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    Arts and Recreation in Song Dynasty China Essay

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    When studying the rich history of arts and recreation in the Song Dynasty, it is evident that there were many newly pioneered practices that completely captivated the populous and became the epitome of several long-established genres. When one observes the progression of visual arts through the Song Dynasty, landscape painting established itself as the most prevalent and important of the multitude of forms in this genre. Close examination of entertainment reveals that the dramatic arts, with emphasis on shadow-puppeteering, became the most enjoyed form of amusement in the Song Dynasty. Finally, nothing had become more delightful than the everyday life of a citizen, which never had a dull moment. Chinese art and recreation came to a pinnacle of excellence during the Song Dynasty as landscape painting became an ideal practice, the theater grew to be central entertainment, and the life of a citizen never lacked wondrous activities.

    Landscape painting was the most important visual art form during the Song Dynasty. It was through the cultural stimulus of the Tang Dynasty that landscape painting was able to come to mastery during the Song Dynasty and take its place as the epitome of classical Chinese art (Morton and Lewis 2005). Landscape painting also exemplified how the East developed separately from the West through its art. While in the West the human form was central to most art, artists in China found their muse in Nature. Landscape painting was not represented in Europe until much later (Morton and Lewis 2005). During the reign of the penultimate Song emperor, Huizong, the Song Dynasty reached its cultured peak. Huizong had an imperial collection of six thousand works of art, many of them landscape, and he established the world-renowned Academy of Painting in his capital. Because of its great popularity, landscape painting soon became a way of life. A landscape painter “tended to be a recluse, an individualist, and a Daoist (Morton and Lewis 2005).”

    These artists thought of landscape painting as the “grandest and most satisfying way to represent nature as a whole, to feel a sense of communion with nature, and to know oneself to be part of an orderly cosmos (Morton and Lewis 2005).” Thus, one can see the implications of landscape painting lay not just in its beauty and simplicity, but also in its spiritual connection with Nature, and thus had wide appeal. The point of view in landscape painting was also of paramount importance. The Chinese artists understood that Western artists took in scenes from five or six feet from the ground. Chinese artists worked from a raised viewpoint, so that they are not bogged done by small details in the front and get a better sense of the whole scene (Morton and Lewis 2005). Every part of the image that is created has its own innate interest, and yet it all comes together and works well as a whole (Morton and Lewis 2005). It is clear that landscape painting was a cherished and important art form in Song Dynasty culture.

    Dramatic arts became an essential and esteemed form of entertainment during the Song Dynasty. The Chinese theater ran the gamut of all possible kinds of play or composition. A testament to the Song’s work toward variety in entertainment “the drama made quite a feature of short farcical scenes, acrobatic turns and satirical sketches (Gernet 1970).” There was always such a variety of productions on display that everyone would be appeased. Some of these dramatic art forms became very popular amongst the Song Dynasty high-life. Actors were made to imitate the peasants of towns such as Shantung and Hopei, a form of comedy much in style in Kaifeng and eventually in Hangchow as well. Another very popular form of dramatic art was the Chinese ballet accompanied by song and instruments (Gernet 1970). It must be noted, though, that the art of shadow-puppeteering was truly the Chinese icon of the theater world. An excerpt from a book on Chinese daily life gives these specifics on the shadow art:

    There were …Chinese shadow plays, in which the actors were puppets cut out of paper with articulated joints, and various other kinds of marionette theaters featuring puppets on strings pulled from above or on sticks manipulated from below, or live ones played by families of actors with thin, graceful limbs. The puppeteers who worked the articulated puppets on strings made them speak in a shrill, nasal voice. Both shadows and puppets acted little scenes: stories of ghosts and marvels, crime stories, and romantic pieces in which history mingled with fiction (Gernet 1970).

    This type of theater was only present in the East at this period in time and was perfected by the Song Dynasty. It was a central form of entertainment within the much-valued branch of the dramatic arts a mystified many during countless hours of recreation. At the same time, the dramatic arts in the Song Dynasty were not above the use of subliminal messaging. In fact, it was a very present force, as “both plays and stories inclined at times to social satire and denounced the corrupt practices of those in power (Gernet 1970).” The theater played a central role in recreation and served as a voice for “social satire” throughout the Song Dynasty (Gernet 1970).

    The daily life of citizen in the Song Dynasty was very dynamic and always promised entertainment and interest. The lifestyle in cities was much improved, with its notable advances being “its social life, its higher level of literacy, its educational facilities and the wealth and variety of its entertainment (Hook and Twitchett 1991).” The towns were filled with places meant for social gatherings. These stretched from gardens on the city outskirts, to street corners, to the teahouses of the wealthy, to lake boats (Gernet 1970). Every part of the city seethed activity, and each place served its purpose as recreation grounds, even if that was not its intended use originally. The city of Hangchow had special “pleasure grounds” that was a “vast covered market where lessons were given in dramatic art and in singing and music, and where you could go and see theatrical representations daily (Gernet 1970).” An important social implication of these grounds is that all people were allowed, and thus interaction between social classes brewed without need for formalities (Gernet 1970).

    The first official bazaar in China was built in Hangchow during the Song Restoration. Interestingly enough, its main purpose was to entertain garrisoned soldiers who were far from their homes (Gernet 1970). In the streets of the bazaar and pleasure grounds, citizens could marvel at “acrobats with their heads between their legs, tightrope walkers with poles on their shoulder from which hung jars of water full to the brim, not a drop of which was spilled as they walked their rope, men juggling with plates, bottle or large jugs, men exhibiting bears or performing ants, sword-swallowers, wrestlers or boxers (Gernet 1970).” As one can see, there were many marvelous performances of strange talents happening at all times and stupefying the many people of the cultured cities of Song China. Another great recreational activity was joining a specialized group, as “associations of many sorts brought together small groups to pursue specific interests and purposes, like religious and literary societies (Hook and Twitchett 1991).”

    A great activity that would occur at special times during the year was the festival. These very lavish and mind-blowingly phenomenal events were usually of Buddhist or Daoist origin or had to do with seasonal celebration. They were very popular, and brought together people of all social classes (Hook and Twitchett 1991). These festivals brought the town together to drink, make merry, and amuse themselves in open-air entertainment. Sacrifices were given, extravagant ceremonies held, and imperial amnesties declared while activities, shows, and games happened all around town. Boxing matches were held between the Left and Right Imperial armies to celebrate the birthday of the emperor. Sometimes the street performers would perform at private mansions or in court whilst feats were held in festival times (Gernet 1970). Festivals were truly the acme of recreational life during the Song Dynasty. The daily life of a Song citizen was more booming with activity than at any other time in China’s history to that point, and never ceases to amaze.

    Arts and recreation in the Song Dynasty were truly central to the empire’s character. While the Song Dynasty was not known for its military prowess or economic abilities, it always seemed to be continuing the development of the Chinese cultural identity. New and famous art forms, such as landscape painting, emerged in droves from the creative minds of an empire driven to improve its portrayal of the beauty of nature. The Chinese pioneered new art and entertainment forms, such as shadow-puppeteering, during this period in order to make the life of their citizens filled with wonder. There is so much to learn about arts and recreation in the Song Dynasty because it was clearly the cultural apex of China’s history. It is also interesting to see how these advances in cultural identity all seem to point to becoming closer to Nature and true spirituality as much as it about just pleasuring ourselves. The Song Dynasty was able to find that balance between mind and body, spirituality and physicality that then, in turn, appeased all its denizens. It is evident that this balance played a role in the longevity of the empire and its cultural imprint on China’s history. The arts and recreation in China truly came to a zenith during the shining cultural imperium that was the Song Dynasty.

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