Arts of the Six Dynasties Period
Characteristics of Medieval Chinese Culture.

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Hunping Jar (c.265–316 CE)
Ancient pottery from the 3rd
century Western Jin Dynasty,
decorated with Buddhist figures.
Shanghai Museum. See also:
Chinese Buddhist Sculpture.

Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-589)
History, Types and Characteristics


Period of Invasion and Upheaval
Arts and Culture
Buddhist Art
Later Chinese Dynasties

Additional Resources:

For earlier Chinese cultures, see:

- Neolithic Art in China (7500-2000 BCE)
- Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 BCE)
- Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE)
- Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE)

For more about early
culture in Asia, see:
Asian Art (38,000 BCE on)

Period of Invasion and Upheaval

From 220 CE onwards, following the era of Han Dynasty art, China experienced nearly four centuries of upheaval and dislocation between north and south, known as the Six Dynasties Period. During this time, Chinese art was permeated by a number of outside ideas, and the characteristics of traditional Chinese art were influenced by new cultural practices.

The period derives its name from the six successive dynasties of South China who each established their capital at Jianye (present-day Nanjing). They include: the Wu (222–280), the Dong (Eastern) Jin (317–420), the Liu-Song (420–479), the Nan (Southern) Qi (479–502), the Nan Liang (502–557), and the Nan Chen (557–589). At the same time, to complicate matters further, the North was ruled by a series of dynasties founded by invaders from central Asia, including: the Bei (Northern) Wei (386–535) based at Datong (later Luoyang); the Dong (Eastern) Wei (534–550) based at Anyang; the Xi (Western) Wei (535–557) at Changan (present-day Xian); the Bei Qi (550–577), at Anyang; and the Bei Zhou (557–581) at Changan. The fact that the period takes its name from the dynasties of South China, is a reflection of the gradual shift in Chinese civilization from its earlier northern centre to the less populated southern zone, whose capital (Nanjing) was protected from northern invaders by the Yangtze River. The Six Dynasties Period ended when Emperor Wen of Sui reunified Southern and Northern China, ushering in the era of Sui Dynasty art and culture (589-618).


Arts and Culture

Due to social instability and the influx of foreign cultures, Chinese life underwent several fundamental changes during this period. Confucianism, the ideological system that had regulated society disintegrated, to be succeeded by Daoism and the introduction of Buddhism - the influential religion born in India. Buddhist ideas had entered China along the Silk Road from Afghanistan, and found expression in a variety of rock art - notably cave paintings as well as stone statues carved out of cliffs, in the area of Dunhuang (Tun-Huang) in northwestern Gansu province, and Yungang (Yun-Kang) in the province of Shanxi. Despite this general state of uncertainty, important advances were made in various areas including medicine, astronomy, and the natural sciences. Coal, for instance, was first used as a form of fuel, and the wheelbarrow was invented. Paradoxically, literature and music flourished, as did visual art - notably calligraphy, the art of Chinese writing.

Buddhist Art

The construction of Buddhist temples and monasteries proved a great stimulus for many different types of art, especially Chinese architecture - architects built numerous multi-storey pagodas of brick and stone, as well as a brand new northern capital city at Luoyang - and also led to increased demand for Chinese painting (mainly fresco painting) and bronze sculpture, as well as a range of stonework with motifs of winged lions. In addition, decorative art proliferated, including Chinese lacquerware and jade carving, among other disciplines. During this time, Nanjing became an important cultural centre, home to numerous Chinese painters and calligraphers. To compare the strength of Buddhist culture in Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards).


The influx of migrants into both northern and southern areas of the country led to increased demand for Chinese pottery, mostly for funerary and other ceremonial purposes, especially in the region of the lower Yangtze River valley. A characteristic example is the hunping jar, a clay funerary urn often found in tombs in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, during the Six Dynasties period. Possibly employed as fruit containers for the deceased during the afterlife, hunping jars became progressively more decorated with relief sculpture, typically featuring miniature figures of men, animals and birds, as well as buildings and other motifs. Further north in Hebei and Henan, a new range of ceramic art appeared ('northern celadon'), which borrowed heavily from styles imported by invaders from central Asia. Chinese porcelain was also continued.

For more about the historical background to Six Dynasties culture, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

Curiously, it was the cultural ramifications of the period that helped to bring about the eventual reunification of China under the Sui, because as China's conquerors from abroad competed to secure their hold on power, they began using Chinese cultural idioms and customs (including dress) to popularize their rule and, in the process, became absorbed into the Chinese mainstream. In effect therefore, from an arts viewpoint, the Six Dynasties Period proved to be an extremely productive time for many artists. The uncertain environment encouraged the development of internal creativity, while the introduction from outside China of new ideas, religions and social customs, provided a wealth of additional stimulation. All this would lead to a blossoming of culture during the era of Tang Dynasty art (618-906).

Later Chinese Dynasties

The traditional visual arts and crafts of later periods in Chinese history are typically divided as follows:

- Song Dynasty arts (960-1279)
- Yuan Dynasty culture (1271-1368)
- Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644)
- Qing Dynasty arts (1644-1911)

For more about the visual arts of other ancient Eastern cultures, see: Japanese Art and also: India, Painting & Sculpture.

• For more about the traditional arts and crafts of ancient China, see: Homepage.

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