In the Eyes of the Culturati
Tao Ho, a renowned urban planner, architect, designer and artist moves between disciplines with an authority rarely found in the modern world. His works exhibit a profound understanding of ancient and modern Oriental and Western culture. During his 30 years of practice, he has been awarded numerous prizes. The most remarkable one is the Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, highest international award in recognition of his outstanding efforts in bridging the Western and Chinese culture. Tao Ho is a true Renaissance Man with inexhaustibly inventive mind.
"If we are going to experience a better, longer life in the future, we will have to move towards a low-energy oriented society. In this respect, the ancient intuitive wisdom of the Asians for harmony amongst heaven, Earth and Man might help to shape the future of humanity."
This was the impression I got when I asked Tao Ho about his views on architecture. Tao Ho no longer confines himself to expressing opinions on architecture, but on Eastern and Western culture, and goes beyond to the trend of human civilization. During the short interview, he moved from ancient philosophy to modern thoughts. I was completely struck by his distinguished learned views. Architecture is the art of creating dimensions to give you different angles for appreciation. Tao Ho is also a multi-dimensional person we can read from different angles.
Tao Ho is learned in traditional Chinese architecture. He was commissioned by the Chinese government to plan the three cities of Xiamen, Qingdao and Hangzhou, as well as Lujiazui in Shanghai. He initiated a heritage fund to revitalize the ancient city of Suzhou and direct a study to improve the quality of its drainage system.
"Architecture reflects local life styles responding to natural environment. The characteristics of different life styles in turn shape the different architectural forms of different cultural heritage. Chinese architecture combines Confucianism and Taoism. Confucianism emphasized order, the clearly defined relationship of the senior and junior members in the society and the five standard relationship: king and minister; father and son; brothers: husband and wife; and friends. This manifests itself in architecture. So we find symmetric and well defined layers in the Imperial Palace in Beijing; the left, right, and central wings in typical Chinese courtyard (Siheyuan) in the northwestern region in China. Taoism, unlike Confucianism, emphasizes nothingness and harmony in nature, which is reflected in the traditional Chinese garden in Suzhou, expressing the feelings of nibility and space." Tao Ho summarized his insights on culture behind traditional Chinese architecture.
He has a strong opinion concerning Chinese culture, "Chinese culture is broad and fathomless. Unfortunately few Chinese appreciate it and often regard ourselves as lagging behind. China's being labeled as a developing country is only in respect to economic development. Concerning cultural development, China is well ahead. We must strengthen and build up respect for our race to recognize and spread Chinese culture."
Tao Ho sees Chinese culture as a marriage, but at the same time, a contradiction between Confucianism and Taoism. It is a balance of yin and yang, generating vitality and expressing strong adaptability. To understand it, you have to know how to strike a balance between each element, especially between rationality and emotions. "Technological advancement relies on knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is achieved through rationality. Wisdom comes from boundless intuition. The task for our next century is to strike a balance between these two elements."
He then remarked on the difference between Chinese and Western culture. "The 20th century saw an unprecedented shift in our life styles due to the rapid advancement of technology. As we move into the 21st century we have to re-establish a friendly dialogue with nature. Traditional Chinese culture recognizes the importance of this dialogue: 'In harmony with nature one survives, against nature one extincts'. In the Western world, on the other hand, man tried to shape and control nature. The current alarming rate of environment deterioration is the direct result of man's failure to harmonize with nature in the course of building up the modern world."
He sees cultural heritage as a continuum of the past. Lost cultural heritage cannot be revived. How to preserve the wisdom of the past to apply to the present is thus his concern.
"The advancement in technology and thinkings in this century is outstanding. The theory of the world of infinitesimal molecules and infinity cosmosm is such examples. Many age-old thoughts form Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, particularly ideas related to cosmology and nature, bear a remarkable similarity to the spirit of new physics and scientific thoughts developed in this century. The Eastern thinking of unity amongst Heaven, Earth and Man is in fact similar to the recent new approach of searching for harmonious relationship between Man and Nature in the context of rapid deterioration of our natural environment. The West now realizes that the world is a holistic ecosystem. The task for next century will be reassembles all the isolated parts of our world. In this respect, the spirit of the Eastern approach may become the guiding torch." This implies the need to re-evaluate humanity in the context of practical science, a vision of bringing Eastern philosophy into modern life. This also reflects Tao Ho's wisdom and insightfulness in fusing Eastern philosophy into modern life.
Tao Ho has devoted considerable efforts in revitalizing Chinese cultural heritage and setting a development strategy. He speaks of his aspiration. "I want to contribute my research findings and professional knowledge to my home country. Now I am concentrating on a proposal to revolutionize energy resources in China."
He also lectures widely on the Chinese culture in the modern age, speaking to various international corporations and renowned academic institutions. He has lectured on "Chinese Modernism" in the National College of administration. He concerns not only China, but also the development of global civilization. The Crystal Award in 1997 is the recognition of his outstanding efforts in bridging Western and Chinese culture.
Tao Ho also has substantial achievements in Hong Kong. He is the founder and chief architect of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the planner of the Western Market reconstruction project, and the designer of the flag and emblem of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. He has designed a sculptural installation "Synergy" for the public concourse at Chek Lap Kok Airport. He is now on the project of Panda House in the Ocean Park.
Apart from his profession, he is equally outstanding in the fields of his interest. He has held countless painting exhibitions and published books on a variety of topics. To say he is remarkable is far from exaggerating.
The Southern Route of the Silk Road
The southern route of the Silk Road in Xinjiang threads through northern Kulunshan to Iran and the Pacific Ocean. It was the key access to the Western Territory from Yangguan during Han dynasty, being the most ancient route. The area is scattered with oases and towns, including Lop Nor, Loulan, Hetian and Shache. Merchants and missions all came along, not to mention the famous Italian adventurer Marco Polo who came in the Yuan Dynasty, evoking in there a mystic feeling.
Lop Nor . Loulan
The Lop Nor region, lies at the east of Tarim basin is indeed a mysterious piece of land. The mysterious Lop Nar Lake was once the second largest lake in China. West of Lop Nor stood the important caravan trading city of Loulan. However, when the Taklamakan Desert gradually shifted to the southeastern region in the fourth century A.D., together with a change in the river course finally desertified this area and completely destroyed the oases around.
The "Wandering" Lake
Lop nor Lake, once famous in the Han-Dynasty, was fed by the rivers of Tarim, Peacock and Cherchen. After the Han Dynasty, the water level of the lake became unstable and it has a mysterious habit of shifting over the course of years. This "wandering" was due to the many glacier-fed rivers that often changed course and hence the shape of the lake. The lake was dried up completely in the 70's. It is now being deserted only surrounded by salt mashes and a salt-encrusted plain. During its golden age, the Lake was 300 miles in size with abundant fish and plants, flourishing with garrison towns around. What left now is a desert posing a major barrier along the Silk Road to contrast with its glorious past.
The Ancient City under the Sands
Northwest of Lop Nor Lake and 7 miles form the south bound of River Peacock lies the ancient city of Loulan. It was a focus of Silk Road traffic gathering missions, military generals, merchants and priests from and to Yangguan. The land was fertile and well drained. It had a population of more than 14,000 inhabitants who lived by fishing, hunting and farming. After flourishing for several centuries, the city was suddenly buried under the sands.
Loulan was an important economic and political city along the Silk Road. Its exact location was, however, a mystery in history. It was until early this century that the site was discovered by Uygur who had lost his way in sandstorms. In recent decades, Chinese archeological teams have worked at this site and unearthed lengths of tamped walls and timbers of an ancient roadway. Coins, jewellery, inscribed wood stripes and pottery shreds have also been recovered to unveil its ancient civilization.
Hetian was where the famous Kingdom of Yuli lay. Yuli was a tributary of Tibet since the Han Dynasty. It was one of the "Anxi four towns" in the Tang Dynasty. (The others being shula, Guizi and Yanqi.) Yuli was renamed Hetian in the Qing Dynasty. It has been an important city in the Silk Road, exerted a strong influence on the cultural development to its neighbouring areas. Its music and dance were very popular in China during the Northern and southern Dynasties. It is also renowned internationally for its jade, silk, carpets and embroidery.
Hetian was known as "the City of Silk". Sericulture spreaded to the area as early as the third century. In the Tang Dynasty, Hetian became the principal supplier of silk. During the Yuan Dynasty, it has mastered the art of silk weaving and developed techniques on dyeing. The colour and designs were rich and varied. In the Qing Dynasty, its silk production reached 16,000 yards annually. Legend has it that the sericulture was introduced to Hetian by a Chinese princess who concealed the silkworm eggs and the seeds of mulberry tree in her head-dress and carried them to Hetian upon her marriage to the king aound AD440. Hertian is now a major centre of silk production especially famous for the traditional hand-woven aidelaixi silk, a favourite of the Uygur women. Others include silk carpets, Qiaoqi silk and Aiyi silk.
The Story of Carpet
The rich patterned and delicate woolen carpets are one of Hetian's three treasures. Hetian has a long history of sheep rearing. Their wool is long and thin, elastic and soft, which is valuable for weaving fine and durable carpets. Xinjiang carpets are treasured all over America, Russia, Britain and Germany in the 17th to 19th centuries. Among which Hetian's are the best.
Hetian is called the home of Oriental Carpets. There was a folklore about a "Father of Carpets", a poor farmer who was so obsessed in finding the skills of weaving carpets from wool that he even neglected his crops. He succeeded and spreaded the skills.
The White Jade of Kunlun
Crystallized jade signifies purity and virginity. It is also the gift of friendship. China has a long history of jade mining. According to historical documents, Kulunshan was known as the "mountain of jade", while jade from Hetian got its fame as "the Jade of Kunlunshan". The exquisite jade statute "Dayu Controlling the Flood" in the Imperial Palace Museum of Beijing is being carved from the jade of Hetian. There are white jade, white-green jade, green jade and dark-green jade in Hetian. Accessories made of jade are beloved by all.
Shache is the largest oasis in the Tarim basin. It lies at the communication focus of the southern route of the Silk Road and was once a famous trade transit centre. The history of the kingdom of Shache was recorded as early as the first century A.D. in "Han History - the Western Territory" by the historian Bangu. Marco Polo passed by in 1272 and noted the kingdom's "wealth and abundant resources".
A Portugal missionary of the Church of Christ who came on his way to China in 1603 also said Shache was "a famous city where merchants gathered."
A Sea of Trees
Shache lies at the southwest edge of Taklamakan Desert. It was eroded by sandstorms for more than a thousand years. However, today's Shache has woodland with abundant well-grown trees. People in Shache have planted 140 million trees in 600 square feet of agricultural land, including millions apple trees, peach, apricot and pear. The sea of trees acts like a wall sheltering the oasis from sandstorms. The Uygurs no longer have to retreat form the sandy winds; instead it is the desert that is now retreating. Thanks to human wisdom, the desert gradually has signs of life.
Marco Polo - the adventurer that bridged the East and West
Marco Polo was an Italian from Venice. He was famous for his influential role in the cultural exchange of the East and West. Stories about him are still heard of today.
In 1271 the 15 years old Marco followed his father and uncle who were merchants to come to China via the ancient Silk Road. They have the mission of relating a message from the Pope of Rome to Hubilie. It took them three and a half years on a tough journey to reach Kaiping (now Inner Mongolia). Macro Polo was highly regarded by Hubilie and he spent 17 years working for the Hubilie Palace, patrolling virtually every province in China. In 1291 he got the mission to escort the Mongolian Princes to marry to Persia. He then went back to Venice. When Marco Polo later became a military prisoner, he told fellow prisoners what he heard and saw in China, and edited into the book "the Adventure of Marco Polo". The book detailed the cultural achievements and prosperity of China of that period. It spreaded out in Europe and became the classics of East meets West.
Chinese Garden - Rocks with inner meanings
Chinese Garden is a world - renowned architectural art. The construction and assembling of pavilions, water, rock and plants create an atmosphere of tranquility for contemplation and inspiration. The early Japanese garden style was greatly influenced by Chinese garden art.
Architecture is the art of space creation. Rock material is an important element in the architecture of gardens. The book "Chang Wu Zhi" (the story of things) by Wen Zhenxiang of the Ming Dynasty said, "Rock reminds us of the past. Water reminds us of the far distance. Garden, water and rock are indispensable." It describes vividly the intrinsic nature of rock. Though rock is lifeless, the fact that it is hardly moved by winds and rains, gives it its unique symbolic meaning of endurance and persistence. Besides, the rock has endless combination of colours, layers and shapes and no two piece of rock will be the same. Coarse rock is crude and simple but when it is polished to make different utensils, it expresses another kind of beauty, both practical and ornamental.
The use of rock in Chinese Garden art can be divided into five types:-
A. Enclosing: to enclose and separate space, such as making ponds of different shapes; building walls and thresholds for defense and for shelter from wind.
B. Defining: to define space. This includes the building of trench, edges of flower beds and paths.
C. Paving: to create variation on level space for decoration and defining. A path with rock pavements prevents itself from becoming muddy after rain and is easier to walk on. Different patterns made by colour pebbles also add beauty to the architecture.
D. Linking: to link up different components of architecture and to achieve harmony, such as lead-on, stairs and bridges.
E. Highlighting: skilful combinations of rocks of different colours, shapes and texture in rock groupings, stone pagodas, stone sculptures and stone lamps. Stone lamp has a long history. It used to be made for lighting and religious (Buddhist) purposes. Later, it was developed into lamp for worshipping, memento, decoration and appreciation. Stone lamp was invented in China and being spread via Korea to Japan. Lamps of different historical periods and origins have different shapes and unique styles, which reflect the aesthetics standards of their places of origin.
Bazaar gift shop has a collection of stone lamps. Due to the simplicity of their shapes and the soft-hued tone, stone lamps are suitable for decorating modern homes. Larger stone lamps can be placed in outdoor gardens and large mansions. Their smaller counterparts can decorate and become the light source to balcony, sitting rooms, and any corners of the house, creating an atmosphere of ancient elegance.