Chinese Art (c.1700 BCE - 2000 CE)
Cut off by mountains, deserts and oceans from other centres of human evolution, China developed its own self-contained but highly advanced civilization, which featured an astonishing combination of progressive technology, ancient art, and cultural awareness. The world's most ancient pottery, for example, is the Xianrendong Cave Pottery, from Jiangxi Province, and Yuchanyan Cave Pottery from Hunan. This influential ceramic development spread into Siberia - see the Amur River Basin pottery (14,300 BCE) - and Japan, in the form of Jomon Pottery (14,500 BCE). Strangely however, little evidence has so far emerged of any significant tradition of cave art on the Chinese mainland.
The original centre of Chinese culture was along the great Yellow River which crosses the North China Plain, where stable settlements have dated back to at least 4000 BCE. For details, see: Neolithic Art in China (7500-2000 BCE). Archeological discoveries - notably from the burial mounds of prosperous individuals - indicate that from about 2500 BCE the Chinese cultivated silk worms, had beautifully finished tools and produced a wide range of cultural artifacts. Thereafter, during the period 2500-100 BCE, Chinese artists mastered numerous forms of visual art, including: Chinese Pottery (which began in China around 10,000 BCE, and includes Chinese porcelain); jade carving and other types of metalworking and jewellery art; bronzes (mainly ceremonial vessels); Buddhist sculpture and secular terracotta sculpture (exemplified by the Chinese Terracotta Army); Chinese painting and calligraphy; as well as crafts such as lacquerware. In addition to art, China had its own history of scientific and technological inventions, many of which spread to Europe from the East. Furthermore, by 1800 BCE, China's advanced culture had also developed a system of writing which is still the foundation of modern Chinese script. See also: Prehistoric Art Timeline (2,500,000-500 BCE). For the arts of the Indian sub-continent, see: India, Painting and Sculpture.
China is dated by its Dynasties, a word which has been coined by western historians from the Greek root for "power, force or domination." Successive waves of invaders came out of the Central Asian land mass, from the Steppes and the Turcu River, conquered, ruled and were in turn assimilated by the Chinese. The different types of art in China developed according to the interest and patronage of each dynasty, as well as the whims of regional rulers. Trade relations with its East Asian neighbours was also an important stimulus in the development of Chinese visual arts, notably pottery and lacquerwork.
For a dynasty-by-dynasty guide, see below: History of Chinese Art.
But Not Essentially Religious
Not Outer Appearance
Chinese Visual Art
of the Amateur Artist
The Shang Dynasty was assumed to be mythical until the discovery in north-west China, in 1898, of a hoard of oxen's shoulder-blades bearing inscriptions. (But see also: Xia Dynasty Culture c.2100-1600.) In the same region, near Anyang, quantities of bronze vessels were unearthed bearing inscriptions in ancient Chinese script. When deciphered and compared they enabled scholars to piece together the history of Shang society with the names and dates of kings. It was a loose federation of city-states whose bronze weapons enabled them to dominate the valley of the Hoang-ho (Yellow River) and its tributary, the Wei. In many ways the Shang resembled the Mycenean princes celebrated by Homer. Their bronze vases and vessels - the key achievement of Shang Dynasty art - were made by the method of direct casting as well as by the cire-perdue (lost-wax) process. They were used by kings and their retainers for ritual and sacrificial ceremonies. The inscriptions they bear give the name of the owner and the maker with the purpose of the ceremony. The vessels were buried with their owners and they acquired a green, blue or red patina according to the nature of the soil. They fall into three main categories: vessels for cooking or containing ritual food, vessels for heating or pouring millet wine, and vessels for ritual washing. They were utilitarian, functional objects, but this did not prevent them from being superb works of art. Their ritual purpose and magical connotations explain the symbolic nature of the early decoration. Motifs from the animal world were mainly used - the dragon and the cicada (life and fertility) or the fabulous tao-tieh - which resembles a cross between an ox and a tiger.
Another achievement of the Shang Dynasty was the invention of calligraphy which occurred about 1700 BCE. In addition, watercolour painting, which began, so it is said, around 4000 BCE, was also fashionable. For comparative artforms of the period, see: Mesopotamian Art (c.4500-539 BCE) and the later Egyptian Art (3100 BCE - 395 CE).
The state of Shang came to be dominated by the Zhou highlanders from the west who captured the capital, Anyang, in 1027 BCE. Zhou Dynasty art borrowed a great deal from the Shang culture and produced the same kind of vessels but with a few differences. The stylistic evolution was gradual and a marked change appeared only after the Zhou had moved eastwards to a new capital, Luoyang, in 722 BCE. The high relief sculpture of the Shang motifs gave way to low relief and registers. Ornament became increasingly geometric until it was reduced to wing-and-spiral and hook-and-volute patterns. With the tools of the Iron Age it became possible to introduce inlaying of gold and silver. This was the period of the Warring States (about 475-221 BCE), when the Zhou state had disintegrated into contending feudal territories. Confucius, who died at the beginning of this period, was a high-minded moralist and the unsuccessful adviser, for a time, of one of the Zhou's rulers. He was a travelling teacher, and lectured on political ethics, non-violence and filial piety. His doctrine was collected, much later, in the Analects which became the gospel of the all-powerful class of scholarly civil servants, remaining so till modern times, and which deeply marked the Chinese code of manners.
Among the 'Hundred Schools of Philosophy which addressed themselves to the Chinese ruling classes during the period of the Warring States, the most remarkable perhaps was that of the Daoists (Taoists). Dao (Tao) means The Way or the Universal Principle. Daoism is an attitude to life not a system. It implies being in harmony with nature and shuns all dogmas and restrictive moral codes. Its most famous theoreticians were Laozi (Lao-tzu), an enigmatic author expressing himself in paradoxical sayings, and Zhuangzi (Chuang-tzu) (about 350-275 BCE) who wrote in parables pervaded with a subtle irony and showing a deep insight into man's motivations. To some people they seem to combine the best in Christianity, Zen Buddhism and Yoga. Daoism was destined to have a profound influence on Chinese painting.
Political confusion was ended by the dictatorship (221-206 BCE) of Emperor Qin Shihuang, who came from the state of Qin (formerly Ch'in, hence the name China). He smashed feudalism and replaced the warlords by civil servants or commissars. His advisers belonged to the legalist schools who asserted the authority of the State. Traditions were to be forgotten and all books destroyed, particularly the writings of Confucius. Qin Dynasty art was unimportant compared to its political and administrative activities. Qin Shihuang gave China a unified administration and a road system; he built canals and extended the frontiers of China. He also commissioned the huge series of terracotta figures, known as The Terracotta Army (c.246-208 BCE). The 8,000 statues took about 38 years to make, and involved roughly 700,000 master craftsmen and other workers.
After the death of Qin Shihuang and a period of civil war, a powerful bandit, Liu Pang, rose to the throne and inaugurated the long-lived Han dynasty, which rehabilitated Confucius but retained Qin Shihuang's administrative reforms and ruled China with the help of a centralised administration.
During the era of Han Dynasty art a new, naturalistic outlook prevailed in figurative art. This is particularly evident in bronzes and in the pottery figures called ming-chi which people had buried with them in their graves. The Chinese believed in an afterlife and they liked to surround themselves with representations of familiar sights, particularly of those things which had given them pleasure on earth, such as dogs and horses, dancers and concubines. These figures enable us to know precisely how the subjects of the Han dynasty were dressed, what they ate, what tools they used, what games they played, the domestic animals they reared and the appearance of the houses in which they lived. Many of the figures were coated in a lead glaze; others were painted. All are interesting and their stylised elegance is often of arresting beauty. Bronze vases were made in quantity; so were bronze sculptures of men and horses, and these show the same stylised naturalism as the pottery figures. This was also a great age for Chinese lacquerware, jade carving and silk fabrics.
The mulberry tree had been cultivated for some time in China and silk became a Chinese monopoly. It was the chief article of export to Persia and the Near East via the caravan routes through central Asia, known as the "Silk Road". Han painting and drawing, either on silk, on lacquer or on stone and tile, shows a most lively hand and great lightness of touch. Towards the end of the reign (1st century CE), a technique for making paper was discovered. This contributed significantly to the arts by providing a cheap and widespread medium both for painting and writing. It also led to the Chinese art of paper folding, or zhezhi and also to the Japanese art of Origami. When block printing was later invented the Chinese possessed the means of diffusing laws and literature throughout the Empire. The languages were many and varied, but the ideographic script was the same all over the country. This made the task of the administrators easier and it provided the Chinese people with a unified culture. In its calligraphic form writing became an art in its own right, the form of art which stood highest in the Chinese intellectual's esteem. It became a way of life, the preserve of the few, among whom were the painters, poets and scholars, those whose art was founded on calligraphy.
After the demise of the Han dynasty in 220 CE, China was to know nearly four centuries of fragmentation, during the Six Dynasties Period (220-589). This state of chaos was aggravated by invasions from northern and central Asia. The hungry horsemen from the steppes were attracted irresistibly by an agricultural society with big cities. They adopted the superior Chinese culture, became assimilated and sedentary - a process repeated several times. Among the 6th-century invaders were a Central Asian people called the Tuoba, who founded the Wei dynasty and ruled the northern half of China from 386 to 534. Their most memorable artistic contribution to the arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-589) was the official adoption of Buddhism, a religion born in India, which had been infiltrating China for some time. (Note: It arrived during the first-century CE, although it was not widely practised until about 300 CE.) Its founder, the living Buddha, dwelt on the border of Nepal shortly before Confucius. Buddhism had spread via Gandhara all along the Silk Road eastwards. Eventually it reached the border of China where the vast sanctuaries of Dunhuang and Yungang revealed wall-paintings and banners and a multitude of statues carved in serried ranks out of the walls of cliff and cave. Being of non-Chinese stock the Wei adopted Buddhism as a way of asserting themselves. It was always considered by the Confucian elite an outlandish, superstitious doctrine. Chinese Buddhist art - including painting, sculpture, and architecture thrived throughout the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581), the Sui Dynasty (589-618), and most of the Tang Dynasty (618-906).
Without Chinese Buddhist Sculpture there would be very little Chinese sculpture in stone. The Mahayana and Amitabha schools of Buddhism which prevailed in China required the representation of Buddha in his past, present and future form, and of the Bodhisattvas (aspiring Buddhas), and attendants. Following the expansion of Buddhist monasticism, these were to proliferate all over the country either in stone or in bronze. Wei sculpture, particularly in the Lung Men caves, has a transcendent beauty: idealised, elongated figures, with oblong heads and enigmatic smiles, sitting cross-legged, in long robes cascading down in rhythmical folds, the very image of mystical bliss. The stance, gestures and symbols were stereotypes derived from Indian origins. The Chinese seemed to find in Buddhism an answer to the problem of human suffering, the answer of love and prayer, and hope of Nirvana.
China was reunited in 589 CE by a powerful general, who founded the Sui Dynasty (589-618). A political and military regime, Sui dynasty art was almost entirely Buddha-inspired and was followed by the Tang dynasty (618-906) whose greatest leader, Emperor Taizong (T'ai-tsung), extended the empire deep into central Asia and Korea and allowed all religions and races to flourish in an atmosphere of tolerance and intellectual curiosity. The capital, Changan, became a great cosmopolitan centre, as did Guangzhou (Canton) and other southern ports. Muslims, Christians (Nestorians) and Manichaeans lived and worshipped side by side with Buddhists, Daoists and Confucianists. Taizong was succeeded by his son and an able but ferocious concubine, Empress Wu, who favoured Buddhism and even fell under the spell of a Rasputin-like monk. Her successor, the Confucianist emperor, Xuanzong (Hsuan-tsung), presided over a most brilliant court and founded the Academy of Letters; he loved music, painting and poetry, as well as horses. Tang society was bursting with vitality and optimism. Tang dynamism is felt in all the arts. The sculpture in stone, influenced by the Gupta style from India, displays round, swelling forms, combining Indian fleshiness with Chinese linear rhythm.
The Tang fresco paintings of Dunhuang show a dynamic brush-line and the same fullness of form in garish colours. The secular tomb-paintings are even more lively; they depict powerful men and opulent women in ample robes and theatrical attitudes, displaying a keen enjoyment of life. Little painting on silk or paper has survived - enough to testify to the same love of vivid colour and an interest in landscape painting which was to bear fruit under succeeding dynasties. This was the age when the art of poetry, intimately connected with painting and calligraphy, produced its first masterpieces, including those by Bai Juyi (Po-chu-i), Ling-po, and the painter Wang-wei.
As for goldsmithing and precious metalwork, particularly silver, it reveals the influence of Ancient Persian art: a number of Iranian artists, fleeing the Arab conquerors, settled in China, but as with all other foreign influences, the Persian was absorbed and became unmistakably Chinese, in spirit and inform. Some of the finest examples of Tang decorative art are to be seen in the Shoso-in treasure at the Todai-ji temple complex in Nara, Japan. For the Japanese were already looking to China for their inspiration.
Chinese landscape painting was revitalized at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, when artists began creating landscapes in a sparse monochromatic style - not so much to reproduce the true reality of the scenery but in order to grasp the atmosphere or mood of the location. Thirteen centuries later, Impressionist painters like Claude Monet would use similar reasoning to create an entirely different type of landscape.
In addition, figure drawing staged a comeback. Using vivid colours and elaborate detail, artists such as Zhou Fang portrayed the splendor of Tang court life in paintings of the Emperor, his palace ladies, and horses. In contrast to Zhou Fang's rich colourful style, the Tang artist Wu Daozi used only black ink and free-flowing brushstrokes to produce such exciting ink paintings that crowds gathered to watch him paint. Henceforth, so it is said, ink paintings were no longer thought to be merely drawings to be filled in with colour; instead they were valued as finished works of art.
Contemporary pottery, and particularly the tomb figures (ming-chi) provides us with a vivid insight into Tang society: the horses, of which the Tang were so fond, the camels, the musicians, jugglers, itinerant merchants, many with strongly emphasised foreign features, the dancing-girls, the dignitaries and generals, the tomb-guardians and earth-spirits; all these witnesses to the period are brightly coloured in rich, polychrome, freely-flowing glazes - a recent Chinese invention made with the oxides of copper, iron and cobalt, as were the vases and other vessels in stoneware or earthenware. These are round, beautifully made and always superbly balanced.
By then the Chinese had rediscovered and brought to perfection another of their inventions, the art of making porcelain, (a hard translucent ware fused at high temperatures with the aid of 'Chinese stone' (petuntse) and feldspar). This art had been lost since the days of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1050 BCE). White porcelain of the finest quality was made during the era of Tang Dynasty art and it soon found its way to Japan, Persia and the Near East. China never opened her frontiers so widely to foreign trade and to foreign ideas as during the Tang period, when the merchant navy was flourishing and when Chinese armies penetrated into western Turkestan. Along the Silk Road a string of Chinese-influenced oasis-kingdoms assured a two-way traffic in objects and in ideas between East and West. China sold its porcelain, its silk rolls and garments and in return it imported Persian cobalt, metallurgical techniques and stylistic ideas. All this ceased in 751 CE when the Chinese army suffered a crushing defeat at Tallas in Turkestan by the hands of the Muslim invaders, who had conquered Persia and were overrunning central Asia. One link remained with the outer world: the ports of southern China with their large colonies of foreign merchants; but these were wiped out by a wave of nationalism at the end of the dynasty and China inaugurated a policy of isolation which still continued.
After a period of disorder known as the Five Dynasties Period (907-60), a vigorous general reunited China again by founding the Song dynasty. In spite of a constant threat of invasion Kaifeng, the new capital, became one of the most refined centres of civilization ever known, particularly under the reign of the emperor-painter Huizong who was surrounded by artists and acquired a fabulous collection of their work. He devoted too much time to the arts at the expense of his army, for in a lightning raid Donghu barbarians called the Jurchen captured the court and destroyed Kaifeng and the entire art collection. The whole of northern China fell to the Jurchen; the survivors from the Song settled in Hangchow on the Yangtze river in the south where they continued in their pursuit of culture and beauty until they were submerged for good under the Mongol onslaught which had already reduced Asia and was threatening Europe. The dominant ideology during the era of Song Dynasty Art (960-1279) was Neo-Confucianism, a blend of the ideas of Confucius and those of Daoism with some Buddhist asceticism as well. This went with a renewed interest in the earlier traditions of China, the writings of the classical authors and a strong antiquarian bias, leading to the copying of Shang and Zhou bronzes. Buddhism of the Amitabha persuasion was on the wane and degenerating into superstition.
But a new spiritual outlook appeared on the scene with dhan philosophy (Japanese Zen) in which man comes to terms with himself and nature through a momentary flash of intuition. This ideology was to influence painting, calligraphy and pottery. Muqi Fachang (Mu-ch'i) was one of its most famous exponents. Song sculpture continued the Tang tradition, but with greater elegance and a masterful rhythm of flowing lines as can be seen in the representations of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin, the spirit of mercy who became to the Chinese what the Madonna had become to many Europeans.
It is in the realms of painting and pottery that the civilization of Song reached its summit. Before the fall of Kaifeng there were two distinct schools of painting: that of the court artists, virtuosi who, displayed supreme but soulless competence whether in colour or ink, on silk or paper, their subjects being flowers and animals, bamboo shoots and landscapes; and that of the amateurs and individualists. These civil servants, scholars and poets painted as a form of personal expression, intellectual as well as spiritual, a way for the individual to come to terms with himself through communion with nature, in the rendering of the essence of a landscape, a bamboo sprig or a dragonfly. The experience was so personal that there were a hundred styles, a hundred ways of outlining a leaf, a rock, a cloud, just as there are a hundred ways of depicting a character, for the stroke of the brush on silk or paper does not allow for hesitation or correction; it proceeds straight from the mind and this can not be done spontaneously without deep contemplation beforehand. The Chinese invented the art of landscape painting as a genre, but it was never purely descriptive, however close to reality. It was a spiritual exercise that went to the heart of things.
In fact, after calligraphy, landscape is considered to be the highest form of Chinese painting. Classical Chinese landscape painting was supposedly begun by the famous Jin Dynasty artist Gu Kaizhi (344-406). However, the period (907-1127) is known as the 'Great age of Chinese landscape'. In the north of the country, Chinese artists like Fan Kuan, Guo Xi and Jing Hao produced images of towering mountains, using strong black lines, ink wash, and sharp, dotted brushstrokes to suggest rough stone. In the south, Ju Ran, Dong Yuan, and others depicted rolling hills and rivers with softer, rubbed brushwork. These two types of outdoor subjects and techniques evolved into the main classical styles of Chinese landscape painting. Several new painting techniques appeared. Artists began depicting depth through the use of blurred outlines and impressionistic treatment of elements in the middle and far distance of their painting. At the same time, a Daoist-like emphasis was placed on the emotional/spiritual qualities of the picture, and on the ability of the artist to display the harmony between man and nature.
These painters and poets were also great lovers of ceramic art, for a beautiful vase, like a piece of jade, was at the same time a poem and a painting. Ceramics were designed both for use and for contemplation. Their quality resided in the balance between their form, reduced to essentials, and their glaze, through which they appealed to visual and tactile senses. The wealth of craftsmanship underlying their elegant reticence was satisfying to the Confucian mind. There were kilns all over China working with different clays and glazes. Among the most famous were those producing the "crackled" "kuan" ware and the rare "ju". Porcelain like the creamy white Ting ware or the pale blue Ch'ing-pai ware with their incised decoration come the closest to perfection.
The Mongols who overran China during the 1270s and proclaimed their new Yuan Dynasty, quickly adopted the Chinese culture. We have a description of the court of Kublai Khan written by the Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, the first European to visit China (1275). Lack of official patronage during the era of Yuan Dynasty art caused many Chinese painters and calligraphers to withdraw from public life into seclusion, where they created a more erudite and spiritual style of art. The Yuan period was especially notable for its painters, particularly the "Four Great Masters" who stayed aloof from the Mongol court. As well as fine art (which also included Buddhist sculpture), the Yuan era is noted for its decorative arts, notably its underglazed blue-and-white porcelain, along with its lacquerware and jades.
The Mongols were overthrown by a popular insurrection led by a shepherd and guerrilla leader who founded the Ming dynasty, with its capital in Nanjing (Nanking), which was transferred later to Beijing (Peking). The Ming court was as glamorous as that of the Tang but ridden with corruption and paralysed by internal conflicts. Painting continued as before becoming over refined at the end of the dynasty. More styles of painting emerged, including the Wu School and the Zhe School. But Ming Dynasty art is particularly famous for its blue and white porcelain, where cobalt blue is applied on the paste under a transparent glaze. Later ceramicists took to using bright enamels in three or five colours. (Note: enamelling - principally Cloisonné enamelling - became a speciality of both the Ming and Qing dynasties.) The pieces were decorated with allegories, Daoist and Buddhist symbols and a variety of bird, flower and dragon motifs. Much of Chinese architecture that has survived dates from this period, but it lacks the imagination of the Song buildings with their cantilevered eaves and brackets.
In 1644 the Manchus in the north took advantage of economic and social unrest in China. They were a military race with a great admiration for Chinese culture. Their emperors were powerful men who administered the country with a strong hand until the end of the 19th century, but the Chinese elite did not mix with the Manchus for a long time. This was detrimental to the progress of Chinese civilization, at the moment when the Europeans were becoming important in Asia.
A reaction against the traditional rules of painting occurred during the era of Qing Dynasty art, as painters known as "Individualists" began using a looser, freer style of brushwork. This new method was encouraged in the 1700s and 1800s, when rich patrons in commercial centres like Yangzhou and Shanghai began to commission artists to produce bold new paintings.
But the Kangxi Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor will always be associated with types of porcelain known as famille-verte and famille-rose, more appreciated by Europeans than by the Chinese who preferred subtle monochromes. (Note: Famille verte [called Kangxi wucai, or Susancai] uses green and iron red with other coloured glazes. Famille rose [called Fencai or Ruancai, meaning 'soft colours', or Yangcai, meaning 'foreign colours'] used mostly pink or purple and was in great demand during the 18th and the 19th centuries.) Between the abdication of Qianlong in 1795 and the 20th century, China continued to produce objects of quality but the inspiration failed and forms became cluttered with decorative details.
Traditional Chinese painting came under further pressure during the late 1800s and early 1900s, as artists became increasingly influenced by Western art, culminating in the introduction of oil painting to the Chinese mainland.
Following the communist takeover in 1949, many of the established traditions of Chinese art were labeled reactionary. New forms of modern art geared to Socialist glorification - such as Socialist Realism - appeared in music, literature and the visual arts. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution accelerated this process. Despite this political modernism, traditional Chinese arts not only continue to mould young Chinese artists and inspire other artists around the globe, but have combined with more experimental twentieth-century art forms to produce a vibrant market for contemporary Chinese art.
Contemporary art in China comprises work produced after the Cultural Revolution (1966-9). Despite short periods of artistic freedom, uncertainty as to what constitutes "officially acceptable" content and style continues to hamper many artists in China. Recently a mood of greater tolerance by the Chinese authorities has prevailed, although doubts remain. Modern Chinese art typically incorporates a wide range of art forms including painting, sculpture, film, video, photography, installation and performance, as well as revived versions of traditional ceramics. The emergence of new commercial areas, like the 798 Art District in Dashanzi of Beijing has proved helpful to many artists. In 2000, China staged the Shanghai Biennial Festival and in 2003 a number of Chinese artists were represented at the Venice Biennale of 2003.
According to the Artprice report, the total revenue generated by one hundred Chinese artists (who typically grew up in a post-Mao China) in 2003-4 amounted to a mere £860,000. In the year July 2007 to June 2008, the same hundred sold paintings, sculptures and other works for a massive £270m. Of these, three artists each made more than £25 million. Not surprisingly, numerous works by contemporary Asian artists are now represented in galleries and museums across the world, and the eminent British art collector Charles Saatchi opened his new gallery in Chelsea with an exhibition of contemporary Chinese artists.
In 2006, a 1993 painting by Zhang Xiaogang featuring blank-faced family members from the mid-1960s was sold for $2.3 million. Other recent art transactions have included: the purchase of the 1964 painting "All the Mountains Blanketed in Red" for HKD $35 million; the purchase of Xu Beihong's 1939 masterpiece "Put Down Your Whip" for HKD $72 million.
Among the considerable number of talented painters and sculptors from the People's Republic of China, watch out for the following:
Zhang Xiaogang (b.1958)
Zeng Fanzhi (b.1964)
Yue Minjun (b.1962)
Wang Guangyi (b.1957)
For more about Oriental painting and East Asian sculpture, see: Homepage.