Understanding all ‘Things Chinese’

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 19, 2011 

For many people, their only interaction with China is at a Chinese restaurant, but there is so much more to a culture dating back over the two millennia.

Let the excellent “Things Chinese” introduce you to it.

Along with a former Smithsonian magazine photographer, Michael Freeman, Ronald G. Knapp provides a simple and slender introduction to Asian culture. Filled with photos on a myriad of subjects — wedding baskets, screens, scroll paintings, woks, modern cigarette posters, ancient tea ceremonies — this is a book that a casual reader will find easy to swallow.

Knapp first visited China in 1965, long before it opened up to the Western world. He is currently professor emeritus at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

In his foreword he points out that things Chinese are “too numerous to be counted.” That’s true. China’s rich culture includes the influences of its neighbors — Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Let’s start with what’s familiar to anyone who has ever eaten Chinese food: chopsticks. The earliest pair discovered, made of metal and bone, date back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-11 BC.) — in Western culture, that was during the Egyptian dynasties. Today chopsticks are more likely to be wood, to the detriment of forests worldwide.

Blue-and-white rice-patterned porcelain was commonly made for sale abroad during the 18th and 19th centuries. Knapp points out that the dishes were actually “a quintessential example of fine Chinese ceramics used not only by the imperial family but also by the wealthy Chinese in general.” He explains in detail how difficult these now-common dishes were to make originally.

Kites have a long history. They were used “first as instruments of warfare,” but became fun for all during the 7th century Tang dynasty. Chinese kites are very diverse. “At night, some kites flown (in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square) trail neon-lit tails,” Knapp says.

Carved wooden alcove beds would have draperies with exquisite embroidery. One thing is clear when looking at couches — not all Chinese furniture is comfortable. No springs. Pillows were rigid oblongs made of porcelain, stiffened leather or wood. Most Westerners would shun them.

Icons like dragons, the practice of Fengshui, imposing stone guardian lions — more commonly known as Foo or Fu dogs — all are covered here.

What’s so enjoyable about this book is the absolute confidence you have in the writer. Knapp has written more than a dozen books on China. He knows his topic very well and obviously loves it.

So the next time when you visit a Chinese restaurant or look at a Chinese exhibit, you’ll understand its heritage better if you’ve read “Things Chinese.”

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“Things Chinese” by Ronald G. Knapp, photography by Michael Freeman; Tuttle Publishing, Hong Kong (144 pages, $24.95)

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