Book Review: Symbols on Chinese Porcelain demystifies culture, artistry and nature

Just in time to capitalize on the exploding Asian porcelain market, German art publishers Arnoldsche  Verlagsanstalt brings “Symbols on Chinese Porcelain 10,000 Times Happiness” by Eva Ströber.

Second only to the stunning photography, “Symbols on Chinese Porcelain” offers valuable context on why this porcelain style matters to the fine-art world, collectors and even philosophers. The book reveals the secrets of the symbols of good luck and the visual imagery of Chinese decorative elements by means of approximately 80 masterpieces of Chinese porcelain spanning 1,000 years.

Decorations of Chinese ceramics are never purely decorative, and the text zeroes in on its mission on page one: “What does it mean?”

Symbols on Chinese Porcelain: 10,000 Times HappinessSymbols on Chinese Porcelain: 10,000 Times Happiness by Eva Ströber

Chinese porcelain symbols are all auspicious and positive. It came as a surprise to me that Chinese people looking at a motif actually ‘read’ it to decode its meaning. The motifs and designs were used across many mediums (lacquer, painting and textiles) over thousands of years.

Ströber’s explanation of ancient Chinese porcelain depicts a people who considered themselves children of nature, much like Native Americans. Themes of fire, clouds and animals are important. She weaves a captivating tale as she explains how Chinese characters evolved from crude drawings to elegant characters and visual symbols. Her research is presented with numerous illustrations, sometimes “reading” the décor of actual ceramics (often trade wares to the West).

After reading Ströber’s research and articulate explanations, it is wholly satisfying to see Chinese  porcelain give up its secrets. Hidden in complex patterns and motifs, themes of love, peace, good luck and long life are represented by tall vases brimming with lotus flowers, dragons and red mushrooms. Chrysanthemums represent the autumn and are associated with endurance and retirement. It’s interesting to learn that although the patterns were easily understood by the Chinese traders, Western buyers simply enjoyed each piece’s sheer beauty. I got the impression Ströber is pleased by the idea that Chinese porcelain pieces were preserved and appreciated simply for their beauty alone, not for the richer appreciation of Chinese art and culture.

“Symbols” is easy to read and lavishly illustrated with photographs, especially close-ups, which are regrettably lacking in most single-topic books. This publisher cares about creating a quality book that’s practical and beautiful. This isn’t a college textbook, although any art history student would be smart to add this volume to a collection. In a book based on symbolism, I couldn’t help noticing that the final chapter of Ströber’s book is titled “Freedom — The Ideal of the Literati.” This last chapter focuses on the meaning of landscapes and nature following chapters explaining the symbolism behind money, careers, buildings and other human pursuits. The ceramics produced by Confucian-era artisans time and time again celebrated the concept of true freedom, defined as ‘returning to live in the country’ and rebuilding the lost bond humans once shared with nature. Ströber shows that ceramics offered a crucial means of expression for these artists and presented some pretty heady concepts beyond simple pretty colors.

Symbols on Chinese Porcelain: 10,000 Times Happiness, Eva Ströber, 240 pages, Arnoldsche Verlagsanstalt, English, ISBN-10: 3897903504, ISBN-13: 978-3897903500, 9 1/2 x 12”, fully illustrated in color, index of motifs, chronology, glossary of technical terms, bibliography, illustrated endpapers, pictorial boards, $95 available on Amazon, www.arnoldsche.com.

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