Tag Archives: china

Fertililty Symbols

Via Inhabitots

As somebody who hails from a place where it’s hot and humid for most of the time, I am quite fascinated by where the seasons are so radically distinct, and felt in the most in-your-face way. I don’t experience the bite of winter nor the accompanying longing for spring, nor the giddy high when this longing is finally fulfilled.

I find it intriguing how a lot of the customs that are practiced even in my corner of the world revolve around celebrating spring, the season of fertility and rebirth. For instance, a lot of weddings happen this time of year, and I’ve only recently realized how appropriate it is! Weddings are traditionally a prelude to child-bearing, and what better season to procreate than when the earth is sprouting seeds, shoots, and flowers?

So for today’s post, we’ll celebrate spring by celebrating fertility symbols!

Woman of Willendorf

She used to be called Venus of Willendorf (modern-day Aggsbach, Austria) and she’s estimated to be 20,000 years old. That’s a lot of zeroes, which means she’s way older than the Venus of Roman mythology, which is probably why the name didn’t stick. She has no feet, and she can’t stand on her own. Her face is covered by horizontal bands which many figure to be plaited hair. Archaeologists have unearthed many other figurines that look very much like her. Scholars think that her disproportionately large breasts and belly, and very detailed nether parts, point to her having been used as a fertility symbol in ancient times.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Eggs & Bunnies

These are nowadays are used as Easter symbols, but they are so because they represent fertility. Eggs are themselves evidence of fertility, and bunnies, well, they are known to reproduce really quickly and easily.

Via Inhabitots

Via Simply Living, Living Simply


These are female fertility charms that are used in indigenous cultures in the Philippines and in certain parts of Southeast Asia. Its key characteristic is in its shape — rounded with a slit in the bottom. The negative space in the middle is said to resemble an embryo with an umbilical cord attached. The shape too makes it easy to be worn as ear ornaments, but they can also be used as pendants.

Via Baybayin Alive


It’s strange, I know. But it just so happens that the Chinese term for chopsticks, zhu, also also translates as “many sons”, and because of this chopstick sets when given as wedding gifts are said to bring luck.

Image via Live Auctioneers

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Summer Fireworks


Fourth of July Fireworks. Image by Renee Alfonso.

Last week the United States celebrated its birthday, and in true American tradition, the fourth of July was celebrated in the capital with a fireworks display that attracts thousands of tourists each year. In other parts of the US as well, fireworks are an independence day tradition, and many other major cities also boast their own displays, such as New York and San Diego.

Although fireworks are a global symbol of celebration, its origins are in Asian culture – with some of the most elaborate displays today being done in the Asian region today.

Fireworks originated in China, with the earliest recorded accounts of fireworks dating back to the 7th century. They were originally developed fireworks as a means  of entertainment for the emperor’s court. However they quickly gained popularity, and the science of firework-making became a respected profession.

Fireworks print

Woodblock print of Fireworks. Image via Era Woodblock Prints.

Europeans and western cultures came to know about fireworks in the mid 17th century, right about the time when Christian missions and colonial expeditions began to bring bits of asian culture back to their homelands. Early explorers called fireworks “Chinese flowers,” relating to the aesthetic qualities of the displays. Similarly, the Japanese term for fireworks, “Hanabi,” also translates to “flowers of fire.”

Fireworks are still traditionally Chinese and are a large part of the chinese culture, especially for festivals. Two of the major festivals celebrated with fireworks are the Mid-autumn festival and of course, Lunar new year. Today, China remains the largest manufacturer of fireworks in the world.

Fireworks over the Forbidden City

Image via Emperor Tours Ltd

Elsewhere in Asia, particularly in Japan, fireworks are also a cultural event, especially in the summer. Fireworks festivals, or Hanabi-taikai, are held throughout Japan, showcasing some of the most elaborate displays in the world.

Japan's fireworks festival

Image via Blog From Tokyo

Famous fireworks festivals in Japan include the Sumidagawa Hanabi Taikai, held over the Sumida river in Tokyo, and the Yokohama Hanabi Taikai, which also takes place over water in Yokohama bay. During such festivals, street vendors set up stalls, where spectators can buy street food and also play games. Many people also wear traditional garb during the festivals such as Yukata (Summer Kimono)  and Jinbei (Summer shorts and short robe).

Going to the Yokohama fireworks festival

Spectators in traditional wear on the way to the Yokohama fireworks festival.

Waiting for the fireworks to start

Spectator view of the Yokohama Hanabi taikai

Of course, one doesn’t really need to go to a large event to see fireworks displays – provided you can purchase them where you are, you can try and have your own fireworks summer party. Smaller fireworks are generally safer and ideal for these events, but still definitely have a festive vibe.

Mini fireworks

Add some sparkle to your summer with some fireworks!

All images in this post by Renee Alfonso, unless otherwise indicated.

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Spinning Mao

Statuette of Chairman Mao

Ceramic statuette of Mao. Image by Greentea Design.

Mao Tse Tung was the Chinese Communist revolutionary who instigated the Chinese revolution and established the People’s Republic of China, and held the nation under his authoritarian control for over 30 years.

Mao button

Mao button. Image from Cafe Press.

There remains controversy on how he would be portrayed in history. People either love him or loathe him. His regime was pretty barbaric, with the massacre of his enemies, widespread violence and terror, and a purging of everything in Chinese culture that did not serve his purposes — religion, personal wealth, opposing ideologies, and all foreign influences and contributions.

Despite his reputation as monstrous mass murderer, there’s no denying how he has he has made an indelible mark on the Chinese culture and psyche. He has become a kind of a god for many Chinese, who gravitate toward the power that he represented. Portraits of him can be found in many Chinese homes. His speeches are rendered in beautiful calligraphy and proudly hung in public places. Shaoshan, his birthplace, from which emerged the death of Chinese religion, ironically has become a shrine to which thousands make their pilgrimage.

Mao pop art

A suite in Hullet House, Hong Kong.

Mao Tse Tung has become a cultural icon that symbolizes China. His face and figure can be found in every souvenir shop in China — where T-shirts, mugs, keychains, refrigerator magnets are emblazoned with his image, sometimes in an absurdly irreverent manner.

Image from Bootstrappin'.

Mickey Mao bust. Image from Say No to Crack.

Mao T-shirtImage from Cafe Press.

Whether his elevation to the status of icon and element of Chinese art and design has evolved naturally or contrived artificially, Mao Tse Tung’s image has indeed undergone a spin into the artsy and cool.

Andy Warhol's MAO screenprints, 1972.

Mao Pop Art

Print by artist Tom Kristensen

Glitch art by David Szauder

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Power Play: China’s Empress Dowager

On exhibit at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Portrait of Empress Cixi

Image courtesy Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution

One of the reasons I love exhibitions and museums is that they offer opportunities for storytelling and consequently, re-telling, as well. Most museums today are progressive in the sense that they continue a tradition of scholarship and service for the enhancement of public education. While some museums favor presentation methods might be simple and direct, without many opportunities for interactives, they stimulate public interest through the stories in their objects and exhibitions.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Image by Renee Alfonso

One such exhibition I had the chance to see recently was Power Play: China’s Empress Dowager, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian. The Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian produce exhibitions on Asian Art and house the Smithsonian’s Asian Art collection. This was a special exhibition on photographic prints from the glass plate negatives of the photos in the Freer Sackler Collection.

The exhibition itself is about the Chinese Dowager Empress Cixi, who is widely known through common history as the dominant political figure of the Qing dynasty, from the 1860’s until her death in the early 20th century. She was the regent to two successive emperors and was known to be a conservative and tough leader, earning her the monicker of “Dragon Lady”.

Portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi

Image courtesy Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution

The photographs that comprise the exhibition were part of a political campaign by the Qing royal court to improve the Empress’ undesirable image. Mainly given out as diplomatic gifts and also distributed throughout China (most likely as propaganda for the Qing court), the portraits helped form the ubiqitous “Dragon Lady” we all known in popular culture, but are also windows into a dying lifestyle and the private life of an unparalleled female political figure.

Dowager Empress Cixi

Image courtesy Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution

Organized into five sections, the exhibition seeks to provide a deeper and more complex portrait of the Empress by analyzing the subtle themes in each set of photographic prints. Each set of themed photographs convey the intentions of Cixi and her court through specific symbols and imagery. The photographs themselves were taken by a court photographer hired specifically for the task.

The exhibition itself is not large and can easily be walked through in around an hour or so. The objects and sections were paced at just the right rhythm throughout the galleries. The design is also fairly straightforward, placing the greatest emphasis on the photographs and using graphics sparsely yet tastefully.

Tasteful exhibit design

Image by Renee Alfonso

Each photograph was printed large-scale and gave off a very regal and impressive aura. The galleries were darkened with the chosen wall color, with little ambient light. A spotlight shaped to each portrait provided the illumination for the objects. The overall aura was very much like a dark room but somehow also gave off a sense of theatricality, which was very much in line with the taste of Empress Cixi.

Unlike most fine arts exhibitions, Power Play did away with individual object labels and instead opted for an overarching panel that provided an overview of the exhibition sections and also pointed out details in certain objects. This was an effective technique in my opinion as it allowed visitors to take more time to really spend time looking at the photographs and not feel obligated to read every label on the walls.

Empress Cixi's Seal

Image courtesy Freer Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution

The only graphics present in the exhibition were the section panels with the descriptions, and a large, loose wall hanging outside the exhibition exit that acted as a screen from the multimedia theater at the end of the exhibit. There was a very minimalist approach to the design, with the only semblance of ornamentation in the graphics being the seal of the empress imprinted on the graphic panels and exit screen. This I feel went well with the presentation of the photographs, and gave a very impressive, strong, and distinct presence.

Power Play is a great example of an exhibition with simple objects and a minimalist presentation technique that could have a potentially large impact on the stories surrounding a familiar historical figure. I know that my personal perception of the last empress was illuminated in some way. Hopefully more exhibitions like this can open avenues for discussion and stimulate interest in viewing history as a continuously changing part of the human experience.

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Going, Going, Gong

Chinese gongWind or Feng Gong

Good vibrations. Sweet sensations. It seems a lot to expect of home décor, but ancient Asian peoples have looked to gongs to bring just that.

Gongs were the first musical instruments. Although they were used in Asia for the functions of European bells—to announce, to warn, to call to prayer—their uses went far beyond being the popular mass communication medium in the pre-radio ages. Gongs were said to be endowed with powerful, other-worldly, mystical properties. Their good vibrations would resonate in the atmosphere and surrounding bodies, spreading the good vibes, quieting the mind, effecting relaxation, healing, and even enlightenment.

Gongs were also considered good luck, even to just touch them, and countless families in Burma, China, Annam, Java, and the surrounding territories were proud to have these objects in their homes.

People still want gongs in their homes, and not just in Asia. Nowadays, gongs are as coveted for their aesthetic appeal as for their powers, and have become just as much for skeptics as for mystics. Their beauty, symmetry, and history make enough good vibrations to bring satisfaction and sweet sensations.

Fine detail in a Thai gong

Feng Gong

Some gongs are shaped flat like discs (above) and make crashing cymbal-like sounds, while some are nippled or bossed (below) and make rounder sounds with less “shimmer”.


Some gongs are hung, as in the case of this nippled gong.


These gongs from Southern Philippines are laid flat on the floor or placed on wooden mounts.

Drummer Steve Hubback makes his own instruments and creates these magnificent gongs and other sound sculptures

Another Steve Hubback creation

some gong music:

Steve Hubback

Kulintang, Philippines

Gong and singing bowl, Tibet

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