In the beginning, in the Immutable, there was nothing, everything was bare, inert and empty.Hengxian manuscript, Warring States Period (475-221 BC)
In these bare, inert and empty immensities, peacefully and without constraint, something was activated.
This something having happened, then came the air, then existence, then a beginning, then a deployment…
Then the heavy air generated the Earth, the light air generated Heaven.
This air is divine. It generates things bountifully and fills Heaven and Earth.
Visitors to Beijing who choose to meander off the beaten track may find themselves seduced by an unusual sight: an old-fashioned pre-telescopic observatory, complete with ornate 17th-century astronomical instruments. It is located on a large terrace, on top of a carefully preserved section of the walls that had surrounded the city until they were pulled down in the 1950s. The destruction of the walls was a terrible loss for the city and a foretaste of worse things to come: the almost complete demolition of the ancient quarters of the Chinese capital.
The observatory was built in 1442, during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), but later reorganised by European Jesuits who, thanks to their advanced technical, artistic, and scientific skills, had managed to achieve a position of trust at the court of the emperors of the succeeding and final Chinese dynasty, the Qing (1644-1912). In 1670, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661-1722) demanded a public contest to compare the merits of European and Chinese astronomy in the accurate computing of the yearly calendar, essential for the proper running of the state. The test was to predict three things: the length of the shadow thrown by a gnomon (the projecting part of a sundial that casts a shadow and indicates the time) at noon of a certain day; the absolute and relative positions of the sun and the planets on a given date; and, lastly, the exact time of an anticipated lunar eclipse.
The competition took place at the Bureau of Astronomy in the presence of high-ranking government ministers and officials from the observatory. It was won by the Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688), an erudite mathematician and astronomer who, with access to the latest scientific astronomical updates and assisted by telescopes for observation, succeeded in all three tests. Verbiest was made Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Beijing Observatory. In this capacity, he supervised the recasting of some of the astronomical instruments: armillary spheres, sundials, sextants. These are very large, made of brass, and highly decorated, with bronze dragons forming the supports. Despite their weight, they were very easy to handle, evidence of great skill in their mechanical design. Verbiest wrote in his book Astronomia Europaea (1687) that the correct reading of the stars and astronomy was to be a great help in the missionaries’ task of spreading the Christian faith at the Chinese court:
Holy Religion makes her official entry (in China) as a very beautiful queen, leaning on the arms of Astronomy, and she easily attracts the looks of all the heathens. What is more, often dressed in a starry robe, she easily obtains access to the rulers and prefects of the provinces.
‘The mandate of heaven’
The Jesuit missionaries had understood the important role that astronomy and cosmology played in all aspects of Chinese culture and everyday life, at all levels of society and in all periods of its history. Following all the other emperors of China since the foundation of the first Chinese empire in the 3rd century BC, Kangxi had taken the time-honoured and splendid title of ‘Son of Heaven’, thus proclaiming that his imperial and dynastic legitimacy – ‘the Mandate of Heaven’ – was conferred by celestial powers. This close association between the power of the supreme sovereign on Earth and the Sky above, which granted the emperor the right to rule ‘all under Heaven’ (tianxia), made it essential for Chinese astronomers to be able to read the movements of stars and planets exactly, so as to synchronise them to the correct functioning of the state and performance of the sacred rituals.
An understanding of cosmology and astronomy was crucial to China’s emperors – and it remains relevant today to anyone wishing to gain a fuller understanding of Chinese history. A striking new exhibition, Genèse de l’Empire Céleste: dragons, phénix et autres chimères (The Beginning of the World: dragons, phoenix, and other chimera), aims to explore this complex theme, through a series of beautiful artefacts, mostly carved in jade, but also crystal, glass, metal, ceramics, and textiles, selected from the Sam and Myrna Myers collection of Asian art in Paris. The objects illustrate the close relationship between the symbols of earthly power and the Heavens that existed in China from the late Neolithic period (c.3500-2000 BC) to the foundation and consolidation of the empire under the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
Although ancient Chinese astronomy and cosmology were not fully systematised until the Han dynasty, the Chinese had been watching the sky, the constellations, and the celestial phenomena since the very beginning of their civilisation. Chinese societies of the Neolithic period observed astronomical phenomena on a regular basis, and created symbolic objects of power with cosmological associations for the members of their elites. One of the key concepts of ancient Chinese cosmology is that ‘the Earth is square and the Sky is round’. There is archaeological evidence for the early use of this basic symbolic cosmological configuration in China, both from architectural remains and from funerary goods uncovered in excavations at sites of two of the most-important cultures that flourished in late Neolithic China: Hongshan (c.4500-3000 BC), in the north-east, and Liangzhu (c.3300-2200 BC), in the south. Both these cultures shared a salient aspect: the manufacturing of highly symbolic jade objects used as emblems of status for their leaders and as sacred ritual items.
Jade-working has a long history in China. The earliest artefacts in nephrite (one of the two distinct minerals called ‘jade’) so far excavated in the country are rather simple ornaments, such as slit rings used as earrings from sites of the Neolithic Xinglongwa (c.6200-5400 BC) and Zhaobaogou (c.5400-4500 BC) cultures that flourished in north-east China, in present-day Mongolia and Liaoning province. But it was with the Hongshan culture that this jade-working tradition reached its peak.
One of the largest and best-investigated Hongshan sites is Niuheliang, in Liaoning. Built on hilltops, it covers an area of several square kilometres and was used as a ceremonial centre and as the burial place for members of the Hongshan elite. Here, Chinese archaeologists have uncovered remains of monumental ceremonial structures in stone, such as square earthen altars, raised stone platforms, circular ritual spaces, and a semi-subterranean building interpreted as a ‘temple’, where fragments of almost life-size human and animal figures in clay were discovered. Stone cist tombs containing intact or partly preserved skeletons adorned exclusively with jades were found next to these square and round ritual structures. These jades are carved in a variety of naturalistic and abstract shapes, examples of which are on view in Geneva. Among them are pendants decorated with fierce, stylised mask-looking motifs with toothed and scroll-like appendages; images of birds with outstretched wings, probably alluding to the realm of the skies; and carvings of creatures with a serpentine body and an animal head. Chinese scholars consider these creatures to be possible representations of the dragon, the mythical animal that in later times became associated with the emperor.
Hongshan jade carving was followed chronologically by the mastery of the craft during the Liangzhu culture, which flourished in the lower Yangzi River valley in southern China. A high degree of social differentiation is reflected in the necropolis of the Liangzhu elite, whose graves are lavishly furnished with jades and often dug into artificial mounds near square, raised platforms that probably functioned as altars for the performance of rituals. Besides various types of ornament, emblems of status, and ceremonial blades, the Liangzhu repertory of jade artefacts found in tombs includes a profusion of objects identified by their Chinese names as bi discs and cong tubes. The bi are round discs with a hole at their centre, while the cong are quadrangular tubes of various heights with a cylindrical hollow inside, running from top to bottom. While bi discs are pure geometric forms with or without surface decoration, the cong tubes are characterised instead by stylised carved animal and human masks at the corners. Traditionally, and based on passages contained in Chinese texts of the 4th-3rd century BC, the bi and the cong have been interpreted as symbolic representations in jade of the circular Heaven and the square Earth. Both categories of jade object are compelling for the beauty of their shape and their (still somewhat enigmatic) ritual function. The exhibition includes a great many beautiful examples of both plain and extraordinarily decorated bi and cong of different sizes and dates. They are fascinating for their seemingly endless variety within what is basically an unchanging format.
From these Neolithic beginnings down to the first imperial dynasties in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, jade ornaments indicated the high status of their wearers and, during their lifetime, their moral virtues. During the Han dynasty, jade was deemed essential in practices related to the attainment of immortality and beliefs about the afterlife. In burials, jade objects and even entire jade vests covering the deceased aided the transformation of the decaying corpse into an everlasting jade body. Jade funerary pillows incised with specific star constellations strengthened the link between mortal men and their celestial afterlife. A particularly telling example of these Han jade pillows is on view in the exhibition. Its rectangular sides bear carvings representing the Big Dipper and the Milky Way, as well as the Toad of the Moon and the Three-legged Bird of the Sun within clouds. Another graphic representation of the Big Dipper is carved on a charming Ming dynasty pale-green jade tablet that shows the stars above a bird poised on a rock.
The daunting task of rendering accessible to a wide audience the philosophical and artistic implications of Chinese cosmology fell to the exhibition’s curator, Jean-Paul Desroches, Senior Curator for French National Heritage. The diverse sections of the exhibition and the beautifully illustrated book that accompanies it include work by distinguished international scholars from very different fields. Astrophysics, archaeologists, and specialists in archaic jades, among many others, assisted in the undertaking, focusing on their own areas of expertise. They cover topics such as the religious and philosophical principles of the Dao, the ‘flow of the universe’, which is explored in the show through exhibits including a majestic robe worn by Daoist priests and a magnificent altar frontal embroidered with Daoist symbols and fierce dragons; and the many ways since the Han dynasty in which the four cardinal directions have been represented by four mythical animals: the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West, and the Black Tortoise of the North. A beautiful set of four seals made of jade and agate is a good example of the widespread representations of these mythical protective creatures, while an intricately carved jade bi disk dated to the Six Dynasties (AD 220-589) shows the four animals following each other in a dynamic progression along its surface.
There are other celestial creatures to be encountered, notably the composite animal known as the bixie, a fierce and powerful winged feline with horns, and a ubiquitous guardian of tombs. Bixie are the most-imposing beasts of a celestial menagerie that includes real and imaginary animals, as well as mortals and immortal beings. Their multiform variety, subtly elegant decoration, and powerful three-dimensional sculptural quality are part of the fascination of the exhibition, with a striking jade example inlaid with gold serving as a particular highlight of the show.
Victor Segalen (1878-1919) was the first to use the word chimère (‘chimera’) to describe the bixie. In 1913, he undertook an archaeological survey of Han funerary monuments and documented the previously unrecorded statuary of this period. The exhibition makes sure this French writer and archaeologist does not go unnoticed, paying homage to his extraordinary life.
Through the course of his work in China, Segalen took a number of magnificent black-and-white photographs of the imposing mound over the tomb of the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi. Monumental stone pillars and statues tower over empty fields and villages in remote regions across the vast landscape. The atmospheric pictures evoke the haunting beauty of the country’s ancient monuments and the ‘spirit ways’ that lead to the ancestors’ tombs. It was in such places that Heaven and Earth would meet.
Genèse de l’Empire Céleste: dragons, phénix et autres chimères (The Beginning of the World: dragons, phoenix, and other chimera)
Fondation Baur: Musée des Arts d’Extrême-Orient, Geneva 10 November 2020-21 March 2021
The exhibition will travel from the Baur to the Musée des Arts Asiatiques in Nice, where it will be on show from May to September 2021.
The exhibition catalogue, edited by Jean-Paul Desroches, is published by Lienart Éditions Paris (in French and English; 296pp, €50).