Thursday, September 20, 2012

Chinese Meander or ‘Greek Key’ Patterns


A bold key design crowns a large, wooden votive vase.
This post is a tribute to Mark Ruffner’s interest in Greek Key designs. These usually squared-off patterns in countless variations have been used since antiquity to create borders and frames in almost every kind of design.

Since moving to Taiwan, I have noticed that these patterns are also ubiquitous in Chinese art.  Here then is a brief look at their appearance on small household articles, ignoring for the present their role in ancient Chinese art and architecture.

While the Greek designs were inspired by a ‘meandering’ river, the Chinese meanders seem to have additional sources and versions, including foliage and natural growth, stylized clouds and animals, and various kinds of waves, lattice-work, cartouches, and paneling.


I have a small collection of Chinese wooden trays, and this simple red and black lacquer one, with its key-design sides highlighted by gilding, is one of the handsomest I have seen.


Click on images to enlarge.






This platform uses the same color scheme to different effect, the black top set off by a narrow band of red, the gilt fretwork base employing different sizes and shapes of links for variety.





Wooden lion finials like these are often found on pieces of furniture, especially those of some religious significance, such as a household shrine. One lion is playing with a ball, the other (presumably a female) is protecting a child, but both are resting on key-bordered plinths.





The keys in this bat panel are formed of individual links, not joined, and are interspersed with flowers and bosses. With its four lucky bats surrounding a central design, this also came from a piece of furniture, most likely a bed.





Although it has some condition issues, this document box is interesting because it has Mongolian writing on the top and bottom. The sides were left over to be decorated with classic meander patterns. Notice that the top is framed with fretwork elements which create a much freer type of border.







Here a key-work  border is used to enclose a panel of text in this small wooden box.






A statue of Guan Yin is set off with this wooden case, enlivened by much gilding and surrounded by the squared key border. (Note, I haven't decided yet whether to clean the ‘patina’ off the glass cover--I should have removed it for the photo.)





A pewter cosmetics box is somewhat crudely decorated by stamping; the craftsman who made it obviously cared little about the close fitting of the corners in the key-work.  





These ceramic pillows were made in large quantities, although recently I have seen a lot of fakes. This blue and white example features a pair of playful lions constrained by a severely classical border.







In addition to narrow borders, the same type of fretwork patterns could be made to cover large areas, and were often used as window or background designs. I hope to return to these is a later post, but here is an example of background fretwork in a medicine tin:








Finally,  although this is not a geometric Greek Key type, I couldn’t resist ending with a more naturalistic border consisting of a peach branch with gilded leaves and fruit, which could be extended indefinitely using the rules that created the formal meander patterns.





This brief look at traditional meander patterns barely scratches the surface, and doesn’t even begin to explore their history and symbolism.  Although the ones presented here are only a tiny sampling of the variety available, let me know whether you find any of these key borders particularly attractive.


(All photos property of the author.)

33 comments:

  1. Fascinating--I would never have guessed that it was inspired by a meandering river--because it is so squared off and stylized. I will now look at this common design with fresh eyes! I love the examples you have shared--the piece with the four lucky bats may be my favorite.

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    1. Hello Jen, Chinese carvings often form rebuses of propitious sayings. In this case the four bats, symbolizing luck, surround the symbol for longevity.

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  2. Hi, Jim - Every time when I see a Greek key border, I think of Mark!

    This is very interesting to me. I have to honestly say I've never associated Greek key designs with Chinese art, architecture or furnishings. How embarrassing since I grew up with much of what you've shown. (I think my parents had similar lacquered trays.) Shame on me for taking it all for granted. :(

    Great post!
    Loi

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    1. Hello Loi, I agree with you about Mark's Greek keys; they were the inspiration for this post.

      That's the best part about taking a closer look at what has always been familiar. You start seeing the basic components and understanding the quality and meaning that goes into these objects.

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    2. p.s. I'm working on the Shan Fen-yuan post as promised; it should be ready soon!

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  3. Dear Parnassus -

    I am honored by this posting, and it goes without saying that my love for the Greek key certainly extends to Chinese fretwork!

    I must begin by saying that you have a very handsome collection of art, and by the looks of it, unique items as well. I'm drawn to the document box, which I think is extraordinary, and to the lions, which have so much charm. I imagine that they'd live very happily in a bookcase.

    Now don't laugh, but next I am drawn to the medicine tin, which reminds me of a cloisonné box in my own possession. I really like the repeating patterns of fretwork.

    Perhaps the attraction to keys and frets has to do with the urge to find order. In any event, I enjoy the design element, and your sharing of it!

    Mark

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    1. Hello Mark, I've had a lot of fun seeking out unusual items, and in general I prefer those with a little bit of "edge" over merely pretty ones. Also, looking for patterns and design elements does become addictive.

      Lions like those are a major element in Chinese art; in fact there was an entire museum devoted to them in Taipei, but it closed before I got to it. I am not at all surprised that you like the tin; I was thrilled when I got it. One day when I write about Chinese medicine I will show the top, which is nothing like the sides!

      Now I will be looking forward to your next installment in the Greek Key series.

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  4. Hello Jim:
    How could we possibly choose? We did, at your suggestion, enlarge all of the images where their absolute beauty is fully revealed. What a wonderful, eclectic collection of decorative items each of which is linked one to another with the common theme of the Greek Key design. And, in our view, as clearly in yours, the trailing peach branch, which is positively lovely, is so very closely allied.

    This is a wonderful post for the way in which you have brought to attention a detail which could so easily be overlooked in consideration of the whole.

    We have a 'Chinese Chippendale' tea table and writing desk, both made by Edwards and Roberts at the start of the C20, where there is much evidence of the Greek Key in both pieces of furniture.

    As for Mark's blog, it is, along with 'Road to Parnassus, one of the highlights for us of the Blogosphere.

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    1. Hello Jane and Lance, I did not acquire these objects because of the key design, but as examples of carving, lions, god-statues, boxes, etc. It was Mark's series on the subject that made me notice and appreciate this element among the wealth of patterns. Oddly, the presence of certain key patterns prevented me from buying a number of articles--see the comment by Columnist, below, for the reason.

      Your Edwards and Roberts pieces wound marvelous; I hope that you will feature them in a future post, or send a link in case I have missed it.

      You have exceeded the demands of tact in comparing All Things Ruffernian with my efforts; I thank you for the great compliment.

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    2. Now having read your reply to Columnist, we can readily understand your reluctance to purchase certain pieces.

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    3. Hattats - although in the West we have that awful association, it is largely ignored in the East and South East Asia, as it is a symbol much older than the one the Nazis used, and means "luck", and has strong religious connections.

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    4. Columnist and Hattatts, It is true that it is a common religious and lucky symbol here, and most people don't really understand its European usage, in the way that most Westerner's are not too clear on the detailed history of China.

      Through its Buddhist connections, it has also come to symbolize vegetarian foods, and a restaurant sign (or food package label) featuring a large swastika indicates a vegetarian establishment.

      And I still don't like them.

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  5. Dear Jim - it was Mark who also brought my attention to the Greek Key designs and made me so much more aware of how often it is used.
    The last image that you could not resist including, which I like very much, does remind me of an Art Nouveau design, although I suspect that it probably pre-dates that period. It does, however, sit very happily within a squared off greek key design.

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    1. Hello Rosemary, That's a good point that much of Art Nouveau developed out of these swirling natural designs, and shows how different looks and periods are actually related. I should have mentioned that the peach branch was on the base of a small offering table, and that the peaches symbolize longevity or immortality.

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  6. I wrote a little post about the Greek key about three years ago:

    http://corcol.blogspot.com/2009/06/greek-key.html

    and in it I was noticing what I see in one of your examples, (the medicine tin), and that is the use of the swastika, which is found on a number of Asian designs, probably Buddhist-related. I had thought the Nazis had taken their swastika from Asian designs, but was told quite firmly otherwise by my German reader Petra. An unfortunate, but later association.

    I do like your rectagular red lacquer trays, and their stands for the house altars. I have a stepped piece from a similar provenance, in red and gilded, which displays netsuke pieces on each step. It was one of the first antiques I bought, in Hong Kong, about 30+ years ago, and I still love it as much.

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    1. Hello Columnist, You have discovered the key pattern's 'dirty little secret', that they sometimes do indeed resolve themselves into swastikas. Of course this is an ancient pattern, as is the American Indian and other uses of the same design, but unfortunately for the modern viewer, it is still a swastika.

      Sometimes you hear that "friendly" ones point in a certain direction, but this is nonsense because they still read as swastikas, and besides, you see them pointing in all directions. The goddess Guan Yin is especially associated with this symbol, sometimes carved into her forehead, and for that reason I often pass by her statues or any objects which contain that symbol. As you mention, the Nazi association is later and unfortunate, but there it is.

      On to more pleasant subjects; I am sure that your stepped altar is fantastic, knowing your taste and adding the fact that it was bought thirty years ago. Is it a piece you have in storage, or are currently using?

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    3. Yes, it's on the desk in the hall - the first picture in this post:

      http://corcol.blogspot.com/2008/07/let-thousand-flowers-blossom.html

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    4. Very nice; you have to enlarge the photo in a new window to see the detail. I seem to recall a Lucite display rack for netsuke on your blog.

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    5. Yes, click to enlarge any of my photos. You have a good memory...here is the perspex display stand (last photos) with netsuke and other objets.

      http://corcol.blogspot.com/2011/04/time-to-weep-and-time-to-laugh.html

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  7. * "an unfortunate but later association of the swastika, not my German reader Petra...I hasten to add!

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  8. With all the variations of the motif, I never tire of Greek Key.

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    1. Hello Classicist, I agree with you. With its squared-off design, it suits both architectural works and helps to temper some of the elaborate Chinese pieces illustrated.

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  9. It is fascinating to me how themes, designs, etc., are repeated in disparate cultures the world over. The meander you illustrate being a prime example. I am mad for the tray, a lovely one, indeed! Reggie

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    1. Hello Reggie, That tray is an unusually elegant one. I think its secret is that in addition to its great proportions and plain lacquered surfaces, the key-work element adds ornamental relief, without making it actually ornate.

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  10. Great photos. I suppose the key question to ask is "how did the taste for Greek designs get to China?" If it was via the silk route, the taste might well have flowed in the other direction.

    That Chinese crafstmen would adapt the original Greek taste into something uniquely Chinese is absolutely to be expected. Taste never stands still.

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  11. Hello Hels, I removed the duplicate comment--we always take it for granted that whatever you say counts double.

    It indeed would be very interesting to trace the meanderings of the meander pattern itself. I'm going to start keeping my eye peeled for early examples.

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  12. Hi Jim! What an informative post. I learn so much from your blog, thank you! I had no idea that was the history behind this motif in Chinese art. I also love the variety of applications and dimensions within the motif.

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  13. Hello Ann, I'm glad you like this; I really had fun putting it together. Examining all the variety you mentioned works two-fold; it creates a greater understanding but opens so many new questions that send you back to the drawing board.

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  14. Good morning! I was just having a discussion with a friend about the Greek key design on my Taiwanese glass lion. And I thought I bet Jim knows about this.....et voila! Everything I needed to know! --Barbara

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    1. Hello Barbara, The meander designs do add a touch of elegance to a lot of Chinese art. Often this works well to set off more elaborate carving, as with your lion. It's funny how noticing design elements, such as Greek keys or perhaps a type of flower, can make you regard and re-categorize objects in new ways. --Jim

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  15. Dearest Jim,
    Thanks for pointing me to this older, but quite interesting post about the Greek key design versus the Chinese Meander.
    Guess the more we read about history and the more we travel with open eyes, it is become all the more fascination how some cultures have come very close together without knowing.
    Long before the Internet and yet, people observed their surroundings and worked it into their art.
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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    1. Hello Mariette, The relationship of the Greek Key and Chinese meander is quite fascinating. I still need to do more research in an art library to satisfy myself on the histories and interrelations of these designs. You are right how all ancient (and modern) cultures carefully observed what was around them, both natural patterns and art from other sources, and worked it into their own art. Also, at various points there was trade between different socialites. Today it is our job to untangle all the intertwined threads. --Jim

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