Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 10, 2020
Emily Byrne Curtis Chinese-Islamic Works of Art, 1644–1912: A Study of Some Qing Dynasty Examples Routledge Research in Art History. New York: Routledge, 2020. 142 pp.; 23 b/w ills. Cloth $160.00 (9781472427106)

In Chinese-Islamic Works of Art, Emily Byrne Curtis takes us on a journey through China’s history, its relationship with the Islamic world, and its rich artistic heritage. The author not only describes artifacts showing connections to the Islamic world during the Qing period but also provides a detailed discussion of the historical and social context that produced such amazing works of art. Examining different materials—from glassware to porcelain, from cloisonné enamelware to snuff bottles—Curtis reconstructs a detailed history of technological developments in the imperial Chinese industry. By using works of art from international collections and archival sources (from European travelers or Chinese authors from the past), she also provides interpretations and hypotheses for the beginning and diffusion of new technologies in Chinese artistic traditions.

In chapter 1, Curtis reconstructs the arrival of Muslim craftspeople to Chinese territory, highlighting the fundamental role played by the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan (r. 1260–94), the first non-Chinese emperor to conquer all of China, in facilitating the arrival of Arab, Persian, and Turkish artisans from West Asia. This presence introduced new skills in the local industry across various sectors, such as textile production and metalwork, and stimulated the use of new decorative motifs and shapes. The Chinese porcelain industry, in particular, generated items intended for an Islamic market, such as the famous blue-and-white porcelain pen boxes used by western Islamic calligraphers. Curtis underlines the still-unsolved question of the possible presence of Islamic ceramists at imperial Jingdezhen kilns, which could be confirmed by the fact that blue underglaze painting was a technique first introduced in Iran. Moreover, it is not unlikely that artisans from the Middle East moved eastward after the Mongol invasion (ca. 1250s).

The book’s second chapter discusses the confluence of different cultural traditions—European, Islamic, and Chinese—within the Chinese glass industry, focusing particularly on European influence in glass production. The author analyzes the work of German historical geographer Berthold Laufer (1874–1934) concerning Boshan glass workshops, including artifacts he gathered during an expedition to China. Two ways of forming glass were employed in Boshan: solid glass processing with molds and free blowing or mold blowing. In the early eighteenth century, new glass-coloring techniques reached Boshan thanks to European transmission (probably by Jesuit glassmakers working for the Qing court), such as the use of gold to make ruby-red glass, which was particularly appreciated by Chinese buyers.

Chapter 3 includes a contribution in English, accompanied by a Chinese translation, by Shelly Xue (Shanghai Institute of Visual Art), who provides a technical study of glass production in China during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the influential legacy of Islamic and European decorative programs and production techniques. She mentions, for instance, two glass water containers from the Kangxi period (1662–1722) decorated using a facet-cutting technique popular in early Islamic glass production (9th–10th century). The Islamic impact on imperial workshops became even more significant during the Yongzheng reign (1723–35), when Arabic inscriptions were used to decorate glassware for the local Muslim community. During the Qianlong period (1736–95) a fusion between Islamic culture and the Chinese glassmaking tradition occurred: one example is a cameo glass huqqah base from the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery that Xue describes in technical and decorative detail. The use of translucent red glass with a slight dichroic effect and the peculiar decoration with carved decorative patterns (an Arabic inscription) give life to an object “with a hybrid and exotic quality” (31).

In the fourth chapter, Curtis considers the authenticity of Arabic-script glassware attributed to the glass atelier of Emperor Kangxi (r. 1661–1722). Established in 1696 under the direction of Jesuit Kilian Stumpf, the atelier produced a style of glass strongly influenced by European decorative patterns, techniques, and shapes. Its products were intended for not only the imperial family but also favored officials and foreign emissaries. Nevertheless, no object with Arabic inscriptions has been attributed to Kangxi’s workshop. Only later was Arabic script attested on glassware, though many scholars cast doubt on the chronology and ateliers associated with this production. However, during the eighteenth century, Chinese imperial society maintained close contact with Muslim communities. (In 1760 an Uyghur Muslim woman became one of the emperor’s consorts and, in the same year, an imperial mosque was established in Beijing.) Curtis suggests that, given this attention to Islam and Muslims, it is reasonable to associate glasses with Arabic inscriptions to this specific historical context. She provides examples of glass artifacts dated to this period from different collections, suggesting that some of these could have been part of the collection of the emperor’s Muslim consort.

In chapter 5, Curtis approaches the production of porcelains for the Islamic market. Jingdezhen had long been the main place of porcelain production; during the Qing period, after suffering a major decline, the region regained its role as the industrial center. Chinese potters produced objects with Islamic designs thought to be intended for both Chinese Muslims and the Islamic world at large. Among these decorative elements are quotations from the Qur’an and the “magic square” (a grid of numbers in which every row, column, and diagonal has an identical sum). The author discusses some specific porcelain examples and traces their history in Jingdezhen (including cobalt-blue painting, overglaze enamels, iron red glaze, and famille rose). With the expansion of export trade, some of the objects produced there were later decorated in other centers.

Chapter 6 is divided in two parts: the first is dedicated to cloisonné and the second to painted enamelwares. After covering the history of the cloisonné technique under the imperial patronage of the Kangxi Emperor in 1693, Curtis discusses some significant examples showing connections with the Islamic world, such as vessels used for decorating Chinese mosques (an altar set known as Three Muhammadan Offerings), an incense burner with Arabic inscriptions, and a mosque lamp with Arabic written in the “Sini script,” a Chinese-Islamic calligraphic form for Arabic letters. She considers the beginning of painted enamelware in China, perceived as a foreign method of decor (introduced by Jesuit missionaries), and describes the efforts during the Yongzheng period to manufacture colored enamels in the capital of the empire.

Curtis devotes chapter 7 to jade, one of the most precious and symbolic materials in Chinese art. Supplies of this material within China were quite limited, and for this reason, Chinese artisans had to look to Islamic lands (such as the Kulan mountains of Khotan), giving rise to an exchange in commerce and trends that was particularly prolific under the Yuan court. When Qing rulers conquered this region (modern-day Xinjian) in 1756, a regular flow of jade for the court’s use was guaranteed. Appreciation for jade artifacts was not exclusive to Chinese communities; craftspeople in other regions started to carve beautiful jade objects and some of these even reached the Qing court. Two schools seem to have existed beyond China, one located in the Ottoman Empire and the other one in the Mughal Empire of India.

Among the artworks that circulated in the Chinese court, Curtis mentions snuff bottles: with the spread of tobacco use in China (to smoke, chew, or snuff) through the Portuguese colony of Macau, these objects became increasingly common within the country. Chinese artisans had the opportunity to create original and curious objects made of glass, jade, agate, and clay, as well as coconut shell, bamboo, and pearl. Snuff bottles with painted interiors (a particularly difficult technique) became especially popular. Among the most important Chinese craftspeople, the author mentions one with Muslim ancestry, Ma Shaoxuan, who came from the Muslim district of Beijing (Xuanwu). This artist produced extremely refined objects, decorated with complex calligraphic motifs and accurate portraits of opera stars, actresses, ministers, and other relevant personalities (from the late Qing dynasty to the early days of the Republican Period).

In the final chapter Curtis tries to demonstrate the artistic connection between Chinese and Arabic calligraphies by covering how Arabic script was adapted to the Chinese context. She mentions Xiao’erjing, Chinese script written with Arabic letters (from right to left), and Sini, providing examples of diverse artifacts bearing such inscriptions. She discusses a scroll from the large central Chinese city of Xi’an that bears an inscription in both Chinese and Arabic characters; was it an object to be shown in mosques or was it an example of the artist’s individual expression? Other examples confirm the blend of Arabic scripts with the principles of Chinese calligraphy, such as Sini inscriptions carved on wood or painted on Beijing mosque walls, scrolls with Qur’anic verses written in Arabic calligraphy, and carved Zitan wood bowls with Arabic inscriptions. More recently, Chinese artists’ mastering of Arabic calligraphy has been reflected in the works of Chinese calligraphers, such as Haji Noor Deen.

Chinese-Islamic Works of Art offers many insights into various themes of China’s artistic history, focusing on the centrality of cross-cultural exchange with the Islamic art world. One of the book’s strong points is the careful attention paid to the history of technological developments in the art industry (e.g., glass, ceramics, and cloisonné enamelware), for which the author offers detailed descriptions and traces changes across time. At the same time, the book considers the general history of relations between China and the Islamic world between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. While this book is certainly a useful tool for a specialist audience thanks to its expansive bibliography and rich references for further in-depth studies, it remains usable by anyone seeking information on Chinese artistic production’s complex network of historical, commercial, and cultural intersections with the Islamic world.

Valentina Vezzoli
Institut Français du Proche Orient (Beirut)