While a wealth of archeological and documentary material testifies to the early development of porcelain and bronze in China, there's little sign that glass was ever particularly prevalent on this side of the world in ancient times. Glass artifacts have been traced back to the Warring States (475-221 BC) period, but opinions vary as to whether these were domestically produced or acquired through trade, and whether glassmaking developed independently in China. What is certain is that glasswares were some of the earliest tokens of East-West interaction, and that glass continues to this day to be an emissary between the two hemispheres.
Beads made from an early form of glass have been found in the remains of bronze foundries and tombs dating back to China's Shang and Zhou dynasties (17th-3rd centuries BC). These beads were probably a by-product of bronze casting, formed from vitrified droplets of molten lead and copper mixed with clay. By the time of the Spring and Autumn period, around 2,500 years ago, a bluish, semi-transparent glass bead known as "dragonfly eye" was being used to make jewelry in what is now the Henan-Hubei region of China. Though similar in appearance to glass beads from Western Asia, dragonfly eyes were made of lead-barium or potassium-calcium composites, in contrast to the sodium-calcium composition of Western Asian glass at that time. This has led some to conclude that dragonfly eyes were "Chinese beads made in a foreign style," and represented the maturation of the glassmaking craft in China.
Made in China?
One scholar who takes a different view, having studied the distribution of glass beads throughout the Middle East and Western Asia in antiquity, is Professor Shih Tsiu-feng of the National Institute of the Arts. According to Professor Shih the advanced technique necessary for producing dragonfly eyes implies a glassmaking tradition of at least 2000 years, yet there is no evidence of specialist glassmaking in China prior to the appearance of dragonfly eyes, and no further sign of the beads following the Warring States period. The professor maintains that the beads must have come to China as trade goods.
During the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) however, there emerged a form of mock-jade glassware that was indubitably "Made in China." Jade has always been close to the hearts of the Chinese, and while glass was a glittering and translucent material in the West, inspired by precious stones of varying colors, in China it developed primarily as a jade substitute, having a soft, opaque texture. The desired effect was that of genuine jade, with glass used to make ornaments such as shell-patterned white bi discs, brown cicada stones, and jade-green decorative swords. Such items often used to be mistaken for real jade. Liu Liang-you, a professor in the Center for Humanities and Social Sciences at Feng Chia University, points out that the Chinese fascination with jade guided the development of glassmaking in China but hindered the emergence of alternative forms of glass art.
Glass on the Silk Road
The Chinese long admired the sophisticated glassware that came from the West, but lacked the techniques for producing it themselves. "Imported" glassware was thus considered highly precious.
The Jin dynasty (265-420) poet Pan Ni wrote the following in praise of a glass bowl that was shown him at a friend's house. "Admiring a work of tribute treasure/ This extraordinary and precious bowl/ It reached here from such a distance/ Having crossed the shifting sands/ And scaled precipitous peaks." Pan was marveling that the fragile vessel before him had completed the perilous journey-thousands of miles by camel train along the Silk Road-from the Roman Empire to China. In fact, glassware from the "Great Qin" (as Rome was known to the Chinese) had been arriving in China along the Silk Road and by sea from the south ever since the 1st century AD, when the Romans discovered the technique of glassblowing and began producing glass articles in volume. Indeed, according to The History of the Han the emperor Han Wudi (25-58 AD) once dispatched some of his officials on an ocean voyage in search of Roman glassware. The East had its porcelain, but for glass, the West was the best.
Beginning in the late 6th century traders from the West began setting up glass workshops in the Chinese imperial capital, and local artisans now learned the technique of glassblowing. With Buddhism in its heyday in China, glass vessels were frequently used for presenting devotional offerings of clean water, flowers and fruit, or as pure receptacles for the ashes of senior clergymen. Frescos in the ancient Silk Road town of Dunhuang portray Buddhas bearing glass vessels in their hands, and at the ruins of Famen Monastery in Shaanxi Province, a porcelain vase filled with colored glass beads was found at the entrance to the reliquary vault, where it purified the souls of those who entered.
It was not until the Ming and Qing dynasties that the craft of glassmaking attracted serious interest in China. During the reign of the Qing dynasty's Kangxi Emperor (1662-1723), an atelier was established at the palace to produce glassware for use at court. Later, under the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1796) missionaries from the West introduced new techniques which, in the hands of local craftsmen, raised glass art in China to its highest level and led to the development of an exquisite new form: the decorative snuff bottle.
Snuff bottles, many no larger than a thumb, featured incised patterns on a colored background. In order to avoid excess layering of colors, a method of production was developed that stained the glass different colors at different points on the bottle, so facilitating the use of meticulous new designs. Pointing to a display of antique Chinese glassware, the creative director of the Grand Crystal Museum, Heinrich Wang, comments: "Glassmaking was originally an imported technology, but the process for making the "chicken-fat" yellow snuff bottles of the Qing dynasty was so sophisticated that it has not been possible to recreate since the early 20th century, when the technique was lost."
Garden of glass
No-one is making "chicken-fat" yellow snuff bottles any more, but there has of late been a resurgence of the production of "Chinese Glass," in which Western technique and the Chinese aesthetic are fused. And this time, rather than relying on foreign missionaries and imperial ateliers, the lead is coming from the workshops of a handful of modern glass artists such as Heinrich Wang and Loretta Yang. Says Wei Sing-ying, researcher at the National Museum of History: "Glass has never been a major industry or art form in China, but with the burgeoning of glass workshops in recent years the art is now flourishing like never before!"
This spring the National Museum of History in Taipei is presenting an exhibition entitled "Delicacy and Glamour: Ancient Chinese Glasswork." The show covers four main themes: Chinese styles of glassware, foreign styles of glassware, the relationship between jade and glass, and the relationship between glass and the Silk Road. It also features 25 modern glass works by Heinrich Wang. As museum director Huang Kuang-nan explains: "Interaction between China and the West has always been a major factor in the development of glassmaking in China, ensuring that the art moves forward. This continues to be a distinctive feature of modern glass art in Taiwan, in which an intrinsically Chinese cultural essence is blended with superlative Western technique to set new marks for the future."
These two bi discs appear to be made of jade, but they are pure glass. The prevalence of mock-jade glassware testifies to the Chinese love affair with jade.
A chemise of glass beads, which kept the wearer cool and sweat-free. This was a favored garment of the leading Qing dynasty Peking opera performers.
A little snuff bottle incised with an intricate design. Glass snuff bottles of the Qing dynasty represent the apogee of glassmaking craft in China.
"Glass has always played an important role as a witness to East-West interaction," says the director of the National Museum of History, Huang Kuang-nan, pointing to a picture of a Dunhuang fresco in which a Buddha is shown holding a glass goblet. In March, the museum launched an exhibition entitled "Delicacy and Glamour: Ancient Chinese Glasswork."