China is one of the largest countries in the world, it spans roughly over 9000 square kilometers and is populated by over 1.4 billion people. China is a large and vast country, which also means it has a rich history and culture. This article will explore various facts about Chinese art and culture.
Table of Contents
- 1 A Historical Overview of China
- 2 What Is Chinese Art?
- 3 Chinese Art: Then and Now
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions
A Historical Overview of China
Chinese art history goes back to its prehistoric roots in ancient China artwork. For us to have a better understanding of ancient Chinese art we will provide a brief historical overview starting from the Neolithic period all the way through the numerous Dynasties that shaped not only Chinese politics and society, but the Chinese art culture.
The Beginnings of China: The Neolithic Age
When we look at the history of China, it dates to early prehistoric times (over two million years) when the fossils from what is referred to as the Peking Man, or Homo erectus pekinensis, were found in northern China in the Zhoukoudian Cave, which is in the Fangshan District in Beijing.
The skull of the Peking Man; kevinzim, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Neolithic Age (New Stone Age) in China is also dated around 7000 BCE to 1700 BCE with various cultures that were mainly hunting and farming communities. They developed in other areas of community life, for example, building homes, using various tools, domestication of animals, as well as the production of pottery, which is a significant aspect of ancient China artwork.
A Brief Overview of the Chinese Dynasties
The first political and economic system in China’s history is said to have started when the first dynasties, or monarchies, were established. In total, there were 83 dynasties with over 500 emperors during China’s Imperial history.
Many sources state that it started with the Xia Dynasty around 2070 to 1600 BC, ruled by the emperor Yu the Great.
However, there is also minimal evidence left behind that can verify this dynasty’s existence and it has been described as a “mythical” dynasty. Furthermore, sources state it was invented by the Zhou Dynasty that ruled after the Shang Dynasty, which succeeded Xia (for simplification, it was the Xia Dynasty, then the Shang Dynasty, and then the Zhou Dynasty, but we will explore these further below).
The approximate territories of dynasties in China. Drawn by Ian Kiu; Pojanji, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Shang Dynasty (also known as the Yin Dynasty) ruled from 1600 to 1046 BCE with its roots in the Yellow River Valley. From various excavations, this dynasty’s existence has been verified as factual. The Yellow River is believed to be the second-longest river in China and was the originating source or “cradle” of the Chinese civilization. This age was marked by numerous advancements like writing, astronomy, maths, and what is sometimes understood as the “Early Bronze Age”.
The Zhou Dynasty ruled from around 1050 to 221 BCE, and they shared a lot of similarities with the previous Shang Dynasty. This period is also marked as being the “Late Bronze Age” of China. Another important political tool utilized and enforced during this period was the Mandate of Heaven. This was really a philosophy and belief system that Heaven (Tian) decided when a ruler would be overthrown and succeeded by the next rightful ruler.
During this time, the philosophies of Confucius and Laozi also developed, respectively, Confucianism and Taoism. These philosophies became worldwide ways of thought, and are still present today.
The Zhou Dynasty ruled over 700 years and was one of the longest-ruling dynasties in ancient China’s history. It ended due to ensuing wars and conflict between the individual states and when the King was forced to flee to the eastern capital, Luoyi, the Eastern Zhou Dynasty developed (this was during 771 to 221 BCE). This period was further marked by the first half called the Spring and Autumn Period and the latter half called the Warring States Period (475 to 221 BCE).
States of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC); Philg88, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BCE) developed from the conflicts during the Warring States period with King Zheng of Qin as the first emperor. The Qin Dynasty ruled for only a short period of time and ushered in new systems that organized the state and laid foundations that became the structure of the Chinese government. This was also the first imperial dynasty in China.
What was different about the Qin Dynasty was that it was centralized, with the ruling power being united compared to the previous powers dispersed among the different states that eventually warred with one another for power (as mentioned above).
The Qin Dynasty fell after the death of the first emperor and the strife of civil war, the beginnings of the succeeding Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) developed.
The Han Dynasty was ruled by Liu Bang, otherwise Emperor Gaozu of Han, and as the second imperial dynasty introduced many new developments in China. It was marked as a period of flourishing growth in various aspects, economically, as well as establishing new trade routes like the Silk Road, which reached as far as the Mediterranean.
LEFT: Map of Qin Dynasty and its administrative divisions; SY, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons | RIGHT: Kingdoms and commanderies of Han dynasty in 195 BC; Esiymbro, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Han Dynasty was divided into the Western Han (202 BCE to 9 CE) and the Eastern Han (25 to 220 CE). There were over 20 emperors during this period with Emperor Wu being one of the longest to rule (over 50 years). When the Han Dynasty fell, there was a time of division between the states during the years 220 to 589 CE. This became known as the Three Kingdom period, ruled by the three states, Wu, Wei, and Shu.
The period of division lasted around 400 years and was only reunified again by the Sui Dynasty (581 to 618 CE).
The Sui Dynasty was a short period, succeeded by the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 CE). The other dynasties that followed were, namely, Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 CE), the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368 CE), the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 CE), the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911/12 CE), and then what marks China as the Modern period, from 1912 to the present day. The Republic of China was founded in 1912.
Comparison between Republic of China and People’s Republic of China administrative divisions; Electionworld, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
During all the imperial periods, there were significant changes to the development of China and periods of war and conflict that divided the states and reunified them again under imperial rule. The period of the division after the Han Dynasty is when the influence of the Buddhist religion developed and spread with many temples being built.
The Tang Dynasty, for example, was marked as a Golden Age during China’s history with improved economic and military structures as well as a flourishing culture.
The Silk Road became a prosperous trade route that allowed cultures to exchange various goods like textiles, metals, and glass. This further developed and encouraged the creation of Chinese artwork in the form of pottery (ceramics) and painting.
What Is Chinese Art?
Chinese art history encompasses all the visual arts originating in China and produced by the Chinese cultures and artists. It is marked by many different types, ranging from Neolithic pottery to calligraphy, painting, poetry, porcelain, bronze work, jade carving, and many others. It begins from the Prehistoric age up to the present, Contemporary age. Traditional Chinese art shares commonalities, however, it was also produced differently within each dynasty, which are key distinguishing periods marking the progression of Chinese artwork.
Below, we will discuss some of the key characteristics underpinning Chinese artwork, as well as take a closer look at significant Chinese art through different modalities.
Characteristics of Chinese Art
The common underpinning characteristics that give Chinese art its nature come from philosophical, religious, and cultural beliefs. Chinese culture has always valued nature and its inherent significance. We will find that a wide variety of subject matter is often of natural elements, for example, foliage and plants like bamboo, flowers, animal life-like birds, as well as landscape depictions.
Symbols used in ancient Chinese art, from Decorative textiles; an illustrated book on coverings for furniture, walls and floors, including damasks, brocades and velvets, tapestries, laces, embroideries, chintzes, cretonnes, drapery and furniture trimmings, wall papers, carpets and rugs, tooled and illuminated leathers (1918); Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons
This inherent significance of nature revolved around a deeper belief in the spiritual aspects of life and the external world being a “manifestation” of that. Artists sought to depict the deeper meanings of life and the universe. This also ties in with the strong moral and ethical beliefs many artists had.
Calligraphy and landscape painting were two of the most important types (or “highest forms”) of Chinese artwork. Landscape painting would depict more ideal scenes of nature, sometimes these were not a true-to-nature reflection of the actual landscape.
For example, depictions of mountains would represent the idea of heaven as they move upwards towards higher aspects of nature and, ultimately, the spiritual. Other depictions would be to inspire people who looked at the artwork.
Chinese artists were followers of Confucianism, and their moral standpoints were reflected in their art. Chinese artwork sometimes appears simpler and more minimal in its depictions without the need to be bashful or overzealous about the artist’s talents or skills as an artist. Chinese artwork would often reflect the moral character of the artists themselves.
Confucious in Confucius and His Disciples Yanzi and Huizi at the “Apricot Altar” (mid-17th century) by Kano Tan’yû (1602–1674); Kano Tan’yû (1602–1674), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Another important point about Chinese painters and calligraphers is that most artists also had a strong scholarly background, in fact, it became a prerequisite to have knowledge of other artistic masters to be an artist.
Court art was another aspect of Chinese artwork, artists would often be commissioned by the patron or the Imperial court. This type of artwork would act as decoration for the interior of their palaces, various buildings, and tombs.
Types of Chinese Art
There were many contributing factors surrounding Chinese artwork and it is important to remember the evolution of these modalities throughout the different developments of each Dynasty and periods of conflict. Some modalities served different purposes and meanings.
As the ages progressed, artists would utilize different media and surfaces too.
We have what is known in Chinese, wenfang sibao, or “Four Treasures of a Scholar’s Studio” – this was an important part of Chinese painters’ and calligraphers’ skills and toolsets. It consisted of paper, brushes, ink, and inkstone. It is said to have originated during 420 to 589 CE, during the Southern and Northern Dynasties.
However, the paintbrush as an artistic tool in Chinese art culture is believed to date all the way back to the Neolithic period and was utilized and considered as a creative tool during 476 to 221 BC, which is the time of the “Warring States” in Chinese history.
The way the paintbrush was made usually consisted of animal hair for the bristles, which would come from different animals giving varying degrees of thickness. This would then be attached to a stick, which would usually be bamboo.
The Four Treasures of Chinese calligraphy; Immanuel Giel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Paintings were usually created on paper, which would then be mounted on silk. There were different types of ways paintings would be mounted, for example, scrolls in the form of hand or hanging scrolls, fans, leaves done as album leaves, among others.
Hanging scrolls were vertical in shape and supported by wooden rods and strips as weights for the painting to be hung on a cord and stay open.
They were also able to fold up easily. Handscrolls were also usually rolled up and taken out to be viewed on special occasions. These would be viewed from right to left, as it is unrolled the various scenes would appear and viewers would take part in this as a ceremonial act.
An example is a hanging scroll simply titled, Mountain Landscape (c. 1600s), from the Ming Dynasty by Dong Qichang. It is 95.5 by 41 centimeters in size depicting a mountainous landscape with various vegetation. The painting is composed in a way where our eyes, as the viewers, are guided to move in an upwards direction towards the top tip of the mountain in the background (near the upper part of the hanging scroll). We also notice how the artist created depth to the painting by highlighting areas with darker shades of ink.
Mountain Landscape (c. 1617) by Dong Qichang, Ming Dynasty; Dong Qichang, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
An example of a handscroll painting is from the later 1900s by Zhu Xiuli who repurposes a traditional Chinese art in his handscroll titled, Landscape (1985 to 1989). This is a reproduction of what we will see in traditional handscrolls. It depicts a landscape with houses and varying types of trees here and there. The image is depicted with smooth lines and dynamic fluidity.
Other forms of Chinese painting include fans, for example, Landscape in the Style of Yan Wengui (c. 1707) by Wang Hui, which was painted in the style of famous 10th-century painter Yan Wengui, and depicts classical landscape as a subject matter. We notice several trees to the left with a pavilion area to the right-hand side of the composition. There are also the characteristic ink markings that delineate the mountains in the background, and furthermore, the ink markings are horizontal and vertical in shape.
Landscape in the Style of Yan Wengui (c. 1707) by Wang Hui; Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Next to the images, we also notice various calligraphic inscriptions decorating the middle left part of the fan, which are reported to be done by other artists alongside Wang Hui. Wang Hui was part of several other painters, the group was called the “Four Wangs”, who were from the Qing Dynasty period from 1644 to 1911.
Fans were usually made to be given as gifts with the typical landscape painting as its subject matter.
Similarly, there would also be inscriptions on the fans like the above-mentioned fan. The inscriptions would often vary as comments and notes from peers. There were also different types of fans, for example, some were made of stiffened silk and the other would be made of paper. These would be mounted between bamboo sticks as support.
Other examples of landscape paintings from one of the famous artists, Fan Kuan, who painted during the Song Dynasty from 960 to 1279 CE. Kuan is well known for his landscape paintings of mountains and the natural environments that he was inevitably inspired by. Many sources about him state that he lived as a recluse, away from the politics of conflict from what was the “Five Dynasties” period.
Travelers by Streams and Mountains (c. 1000) by Fan Kuan; Fan Kuan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In his work titled, Travelers by Streams and Mountains (c. 1000 CE), there is an element of depicting the search for truth. The artist was also influenced by Neo-Confucian thought at the time, which revered a sense of truth that came from the natural world. The above-mentioned painting, which is in the format of a hanging scroll around 7 feet high.
The composition is divided into three aspects, namely, the large boulders in the foreground, the opening in the middle of the painting with various trees and outgrowths of foliage, and the background growing into tall mountains with its tips topped with bushy-like foliage.
There are various other details within this painting, which emphasize the scale of the mountains compared to the minute details.
For example, the men and donkeys in the bottom right corner, including the temple hidden between the trees. The scale of the figures against the scale of the towering mountains suggests the sheer vastness of Kuan’s landscape and its majestic qualities.
We will notice even more skill in the artist’s techniques to render the subject matter in as much detail as possible. There are varying degrees of thickness in the brushstrokes, we see this so delicately done in the mountain crevices. Additionally, the artist also utilized ink wash and dots to create the depiction of texture.
Another example is titled, Appreciating Potted Chrysanthemum in Tranquility by Ming dynasty artist Shen Zhou. This painting depicts a landscape with a gazebo standing to the far right of the horizontal composition.
Appreciating Potted Chrysanthemum in Tranquility (Ming Dynasty) by Shen Zhou; Public Domain, Link
There are four figures beneath the canopy, three of whom are sitting at a table and the fourth figure standing to the left holding a jug of sorts. Behind the canopy is a row of potted chrysanthemums. The remainder of the landscape is filled with trees.
We will also notice the characteristic calligraphic inscriptions to the left of the painting, which are poems.
The painting, Eleven Dragons (c. 15th Century), by Chen Rong of the Ming Dynasty period is another handscroll, which depicts eleven dragons along with the 16-foot-long scroll. The dragons are all depicted dynamically on mountain cliffs and clouds.
The color of the dragons is monochromatic ink along with detailed lines delineating the forms and shapes. Dragons have been powerful symbols throughout ancient Chinese art and symbolize various qualities of strength like masculinity as well as attributes to imperial power or royalty and wisdom.
Chinese pottery goes back all the way to the prehistoric period when it was utilized for utilitarian purposes as well as for burial purposes as many have been excavated from burial sites, known also as funerary jars. Chinese pottery has been throughout the ages, developing into many different styles and forms as traditional Chinese art. Neolithic pottery was also painted and decorated by carving bands of patterns into form.
Chinese pottery also spans ceramics and porcelain. When we look at Chinese porcelain, we will find there is a vast array of delicately decorated pieces, a testament to the inherent artistic skill of this type of Chinese artwork.
Blue and white porcelain dish in the form of a lotus lily with Sanskrit script. Jingdezhen, China, Ming dynasty, Wanli period, 1573-1619; Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Blue and white porcelain was prevalent in China during the 1300s and was utilized in temples, these were also a widely made form of porcelain with a blue underglaze instead of a red underglaze. The red underglaze was also produced during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368 CE).
When we look at some of the examples, we will notice various designs and patterns on different types of vessels. The Blue and White Porcelain Jug (c. early 15th Century), from the Ming Dynasty, depicts floral patterns painted on most of the jug. The jug has a large belly, which tapers into a wider neck and opening (it is believed the jug also had a lid).
Blue and White Porcelain Jug, 15th century, Ming Dynasty; Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Chinese art history almost does not seem complete without mentioning the famous Terracotta Army warriors from the tomb of the first Chinese emperor during the Qin Dynasty (c. 210 BCE) – masterpieces of Chinese sculpting to this day. The warriors were found in Lintong County in the Shaanxi Province during 1974 in “pits” or underground chambers that were dug up by farmers.
They were discovered as various terracotta fragments, which turned out to be an entire army of terracotta warriors made to protect the tomb (mausoleum) of the Qin Emperor.
The figures were all varied in their size and stature and there were also horses, chariots, and an assortment of other figures like musicians and strongmen, which were believed to be entertainers for the emperor in the afterlife. Some of the more important figures like generals were sculpted as taller than other figures that were warriors. In other words, the size would indicate the “role”.
Terracotta Army warriors, Qin Dynasty, c. 210 BCE; Will Clayton from Blackburn, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The terracotta warriors give us some interesting facts about Chinese art, it is indicated that there were around 8, 000 figures of soldiers with sources reporting that even more figures have been found, over 100 chariots, and over 600 horses.
Not only is this one of the largest archaeological finds in history, but it is also considered the eighth wonder of the world.
The creation of this vast terracotta army is estimated to have taken around 40 years to complete with around 700 000 people who worked towards its completion. The detail of each terracotta figure is another testament to the skill of ancient Chinese art and Chinese sculpting. When we look at each figure, we will notice that each one is individualized and sculpted in fine detail, from facial features to clothing. When they were discovered, some terracotta figures still had remnants of color from the paint that was on them.
Other Chinese Artworks
Ancient Chinese art is not limited to only calligraphy and painting, there are multitudes of other art forms within the history of Chinese arts. Some notable modalities also include Chinese ritual bronzes, which were made as part of graves. There is a significant collection of these bronzes all made with incredible skill and craftsmanship.
The bronzes were also made in different shapes and forms, for example, some were in the shape of different animals.
Apart from the primary utilization for ritual, bronzes were also made for other reasons. It is reported that during the Song Dynasty bronzes were made for different reasons, such as vessels for water, wine, food, sacrifice, measurements, weapon containers, musical instruments, and others.
Bronze Cowrie Container, Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 8). Excavated at Jinning, Yunan Province, 1956; Editor at Large, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
Chinese Art: Then and Now
Chinese art certainly has evolved since prehistory and to this day it is still going strong. In 1949 China became a republic and art was created in a way that celebrated various governmental structures. The types of art included paintings, posters, ceramics, woodblock prints, and various other propaganda-driven artwork.
Due to other conflicts during the 1900s, Chinese art was stifled in its expression, however, since the 1980s there has been a new expansion and freedom of expression for China art. There has been more experimentation with new modalities and techniques, as well as making art for the Chinese culture, revisiting traditional Chinese art modalities.
Chinese art is a continental art, it spans the whole of China and has been a creation of the hearts and minds of its people. From the earliest fossil finds to the latest contemporary Chinese art, it has reached the rest of the world in many ways, but undoubtedly has left its imprint as one of the biggest art movements in the world of art history.
Take a look at our Chinese art overview webstory here!
Frequently Asked Questions
When Did Chinese Art First Occur?
Chinese art occurred as early as the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age) dated around 7000 BCE to 1700 BCE. The history of China dates to early prehistoric times (over two million years) when the fossils from what is referred to as the Peking Man, or Homo erectus pekinensis, were found in northern China in the Zhoukoudian Cave, which is in the Fangshan District in Beijing. Chinese art has evolved up until the present times and has developed new contemporary modalities and techniques reaching across the entire art world.
What Are Some of the Main Forms of Chinese Art?
Calligraphy, Painting, and Poetry were some of the main forms of Chinese art. These were also referred to as the “Three Perfections”. Artists would often utilize and combine the three modalities to create artworks. Calligraphy was an important part of the Chinese art culture as it was, and is, handwriting, and with this meticulous care and intention goes into writing it. Poetry and writing poetry were also important prerequisites for certain examinations.
What Are the Characteristics of Chinese Art?
The common characteristics that give Chinese art its nature come from philosophical, religious, and cultural beliefs. Chinese culture has always valued nature and its significance. A variety of subject matter is often of natural elements, for example, foliage and plants like bamboo, flowers, animal life-like birds, as well as landscapes of mountains and rivers. Furthermore, religion and moral beliefs from Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism were important influencing factors to how artists created art and its underlying meaning. Additionally, the court was also an influencing factor in how people created art and the purpose it served.
What Was Chinese Painting?
Ancient Chinese landscape painting was one of the primary forms of painting, and is often also described as the “highest” form of painting. Artists would depict landscapes with mountainous areas and rivers, in fact, the Chinese word for landscape consists of two characters that mean “mountains and water”. Paintings were usually also created on paper, which would then be mounted on silk. The painting was also done like calligraphy, for example, the paintbrush was dipped in pigments of varying colors of ink. There were also two techniques in Chinese paintings, namely, “Gongbi” (meaning “meticulous”) and “Ink and Wash”. There were different types of ways paintings would be mounted, for example, scrolls in the form of hand or hanging scrolls, fans, and album leaves.