Thursday, September 4, 2008

History of Chinese art

Chinese art is art that, whether ancient or modern, originated in or is practiced in China or by artists or performers. Early so-called "stone age art" dates back to 10,000 BC, mostly consisting of simple pottery and sculptures. This early period was followed by a series of art , most of which lasted several hundred years. The Chinese art in the Republic of China 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.

Historical development to 221 BC

Neolithic pottery

Early forms of art in China are found in the Neolithic Yangshao 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 were and most often cord-marked. The first s were fish and human faces, but these eventually evolved into - 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. According to archaeologists, Yangshao society was based around matriarchal clans. Excavations have found that children were buried in painted pottery jars.

Jade 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 cylinders, 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. Jade is a green stone that cannot be carved so it has to be grinded.

Bronze casting

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 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 '''', sometimes described as having the 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.

Early Chinese music

The origins of Chinese music and poetry can be found in the ''Book of Songs'', containing poems composed between 1000 BC and 600 BC. The text, preserved among the canon of early Chinese literature, contains folk songs, religious hymns and stately songs. Originally intended to be sung, the accompanying music unfortunately has since been lost. They had a wide range of purposes, including for courtship, ceremonial greetings, warfare, feasting and lamentation. The love poems are among the most appealing in the freshness and innocence of their language.

Early Chinese music was based on percussion instruments such as the bronze bell. Chinese bells were sounded by being struck from the outside, usually with a piece of wood. Sets of bells were suspended on wooden racks. Inside excavated bells are groves and marks of scraping and scratching made as they were tuned to the right pitch. Percussion instruments gradually gave way to string and reed instruments toward the Warring States period.

Significantly, the character for writing the word ''music'' was the same as that for ''joy'' . For Confucius and his disciples, music was important because it had the power to make people harmonious and well balanced, or, conversely, caused them to be quarrelsome and depraved. According to Xun Zi, music was as important as the ''li'' stressed in Confucianism. Mozi, philosophically opposed to Confucianism, disagreed. He dismissed music as having only aesthetic uses, and thus useless and wasteful.

Early Chinese poetry

In addition to the ''Book of Songs'' , a second early and influential poetic anthology was the , made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semilegendary Qu Yuan and his follower Song Yu . The songs in this collection are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier ''Classic of Poetry'' .

Chu and Southern culture

A rich source of art in early China was the state of , 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 the world's oldest painting on silk discovered to date. It shows a woman accompanied by a and a dragon, two mythological animals to feature prominently in Chinese art.

An anthology of Chu poetry has also survived in the form of the ''Chu Ci'', which has been translated into English by David Hawkes. Many of the works in the text are associated with Shamanism. There are also descriptions of fantastic landscapes, examples of China's first nature poetry. The longest poem, "Encountering Sorrow," is reputed to have been written by the tragic Qu Yuan as a political allegory.

Early Imperial China

Qin sculpture

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 of in –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 terra-cotta 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.


is made from a hard paste comprised of the clay kaolin and a feldspar called petuntse, which cements the vessel and seals any . ''China'' has become synonymous with high-quality porcelain. Most china 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 , 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.

Han poetry

During, the Han Dynasty, Chu lyrics evolved into the ''fu'' , a poem usually in rhymed verse except for introductory and concluding passages that are in prose, often in the form of questions and answers.

From the Han Dynasty onwards, a process similar to the origins of the Shi Jing produced the ''yue fu'' poems.

Han Paper art

The most notable invention of the era was paper which spawned two new types of arts. Chinese Paper Cutting became a new concept. The idea of expressing symbols and Chinese characters already a part of calligraphy was now extended to Han paper cut outs. Another art form was the Chinese paper folding. While it has its roots in the Han dynasty, later renditions would transform the art into origami, after buddhist monks bring paper to Japan.

Other Han art

The Han Dynasty was also 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 BCE. 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. Other famous paintings include '''', originally painted by the Southern Tang artist Gu Hongzhong in the 10th century, while the well-known version of his painting is a 12th century remake of the Song Dynasty. This is a large horizontal handscroll of a domestic scene showing men of the being entertained by musicians and dancers while enjoying food, beverage, and wash basins provided by maidservants. In 2000, the modern artist Wang Qingsong created a parody of this painting with a long, horizontal photograph of people in modern clothing making similar facial expressions, poses, and hand gestures as the original painting.

Yuan drama

Chinese opera is a popular form of drama in China. In general, it dates back to the Tang dynasty with Emperor , who founded the "Pear Garden" , the first known opera troupe in China. The troupe mostly performed for the emperors' personal pleasure. To this day operatic professionals are still referred to as "Disciples of the Pear Garden" . In the Yuan dynasty , forms like the ''Zaju'' , which acts based on rhyming schemes plus the innovation of having specialized roles like "" , "" and "Chou" , were introduced into the opera.

Yuan dynasty opera continues today as Cantonese opera. It is universally accepted that Cantonese opera was imported from the northern part of China and slowly migrated to the southern province of Guangdong in late 13th century, during the late Southern Song Dynasty. In the 12th century, there was a theatrical form called ''Narm hei'' , or the ''Nanxi'' , which was performed in public theaters of Hangzhou, then capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. With the invasion of the Mongol army, , Zhao Xian fled with hundreds of thousands of Song people into the province of Guangdong in 1276. Among these people were some ''Narm hei'' artists from the north. Thus ''narm hei'' was brought into Guangdong by these artists and developed into the earliest kind of Cantonese opera.

Many well-known operas performed today, such as ''The Purple Hairpin'' and ''Rejuvenation of the Red Plum Flower'', originated in the Yuan Dynasty, with the lyrics and scripts in . Until the 20th century all the female roles were performed by males.

Yuan painting

was a during the Yuan dynasty. One of his well-known works is the ''Forest Grotto''.

Zhao Mengfu was a scholar, and calligrapher during the Yuan Dynasty. His rejection of the refined, gentle brushwork of his era in favor of the cruder style of the eighth century is considered to have brought about a revolution that created the modern Chinese landscape painting. There was also the vivid and detailed works of art by Qian Xuan , who had served the Song court, and out of patriotism refused to serve the Mongols, instead turning to painting. He was famous for reviving and reproducing a more Tang Dynasty style of painting.

Late imperial China

Ming Poetry

Gao Qi is acknowledged by many as the greatest poet of the Ming Dynasty. His poems are departure of those of earlier dynasties and
formed a new style of poetry in the Ming dynasty

Ming prose

*Zhang Dai is acknowledged as the greatest essayist of the Ming dynasty.
*Wen Zhenheng, the great grandson of Wen Zhengming, wrote a classic on garden architecture and interior design, Zhang Wu Zhi .

Ming painting

Under the Ming dynasty, Chinese culture bloomed. Narrative painting, with a wider color range and a much busier composition than the Song paintings, was immensely popular during the time. As the techniques of color printing were perfected, illustrated manuals on the art of painting began to be published. Jieziyuan Huazhuan , a five-volume work first published in 1679, has been in use as a technical textbook for artists and students ever since.
Matteo Ricci,
Wen Zhengming,
Xu Wei

Qing drama

The best-known form of Chinese opera is Beijing opera, which assumed its present form in the mid-19th century and was extremely popular in the Qing dynasty . In Beijing Opera, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting. The acting is based on allusion: gestures, footwork, and other body movements express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door.

Although it is called Beijing opera, its origins are not in Beijing but in the Chinese provinces of Anhui and Hubei. Beijing opera got its two main , ''Xipi'' and ''Erhuang'', from Anhui and Hubei operas. Much dialogue is also carried out in an archaic dialect originating partially from those regions. It also absorbed music and arias from other operas and musical arts such as the historic Qinqiang. It is regarded that Beijing Opera was born when the Four Great Anhui Troupes came to Beijing in 1790. Beijing opera was originally staged for the court and came into the public later. In 1828, some famous Hubei troupes came to Beijing. They often jointly performed in the stage with Anhui troupes. The combination gradually formed Beijing opera's main melodies.

Qing poetry

Yuan Mei was a well-known poet who lived during the Qing Dynasty. In the decades before his death, Yuan Mei produced a large body of poetry, essays and paintings. His works reflected his interest in Chan Buddhism and the supernatural, at the expense of Daoism and institutional Buddhism—both of which he rejected. Yuan is most famous for his poetry, which has been described as "unusually clear and elegant language". His views on poetry as expressed in the ''Suiyuan shihua'' stressed the importance of personal feeling and technical perfection.

Early Qing painting

Bada Shanren,
Jiang Tingxi,

Shanghai School

The Shanghai School is a very important Chinese school of traditional arts during the Qing Dynasty and the whole of the 20th century. Under efforts of masters from this school, traditional Chinese art reached another climax and continued to the present in forms of "Chinese painting" , or ''guohua'' for short. The Shanghai School challenged and broke the literati tradition of Chinese art, while also paying technical homage to the ancient masters and improving on existing traditional techniques. Members of this school were themselves educated literati who had come to question their very status and the purpose of art, and had anticipated the impending modernization of Chinese society. In an era of rapid social change, works from the Shanghai School were widely innovative and diverse, and often contained thoughtful yet subtle social commentary. The most well-known figures from this school are Ren Xiong , Ren Yi , Zhao Zhiqian , Wu Changshuo , Sha Menghai , Pan Tianshou , Fu Baoshi . Other well-known painters are: , XuGu, Zhang Xiong, Hu Yuan, and Yang Borun.

Qing fiction

Many great works of art and literature originated during the period, and the Qianlong emperor in particular undertook huge projects to preserve important cultural texts. The novel form became widely read and perhaps China's most famous novel, ''Dream of the Red Chamber'', was written in the mid-eighteenth century.

Cao Xueqin is the author of the famous Chinese work ''Dream of the Red Chamber''. Extant handwritten copies of this work—some 80 chapters—had been in circulation in Beijing shortly after Cao's death, before Gao &, who claimed to have access to the former's working papers, published a complete 120-chapter version in 1792.

Pu Songling was a famous writer of Liaozhai Zhiyi 《聊齋志異》during the Qing dynasty. He opened a tea house and invited his guests to tell stories, and then he would compile the tales into collections such as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.

New China art


With the end of the last dynasty in China, the New Culture Movement began and defied all facets of traditionalism. A new breed of 20th century cultural philosophers like Xiao Youmei, Cai Yuanpei, Feng Zikai and Wang Guangqi wanted Chinese culture to modernize and reflect the New China. The Chinese Civil War would cause a drastic split between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. Following was the Second Sino-Japanese War in particular the Battle of Shanghai would leave the major cultural art center borderline to a humanitarian crisis. Still, depending on one's view it can be argued that some of the greatest modern art achievements were accomplished during this period.

The Big Three

It is during this time that Shanghai became the birthplace and entertainment hub of the three new major art forms, , Chinese animation and Chinese popular music. These entertainment were heavily inspired by western technology. For the first time, local citizens adopted and molded western culture to fit into Chinese culture in a positive way without any imperial court intervention.


The most popular form of comics Lianhuanhua which circulated as palm sized books in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Northern China. It became one of the most affordable form of entertainment art. The famous character would also be born at this time.


Western style oil painting was introduced to China by painters such as Xiao Tao Sheng.

Communist-Enforced art

Selective art decline

The Communist Party of China would have full control of the government with Mao Zedong heading the People's Republic of China. If the art was presented in a manner that favored the government, the artists were heavily promoted. Vice versa, any clash with communist party beliefs would force the artists to become farmers via "re-education" processes under the regime. The peak era of governmental control came under the Cultural Revolution. The most notable event was the , which had major consequences against pottery, paintings, literary art, architecture and countless others.

The loss of the Big Three

Chinese popular music musicians like Zhou Xuan and Li Jinhui were immediately endangered under the new regime as it labeled the genre . On the contrary, was promoted and brought to new heights like never before. The and industry would make their last run until the Cultural revolution, which would hinder any progress with serious restrictions and unreasonable censorship. A large number of Shanghai citizens, including artists , immigrated to Hong Kong. It would fuel the birth of modern Chinese art in the British colony that has until now, been largely dominated by British entertainment. The pop music industry would rebound in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The animation race would be lost to Japan.


Artists were encouraged to employ socialist realism. Some Soviet Union socialist realism was imported without modification, and painters were assigned subjects and expected to mass-produce paintings. This regimen was considerably relaxed in 1953, and after the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956–, traditional Chinese painting experienced a significant revival. Along with these developments in professional art circles, there was a proliferation of peasant art depicting everyday life in the rural areas on wall murals and in open-air painting exhibitions. Notable modern Chinese painters include Huang Binhong, Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong, Chang Ta Chien, Pan Tianshou, Wu Changshi, Fu Baoshi,
Wang Kangle and Zhang Chongren.


Modern Chinese poems usually do not follow any prescribed pattern. Bei Dao is the most notable representative of the Misty Poets, a group of Chinese poets who reacted against the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution. The work of the Misty Poets and Bei Dao in particular were an inspiration to pro-democracy movements in China. Most notable was his poem ''"Huida"'' , which was written during the in which he participated. The poem was taken up as a defiant anthem of the pro-appeared on posters during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Xu Zhimo is a poet who loved the poetry of the English Romantics like and . He was one of the first Chinese writers to successfully naturalize Western romantic forms into modern Chinese poetry.


Contemporary Art

Contemporary Chinese art often referred to as Chinese avant-garde art, continued to develop since the 1980s as an outgrowth of modern art developments post-Cultural Revolution. Contemporary Chinese art fully incorporates painting, film, video, photography, and performance. Until recently, art exhibitions deemed controversial have been routinely shut down by police, and performance artists in particular faced the threat of arrest in the early 1990s. More recently there has been greater tolerance by the Chinese government, though many internationally acclaimed artists are still restricted from media exposure at home or have exhibitions ordered closed. Leading contemporary visual artists include Ai Weiwei, Cai Guoqiang, Cai Xin, Fang Lijun, Huang Yan, Huang Yong Ping, Kong Bai Ji, Lu Shengzhong, Ma Liuming, Ma Qingyun, Song Dong, Li Wei, Christine Wang, Wang Guangyi, Wang Qingsong, Wenda Gu, Xu Bing, Yang Zhichao, Zhan Wang, Zhang Dali, Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Huan, , Yan Lei, and Zhang Yue.

Visual art

Beginning in the late 1980s there was unprecedented exposure for younger Chinese visual artists in the west to some degree through the agency of curators based outside the country such as Hou Hanru. Local curators within the country such as Gao Minglu and critics such as Li Xianting reinforced this promotion of particular brands of painting that had recently emerged, while also spreading the idea of art as a strong social force within Chinese culture. There was some controversy as critics identified these imprecise representations of contemporary Chinese art as having been constructed out of personal preferences, a kind of programmatized artist-curator relationship that only further alienated the majority of the avant-garde from Chinese officialdom and western art market patronage.


The new visual art market

One of the area that has revived art concentration and also commercialized the industry is the 798 Art District in Dashanzi of Beijing. The artist Zhang Xiaogang sold a 1993 painting for 2.3 million in 2006, which included blank faced Chinese families from the Cultural Revolution era. Some of the biggest names such as Stanley Ho, the owner of the as well as , casino developer would capitalize on the art trends. Items such as Ming Dynasty vase and exotic pieces from emperors were auctioned off.

Other arts produced in China or Hong Kong were sold in places such as Christie's including a Chinese porcelain piece with the mark of Emperor Qianlong sold for $151.3 million. A 1964 painting ''"All the Mountains Blanketed in Red"'' was sold for HKD $35 million. Auctions were also held at Sotheby's where Xu Beihong's 1939 masterpiece ''"Put Down Your Whip"'' sold for HKD $72 million. The industry is not limited to fine arts, as many other types of contemporary pieces were also sold. In 2000 a number of Chinese artists were included in Documenta and the Venice Biennale of 2003. China now has its own major contemporary art showcase with the Venice Biennale. was a notorious art exhibition which ran alongside the Shanghai Biennial Festival in 2000 and was curated by independent curator Feng Boyi and the artist Ai Weiwei.


* Palace Museum
* National Palace Museum

Further reading

*Barnhart, Richard M., et al. ''Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting''. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art: 2002. ISBN 0-300-09447-7.
*Chi, Lillian, et al. ''A Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics''. Sun Tree Publishing: 2003. ISBN 981-04-6023-6.
*Clunas, Craig. ''Art in China''. Oxford University Press: 1997. ISBN 0-19-284207-2.
*Gowers, David, et al. ''Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing''. Art Media Resources: 2002. ISBN 1-58886-033-7.
*Ebrey, Patrici, et al. ''Taoism and the Arts of China''. University of California Press: 2000. ISBN 0-520-22784-0.
*Harper, Prudence Oliver. ''China: Dawn Of A Golden Age ''. Yale University Press: 2004. ISBN 0-300-10487-1.
*Mascarelli, Gloria, and Robert Mascarelli. ''The Ceramics of China: 5000 BC to 1900 AD''. Schiffer Publishing: 2003. ISBN 0-7643-1843-8.
*Sturman, Peter Charles. ''Mi Fu: Style and the Art of Calligraphy in Northern Song China''. Yale University Press: 2004. ISBN 0-300-10487-1.
*Sullivan, Michael. ''The Arts of China''. Fourth edition. University of California Press: 2000. ISBN 0-520-21877-9.
*Tregear, Mary. ''Chinese Art''. Thames & Hudson: 1997. ISBN 0-500-20299-0.
*Watson, William. ''The Arts of China to AD 900''. Yale University Press: 1995. ISBN 0-300-05989-2.

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