Chinese art is visual art that, whether ancient or modern, originated in or is practiced in China or by Chinese artists. The Chinese art in the Republic of China (Taiwan) and that of overseas Chinese can also be considered part of Chinese art where it is based in or draws on Chinese heritage and Chinese culture. Early "stone age art" dates back to 10,000 BC, mostly consisting of simple pottery and sculptures. After this early period Chinese art, like Chinese history, is typically classified by the succession of ruling dynasties of Chinese emperors, most of which lasted several hundred years.
Chinese art has arguably the oldest continuous tradition in the world, and is marked by an unusual degree of continuity within, and consciousness of, that tradition, lacking an equivalent to the Western collapse and gradual recovery of classical styles. The media that have usually been classified in the West since the Renaissance as the decorative arts are extremely important in Chinese art, and much of the finest work was produced in large workshops or factories by essentially unknown artists, especially in Chinese ceramics.
Much of the best work in ceramics, textiles, carved lacquer, and other techniques was produced over a long period by the various Imperial factories or workshops, which as well as being used by the court was distributed internally and abroad on a huge scale to demonstrate the wealth and power of the Emperors. In contrast, the tradition of ink wash painting, practiced mainly by scholar-officials and court painters especially of landscapes, flowers, and birds, developed aesthetic values depending on the individual imagination of and objective observation by the artist that are similar to those of the West, but long pre-dated their development there. After contacts with Western art became increasingly important from the 19th century onwards, in recent decades China has participated with increasing success in worldwide contemporary art.
Main article: Chinese painting
Traditional Chinese painting involves essentially the same techniques as Chinese calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black or colored ink; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made of paper and silk. The finished work can be mounted on scrolls, such as hanging scrolls or handscrolls. Traditional painting can also be done on album sheets, walls, lacquerware, folding screens, and other media.
The two main techniques in Chinese painting are:
- Gong-bi (工筆), meaning "meticulous", uses highly detailed brushstrokes that delimits details very precisely. It is often highly coloured and usually depicts figural or narrative subjects. It is often practised by artists working for the royal court or in independent workshops. Bird-and-flower paintings were often in this style.
- Ink and wash painting, in Chinese Shui-mo or (水墨) also loosely termed watercolour or brush painting, and also known as "literati painting", as it was one of the "Four Arts" of the Chinese Scholar-official class. In theory this was an art practised by gentlemen, a distinction that begins to be made in writings on art from the Song dynasty, though in fact the careers of leading exponents could benefit considerably. This style is also referred to as "xie yi" (寫意) or freehand style.
Artists from the Han (202 BC) to the Tang (618–906) dynasties mainly painted the human figure. Much of what is known of early Chinese figure painting comes from burial sites, where paintings were preserved on silk banners, lacquered objects, and tomb walls. Many early tomb paintings were meant to protect the dead or help their souls get to paradise. Others illustrated the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, or showed scenes of daily life. Most Chinese portraits showed a formal full-length frontal view, and were used in the family in ancestor veneration. Imperial portraits were more flexible, but were generally not seen outside the court, and portraiture formed no part of Imperial propaganda, as in other cultures.
Many critics consider landscape to be the highest form of Chinese painting. The time from the Five Dynasties period to the Northern Song period (907–1127) is known as the "Great age of Chinese landscape". In the north, artists such as Jing Hao, Li Cheng, Fan Kuan, and Guo Xi painted pictures of towering mountains, using strong black lines, ink wash, and sharp, dotted brushstrokes to suggest rough rocks. In the south, Dong Yuan, Juran, and other artists painted the rolling hills and rivers of their native countryside in peaceful scenes done with softer, rubbed brushwork. These two kinds of scenes and techniques became the classical styles of Chinese landscape painting.
See also: Chinese Buddhist sculpture
Chinese ritual bronzes from the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties come from a period of over a thousand years from c. 1500, and have exerted a continuing influence over Chinese art. They are cast with complex patterned and zoomorphic decoration, but avoid the human figure, unlike the huge figures only recently discovered at Sanxingdui. The spectacular Terracotta Army was assembled for the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China from 221–210 BC, as a grand imperial version of the figures long placed in tombs to enable the deceased to enjoy the same lifestyle in the afterlife as when alive, replacing actual sacrifices of very early periods. Smaller figures in pottery or wood were placed in tombs for many centuries afterwards, reaching a peak of quality in the Tang dynasty.
Native Chinese religions do not usually use cult images of deities, or even represent them, and large religious sculpture is nearly all Buddhist, dating mostly from the 4th to the 14th century, and initially using Greco-Buddhist models arriving via the Silk Road. Buddhism is also the context of all large portrait sculpture; in total contrast to some other areas in medieval China even painted images of the emperor were regarded as private. Imperial tombs have spectacular avenues of approach lined with real and mythological animals on a scale matching Egypt, and smaller versions decorate temples and palaces. Small Buddhist figures and groups were produced to a very high quality in a range of media, as was relief decoration of all sorts of objects, especially in metalwork and jade. Sculptors of all sorts were regarded as artisans and very few names are recorded.
Pottery tomb figure of dancing girl, Han dynasty (202 BC-220 AD)
Main article: Chinese ceramics
Chinese ceramic ware shows a continuous development since the pre-dynastic periods, and is one of the most significant forms of Chinese art. China is richly endowed with the raw materials needed for making ceramics. The first types of ceramics were made during the Palaeolithic era, and in later periods range from construction materials such as bricks and tiles, to hand-built pottery vessels fired in bonfires or kilns, to the sophisticated Chinese porcelain wares made for the imperial court. Most later Chinese ceramics, even of the finest quality, were made on an industrial scale, thus very few individual potters or painters are known. Many of the most renowned workshops were owned by or reserved for the Emperor, and large quantities of ceramics were exported as diplomatic gifts or for trade from an early date.
Ceramic female attendants, from the tomb of Empress Dou (d. 135 BC), Western Han dynasty, Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an
A porcelain brush stand, Qianlong period
As well as porcelain, a wide range of materials that were more valuable were worked and decorated with great skill for a range of uses or just for display.Chinese jade was attributed with magical powers, and was used in the Stone and Bronze Ages for large and impractical versions of everyday weapons and tools, as well as the bi disks and cong vessels. Later a range of objects and small sculptures were carved in jade, a difficult and time-consuming technique. Bronze, gold and silver, rhinoceros horn, Chinese silk, ivory, lacquer and carved lacquer, cloisonne enamel and many other materials had specialist artists working in them.
Folding screens (Chinese: 屏風; pinyin: píngfēng) are often decorated with beautiful art; major themes include mythology, scenes of palace life, and nature. Materials such as wood panel, paper and silk are used in making folding screens. They were considered ideal ornaments for many painters to display their paintings and calligraphy. Many artists painted on paper or silk and applied it onto the folding screen. There were two distinct artistic folding screens mentioned in historical literature of the era.
Historical development to 221 BC
Main article: Yangshao culture
Early forms of art in China are found in the NeolithicYangshao culture, which dates back to the 6th millennium BC. Archeological findings such as those at the Banpo have revealed that the Yangshao made pottery; early ceramics were unpainted and most often cord-marked. The first decorations were fish and human faces, but these eventually evolved into symmetrical-geometric abstract designs, some painted.
The most distinctive feature of Yangshao culture was the extensive use of painted pottery, especially human facial, animal, and geometric designs. Unlike the later Longshan culture, the Yangshao culture did not use pottery wheels in pottery making. Excavations have found that children were buried in painted pottery jars.
Main article: Liangzhu culture
The Liangzhu culture was the last Neolithic Jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta and was spaced over a period of about 1,300 years. The Jade from this culture is characterized by finely worked, large ritual jades such as Cong cylinders, Bi discs, Yue axes and also pendants and decorations in the form of chiseled open-work plaques, plates and representations of small birds, turtles and fish. The Liangzhu Jade has a white, milky bone-like aspect due to its Tremolite rock origin and influence of water-based fluids at the burial sites.
Main article: Chinese ritual bronzes
Further information: Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng
The Bronze Age in China began with the Xia dynasty. Examples from this period have been recovered from ruins of the Erlitou culture, in Shanxi, and include complex but unadorned utilitarian objects. In the following Shang dynasty more elaborate objects, including many ritual vessels, were crafted. The Shang are remembered for their bronze casting, noted for its clarity of detail. Shang bronzesmiths usually worked in foundries outside the cities to make ritual vessels, and sometimes weapons and chariot fittings as well. The bronze vessels were receptacles for storing or serving various solids and liquids used in the performance of sacred ceremonies. Some forms such as the ku and jue can be very graceful, but the most powerful pieces are the ding, sometimes described as having an "air of ferocious majesty".
It is typical of the developed Shang style that all available space is decorated, most often with stylized forms of real and imaginary animals. The most common motif is the taotie, which shows a mythological being presented frontally as though squashed onto a horizontal plane to form a symmetrical design. The early significance of taotie is not clear, but myths about it existed around the late Zhou dynasty. It was considered to be variously a covetous man banished to guard a corner of heaven against evil monsters; or a monster equipped with only a head which tries to devour men but hurts only itself.
The function and appearance of bronzes changed gradually from the Shang to the Zhou. They shifted from been used in religious rites to more practical purposes. By the Warring States period, bronze vessels had become objects of aesthetic enjoyment. Some were decorated with social scenes, such as from a banquet or hunt; whilst others displayed abstract patterns inlaid with gold, silver, or precious and semiprecious stones.
Shang bronzes became appreciated as works of art from the Song dynasty, when they were collected and prized not only for their shape and design but also for the various green, blue green, and even reddish patinas created by chemical action as they lay buried in the ground. The study of early Chinese bronze casting is a specialized field of art history.
Chu and Southern culture
A rich source of art in early China was the state of Chu, which developed in the Yangtze River valley. Excavations of Chu tombs have found painted wooden sculptures, jade disks, glass beads, musical instruments, and an assortment of lacquerware. Many of the lacquer objects are finely painted, red on black or black on red. A site in Changsha, Hunan province, has revealed some of the oldest paintings on silk discovered to date.
Early Imperial China (221 BC–AD 220)
The Terracotta Army, inside the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, consists of more than 7,000 life-size tomb terra-cotta figures of warriors and horses buried with the self-proclaimed first Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang) in 210–209 BC. The figures were painted before being placed into the vault. The original colors were visible when the pieces were first unearthed. However, exposure to air caused the pigments to fade, so today the unearthed figures appear terracotta in color. The figures are in several poses including standing infantry and kneeling archers, as well as charioteers with horses. Each figure's head appears to be unique, showing a variety of facial features and expressions as well as hair styles.
Porcelain is made from a hard paste made of the claykaolin and a feldspar called petuntse, which cements the vessel and seals any pores. China has become synonymous with high-quality porcelain. Most china pots comes from the city of Jingdezhen in China's Jiangxi province. Jingdezhen, under a variety of names, has been central to porcelain production in China since at least the early Han dynasty.
The most noticeable difference between porcelain and the other pottery clays is that it "wets" very quickly (that is, added water has a noticeably greater effect on the plasticity for porcelain than other clays), and that it tends to continue to "move" longer than other clays, requiring experience in handling to attain optimum results. During medieval times in Europe, porcelain was very expensive and in high demand for its beauty. TLV mirrors also date from the Han dynasty.
The Han dynasty was known for jade burial suits. One of the earliest known depictions of a landscape in Chinese art comes from a pair of hollow-tile door panels from a Western Han dynasty tomb near Zhengzhou, dated 60 BC. A scene of continuous depth recession is conveyed by the zigzag of lines representing roads and garden walls, giving the impression that one is looking down from the top of a hill. This artistic landscape scene was made by the repeated impression of standard stamps on the clay while it was still soft and not yet fired. However, the oldest known landscape art scene tradition in the classical sense of painting is a work by Zhan Ziqian of the Sui dynasty (581–618).
A gilt bronze lamp with a shutter, in the shape of a maidservant, from the Western Han dynasty, 2nd century BC
Two gentlemen engrossed in conversation while two others look on, a painting on a ceramic tile from a tomb near Luoyang, Henan province, dated to the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 AD)
A section of an Eastern Han (25–220 AD) fresco of 9 chariots, 50 horses, and over 70 men, from a tomb in Luoyang, China
Period of division (220–581)
Influence of Buddhism
Main article: Buddhist art
Buddhism arrived in China around the 1st Century AD (although there are some traditions about a monk visiting China during Asoka's reign), and through to the 8th century it became very active and creative in the development of Buddhist art, particularly in the area of statuary. Receiving this distant religion, China soon incorporated strong Chinese traits in its artistic expression.
In the fifth to sixth century the Northern dynasties, rather removed from the original sources of inspiration, tended to develop rather symbolic and abstract modes of representation, with schematic lines. Their style is also said to be solemn and majestic. The lack of corporeality of this art, and its distance from the original Buddhist objective of expressing the pure ideal of enlightenment in an accessible, realistic manner, progressively led to a research towards more naturalism and realism, leading to the expression of Tang Buddhist art.
In ancient China, painting and calligraphy were the most highly appreciated arts in court circles and were produced almost exclusively by amateurs, aristocrats and scholar-officials who alone had the leisure to perfect the technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. The implements were the brush, made of animal hair, and black ink made from pine soot and animal glue. Writing as well as painting was done on silk. But after the invention of paper in the 1st century, silk was gradually replaced by the new and cheaper material. Original writings by famous calligraphers have been greatly valued throughout China's history and are mounted on scrolls and hung on walls in the same way that paintings are.
Wang Xizhi was a famous Chinese calligrapher who lived in the 4th century AD. His most famous work is the Lanting Xu, the preface to a collection of poems. The script was often celebrated as the high point of the semi-cursive "Running Style" in the history of Chinese calligraphy.
Wei Shuo was a well-known calligrapher of the Eastern Jin dynasty who established consequential rules about the Regular Script. Her well-known works include Famous Concubine Inscription (名姬帖 Ming Ji Tie) and The Inscription of Wei-shi He'nan (衛氏和南帖 Wei-shi He'nan Tie).
Chinese art, the painting, calligraphy, architecture, pottery, sculpture, bronzes, jade carving, and other fine or decorative art forms produced in China over the centuries.
The following article treats the general characteristics of Chinese art as a whole. For a detailed discussion of each of the arts mentioned above, seeChinese painting, Chinese calligraphy, Chinese architecture, Chinese pottery, Chinese bronzes, Chinese lacquerwork, Chinese jade, and silk.
Aesthetic characteristics and artistic traditions
Art as a reflection of Chinese class structure
One of the outstanding characteristics of Chinese art is the extent to which it reflects the class structure that has existed at different times in Chinese history. Up to the Warring States period (475–221 bce), the arts were produced by anonymous craftsmen for the royal and feudal courts. It is believed that during the Shang and early Zhou periods the production of ritual bronzes was exclusively regulated under the authority of the court, which could grant or withhold authorization for production by regional workshops among the various states or others who paid fealty to the court. Under the careful regulation of court patrons in the Shang and Zhou periods, design features were shared among specialists working in the various media and were remarkably uniform from bronzes to lacquerwares to textiles.
During the Warring States period and the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), the growth of a landowning and merchant class brought new patrons. After the Han there began to emerge the concept of cultural practice as the product of the leisure of the educated gentry, many of whom were amateur practitioners of the arts of poetry, music, calligraphy, and, eventually, painting. At this time a distinction began to arise between the lower-class professional and the elite amateur artist; this distinction would have a great influence on the character of Chinese art in later times. Gradually one tradition became identified with the artists and craftsmen who worked for the court or sold their work for profit. The scholarly amateurs looked upon such people with some contempt, and the visual arts of the literati became a separate tradition that was increasingly refined and rarefied to the point that, from the Song dynasty (960–1279) onward, an assumed awkwardness (zhuo) or understatement (pingdan) in technique was admired as a mark of the amateur and gentleman. As a medium of highly individual expression, painting and calligraphy also became important media of exchange in a social economy where the giving of gifts was central to the building of an interpersonal network. Like skill in letters, poetry, or music, skill and expressive quality in the practice of calligraphy and painting helped establish one’s status in a society of learned individuals.
One effect of the revolutions of the 20th century was the breaking down of the class barriers between amateur and professional. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, literati art and artists were denigrated and an emphasis was placed on anonymous, proletarian-made art like that of the Tang dynasty (618–907) and earlier.
The role of linearity in Chinese art
Since the 3rd century ce, calligraphy, or writing as a fine art, has been considered supreme among the visual arts in China. Not only does it require immense skill and fine judgment, but it is regarded as uniquely revealing of the character and breadth of cultivation of the writer. Since the time when inscribed oracle bones and tortoise shells (China’s oldest extant writing) were used for divination in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 bce), calligraphy has been associated with spiritual communication and has been viewed in terms of the writer’s own spiritual attunement. It is believed that the appreciation and production of calligraphy requires lofty personal qualities and unusual aesthetic sensitivity. The comprehension of its finer points is thought to require experience and sensibility of a high order.
The Chinese painter uses essentially the same materials as the calligrapher—brush, ink, and silk or paper—and the Chinese judge his work by the same criteria they use for the calligrapher, basically the vitality and expressiveness of the brush stroke itself and the harmonious rhythm of the whole composition. Painting in China is, therefore, essentially a linear art. The painters of most periods were not concerned with striving for originality or conveying a sense of reality and three-dimensional mass through aids such as shading and perspective; rather, they focused on using silk or paper to transmit, through the rhythmic movement of the brush stroke, an awareness of the inner life of things.
The aesthetics of line in calligraphy and painting have had a significant influence on the other arts in China. In the motifs that adorn the ritual bronzes, in the flow of the drapery over the surface of Buddhist sculpture, and in the decoration of lacquerware, pottery, and cloisonné enamel (wares decorated with enamel of different colours separated by strips of metal), it is the rhythmic movement of the line, following the natural movement of the artist’s or craftsman’s hand, that to a large extent determines the form and gives to Chinese art as a whole its remarkable harmony and unity of style. (For more information about Chinese calligraphy, seeChinese calligraphy.)
Characteristic themes and symbols
In early times Chinese art often served as a means to submit to the will of heaven through ritual and sacrifice. Archaic bronze vessels were made for sacrifices to heaven and to the spirits of clan ancestors, who were believed to influence the living for good if the rites were properly and regularly performed. (For more information on ritual bronzes, seemetalwork; Chinese bronzes.)
Chinese society, basically agricultural, has always laid great stress on understanding the pattern of nature and living in accordance with it. The world of nature was seen as the visible manifestation of the workings of a higher power through the generative interaction of the yin-yang (female-male) dualism. As it developed, the purpose of Chinese art turned from propitiation and sacrifice to the expression of human understanding of these forces, in the form of painting of landscapes, bamboo, birds, and flowers. This might be called the metaphysical, Daoist aspect of Chinese painting.
Particularly in early times, art also had social and moral functions. The earliest wall paintings referred to in ancient texts depicted benevolent emperors, sages, virtuous ministers, loyal generals, and their evil opposites as examples and warnings to the living. Portrait painting also had this moral function, depicting not the features of the subject so much as his or her character and role in society. Court painters were called upon to depict auspicious and memorable events. This was the ethical, Confucian function of painting. High religious art as such is foreign to China. Popular folk religion was seldom an inspiration to great works of art, and Buddhism, which indeed produced many masterpieces of a special kind, was a foreign import.
Human relationships have always been of supreme importance in China, and a common theme of figure painting is that of gentlemen enjoying scholarly pursuits together or of the poignant partings and infrequent reunions that were the lot of officials whose appointments took them across the country.
Among the typical themes of traditional Chinese art there is no place for war, violence, the nude, death, or martyrdom. Nor is inanimate matter ever painted for art’s sake alone: the very rocks and streams are felt to be alive, visible manifestations of the invisible forces of the universe. For the most part, no theme would be accepted in traditional Chinese art that was not inspiring, noble (either elevating or admonitory), refreshing to the spirit, or at least charming. Nor is there any place in most of the Chinese artistic tradition for an art of pure form divorced from content: it is not enough for the form to be beautiful if the subject matter is unedifying. In the broadest sense, therefore, in a culture steeped in the rhetoric of metaphor and allegory and forever turning to nature as a source of reference, all traditional Chinese art is symbolic, for everything that is painted reflects some aspect of a totality of which the painter is intuitively aware. At the same time, Chinese art is full of symbols of a more specific kind, some with various possible meanings. Bamboo suggests the spirit of the scholar, which can be bent by circumstance but never broken, and jade symbolizes purity and indestructibility. The dragon, in remote antiquity perhaps an alligator or rain deity, is the benevolent but potentially dangerous symbol of the emperor; the crane symbolizes long life; and paired mandarin ducks symbolize wedded fidelity. Popular among the many symbols drawn from the plant world are the orchid, a Confucian symbol of purity and loyalty; the winter plum, which blossoms even in the late winter’s snow and stands for irrepressible purity, in either a revolutionary political or a spiritual sense; and the gnarled pine tree, which may represent either survival in a harsh political environment or the unconquerable spirit of old age.
Critical to all artistic considerations was the belief that the energy and rhythm generated in artistic practice allied the practitioner with the ultimate source of that energy, drawn forth from earthly and heavenly sources and from the sacred Dao itself. Calligraphy and painting, especially, had the capacity to rejuvenate the artist or to damage him spiritually, according to the rightness of his practice and the character of the man. As such, art was viewed in these terms (and so, too, was the viewing of art), taking the artist as much into account as the artistic subject, with regard to erudition, moral character, and harmonic alignment with (or alienation from) the forces of nature.