Submission No. 24

Chinese porcelain Adam and Eve, ca. 1700, at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London UK

Adam and Eve. Porcelain. China, ca. 1700.
At the Victoria & Albert Museum, London UK

Okay, this is wonderful. We see a pair — a matching set — of Chinese porcelain sculptures representing Adam and Eve from the early 18th century, now displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. No doubt missionaries had made some inroads in China by the year 1700, and their teachings on the Bible had inspired these sculptures (along with the Virgin and Child sculpture to the left?). Here we see one cultural framework — the Judeo-Christian monotheistic culture of sin and guilt born in the Fertile Crescent, running smack into very different cultural frameworks — Confucianism and its respect for authority, Taoism and its concern with modesty and naturalness.

Instead of an Adam and Eve that convey the anguish of their sin (as in Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden), these sculptures convey equanimity, recognition, merely tinged with shame. It is as if the Chinese artist has taken on the paradigm of guilt from our Western culture but reduced it to a fingerful, something sprinkled on experience for seasoning rather than fundamental to it.

Both, curiously, have one higher and one lower nipple. Their torsos are flat and long. Their legs are short and chubby. The man stands upright; the woman squats a little. They stand on some kind of stumps, out of which small cavities have been scooped. It is natural-seeming, yet obscure. They hold their wraps over their genitalia, no doubt in reference to the modesty that they feel after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But they do so with a sense of aloofness. Yes, they seem to be saying, we have done this. Yes, everything changes from here on in. Yes, we would do it again. I love the attitude: defiant without being openly defiant. A lot like the sculptor must have felt towards the missionaries he encountered.

About Tom Clyde

The best place to learn about me is to read my riffs. What could be more revealing? Cheeky, maybe, but true enough.

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