Brick Carvings Record Generations of Beijingers' LivesArt of Solidity

October 17, 2014
By Gu WentongEditor: Amanda Wu
Brick Carvings Record Generations of Beijingers' Lives
A brick carving [Women of China]

The magnificent imperial palaces have no doubt impressed countless visitors — from all over the world — to Beijing. But have you ever noticed the carvings on some of the bricks used to construct the buildings? Through images, such as flowers and auspicious legendary animals, those carvings symbolize high position, great wealth, longevity and the traditional Chinese idea that having many sons is the same as having many blessings. You can also see similar carvings on the bricks used to build the former residences of princes, theaters, (ancestral) temples and courtyards. Such brick carvings have been added to the list of Beijing's municipal intangible cultural heritage.

Carvings on hollow bricks and wadangs (building accessories that decorate edges of eaves) originated during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770-256 BC). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it became common for high-ranking officials and wealthy families in Beijing to hire craftsmen to carve — to decorate their houses — exquisite patterns on the bricks used to build their houses' gates, corridors and screen walls (which faced the gates of traditional Chinese courtyards).

During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the early years of the Republic of China (1912-1949), many Beijing residents had bricks carved to decorate their courtyards. Some people have compared courtyards to the "soul" of the ancient capital, and the brick carvings to the "soul" of the traditional Beijing courtyards. During the old days, the carvings were like the house owners' "visiting cards." Why? Through the different patterns of the carvings, one could tell the house owners' identities; for example, whether they were officials, rich businessmen or scholars.

Given the simple styles and quietly elegant colors, Beijing brick carvings have strong artistic appeal — and high practical value. Moreover, as the unique art form embodies traditional Chinese philosophical, aesthetic, literary and artistic ideologies, the carvings have high historical and cultural value.

In 2001, Beijing's municipal government designated Zhang Yan as the only inheritor of the intangible cultural heritage of Beijing brick carvings. As the sixth-generation inheritor of the unique art form, he has strived to keep the intangible cultural heritage alive.

As Beijing's resettlement projects have progressed in recent years, an increasing number of residents have moved from courtyards to high-rise buildings. Some elderly residents have bought Zhang's brick carvings, and they have placed the bricks in their new houses as reminders of their old homes. Zhang Jinhui, Zhang Yan's daughter, admires inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, such as her father. "To create the unique artistic works, they lead simple lives, often devoid of comforts and busy social lives," she says.

She established Youths Advocating the Protection and Inheritance of Intangible Cultural Heritages, a students' organization at Beijing-based Communication University of China. "We will let people see that we, the young people born during the 1990s, also make persevering efforts to protect and inherit intangible cultural heritage," Zhang Jinhui says.

To share information about intangible cultural heritage among her schoolmates, Zhang Jinhui asked inheritors of intangible cultural heritage to offer relevant courses to the students. She has also led the organization's members to create, under the guidance of professional craftsmen, various handiworks that are on the lists of national, provincial or municipal intangible cultural heritage. Also, during summer vacations, Zhang Jinhui and some other members of the organization shoot short documentaries to record the lives of inheritors of intangible cultural heritage.

While she has been organizing activities to promote intangible cultural heritage, Zhang Jinhui has gained a better understanding of her family's career. As a result, the young woman has made up her mind to study carving, painting and calligraphy, and to learn about ancient buildings, all within the next 10 years, so she can inherit her father's career.

Zhang Jinhui, who is scheduled to graduate from the College of Liberal Arts of the Communication University of China this summer, has registered to take the entrance examination for the department of the protection of intangible cultural heritage under the Chinese National Academy of Arts (China's only State-level scientific research institute on arts). She is determined to devote her life to protecting intangible cultural heritage.

(Source: Women of China English Monthly May 2014 Issue)

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