Small Skills, Special Effects: Unusual Chinese Works of Art

ROM Exhibit Showcases Rare and Distinctive Chinese Artifacts

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) presents Small Skills, Special Effects: Unusual Chinese Works of Art from July 28, 2012 to February 3, 2013, featuring items from the ROM’s own Far Eastern, Textiles and Costume collections; loans from three private collections; and an item from the Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library of the University of Toronto. The exhibition will be featured in the Herman Herzog Levy Gallery.

Consisting of approximately 70 objects dating from the Tang dynasty (618-907) to the early 21st century, Small Skills, Special Effects includes a range of rare or never before displayed objects such as paintings, fans, vessels, snuff bottles, objects of personal adornment, and amulets. These artifacts were made from a wide variety of materials such as paper, ceramic, wood, lacquer, bamboo, glass, silver, and metal alloy. They are the works of talented and dedicated Chinese artists, designers, and craftspersons who endeavoured to make their beautiful and unique creations stand out by imbuing them with a remarkable level of expert craftsmanship through design, technique, or the actual materials used.

“Small Skills, Special Effects opens up our vaults to highlight selected rare objects from the ROM’s Far Eastern, Textiles and Costume collections for display to our visitors and acknowledges the intense craftsmanship of a truly talented cadre of Chinese artisans,” said Janet Carding, ROM Director and CEO. “I'm delighted that the ROM is collaborating with the Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library at the University of Toronto as well as private collectors to feature this particular exhibition as part of the ongoing roster of rotating exhibits in our Herman Herzog Levy Gallery of Asian Art.”

Dr. Ka Bo Tsang, ROM Assistant Curator, Chinese Pictorial Arts explains, “Small Skills, Special Effects recalls an influential era of Chinese craftsmanship which stands out for its dependence upon artistic self-discipline and dedication. The works of Wu Huizhang, Wan Shouqi and their contemporaries exemplify the amazing skills of oft-overlooked artisans whose work has gone on to impact Chinese art over time. From the spectacular kingfisher feathers to the ‘yingtou xiaokai’ or ‘fly’s head’ micro-script, this exhibit displays the pride, imagination, and devotion of these artists."

Small Skills, Special Effects demonstrates ingenuity and extraordinary skill as featured in a wide variety of objects from a range of collections, each displaying an amazing element of energy, planning, and concentrated execution. These objects represent the artistic, economic, social, political, and religious factors influencing the chosen designs, materials, and methods of production.


The term “small skill (xiaoji)” comes from the Chinese expression, diaochong xiaoji, meaning “[someone possessing] a small skill”. This is a reference to schoolboys of the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-25 AD) who mastered the skill of writing in scripts which were made popular during the previous Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). These unusual scripts included the “chongshu” (a script resembling images of insects) and the “kefu” (a script resembling engraved seal characters). From the time of the Northern Dynasties period (386AD-534 AD), the term “small skill” connoted the negative attitude of Chinese intellectuals towards their own craftspeople - and was used in a pejorative context - downplaying an artisan’s painstaking effort in creating beautiful and unique objects.


As a showcase of an important aspect of the timeless artistic contribution to Chinese culture, Small Skills, Special Effects provides a rare look at objects which became renowned based on the three principles of extraordinary design, unusual technique, and rare materials. The exhibit consists of nine main components - intricately carved ivory objects, paintings with motifs embedded with meaningful messages, micro-calligraphy, finger paintings, objects adorned with an unusual design composed of fragmentary documents, folding fans, trompe l’oeil objects, various items created with kingfisher feathers, and specially designed silver amulets.

Representations of the god of longevity are a very popular theme of Chinese art. Selected objects Small Skills, Special Effects feature unique interpretations of this as created by artist Wan Shouqi, who used miniscule Chinese characters to form a large image of this deity.


Also featured in the exhibit is the work of artist Wu Huizhang, who took the traditional practice of inscribing original or popular poems onto folding fan leaves to a new level. Wu used micro-calligraphy so small that it was comparable to the head of a fly—“yingtou xiaokai” in Chinese—when he wrote Tang-dynasty poems onto a folding fan, showing exceptional levels of concentration, writing skill, and compositional skill.


From as far back as the Han dynasty (206 BC -220 AD), the Chinese have been fascinated by the iridescent blue feathers of the kingfisher. The rare and beautiful feathers were used to adorn jewellery and make decorative objects. This exhibit offers a chance to revisit the once popular kingfisher feather creations, now considered a rarity because the highly sought after kingfisher bird is nearly extinct in China and too expensive to import.