The Simplicity and Charm of Ancient Chinese Eave Tiles
By Zhu Yu & Ning Qi Yuan
Chinese eave-tile ornaments are round or semicircular accessories that were used in classical Chinese architecture. They were fixedat the ends of rafters or overhangs of a building, primarily for shielding the walls from wind and rain, and for beautification.
Evolution of an Architectural Heritage
Archaeology revealed that the earliest eave-tile ornaments originated during Western Zhou dynasty. They were semi-round in shape and free of adornment. During the Warring States period, various types of designs and patterns started to appear on these tiles.
After Qin dynasty’s unification of the Warring States, a massive surge in construction led to the common use of round eave tiles. There was a wide variety of thematic designs centering on animals, birds, insects, and plants. Animals such as deer, leopard, dragon and tiger were typically featured, while phoenix, swallow and swan were favorite bird choices.
During the Han dynasty there was large-scale construction, and the workmanship on these tiles became more intricate. Engraving Chinese characters on the tiles became common practice. The engravings were typically of phrases about auspiciousness, great blessings, longevity, and flourishing prosperity.
In addition to the engravings, the four great legendary animals, namely the green dragon, white tiger, vermillion phoenix and black turtle, appeared often in patterns and designs.
Han dynasty’s artisans preferred simple yet lively and exquisitely crafted imagery. They also liked creating tiles with modest geometric lines evoking branches, clouds, mountains, and petals. Cloud designs were the most common, consistent with the belief in immortals and pursuit of immortality prevalent in the Han dynasty.
During the Southern and Northern dynasties, eave tiles became less popular. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, the art of eave tiles entered its lowest ebb. Brick carvings became more common, and eave tiles were gradually forgotten in history.
The value of eave tiles changed through the eras. From their initial function of sheltering walls from the rain to their high monetary and aesthetic value later on, the evolution of eave tiles is now considered an invaluable cultural heritage. In addition to being part of an architectural and artistic legacy, the tiles also provide information about the economy and culture of Ancient China.
Each round eave tile offered limited space, which made decorating them a challenging task for Han’s artisans. Patience and discipline were required to displaytheir artistic gifts and calligraphic flair.
A book of Ancient China states that in the land of Sanqin, the best is the Qin Han tile. The term “Qin Han tile” points to the celebrated beauty of architectural designs created during the Qin and Han dynasties.
Han eave-tile designs encompassed a wide range of subjects spanning Heaven and Earth. Images of flora and fauna, other aspects of Nature, mythical animals, people and buildings were joyfully vivid and vibrant, indicating a culture of great vitality.
While the art on Qin eave tiles features objects depicted in a more realistic manner, the images on Han eave tiles are artistic exaggerations with an otherworldly quality. The tiles are simple, impressive creations. Thick lines and large strokes are used in the designs, and there is no direct depiction of details. Although seemingly primitive, they exude an intriguing beauty, vibrancy and artistic finesse.
The engraved Chinese characters on the tiles also highlight the rich culture of the Han dynasty. The characters are of mostly large and small seal script, a type of calligraphic style, which gives the tiles charm. Modern calligraphers admire the bold, strong lines.
Each round eave tile offered limited space, which made decorating them a challenging task for Han’s artisans. Patience and discipline were required to display their artistic gifts and calligraphic flair.
Eave tiles are unique art pieces which required multiple skills on the part of craftspeople.As cultural artifacts, they are highly sought after. Since the middle of the Qing dynasty, these tiles have been pursued by collectors. According to the biography of Qing-dynasty calligrapher Qian Xian Zhi, tiles featuring the characters meaning “infinite life” fetched a high price during the period that was reigned over by Emperor Qian Long.
The tiles have considerable reference value, allowing modern people to know more about ancient history, geography and customs. The writings on the tiles often shed much light on aspects of culture. The unearthing of a tile made during the Western Han dynasty established the location of a famous mutiny that happened in the Qin dynasty. The discovery resolved this historical mystery.
The circular shape of the eave tiles gives each a dynamic feel. The semicircular clay teapot is the creation adapted from the half-circle eave-tile design produced in the Han dynasty. The semicircular body of the pot symbolizes contentment and longevity without grasping for fullness. In other words, being satisfied with less.
Though small, each tile is an accumulation of history, knowledge and culture that has survived the passage of time. Within such limited space, the tiles depict a rich artistic world and vivid historical tales. Compared to other fine works of art, the rough-faced tiles seem rustic, but their simplicity is a part of their charm. The eave tiles of Ancient China prove that even to the most simple and practical of objects, human beings can bring beauty and ingenuity.