You can understand a great deal about a culture from its approach to design. In China, for example, exploring the element of “line,” even beyond design, results in some interesting insights.
Line as unifying concept
Following the Warring States period (403-221 BC), China used line, in part, to unite the country. The Great Wall, essentially one long line of defense, began then. So did an emphasis on common architectural styles. Buildings look the same throughout China for a reason: they connect the people through a common experience of line.
Line as symbol
This same period saw the standardization of coins. The chosen design utilized two important forms of line: a circle, the Chinese symbol of heaven, combined with a square hole in the center representing earth. Together, each coin reinforced the idea of the emperor as divine authority.
Line as a pragmatic tool
With coins, the square hole also allowed another form of line — a rope — to hold multiple coins together. In building, round ceramic tiles cap off rows of roofing tiles (formed in circular patterns to emulate bamboo) over beams and capitals that end in squares or rectangles. Even the simple chopstick (another form of line) often has one end round and the other square.
Line as organizing principle
Only in the last decade has the Western notion of a line or queue started to take hold. Buying a train ticket 30 years ago was a free-for-all. Now, increasingly, people line up in a somewhat orderly fashion or take assigned seats on buses and trains.
Line as protocol
Chinese language is filled with polite lines or expressions. Use them well and you get a big smile and are one step closer to achieving guanxi, a complex notion of insider relationship. Use the wrong line, and you remain a waiguoren, literally an “outside country person” aka, a foreigner.
Line as protection
Line plays an important role in the principles of feng shui. Pathways, entries and bridges form zigzag patterns not simply for aesthetics, but because evil spirits are believed to be able to move only along straight lines. Some believe the curved shape of Chinese roofs is for the same reason.
Line and orientation
Traditional Chinese architecture was built with a horizontal orientation (e.g. Beijing’s Summer Palace). Today, population density and Western design influence has sent lines skyward with vertical skyscrapers being the norm (e.g. Shanghai’s Pudong area).
Line as a temporal concept
In the West, time is linear: “timeline” or “deadline” are but two indicators. In China, you see stores selling fortune devices rather than clocks. Time is more circular with longer horizons. For example, when asked in the 1970’s what Zhou En Lai, one of China’s leaders, thought about the French Revolution (1789-1799), his response was, “It is too soon to say.”
Line as an aesthetic tool
The height of Chinese furniture design occurred in the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) with clean lines and elegant joinery. Western influences (e.g. Baroque and Rococo) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) added complexity. Today, furniture design is returning to a simpler aesthetic, much like the purity of line found in the shape of tea cups.
Line as line
Nowhere is an appreciation for line clearer than in Chinese calligraphy. Whether in ink or in the tradition of “painting” on stone with water, artists over centuries have been evaluated by their ability to refine line into its purest form. Even China’s name in characters, zhong guo (or Middle Kingdom) is revealing. The character for middle, zhong, would be the character kou or “opening” except for one defining element: a single line down its middle.