The Arts as Inquiry

(Asia Society Museum)

By Heather Clydesdale

When students of Chinese explore art in conjunction with language, they not only have fun, they unravel abstract concepts, deepen cultural understanding, and build language proficiency. There are many ways to enliven lessons, whether by encouraging students to create their own masterpieces, or by helping them investigate and analyze artworks in museums or online collections.

Kathleen Wang, founder and principal of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Massachusetts advocates infusing the arts throughout the curriculum, explaining, “Many subjects or concepts are so abstract and packed with content that it is difficult for students to retain and effectively use. Students must smell, taste, hear, touch, or see abstract subjects and concepts so that the curriculum is more meaningful and more connected to students personally.”

Wang and her faculty blend the arts into all subject areas to create what Wang calls “an environment that is full of sensory experiences.” In their K–8 classrooms, language and culture go hand-in-hand through storytelling, poetry, movement, the visual arts, drama, and music.

HsiuWen Hsieh, a teacher at Pioneer Valley explains, “In my second year at the school, I realized we are not teaching Chinese language. Instead we are using Chinese as a tool to teach our children to understand themselves, and learn about life.” Hsieh describes how the children study botany through art, creating large paper trees with personalized leaves. In other classes, they sing songs, fabricate costumes, craft birthday boards, erect stages for puppet shows, write stories, practice calligraphy, design storybooks, and perform dramatic pieces.

The payoff from connecting hands-on activities with language is visible in the classroom when a fourth-grade student reads her story aloud and pauses as she notices a skip in the rhythm of the language. Reading her sentence again, she independently identifies and corrects the misplaced word before resuming. It is also evident on the playground when a younger student spontaneously uses Chinese to narrate a story as she draws pictures in the sand.

A different way to teach complex concepts is to use artworks from museum collections for investigation into history and culture. Many teachers and textbooks show artworks as illustrations, but art is more than a passive reflector of bygone eras. Artworks are active agents in shaping cultural identity and establishing power and social structures. Looking at and discussing artworks is an exciting way to promote inquiry, critical thinking, and visual literacy, not to mention curiosity.

For instance, students might begin a unit on the early dynasties in China by comparing (either on the computer in the classroom or in a visit to a museum) a Shang dynasty ritual bronze vessel from the 13th–12th century BCE and an earthenware tomb figurine from the Han dynasty (206 BCE–CE 220). Without disclosing historical context, teachers might ask students: Are these objects portable or heavy? Do they appear to have a utilitarian purpose? Is the material from which they are made expensive or cheap; difficult to procure or readily available? Do you think making this object required expertise, special tools, or certain technologies? How are the art objects decorated? Are the designs clearly rendered? Does the imagery represent things from the real world or imaginary creatures? How does the object make you feel – does it inspire awe, embody liveliness or even humor?

By asking students to articulate what they see, teachers will not only improve studentsʼ proficiency in Chinaʼs visual languages, they will present a scaffold upon which students can layer their understanding of the complexities of history: the Shang dynasty bronze demonstrates how power was held by an elite few who perpetuated the social hierarchy through displays of wealth, and by communing with mysterious spirits through ritual. By the Han dynasty, a more humanistic worldview based on the teachings of Confucius had taken root. A bureaucratic class of scholars emerged and the nobility no longer held exclusive sway in this life. Inexpensive clay tomb figurines including banquet chefs, farmers, pig sties, board games, and musicians showed an enjoyment of life that could be perpetuated in the afterlife.

Resources for Early Civilization Units

Chinese Art in Context | Asia Society
This resource provides an overview of early Chinese art in historical and art historical context. Short essays accompany images of bronze masterpieces.

The Great Bronze Age of China | Columbia University
See the brief and very informative articles from Columbia University's Asia for Educators website.

Bronzes | the National Palace Museum
Zoom in and explore high-resolutions of Chinese bronze masterpieces from Taipei's National Palace Museum.

Early Chinese Burial Figurines | Metropolitan Museum of Art
Read the essay "The Vibrant Role of Mingqi in Early Chinese Burials" to see what funerary practices revealed about life in ancient China. See corresponding high-resolution images on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Animal Motifs in Ancient Bronzes | Smithsonian Institution
Learn about the significance of animal (and mythical animal) motifs and what they convey about worldviews in early Chinese society. Click on the "learn more" link to access high-resolution images.

Student Project on Historical and Contemporary Identities | Smithsonian Institution
The Sackler's Education Department asked a team of Chinese American teenagers to look within their own communities for contemporary examples of ancestor worship. See student work to get a sense of what inquiry- and evidence-based projects looks like.

Bronze Casting in Early China | Princeton University Art Museum
See an interactive animation of how bronze vessels were created using ceramic piece-mold methods. It offers a great study on how innovation in one area (in this case, ceramics technology) led to innovation in bronze casting. It also serves as a contrast to typical bronze-age technologies. What does it say about the development of human societies in general?

Images, ancient and modern, continue to be used in dialogue in China today. By becoming aware of visual languages, students expand their concepts of culture and can grasp how images shape identity today. When teachers open their eyes to using art in learning, the possibilities are endless. As Wang observes, “Art really is fundamental in learning, and art is everywhere.”