
Art in China
Chiang Yee, an artist from China, was the proud mastermind behind the Chinese painting oeuvre. He added panda paintings to bamboos, plum blossoms, irises, chrysanthemums, and so forth. The above achievement is proof of his internalization of the western notion of ‘innovation’ as an accompaniment of originality, as conventional Chinese artists showed no interest whatsoever in the aspect of originality. Rather, their goal was adopting the masters’ examples. A characteristic of Chinese artwork’s structure was that the very same motif could forever be painted over and over without any addition to the original. However, during the 80s, and possibly as a result of art increasingly being about itself under modernism, painting started showing limitations. For demonstrating originality, artists had to discover a vacant niche within the vast array of possibilities. However, by the eighties, it was getting all the more difficult to find any niche, and their occupation was becoming increasingly less rewarding. Nevertheless, irrespective of painting’s internal limitations (if present), painting in general was perceived to have perished during the 80s (in spite of the neo-expressionism wave that started surfacing in art galleries). The basis for this was chiefly specific political conclusions arrived at by staunch opponents of the “late capitalism” phenomenon: painting had reached its end, since the economic and social structures that supported it were no longer considered practical. As noted by Carrier, this did not imply, to theorists promulgating the end of painting that art, by itself, had reached its end. For instance, Douglas Crimp believed that painting in the present day gave way to the art form of photography, in a mechanical reproduction era, leading one to question museums’ and collections’ future (Danto, 1998).
Art, Ideology and Threats
Art’s aesthetic censorship is a frequently neglected area. Art conventions have been utilized as censorship strategies as well, and can restrict free expression through art. Prior to the latter part of the 1970s, socialist realism constituted the leading aesthetic standard. For instance, Impressionism was perceived to be bourgeois and hence, was not accepted. The era’s artists could not freely adopt a preferential style or attempt to borrow any element of western art’s history. Art styles were a conceptual issue. Ai Weiwei’s paintings and those of several Stars Group members, around the 80s were wholly impressionist landscapes, and had no political facet to them. Their art was simply controversial because of their opposition of the system that had established art’s formal conventions. Lu’s gunshot that caused a sudden collapse in the 1989 Avant-Garde/China exhibition is proof of the difficulties experienced by performance art in China. Ma Liuming — the famous Chinese artist- was arrested in 1995 while performing his famed “Lunch series” at Beijing’s East Village. Following over twenty years of struggle, artists of China have, at last, won stylistic and formal freedom to make art. The emergent art market has been a factor in this triumph as well. The extent to which new art will be acknowledged by the formal art institutions beyond the urbanites, however, is yet unknown (Han, 2012).
Chen, Y. (2012). The Expression of Death in Children’s Picture Story Books. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 210-213.
Danto, A. C. (1998). The End of Art: A Philosophy of Defense. Blackwell Publishing, 127-143.
Han, S. (2012, June 22). The invisible red line – maneuvering Chinese art censorship. Retrieved from All that is banned is desired: http://artsfreedom.org/
Sharf, R. H. (1992). The Idolization of Enlightenment: On the mummification of Ch’an masters in Medieval China. The University of Chicago Press, 1- 31.
Wang, M. (2015). Invisible Body and the Predicaments of Existence in an Urbanizing China. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 163-197.
Zhong, Z., & Dr. Ceranic, B. (2007). FengShui — A Systematic Research of Vernacular Sustainable Development in Ancient China and its Lessons for Future. 7th UK CARE Annual General Meeting.
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