Cover image for Ten thousand things : module and mass production in Chinese art
Ten thousand things : module and mass production in Chinese art
Ledderose, Lothar.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
265 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 29 cm.

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
N7340 .L38 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Oversize

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Chinese workers in the third century b.c. created seven thousand life-sized terracotta soldiers to guard the tomb of the First Emperor. In the eleventh century a.d., Chinese builders constructed a pagoda from as many as thirty thousand separately carved wooden pieces. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, China exported more than a hundred million pieces of porcelain to the West. As these examples show, the Chinese throughout history have produced works of art in astonishing quantities--and have done so without sacrificing quality, affordability, or speed of manufacture. How have they managed this? Lothar Ledderose takes us on a remarkable tour of Chinese art and culture to explain how artists used complex systems of mass production to assemble extraordinary objects from standardized parts or modules. As he reveals, these systems have deep roots in Chinese thought--in the idea that the universe consists of ten thousand categories of things, for example--and reflect characteristically Chinese modes of social organization.

Ledderose begins with the modular system par excellence: Chinese script, an ancient system of fifty thousand characters produced from a repertoire of only about two hundred components. He shows how Chinese artists used related modular systems to create ritual bronzes, to produce the First Emperor's terracotta army, and to develop the world's first printing systems. He explores the dazzling variety of lacquerware and porcelain that the West found so seductive, and examines how works as diverse as imperial palaces and paintings of hell relied on elegant variation of standardized components. Ledderose explains that Chinese artists, unlike their Western counterparts, did not seek to reproduce individual objects of nature faithfully, but sought instead to mimic nature's ability to produce limitless numbers of objects. He shows as well how modular patterns of thought run through Chinese ideas about personal freedom, China's culture of bureaucracy, Chinese religion, and even the organization of Chinese restaurants.

Originally presented as a series of Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art, Ten Thousand Things combines keen aesthetic and cultural insights with a rich variety of illustrations to make a profound new statement about Chinese art and society.

Author Notes

Lothar Ledderose holds the chair of East Asian Art at the University of Heidelberg. He is an internationally renowned scholar of Chinese art and calligraphy. He has curated numerous exhibitions on Asian art, including Treasures from the Forbidden City (Berlin, Vienna 1985), The Terracotta Army (Dortmund 1991), Japan and Europe (Berlin 1993), and an exhibition of Chinese painting of the Ming and Qing dynasties (Baden-Baden 1985). His books include Mi Fu and the Classical Tradition of Chinese Calligraphy (Princeton) and Felsen and Orchideen .

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Chinese art studies tend to treat appearances with, at best, a few notes on techniques and to rely upon contemporary concepts of "art." Ledderose (Heidelberg) uses an endoscope to describe how things were actually made. Thus, the vast majority of things--in many media and over vast stretches of time--are seen in a new context, especially their production and function, instead of being in museum cases and enshrined as "art." Underlying this is the notion of "modules" or standardized parts that were differently assembled but nonetheless mass produced for reasons of efficiency, reflecting the organizational bureaucracy that is fundamental to Chinese cultural history. "The main effort in all of these fields was directed toward the high-quality reproduction of identical or similar units rather than the creation of a singular, outstanding piece." Only the last chapter defines calligraphy and painting, which are not immune to modular thinking, as what the Chinese considered art. Here individual creativity is prime, but so also is the sophistication behind modular production. A truly unique book to clarify the mind about what Chinese art is now and what it was. General readers; undergraduates through faculty; two-year technical program students. J. O. Caswell; University of British Columbia