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Art review: "Asian Games"

Published November 23, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

Mastery of weiqi was regarded as one of the Four Cultural Accomplishments of a refined Chinese person, along with calligraphy, painting and poetry.

Asia is the source of many mainstays of world civilization - gunpowder, paper and the compass, for example. Turns out that board games belong on the list as well.

An offbeat and engrossing show at the Middlebury College Museum examines this Asian legacy of pre- electronic at- home entertainment. It's an exhibit rich in historical exegesis, with wall panels explicating the ancient origins of games still widely played today. But this is no pedantic walkabout that requires more reading than admiring. Many of the boards and game pieces on display are downright dazzling in their artistry.

Although the Middlebury version of "Asian Games: The Art of Contest" is smaller than the show presented earlier in Manhattan and Washington by the New York- based Asia Society, it's still wide- ranging in its geographic and chronological purview. Vermonters can thank Colin Mackenzie, the Middlebury College Museum's curator of Asian art, for assembling the show and arranging this stop. Along with the recent exhibit of Palestinian art at the Wood Gallery in Montpelier, "Asian Games" demonstrates that Vermont now occupies a place on the world- art map.

The 100 or so objects, some of which are more than 2000 years old, come from all corners of Asia. Chess, Parcheesi, dominos, playing cards, backgammon, Snakes and Ladders - all of them originated in either China, India or Iran, and exquisite examples of each can be seen here.

Luxury materials were used in crafting some of the games. An 18th- century set of Parcheesi pieces from India, for instance, is made partly of gold and inlaid with rubies, sapphires and emeralds in a hearts- and- flowers pattern. Other items are as plain as can be. The thousand- year- old playing pieces from a game known in China as weiqi and in Japan as go are bits of earthenware resembling tiny pink pills.

The show makes clear that some of the games were integral to the societies that produced them. Mastery of weiqi, for example, was regarded as one of the Four Cultural Accomplishments of a refined Chinese person, along with calligraphy, painting and poetry. Similarly, in its Japanese incarnation, go sets were seen as prized parts of bridal trousseaux from the 15th- to the mid- 19th centuries. Go was also a favorite pastime of Japanese Zen monks, shoguns and masters of the tea ceremony.

Along those lines, many of the games may reflect distinctive cultural characteristics. A Snakes- and- Ladders- type board from India takes players on a quest for enlightenment, beginning at low levels of existence marked by perils and vice, and proceeding ultimately to a state of spiritual bliss. A popular Chinese version of the game, on the other hand, involves promotions up a ladder of bureaucracy.

There's also an 18th- century Mughal chess set with austere abstracted figures that may reflect traditional Islamic avoidance of figural representation. It stands in contrast to the flamboyant pieces favored by chess players in other parts of India.

Take such inferences too far, however, and the result is oversimplification and stereotyping. A small playing card hung discreetly by itself shows a smiling woman mounting an equally pleased tumescent man. A scene from the Kama Sutra? No, the unknown artist lived in mid- 19th- century Iran, an Islamic society.

An accompanying text suggests that the erotic depiction may have been intended as a distraction for any card player tempted to peek at his opponent's hand.

Many of the games are lighthearted and based mainly on chance. Another illustrative object of this type is an 18- sided die from Han Dynasty China (206 BCE - 220 CE) that was probably used in drinking games. Vermont college students proficient in Beer Pong may be interested to learn about their guzzle- mates from two millennia ago.

Other games sampled in the show required deep concentration. In Japan's Middle Edo period (1700- 1800), memories were tested in a card game called One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets. It involved having to match cards inscribed with halves of a 31- syllable verse. Whoever knew the most poems by heart won.

The set of poetry cards included in the show are decorated on one side with calligraphy that drips and swirls - much in the manner of a Brice Marden painting, only three centuries earlier.

The far- reaching popularity of some of these Asian- origin games can be seen in the Snakes and Ladders boards used in Britain and the United States. And chess, of course, has spread throughout the world - although, interestingly, a wall panel accompanying a sumptuous set made in 19th- century Macao notes that the Chinese do not play European- style chess.

Backgammon can be seen as a prototype of the globalized game. From its origins in Persia at some indeterminate time, backgammon moved east along the Silk Road, arriving in China during the Tang era (618- 906) and in Japan soon after. The game remains quite popular throughout western Asia and the Arab world.

Ancient Asians undoubtedly played many games we now know nothing about. Archaeologists have uncovered fragments of some others. And then there are fairly intact remnants of games with rules that can still be deciphered but that, for some reason, stopped being played a long time ago.

Liubo (Six Rods) is one of these dead games. It was apparently quite the craze from the 4th century BCE right through the Han Dynasty. The curator tells us it was a fast- moving dice game with diagrams similar to those used for divination.

What caused liubo to go the way of the hula- hoop?

"It is likely that changes in cosmological thought at the end of the Han period rendered its themes obsolete," a wall panel explains, somewhat unhelpfully.

The show also includes artworks depicting Asian games that were not played on boards or tables but on fields. Polo, for example. A pair of glazed- earthenware polo ponies from Tang Dynasty China are executed in full stride, gliding through air. One of the polo players is a woman, suggesting that the art of contest has never been an exclusively male pursuit.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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