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Miniature worlds in Chinese art

A recurring theme in Chinese art is the reproduction of the world in miniature. This practice stemmed from a desire to give a sense of order to the world, by depicting it in a smaller and, therefore, more comprehensible form. The world consisted of heaven and earth. Landscape, with its mountains and water, was seen to embody both these elements. The Chinese word for landscape, shan shui, means 'mountains and water': mountains, because of their height, were seen as a bridge between earth and the heavens.

The Chinese emperors demonstrated control of their world by collecting rare animals and plants from distant lands and imperial parks. They also represented the world in their tomb compounds, which incorporated mountains (with connotations of immortality), both artificial and natural. The depiction of paradise in miniature was particularly common in the Han dynasty (260 BC-AD 220), because of Daoist preoccupations with immortality (see the mountain-shaped incense burner).

The Chinese garden was a representation of the world in miniature, with rocks and lakes, and artificial hills. The garden also stood for paradise. From this practice came the creation of miniature gardens in basins. Some had real plants in them; others had trees and flowers made of jade, coral, ivory and other precious materials.

References to paradise in miniature can also be seen in small carvings. Mountains were carved of jade, crystal, root and wood. These were items for the scholar's study, evoking the possibility of an escape back to nature. The gourd is another example, often used in painting and literature as a symbol for a separate world or retreat. Finally, the snuff bottle, designed in a range of materials and forms, illustrates the Chinese passion for intricate art in miniature.

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British Museum collections, £12.99

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