Mesmerizing Illusory Art

Regardless of whether we believe the perceived world is an illusion, or whether illusions represent the real physical world, illusions can only exist in our sensory perception, for they need to be experienced through our visual senses.

The sinuous serpent body designs of Warring States period jades are often accompanied by unobtrusive legs of uncertain number. For such jade artifacts, when the heads of their designs are viewed in combination with legs of different orientation, dynamic illusions of varying tension, slackness, movement, and stillness can thus appear. As for Han era jade artifacts with beast designs, physiological principles such as forelegs at the chest and hind legs at the abdomen must be adhered to, in accordance with the rules for visual acceptability. However, by distorting the bodies of the beasts so that the chest and abdomen each face in a different direction, the orientations of the attached legs can also be adjusted, to create a dynamic illusory effect.

Jades from the Warring States period and the Han Dynasty respectively adopted the serpent paradigm and beast paradigm for their designs, and although the creative techniques involved may differ, each work is able to achieve dynamic illusion in its own perfect way. These effects are akin to the stroboscopic phenomenon utilized by modern filming, in which repeated exposures of continuous movement are taken at very short intervals. When viewing such works, human vision can automatically draw together differently oriented heads and limbs, to produce illusions with a rich sense of motion and speed.

  • Jade Dragon Pendant
    Jade Dragon Pendant
    Middle Warring States Period
    1. L 16 cm
  • Jade Scabbard Chape with Sacred Beast Design
    Jade Scabbard Chape with Sacred Beast Design
    Early Western Han Dynasty
    1. W 7 cm
  • Agate Scabbard Slide with Dragon Pattern
    Agate Scabbard Slide with Dragon Pattern
    Middle to Late Western Han Dynasty
    1. L 9.3 cm, W 2.6 cm, H (including the iron piece) 2.6 cm

Exhibition-related information

  • Mesmerizing Illusory Art

    Ambiguous stimulation is akin to a photograph with repeated exposures; although the same person is depicted, the two sets of arms in different positions creates a dynamic effect, as the brain oscillates between varying interpretations. The jade dragons of the Warring States period also employed this technique to great effect, and their two sets of opposite-facing legs and claws were capable of stimulating a strong dynamic illusion that alternated between movement and stillness.

  • The Challenge of Generating Dynamic Ambiguity when Designing Three-Dimensional Body Forms

    To be perceived as natural and reasonable, the front legs of beasts must be joined to the chest, while the hind legs should extend from the abdomen. However, to create dynamic illusions using the principle of ambiguity, the beast body must be distorted, so that the front legs and hind legs can face in different directions. Although such designs succeed in achieving their aesthetic objectives, the resulting body shapes are unnatural and defy reason. How then, can this paradox be resolved?

  • Visual Obstruction

    Visual perception is capable of uniting the bisected sections of a sinuous body shape into one continuous wavy form, and designs depicting appearing and disappearing dragons in layers of cloud made ample use of this principle. Using agate material with naturally formed red and white patches, with sacred dragons depicted on the red areas and the remaining white areas transformed into clouds bisecting the red dragons, this Han Dynasty work exemplifies this technique, and demonstrates how visual obstruction can preserve the sinuous form of the sacred dragons, while also softening the discordance caused by their distorted bodies.

Visual Continuity

Visual Continuity

When we observe wave patterns, even if short branches extend from the body of the wave, our discernment of the main wave shape is not affected, and this is known in psychology as "the principle of visual continuity." Now, take a look at these jade dragons, each with their own jutting claws or twists and turns. Is your perception of the main body for each divine dragon affected in any way by these branching designs?

Visual Obstruction

Visual Obstruction

The technique of "visual obstruction" consists of bisecting the center of a twisting beast body, for the purpose of obstructing our line of sight and thereby reducing the discordance stemming from the distorted orientation of the front and hind sections of these beasts. With this principle in hand, the creative impulses of individual designers are allowed to flow freely; for example, the Jade Bi Disc of Chang Le uses the outer rim of the jade bi disc itself to bisect the body of the divine beast located at upper left, while the designer of this jade she thumb ring-shaped pendant concealed the central section of the divine beast depicted within the body of the she thumb ring design. Both these designs display an extraordinary level of ingenuity.

Exquisite Artistic Designs

Exquisite Artistic Designs

Right angles generate stability in visual perception, but considering that the aesthetic goal of Han era jades was to achieve dynamism, when faced with jade material containing right angles, what corrective measures did jade craftsmen of the time employ? The designer of this jade she thumb ring-shaped pendant slightly rotated the original jade material, elevating the main right angle to the upper right by a fraction to achieve dynamism through imbalance. Such ingenious adjustments did not require extensive work to achieve a sublimating effect, and this work serves an awe-inspiring exemplar of creativity for future generations.