11 October 2017 by Christina Barker
We've been working on our Jade Emperor's costumes for nearly a week now as we are going to run an event in Oxfordshire Museum on the 30th September! We try to make the style 'right' but artistic so people would have some ideas about what the Jade Emperor looks like while playing the Animal Zodiac game around the Jade Emperor in the Museum!
I really love making things like this because it is so interesting to think about history, facts and story while being creative! Like the costumes for the Jade Emperor, when I checked the historic drawings and relevant stories and some costumes from modern movies, I started to think about what the most important elements are that we need to keep in our design so people with or without any idea about Chinese culture will get the right impression on the main features. At the same time, we also want the costumes to be artistic and creative to attract people to come to look at the details and talk with us. That'll be a fun way to introduce traditional Chinese culture to people and we'll learn what kind of things people are interested in at the same time. That will help us to know more about what people like so we can do better for the future.
In the stories, the Jade Emperor is the chief god who looks after people in the human world. He is called Jade Emperor because it is believed that his skin is smooth as jade, the precious stone. Many traditional Chinese stories are influenced by Taoist ideas so the Jade Emperor is often seen in the stories, though there may not be always an explanation about him as he is a well-known figure in Chinese culture.
In the legend, the Jade Emperor held a special race for animals; the first 12 animals would give their names to the 12 Chinese years. However, in the 12 books of the Animal Zodiac the animals are the main characters and there is not much information about Jade Emperor. But we thought maybe people will enjoy the stories more if they know more about the Jade Emperor, so we decided to bring the Jade Emperor into our events so we can introduce him properly for people who don't know much about him.
I grew up in Taiwan, so we actually have the right images in mind as the Jade Emperor is sitting in most of our temples in Taiwan. For the research, I only need to check some details because I don't want to get it too wrong, for example, we need to know clearly where the yellow ribbon should be placed and why and how many strings of beads would be correct for an emperor and so on. When we are working on the details, we are prepared to be asked about all these during the event!
There is a string of ribbon across the crown, it symbolises the sky river, so it’s called sky river string. And for the crown, there are sometimes 12 strings of beads on the front and back of the crown board as 12 is a basic cycle for most of the counting in Chinese culture. But usually in Taiwan, we choose nine strings for the Jade Emperor as nine is the highest number and nothing could go above nine, after nine it returns to zero. Sometimes you’ll see seven strings too as seven symbolises seven layers of Heaven. The strings of beads would be moving around when the emperor is walking and turning his head, so the function of the bead strings is to remind the emperor to keep looking straight and stay steady and dignified when meeting his people.
During most of our events, we often let children chose what they like to do; they can play games, make their own dragons with the materials we prepared, they can talk with us. Sometimes children pick up a book and ask us to do more storytelling and we are happy to do it when we are free at the time! That's why we always try to have all our colleagues to join the event so we will have enough people to handle the situation.
Children told us they have learnt a lot of traditional stories and they really enjoyed watching the videos we made for them and playing the games we designed for them after reading the stories. They liked trying to write and read Chinese, they like dragons a lot and they feel very sympathetic to the animals in the stories like Little White. We provided lots of things for them to choose so if they don’t like writing Chinese characters they can choose to do something else.
Different from those Western characters like Little Red Riding Hood, Father Christmas or the nasty step-mums…, our characters from Taoism are still quite ‘alive’ in our daily life even now. Temples in Taiwan are not just places for tourists to have fun or to enjoy street food during their holiday; temples actually play very important roles in many people’s lives. When people have problems or questions about their work, health or families, they go to temples to talk to the Jade Emperor or any gods including Monkey King and Horse General and Water Buffalo General and so on depending on their beliefs or questions.
For me, because I’ve been in the UK for so long, I sometimes feel strange to worship those animal gods when I go back to Taiwan, but I somehow also share the religious belief and feel the Taoists gods could be real in our life as in the stories many of the characters actually existed as real people or animals in the past. Sometimes people built a temple for a water buffalo because it helped the farmers a lot by working hard in the rice fields when people were so poor. To have a temple beside the rice field, the farmers could easily remember their beloved hardworking water buffalo. The tradition of building temples passed down, down and down to many generations, so gradually we have more and more temples in Taiwan, and it has been a kind of Taiwanese culture to see temples everywhere and to remember so many different people and animals that have once done something good to help people.
I know some Westerners feel very strange to see so many gods in our culture, but for us, it’s not really just about religion, but it’s about the love and feeling between people and their animals.
I’m proud to say our team works out of passion and genuine interests in arts and culture. We discuss a lot and sometimes argue a lot in terms of the correct style for our art works as we aim to introduce true legends with some history and facts of Old China that is one of the most ancient civilisations. But we do understand for non-Chinese speakers, we have to make our works easy to understand, attractive and even entertaining. It’s really enjoyable to think, talk and make things together as a team; we are inspired by each other and learn from each other. At the same time, the more we think about, the more we would be able to share with our audiences. And this is the way we believe is the best to bring arts for everyone.
To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve been influenced a lot by England. But maybe yes, the more I talk with my English friends the more I realise how hard it is for Westerners to understand Chinese art and culture. For this reason, I have to adjust our style a bit to make our art and design acceptable for Westerners so they’ll be able to enjoy the traditional Chinese stories, although the stories have been re-written in English.
No, I didn’t pay much attention to old Chinese stories when I was in Taiwan, but I started to think about them as I learnt from English people that we have to love our own culture and to respect our own history to be respected by others. People share different ideas and knowledge based on their own backgrounds that influence the way we think and do in our life. I grew up in Taiwan and only came to the UK for my Masters; I can’t just follow what I’ve learnt from the UK to pretend I’m not from Taiwan. So I have to know more about my culture to find out what’s really in my heart for years and this is helpful for me to know myself too. The way we talk, they way we deal with trouble and see things are all based on what we’ve been taught since we were young.
Traditionally, Chinese people were modest. When we were young, we have been taught to respect seniors and remember our ancestors. Chinese people used to care a lot about families, so most of our festivals were really for the family reunion. In the UK, it seems to me that people emphasise individuality a lot which is good sometimes, but maybe not always. We human beings have to live in a society and to support each other to make a better world. No one in the world would be able to survive without other people around. But it is also good in a way because we are all different as an individual and if we are allowed to develop our own talent individually we’ll be able to be creative and innovate that is the key to change the world.
When I was a Master’s student here, my English and planning tutor Roy shared a lot of English poems, history and arts with me through emails during my winter vacation. From the discussions in our emails, I started to learn a completely new culture from his emails, and at the same time I started to think why Westerners are so different from us from the East. Not just the language is different, but the way we think is so different! In order to communicate with my tutor, my first English friend, I had to think carefully about what I wanted to say about my culture to reduce unnecessary misunderstanding. And that’s the way I’ve been learning from ten years ago.
Where is home for me now. Hmmm, I would say where I can work for my dream would be my home. Possibly I will say Oxford is my home as most my friends are here to support me and Oxford is still the best place with great resources to develop our passion for art and culture. I never thought of being a publisher and never considered myself as a book designer or author or translator though I’ve been making books for seven years. Books, pictures, words and any forms of design relevant to the traditional Chinese stories are created through my understanding of people’s interests toward traditional Chinese art, legends and myths. I see myself as a person to bring the beauty and knowledge from the Far East to the West through arts for people to discover more about the mysterious Eastern world.