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The deconstruction and reconstruction of tradition

I wrote in my work instruction of "New Blue And White" that "the blue and white porcelain was reproduced, appropriated and reinterpreted during the rise of post modernism, which symbolized the subversion and deconstruction of traditional culture." I have some reflections on the deconstruction and reconstruction of tradition.

The understanding of tradition (chuantong) in the Chinese cultural context refers to the transmission of ideological culture, beliefs, practices, institutions, customs and habits from the past into the present in terms of the continuity of time (chuan) and the expansion of space (tong). Traditions as constructions of the processes of history penetrate people’s lives and contribute to the evolution and diversification of human civilisation. In regard to the transmission of traditions, Edward Shils (1981) proposes that a specific marker of tradition is the re-enactment and rethinking of an idea or a practice through at least three consecutive generations. Changes or modifications in tradition are incessant and inevitable, because of tensions between the endogenous desire of tradition to overcome its limited power, and the exogenous pressure from alien traditions and changes in the circumstances in which tradition operates and is directed (Shils, 1981).

I realize that culture and tradition are not a dead thing of the past, they are alive and changeable conceptions that can be given different forms by different artists. “It is widely recognized that tradition is neither an immutable fossil nor an ancient form existing without re-creative flux, especially amidst the constant currents of assimilation and variation of the overarching tradition of Chinese history.“

The deconstruction and reconstruction of tradition

In the Chinese dictionary, deconstruction is composed of two words: Jie and gou. Jie means separation, decomposition and disintegration, while gou refers to formation, combination and structure. “deconstruction means disintegration and reconstruction. Every element could be disintegrated into its original pattern and reconstructed in terms of the figure, image and personality required in the work” (Sun Long-Kui, 2014). That idea derives from the Chinese traditional philosophy Yi Jing (the Book of Changes), which aimed to reveal the significance, harmony and dynamic creativity of

the ceaseless transformation of things and situations. Just as choreographer Jiang Jing-Yi (2005, p. 51) argues, ‘reconstruction is the motivation and purpose of deconstruction’. The idea of ceaseless transformation of things to create the unforced harmony developed from Yi Jing to Daoism has infiltrated the minds of Chinese people and is regarded as a part of cultural tradition over time.

The typical example of the deconstruction and reconstruction of tradition is Ai Weiwei’s work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Through a series of devastating works, Ai Weiwei attempts to question and challenge traditional culture and value orientation. This is a great expansion and challenge to the traditional art language. One of Ai’s most famous pieces, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, incorporates what Ai has called a “cultural readymade.” The work captures Ai as he drops a 2,000-year-old ceremonial urn, allowing it to smash to the floor at his feet. Not only did this artifact have considerable value, it also had symbolic and cultural worth. The Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) is considered a defining period in the history of Chinese civilization, and to deliberately break an iconic form from that era is equivalent to tossing away an entire inheritance of cultural meaning about China. With this work, Ai began his ongoing use of antique readymade objects, demonstrating his questioning attitude toward how and by whom cultural values are created.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995)

Some were outraged by this work, calling it an act of desecration. Ai countered by saying, “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.” This statement refers to the widespread destruction of antiquities during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and the instruction that in order to build a new society one must destroy the si jiu (Four Olds): old customs, habits, culture, and ideas. By dropping the urn, Ai lets go of the social and cultural structures that impart value.

Ai Weiwei attempts to question and challenge traditional culture and value orientation. This is a great expansion and challenge to the traditional art language. He deconstructed the Chinese symbol from different cultural contexts and issued an anti-authoritative voice. But the conversion of meaning of visual symbols in Ai Weiwei's works is very plain and easy to understand, so the meaning can be interpreted as the Western media does not need to have a deep understanding of Chinese culture. And the message of "anti-tradition" and "challenge authority" that Ai Weiwei wants to convey is easily obtained.

Ai Weiwei (2015) Tiger, Tiger, Tiger

"Tiger, Tiger, Tiger" consists of more than 3,000 pieces of ceramic pieces with patterns of tigers or other felines. They were arranged orderly on the ground, as if a carpet woven from blue and white porcelain pieces. These ceramics, which were fired by craftsman in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, were smashed after out of kiln, so they are not taken seriously. Today, Ai Weiwei is placed in the center of the art exhibition hall in the style of the monument. This piece combines Ai Weiwei's love and hate for Chinese traditional ceramics. Since the first break of the Han Dynasty earthen jars in 1994, he has imitated, destroyed, shattered and masked ancient earthen jars or painted them with paints in a series of works to explore multiple issues such as authenticity, monuments and value systems. Although Ai is widely regarded as an anti-tradition person, his artistic creation reflects his cherish and protection of cultural heritage. This piece of " Tiger, Tiger, Tiger " focuses on ceramic fragments that are deeply attracted to scholars but not the audience. These pieces of ceramics, which had been forgotten by the world, were carefully laid on the ground to form a grounded sculpture. While carefully observing the differences and similarities between the various components, the viewer can also think about the greatness of Chinese culture and crafts over the past few hundred years.


Shils, E. (1981). Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sun, L.K. (2014) Tradition of literature and history and reconstruction of culture. Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company. P. 14

#tradition #blueandwhiteporcelain #porcelain #AiWeiwei #blueandwhite #contemporaryart

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