History of Chinese art

From New World Encyclopedia
Chinese jade ornament with dragon and phoenix design, late Spring and Autumn Period (722 B.C.E.-481 B.C.E.).

Chinese art traditions are the oldest continuous art traditions in the world. Early so-called "stone age art" in China, consisting mostly of simple pottery and sculptures, dates back to 10,000 B.C.E.. This early period was followed by a series of dynasties, most of which lasted several hundred years. Through dynastic changes, political collapses, Mongol and Manchurian invasions, wars, and famines, Chinese artistic traditions were preserved by scholars and nobles and adapted by each successive dynasty. The art of each dynasty can be distinguished by its unique characteristics and developments.

Jade carvings and cast bronzes are among the earliest treasures of Chinese art. The origins of Chinese music and poetry can be found in the Book of Songs, containing poems composed between 1000 B.C.E. and 600 B.C.E.. The earliest surviving examples of Chinese painting are fragments of painting on silk, stone, and lacquer items dating to the Warring States period (481 - 221 B.C.E.). Paper, invented during the first century C.E., later replaced silk. Beginning with the establishment of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (265–420)|, painting and calligraphy were highly appreciated arts in court circles. Both used brushes and ink on silk or paper. The earliest paintings were figure paintings, followed later by landscapes and bird-and-flower paintings. Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism powerfully influenced the subjectmatter and style of Chinese art.

Historical development to 221 B.C.E.

Neolithic pottery

Black eggshell pottery of the Longshan culture (c. 3000–2000 B.C.E.)

Early forms of art in China are found in the Neolithic Yangshao culture (Chinese: 仰韶文化; pinyin: Yǎngsháo Wénhuà), which dates back to the sixth millennium B.C.E. Archeological findings such as those at the Banpo have revealed that the Yangshao made pottery; early ceramics were unpainted and most often ornamented by with marks made by pressing cords into the wet clay. The first pictorial decorations were fish and human faces, which 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. According to archaeologists, Yangshao society was based around matriarchal clans. Excavations have found that children were buried in painted pottery jars.

Jade culture

Jade bi from the Liangzhu culture. The ritual object is a symbol of wealth and military power.

Tools such as hammer heads, ax heads and knives were made of jade nephrite during the Neolithic period (c. 12,000 – c. 2,000 B.C.E.). The Liangzhu culture, the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River delta, lasted for a period of about 1300 years from 3400 - 2250 B.C.E. The jade from this culture is characterized by finely worked, large ritual jades such as Cong cylinders, Bi discs, Yue axes, pendants and decorations in the form of chiseled open-work plaques, plates and representations of small birds, turtles and fish. Liangzhu jade has a white, milky bone-like aspect due to its origin as Tremolite rock and the influence of water-based fluids at the burial sites.

Shang Dynasty (Yin) bronze ritual wine vessel, dating to the thirteenth century B.C.E.

Bronze casting

The Bronze Age in China began with the Xia Dynasty (ca. 2100 – 1600 B.C.E.). 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 (商朝) or Yin Dynasty (殷代) (ca. 1600 - ca. 1100 B.C.E.), more elaborate objects, including many ritual vessels, were crafted. The Shang are recognized for their bronze casting, noted for its clarity of detail. Excavations show that Shang bronzesmiths usually worked in foundries outside the cities and made ritual vessels, weapons and sometimes chariot fittings. 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, a symmetrical zoomorphic mask, presented frontally, with a pair of eyes and typically no lower jaw area. The early significance of taotie is not clear, but myths about it existed around the late Zhou Dynasty (周朝; 1122 B.C.E. to 256 B.C.E.). 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 altered gradually from the Shang to the Zhou, and they began to be used for practical purposes as well as in religious rites. By the Warring States Period (fifth century B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E.), bronze vessels had become objects of aesthetic enjoyment. Some were decorated with scenes of social life, such as banquets or hunts; while others displayed abstract patterns inlaid with gold, silver, or precious and semiprecious stones.

A Zhou Dynasty bronze musical bell

Shang bronzes became appreciated as works of art during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 C.E.), 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 B.C.E. and 600 B.C.E.. The text, preserved among the canon of early Chinese literature, contains folk songs, religious hymns and stately songs. Originally intended to be sung, the music accompanying the words has unfortunately been lost. The songs were written for a variety of purposes, including 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 grooves, scrape marks and scratches made as the bells were tuned to the right pitch by removing small amounts of metal. Percussion instruments gradually gave way to string and reed instruments toward the Warring States period.

Chinese pu vessel with interlaced dragon design, Spring and Autumn Period (722 B.C.E.-481 B.C.E.).

Significantly, the Chinese character for the word music (yue) was the same as that for joy (le). Confucians believed music had the power to make people harmonious and well balanced, or to cause them to be quarrelsome and depraved. According to Xun Zi, music was as important as the li (rites, etiquette) stressed in Confucianism. Mozi, philosophically opposed to Confucianism, dismissed music as useless and wasteful, having no practical purpose.

Early Chinese poetry

In addition to the Book of Songs (Shi Jing), a second early and influential poetic anthology was the Songs of Chu (Simplified Chinese: 楚辞; Traditional Chinese: 楚辭; pinyin: Chǔ Cí), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semilegendary Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 B.C.E.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.E.). The songs in this collection are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing).

Chu and Southern culture

A rich source of art in early China was the state of Chu (722 – 481 B.C.E.), which developed in the Yangtze River valley. Painted wooden sculptures, jade disks, glass beads, musical instruments, and an assortment of lacquerware have been found in excavations of Chu tombs. Many of the lacquer objects are finely painted, red on black or black on red. The world's oldest painting on silk discovered to date was found at a site in Changsha, Hunan province. It shows a woman accompanied by a phoenix and a dragon, two mythological animals that 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 (221 B.C.E.– 220 C.E.)

Qin sculpture

crossbow men from the Terracotta Army, interred by 210 B.C.E., Qin Dynasty
A gilded bronze lamp with a shutter, in the shape of a maidservant, from the Western Han Dynasty, 2nd century B.C.E.
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 C.E.)

The Terracotta Army, inside the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, consists of more than seven thousand 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 B.C.E..

The figures were painted before being placed into the vault. The original colors were visible when the pieces were first unearthed, but exposure to air caused the pigments to fade. The figures are in several poses including standing infantry and kneeling archers, as well as charioteers with horses. The head of each figure appears to be unique; the figures exhibit a variety of facial features and expressions as well as hair styles.


Porcelain is made from a hard paste comprised of the clay kaolin and a feldspar called petuntse, which cements the vessel and seals any pores. The word china (chinaware) 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 (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.).

The most noticeable difference between porcelain and other pottery clays is that it "wets" very quickly (that is, added water has a noticeably greater effect on the plasticity of porcelain clays), and that it tends to continue to "move" longer than other clays, requiring experience in handling to attain optimum results. Porcelain is fired at very high temperatures and the result is a translucent quality, allowing light to penetrate the finished product.

In medieval Europe, Chinese porcelain was very expensive and much sought after for its beauty.

TLV Mirrors

Bronze mirrors, called TLV mirrors because symbols resembling the letters T, L, and V are engraved into them, became popular during the Han Dynasty. They were produced from around the second century B.C.E. until the second century C.E.. The dragon was an important symbol on early TLV mirrors, appearing as arabesques on early mirrors and later as fully-fledged figures.[1] In the later part of the Western Han period, the dragons were replaced by winged figures, monsters and immortals.

Mirrors from the Xin Dynasty (8-23 C.E.) usually have an outer band with cloud or animal motifs, and an inner circle with a square containing a knob. The inner circle often contains a series of eight 'nipples,' and various mythological animals and beings, including the Queen Mother of the West.[2] The central square could have an inscription, or contain the characters of the Twelve Earthly Branches. Inscriptions placed in between the mirror's sections frequently discuss Wang Mang and his reign.[3]

Han poetry

During, the Han Dynasty, Chu lyrics evolved into the fu (賦), 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 official compilation of the Shi Jing produced yue fu (Traditional Chinese: 樂府; Simplified Chinese: 乐府; Hanyu Pinyin: yuèfǔ) poems, composed in a folk song style. “Yue fu” literally means "music bureau," a reference to the government organization originally charged with collecting or writing the lyrics. The lines are of uneven length, though five characters is the most common. Each poem follows one of a series of patterns defined by the song title. Yue fu includes original folk songs, court imitations and versions by known poets such as Li Bai).

Han paper art

The invention of paper during the Han dynasty[4] spawned two new Chinese arts. Chinese paper cutting originated as a pastime among the nobles in royal palaces[5]. The Song Dynasty scholar Chou Mi mentioned several paper cutters who cut paper with scissors into a great variety of designs and characters in different styles, and a young man who could even cut characters and flowers inside his sleeve[6]. The oldest surviving paper cut out is a symmetrical circle from the sixth century found in Xinjiang, China[6].

The art of Chinese paper folding also originated in the Han dynasty, later developing into origami after Buddhist monks introduced paper to Japan[7].

Other Han art

The Han Dynasty was also known for jade burial suits, made of thousands of jade plates threaded together with gold, silver or copper wire, or with silk threads. 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 B.C.E.[8] 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.[8] 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.[8]

Period of Division (220–581)

A scene of two horseback riders from a wall painting in the tomb of Lou Rui at Taiyuan, Shanxi, Northern Qi Dynasty (550–577)

Influence of Buddhism

A Chinese Northern Wei Buddha Maitreya, 443 C.E.

Buddhism arrived in China around the first century C.E. (although some traditions tell of a monk visiting China during Asoka's reign), and for the next seven centuries China became very active in the development of Buddhist art, particularly in the area of statuary. Strong Chinese traits were soon incorporated in Buddhist artistic expression.

From the fifth to sixth century, the Northern Dynasties, physically distant from the original sources of inspiration, developed symbolic and abstract modes of representation with schematic lines. Their style is 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, progressed towards more the natural and realistic expression of Tang Buddhist art.

Northern Wei wall murals and painted figurines from the Yungang Grottoes, dated fifth to sixth centuries.


Historical records indicate Cao Cao (155 – 220), the father of the well-known poets Cao Pi (187 – 226) and Cao Zhi (192 – 232), was himself a brilliant ruler and poet. Cao Pi is known for writing the first Chinese poem using seven syllables per line (七言詩), the poem 燕歌行. Cao Zhi demonstrated his spontaneous wit at an early age and was a favorite candidate for the throne; his brother Cao Pi quickly took control after their father’s death and Cao Zhi was never allowed to enter politics. Instead, he devoted his ability to Chinese literature and poetry, and surrounded himself with a group of poets and officials with literary interests. The poems of Cao Zhi, Cao Cao, and Cao Pi were representative of the solemn and stirring jian'an style (建安風骨), a transition from earlier folksongs into scholarly poetry. Lament over the ephemerality of life was a central theme of works from this period. More than 60 of the 90 poems by Cao Zhi still in existence are five-character poems (五言詩), considered to have strongly influenced the later development of five-character poetry.

The poetry of Tao Qian (365 – 427) was an important influence on the poetry of the Tang and Song Dynasties. Approximately 120 of his poems survive, depicting an idyllic pastoral life of farming and drinking.


Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, an Eastern Jin (265-420) tomb painting from Nanjing, now located in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum.
Strolling About in Spring, by Zhan Ziqian, artist of the Sui Dynasty (581–618).
Part of the scroll for Admonitions of the Instructress to the Palace Ladies, a Tang Dynasty duplication of the original by Gu Kaizhi.

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 had the leisure to perfect the technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was considered the highest and purest form of painting. The implements were the brush pen, made of animal hair, and black inks, made from pine soot and animal glue. Writing as well as painting was done on silk until the invention of paper in the first century. Original writings by famous calligraphers have been greatly valued throughout China's history.

Wang Xizhi (Chinese: 王羲之, 303–361), a famous Chinese calligrapher who lived in the 4th century C.E., is known for Lanting Xu, the preface to a collection of poems written by a number of poets who gathered at Lan Ting near the town of Shaoxing, in Zhejiang province, to engage in a game called "qu shui liu shang."

His teacher was Wei Shuo (Simplified Chinese: 卫铄; Traditional Chinese: 衛鑠; pinyin: Wèi Shuò, 272–349), commonly addressed as Lady Wei (衛夫人), a well-known calligrapher who established consequential rules for Regular Script. Her 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).

Gu Kaizhi (Traditional Chinese: 顧愷之; Simplified Chinese: 顾恺之; Hanyu Pinyin: Gù Kǎizhī; Wade-Giles: Ku K'ai-chih) (ca. 344-406), a celebrated painter born in Wuxi, wrote three books on painting theory: On Painting (画论), Introduction of Famous Paintings of Wei and Jin Dynasties (魏晋胜流画赞) and Painting Yuntai Mountain (画云台山记). He wrote, "In figure paintings the clothes and the appearances were not very important. The eyes were the spirit and the decisive factor."

Three of Gu's paintings still survive: "Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies," "Nymph of the Luo River" (洛神赋), and "Wise and Benevolent Women."

Other examples of Jin Dynasty painting have been found in tombs. Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, painted on a brick wall of a tomb located near modern Nanjing and now found in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, depicts a famous group of seven Daoist scholars, each labeled and shown either drinking, writing, or playing a musical instrument. Other tomb paintings portray scenes of daily life, such as men plowing fields with teams of oxen.

The Sui and Tang dynasties (581–960)

A Chinese Tang Dynasty tri-color glazed porcelain horse (ca. 700 C.E.), using yellow, green and white colors.

The Tang period was considered the golden age of Chinese literature and art.

Buddhist architecture and sculpture

Following a transition under the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist sculpture of the Tang evolved towards markedly lifelike expression. Buddhism continued to flourish during the Tang period and was adopted by the imperial family, becoming thoroughly sinicized and a permanent part of Chinese traditional culture. As a consequence of the Dynasty's openness to foreign influences, and renewed exchanges with Indian culture due to the numerous travels of Chinese Buddhist monks to India from the fourth to the eleventh century, Tang dynasty Buddhist sculpture assumed a classical form, inspired by the Indian art of the Gupta period. Towards the end of the Tang dynasty foreign influences came to be negatively perceived. In the year 845, the Tang emperor Wu-Tsung outlawed all "foreign" religions (including Christian Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism) in order to support the indigenous Daoism. He confiscated Buddhist possessions and forced the faith to go underground, affecting the further development of the religion and its arts in China.

Seated Mahayana Buddha statue, Tang dynasty

Most wooden Tang sculptures have not survived, though representations of the Tang international style can still be seen in Nara, Japan. Some of the finest examples of Tang stone sculpture can be seen at Longmen, near Luoyang, Yungang near Datong, and Bingling Temple, in Gansu.

One of the most famous Buddhist Chinese pagodas is the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, built in 652 C.E..

A Man Herding Horses, by Han Gan (706-783 C.E.), Tang Dynasty original.

Golden age of Chinese poetry

From the second century C.E., yue fu (Chinese poems composed in the style of folk songs) began to develop into shi—the form which was to dominate Chinese poetry until the modern era. The writers of these poems took the five-character line of the yue fu and used it to express more complex ideas. The shi poem was generally an expression of the poet's personal nature rather than the adopted characters of the yue fu; many were romantic nature poems heavily influenced by Daoism.

The Chinese term gushi ("old poems") refers either to the mostly anonymous shi poems, or more generally to the poems written in the same form by later poets. Gushi are distinct from jintishi (regulated verse); the writer of gushi was under no formal constraints other than line length and rhyme (in every second line).

Jintishi, or regulated verse, developed from the 5th century onwards. By the Tang dynasty, a series of set tonal patterns had been developed, which were intended to ensure a balance between the four tones of classical Chinese in each couplet: the level tone, and the three deflected tones (rising, falling and entering). The Tang dynasty was the high point of the jintishi.

Notable poets from this era include Bai Juyi, Du Mu, Han Yu, Jia Dao, Li Qiao, Liu Zongyuan, Luo Binwang, Meng Haoran, Wang Wei, and Zhang Jiuling.

Li Po and Du Fu

Li Po and Du Fu, regarded by many as the greatest of the Chinese poets, both lived during the Tang Dynasty.

The Leshan Giant Buddha, 71 meters tall, construction began in 713 C.E., completed 90 years later.

Over a thousand poems are attributed to Li Po, but the authenticity of many of these is uncertain. He is best known for his intense and imaginative yue fu poems. Li Po is associated with Daoism, but his gufeng ("ancient airs") often adopt the perspective of the Confucian moralist. He composed approximately 160 jueju (five- or seven-character quatrains) on nature, friendship, and acute observations of life. Some poems, like Changgan xing (translated by Ezra Pound as A River Merchant's Wife: A Letter), record the hardships or emotions of common people.

Since the Song dynasty, critics have called Du Fu the "poet historian." The most directly historical of his poems are those commenting on military tactics or the successes and failures of the government, or the poems of advice which he wrote to the emperor.

Tang Dynasty mural painting from Dunhuang.

One of the Du Fu's earliest surviving works, The Song of the Wagons (c. 750), gives voice to the sufferings of a conscript soldier in the imperial army, even before the beginning of the rebellion. Du Fu mastered all the forms of Chinese poetry and used a wide range of registers, from the direct and colloquial to the allusive and self-consciously literary.

Late Tang poetry

Li Shangyin, a Chinese poet typical of the late Tang dynasty, wrote works that were sensuous, dense and allusive. Many of his poems have political, romantic or philosophical implications.

Li Yu, the last ruler of the Southern Tang Kingdom, composed his best-known poems during the years after the Song formally ended his reign in 975 and brought him back as a captive to the Song capital, Bianjing (now Kaifeng). Li's works from this period dwell on his regret for the lost kingdom and the pleasures it had brought him. He was finally poisoned by the Song emperor in 978. Li Yu developed the ci by broadening its scope from love to history and philosophy, particularly in his later works. He also introduced the two-stanza form, and made great use of contrasts between longer lines of nine characters and shorter ones of three and five.


Painting by Dong Yuan (c. 934–962).

During the Tang dynasty (618–907), landscape painting (shanshui) became highly developed. These landscapes, usually monochromatic and sparse, were not intended to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature but to evoke an emotion or atmosphere and capture the "rhythm" of nature.

The oldest known classical Chinese landscape painting is a work by Zhan Ziqian of the Sui Dynasty (581–618), Strolling About In Spring in which the mountains are arranged to show perspective.

Painting in the traditional style involved essentially the same techniques as calligraphy and was done with a brush dipped in black or colored ink on paper and silk. The finished work was then mounted on scrolls, which could be hung or rolled up. Traditional painting was also done in albums and on walls, lacquer work, and other media.

Dong Yuan, a painter of the Southern Tang Kingdom, was known for both figure and landscape paintings, and exemplified the elegant style which would become the standard for brush painting in China over the next 900 years. Like many Chinese painters, he was a government official. Dong Yuan studied and emulated the styles of Li Sixun and Wang Wei, but added new techniques including more sophisticated perspective and the use of pointillism and crosshatching to build up vivid effect.

Song and Yuan dynasties (960–1368)

Song Dynasty ding-ware porcelain bottle with iron pigment under a transparent colorless glaze, eleventh century.
A wooden Bodhisattva from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 C.E.)
The Sakyamuni Buddha, by Zhang Shengwen, 1173-1176 C.E., Song Dynasty period.
Playing Children, by Song artist Su Hanchen, c. 1150 C.E..

Song poetry

Beginning in the Liang Dynasty, Ci lyric poetry followed the tradition of the Shi Jing and yue fu; lyrics from anonymous popular songs (some of Central Asian origin) were developed into a sophisticated literary genre. The form was further developed during the Tang Dynasty, and was most popular in the Song Dynasty.

Ci most often expressed feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona, but the greatest exponents of the form (such as Li Houzhu and Su Shi) used it to address a wide range of topics.

Well-known poets of the Song Dynasty include Zeng Gong, Li Qingzhao, Lu You, Mei Yaochen, Ouyang Xiu, Su Dongpo, Wang Anshi, and Xin Qiji.

Song painting

During the Song dynasty (960–1279), landscapes of more subtle expression appeared; immeasurable distances were conveyed through the use of blurred outlines, mountain contours disappearing into the mist, and impressionistic treatment of natural phenomena. Emphasis was placed on the spiritual qualities of the painting and on the ability of the artist to reveal the inner harmony of man and nature, as perceived according to Daoist and Buddhist concepts.

Liang Kai, a Chinese painter who lived in the thirteenth century (Song Dynasty), called himself "Madman Liang." He spent his life drinking and painting, eventually retiring to become a Zen monk. Liang is credited with inventing the Zen school of Chinese art.

Wen Tong, who lived in the eleventh century, was famous for ink paintings of bamboo. He could hold two brushes in one hand and paint two different bamboos simultaneously. He did not need to look at bamboo while he painted because he was so familiar with their appearance and character.

Zhang Zeduan is noted for his horizontal cityscape Along the River During Qingming Festival, which has been copied many times throughout Chinese history.[9] Other famous paintings include The Night Revels of Han Xizai, originally painted by the Southern Tang artist Gu Hongzhong in the tenth century. The best-known version of his painting is a twelfth century copy from the Song Dynasty. The large horizontal hand scroll shows men of the gentry class being entertained by musicians and dancers while enjoying food, beverage, and being offered wash basins by maidservants.

Yuan drama

Chinese opera has its origins in the Tang dynasty. Emperor Xuanzong (712–755) founded the "Pear Garden" (梨园), the first known opera troupe in China, to perform for his personal enjoyment. Chinese operatic professionals are still referred to as "Disciples of the Pear Garden" (梨园子弟). In the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), forms like the Zaju (杂剧, variety plays), in which dramas are based on rhyming schemes and incorporate specialized character roles like "Dan" (旦, female), "Sheng" (生, male) and "Chou" (丑, Clown), were introduced into the opera.

Yuan dynasty opera exists 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 thirteenth century, during the late Southern Song Dynasty. In the twelfth century, there was a theatrical form called Narm hei (南戲), or the Nanxi (Southern opera), which was performed in public theaters of Hangzhou, then capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. When the Mongol army invaded in 1276, Emperor Gong (Gong Di (恭帝 Gōngdì)) fled from Zhao Xian (趙顯 Zhào Xiǎn) to the province of Guangdong with hundreds of thousands of Song people. Among these people were some narm hei artists who introduced narm hei into Guangdong where it 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 Cantonese. Until the twentieth century all the female roles were performed by males.

Yuan painting

Wang Meng was a Chinese painter during the Yuan dynasty. One of his well-known works is Forest Grotto.

Zhao Mengfu, a Chinese scholar, painter and calligrapher during the Yuan Dynasty, rejected the refined, gentle brushwork of his era in favor of the cruder style of the eighth century and is considered to have brought about a revolution that resulted in modern Chinese landscape painting. Qian Xuan (1235-1305), a patriot from the Song court who refused to serve the Mongols and instead turning to painting, revived and reproduced the vivid and detailed Tang Dynasty style.

Late imperial China (1368-1911)

Detail of Dragon Throne used by the Qianlong Emperor of China, Forbidden City, Qing Dynasty. Artifact circulating in U.S. museums on loan from Beijing

Ming poetry

Gao Qi (1336 – 1374) is acknowledged by many as the greatest poet of the Ming Dynasty. His style was a radical departure from the extravagance of Yuan dynasty poetry, and led the way for three hundred years of Ming dynasty poetry.

Ming prose

Zhang Dai (张岱; pinyin: Zhāng Dài, courtesy name: Zhongzhi (宗子), pseudonym: Tao'an (陶庵)) (1597 - 1689) is acknowledged as the greatest essayist of the Ming dynasty.

Wen Zhenheng, (Chinese: 文震亨; pinyin: Wén Zhènhēng; Wade-Giles: Wen Chen-heng, 1585–1645) the great grandson of Wen Zhengming, a famous Ming dynasty painter, wrote a classic on garden architecture and interior design, Zhang Wu Zhi (On Superfluous Things).

Ming painting

Peach Festival of the Queen Mother of the West, early seventeenth century, Ming Dynasty.

Chinese culture bloomed during the Ming dynasty. Narrative painting, with a wider color range and a much busier composition than the Song paintings, became very popular. As techniques of color printing were perfected, illustrated manuals on the art of painting began to be published. Jieziyuan Huazhuan (Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden), a five-volume work first published in 1679, has been in use as a technical textbook for artists and students ever since.

Wen Zhengming (Traditional Chinese: 文徵明; Simplified Chinese: 文征明; Hanyu Pinyin: Wén Zhēngmíng; Wade-Giles: Wen Cheng-ming, 1470–1559), a leading Ming Dynasty painter and calligrapher, painted subjects of great simplicity, such as single trees or rocks. His discontent with official life is expressed as a feeling of strength through isolation in his works. Many of his works celebrate the contexts of elite social life for which they were created.

Painting by Wen Zhengming

Xu Wei (Chinese: 徐渭; pinyin: Xú Wèi, 1521—1593), a Ming Chinese painter, poet and dramatist, is considered the founder of modern painting in China. Revolutionary for its time, his painting style influenced and inspired countless subsequent painters, such as Zhu Da, the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, and the modern masters Wu Changshuo and Qi Baishi.

Matteo Ricci (October 6, 1552 – May 11, 1610; Traditional Chinese: 利瑪竇; Simplified Chinese: 利玛窦; pinyin: Lì Mǎdòu; courtesy name: 西泰 Xītài), an Italian Jesuit priest, arrived in China in 1583 and introduced Western geography, science, music, painting and technology for the first time to Chinese scholars.

Qing drama

The best-known form of Chinese opera, Beijing opera, assumed its present form in the mid-nineteenth century and was popular during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). It originated in the Chinese provinces of Anhui and Hubei. Its two main melodies, Xipi and Erhuang, come from Anhui and Hubei operas, and much of the dialogue is carried out in an archaic dialect originating partially from those regions. It is commonly believed that Beijing Opera was born when the Four Great Anhui Troupes came to Beijing in 1790. Originally staged for the court, it later became a form of public entertainment. In 1828, some famous Hubei troupes came to Beijing, where they performed on stage with Anhui troupes. Beijing opera's main melodies evolved from this combination. Music and arias were also absorbed from other operas and musical arts such as the historic Qinqiang.

In Beijing Opera, traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments provide a strong rhythmic accompaniment to the acting, in which stylized gestures, footwork, and other body movements express such actions as riding a horse, rowing a boat, or opening a door.

Qing poetry

Yuan Mei, a well-known poet who lived during the Qing Dynasty, produced a large body of poetry, essays and paintings. His works reflected his interest in Zen 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, elaborated on in the Suiyuan shihua (隨園詩話), stressed the importance of personal feeling and technical perfection.

Early Qing painting

The Yongzheng Emperor Enjoying Himself During the 8th Lunar Month, by anonymous court artists, 1723-1735 C.E., Palace Museum, Beijing.

Bada Shanren (Template:Zh-cwl, (ca. 1626—1705), born as Zhu Da (朱耷), was a calligrapher and ink-and-wash (shuimohua) painter. His paintings feature sharp brush strokes which are attributed to the sideways manner by which he held his brush.

"Eleven Pigeons" painting by Jiang Tingxi

Jiang Tingxi (Traditional Chinese: 蔣廷錫; Simplified Chinese: 蒋廷锡; Hanyu Pinyin: Jiǎng Tíngxí; Wade-Giles: Chiang T'ing-hsi, 1669–1732), courtesy name Yangsun (杨孙), was an editor of the 5020-volume state-sponsored encyclopedia Gǔjīn Túshū Jíchéng (Traditional Chinese: 古今圖書集成; Simplified Chinese: 古今图书集成; literally "Complete Collection of Illustrations and Writings from the Earliest to Current Times"), published in 1726 and compiled in collaboration with Chen Menglei during the reigns of Qing emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng. An official painter and grand secretary to the Imperial Court in Kyoto, Jiang Tingxi used a wide variety of artistic styles, and focused particularly on paintings of birds and flowers. He was also proficient in calligraphy.

Yuanji Shih T'ao (born Zhu Ruoji (1642 - 1707) was a member of the Ming royal house who narrowly escaped in 1644 when the Ming dynasty fell to invading Manchurians and civil rebellion. He assumed the name Yuanji Shih T'ao and became a Buddhist monk, then converted to Daoism in 1693. One of the most famous individualist painters of the early Qing dynasty, he transgressed the rigidly codified techniques and styles of painting tradition. His formal innovations include drawing attention to the act of painting itself through the use of washes and bold, impressionistic brushstrokes; an interest in subjective perspective; and the use of negative or white space to suggest distance.

Shanghai School (1850 – 1890)

After the bloody Taiping rebellion broke out in 1853, wealthy Chinese refugees flocked to Shanghai where they prospered by trading with British, American, and French merchants in the foreign concessions there. Their patronage encouraged artists to come to Shanghai, where they congregated in groups and art associations and developed a new Shanghai style of painting. The new cultural environment, a rich combination of Western and Chinese lifestyles, traditional and modern, stimulated painters and presented them with new opportunities.[10]The Shanghai School (海上画派 Haishang Huapai or 海派 Haipai) challenged the literati tradition of Chinese art, while paying technical homage to the ancient masters and improving on existing traditional techniques. One of the most influential painters of the Shanghai school was Ren Xiong. Members of the Ren family and their students produced a number of innovations in painting between the 1860s and the 1890s, particularly in the traditional genres of figure painting and bird-and-flower painting.

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 (任熊), Ren Yi (任伯年, also known as Ren Bonian), Zhao Zhiqian (赵之谦), Wu Changshuo (吴昌硕), Sha Menghai (沙孟海, calligrapher), Pan Tianshou (潘天寿), Fu Baoshi (傅抱石). Other well-known painters are: Wang Zhen, XuGu, Zhang Xiong, Hu Yuan, and Yang Borun.

Peonies and Daffodils (牡丹水仙图), Wu Changshuo, Jilin Provincial Museum

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 became widely read and Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, perhaps China's most famous novel, was written in the mid-eighteenth century. Handwritten copies of this work, consisting of 80 chapters, were in circulation in Beijing shortly after Cao's death, before Gao Ê, 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 compiled the tales in collections such as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.

New China Art (1912-1949)


After the end of the last dynasty in China, the New Culture Movement (1917 – 1923) defied all facets of traditionalism. A new breed of twentieth century cultural philosophers including Xiao Youmei, Cai Yuanpei, Feng Zikai and Wang Guangqi called for Chinese culture to modernize and reflect the “New China.” The Chinese Civil War (1927 – 1950) brought about by a split between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China, and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945), in particular the Battle of Shanghai, threw the Chinese art and cultural worlds into tumult. Nevertheless, several important developments of Chinese modern art took place during this period.

The Big Three

Shanghai became an entertainment center and the birthplace of the three new art forms, Chinese cinema, Chinese animation and Chinese popular music. Heavily inspired by Western technology, Chinese artists adapted it to Chinese culture in a positive way.

The introduction of gramophone technology gave rise to shidaiqu (時代曲, “music of the time”), popular songs with Mandarin lyrics influenced by Western jazz. Composer Li Jinhui, regarded as the father of Chinese popular music, organized the Bright Moonlight Song and Dance Troupe which merged with the China Film Company in 1931. This troupe groomed several of the “seven great singing stars of the Republic of China” (Chinese: 七大歌星; pinyin: qī dà gēxīng), female vocalists who produced hundreds of recordings as well as acting in musical films.


The most popular form of comics, lianhuanhua, circulated as palm sized books in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Northern China. Comic books became one of the most affordable forms of entertainment. The famous Sanmao character was born at this time.


In the late 1800s and 1900s, Chinese painters were increasingly exposed to the Western art, and an artistic controversy arose over how to respond to it. Some artists who studied in Europe rejected Chinese painting; others tried to combine the best of both traditions. Qi Baishi (Simplified Chinese: 齐白石; Traditional Chinese: 齊白石; pinyin: Qí Báishí, also Ch'i Pai-shih) (January 1, 1864 - September 16, 1957) began life as a poor peasant and became a great painter of flowers and small animals and is known for the whimsical, often playful style of his watercolors.

As an extension of the New Culture Movement Chinese artists started to adopt Western painting techniques. and oil painting was introduced to China. Some artists, including Zhang Daqian, Lin Fengmian, Pang Xunqin and Wu Zuoren, studied or worked abroad.


As part of the effort to Westernize and modernize China during the first half of the twentieth century, art education in China's modern schools taught European artistic techniques, which educators considered necessary for engineering and science. Painting in the traditional medium of ink and color on paper came to be referred to as guohua (国画, meaning 'national' or 'native painting'), to distinguish it from Western-style oil painting, watercolor painting, or drawing. Various groups of traditionalist painters formed to defend and reform China's heritage, believing that innovation could be achieved within China's own cultural tradition. Some of them recognized similarities between Western modernism and the self-expressive and formalistic qualities of guohua, and turned to modernist oil painting. Others believed that the best qualities of Chinese civilization should never be abandoned, but did not agree on what those qualities were.

One group of guohua painters, including Wu Changshi, Wang Zhen, Feng Zikai, Chen Hengke, and Fu Baoshi, were influenced by similar nationalistic trends in Japan and favored simple but bold imagery. Wu Hufan, He Tianjian, Chang Dai-chien and Zheng Yong, based their work upon a return to the highly refined classical techniques of the Song and Yuan periods. A third group, dominated by Xu Beihong, followed the footsteps of the Lingnan school in trying to reform Chinese ink painting by adding elements of Western realism.

Communist art (1950-1980s)

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party of China took full control of the government and established the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Chinese Artists' Association to direct artistic policy. Art was treated as a vehicle for ideology. Artists who did not comply with government policies were punished and sent to rural areas to be “re-educated” as farmers.

During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), art schools were closed, and publication of art journals and major art exhibitions ceased. Many artists and intellectuals were exiled, lynched or imprisoned. Some traditional arts almost disappeared. As part of the Destruction of the Four Olds campaign,” museums and temples were pillaged and art treasures such as pottery, statuary and paintings were defaced and destroyed, not only in mainland China but also Tibet.

Following the Cultural Revolution, art schools and professional organizations were reinstated. Exchanges were set up with groups of foreign artists, and Chinese artists began to experiment with new subjects and techniques.

The loss of the Big Three

The Communist regime quickly classified popular music as yellow music (pornography), and began to promote revolutionary music (guoyue) instead. Many filmmakers, artists, and popular musicians immigrated to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan, where they fueled the development of modern Chinese art.


Artists were encouraged to employ socialist realism. Some Soviet Union socialist realism was directly imported, 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 1956–57, 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 (新詩, free verse) 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" ("The Answer"), which was written during the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations 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 romantic poet who loved the poetry of the English Romantics like Keats and Shelley. He was one of the first Chinese writers to successfully naturalize Western romantic forms into modern Chinese poetry.

Redevelopment (Mid-1980s - 1990s)

Contemporary Art

Contemporary Chinese art (中国当代艺术, Zhongguo Dangdai Yishu), often referred to as Chinese avant-garde art, has continued to develop since the 1980s, when the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution were lifted. Contemporary Chinese art incorporates painting, film, video, photography, and performance. Until recently, art exhibitions deemed controversial were routinely shut down by police, and performance artists in particular faced the threat of arrest during 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 their exhibitions closed by government order. 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, Zhu Yu, Yan Lei, and Zhang Yue.

Visual art

Beginning in the late 1980s younger Chinese visual artists received unprecedented exposure in the West through Chinese museum curators based outside the country. Museum curators within China, such as Gao Minglu, and critics such as Li Xianting (栗宪庭) have reinforced the promotion of particular newly-emerged brands of painting, and spread the idea of art as a strong social force within Chinese culture. Critics contend that these curators are exercising personal preferences and that the majority of avant-garde Chinese artists are alienated from Chinese officialdom and the patronage of the Western art market.

Contemporary Chinese art market

The new visual art market

The market for Chinese art, both contemporary and ancient, has exploded in recent years. Globalization has increased Western awareness of and appreciation for Chinese art, and the growth of a wealthy middle class in China has created a new market within China. In 2008, China overtook France as the world's third-largest art market, after the United States and the United Kingdom.[11] [12]The 798 Art District, or Dashanzi, in East Beijing, where artists and dealers work out of Bauhaus-style factories built in the 1950s, has grown so popular since it surfaced six years ago that it is jammed with visitors on weekends. There are an estimated 20,000 artists in the Peoples’ Republic of China and one thousand more graduate every year[13].

A 1993 painting, "Tiananmen Square" by Zhang Xiaogang sold for USD $2.3 million in Hong Kong in 2006. A 1964 painting "All the Mountains Blanketed in Red" was sold for HKD $35 million. Sotheby's auctioned Xu Beihong's 1939 masterpiece "Put Down Your Whip" for US $9,220,839 [14]. In 2006 Christie's sold a Chinese porcelain bowl with the mark of Emperor Qianlong for US $19,376,569[15]. There is concern that increased competition is driving prices artificially high, and that buyers are too inexperienced to distinguish valuable pieces from forgeries or second-rate art.

See also


  1. Anneliese Bulling. The Decoration of Mirrors of the Han Period: A Chronology. (Ascona: Artibus Asiae, 1960), 22.
  2. Bulling, (1960), 52.
  3. Bulling, (1960), 51.
  4. Latest Discovery Challenges China's Long-term Paper-making Theory. May 13, 2002. [1]people daily. Retrieved October 11, 2008.
  5. Chinavoc. "Artistic Creations from Nimble fingers. Retrieved September 2, 2008.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Joseph Needham. Chemistry and Chemical Technology. (1974) (Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521086906)
  7. Robert James Lang. The Complete Book of Origami: Step-by Step Instructions in Over 1000 Diagrams/48 Original Models. (Courier Dover Publications. 1988. ISBN 0486258378)
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Joseph Needham, (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 3: Civil Engineering and Nautics. (Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.), Plate CCCXII
  9. 'Keith Bradsher, 'New York Times ‘China’s Mona Lisa’ Makes a Rare Appearance in Hong Kong The New York Times, (July 3, 2007) Retrieved September 3, 2008.
  10. Dr. Julia Andrews and Kuiyi Shen. Guggenheim Museum of Art: Exhibit of Modern Chinese Painting Ohio State University. retrieved August 23, 2008.
  11. Tom Spender (May 2, 2008) Culture and art Beijing style Emirates Business 24-7. Retrieved September 3, 2008.
  12. Reshmi Dasgupta, The Economic Times China way ahead of India in Contemporary art, The Economic Times, March 11, 2008. Retrieved September 3, 2008.
  13. Adrienne Mong, (May 29, 2007). China's Art Scene MSNBC. Retrieved on September 3, 2008.
  14. Le-Min Lim, (May 29, 2007) Stanley Ho Buys Chinese Emperor's Throne for HK$13.7 Million. Bloomberg. Retrieved September 3, 2008.
  15. Adrienne Mong, (May 29, 2007). China's Art Scene MSNBC Retrieved on September 3, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barnhart, Richard M., et al. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art: 2002. ISBN 0300094477.
  • Bulling, Anneliese. The Decoration of Mirrors of the Han Period: A Chronology. Ascona: Artibus Asiae, 1960.
  • Chi, Lillian, et al. A Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics. Sun Tree Publishing: 2003. ISBN 9810460236.
  • Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford University Press: 1997. ISBN 0192842072.
  • Ebrey, Patricia, et al. Taoism and the Arts of China. University of California Press: 2000. ISBN 0520227840.
  • Gowers, David, et al. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing. Art Media Resources: 2002. ISBN 1588860337.
  • Harper, Prudence Oliver. China: Dawn Of A Golden Age (200-750 C.E.). Yale University Press: 2004. ISBN 0300104871.
  • Lang, Robert James. The Complete Book of Origami: Step-by Step Instructions in Over 1000 Diagrams/48 Original Models. Courier Dover Publications, 1988. ISBN 0486258378.
  • Mascarelli, Gloria, and Robert Mascarelli. The Ceramics of China: 5000 B.C.E. to 1900 C.E. Schiffer Publishing: 2003. ISBN 0764318438.
  • Needham, Joseph. Chemistry and Chemical Technology. Cambridge University Press, 1974. ISBN 0521086906
  • Sturman, Peter Charles. Mi Fu: Style and the Art of Calligraphy in Northern Song China. Yale University Press: 2004. ISBN 0300104871.
  • Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China, Fourth edition. University of California Press: 2000. ISBN 0520218779.
  • Tregear, Mary. Chinese Art. Thames & Hudson: 1997. ISBN 0500202990.
  • Watson, William. The Arts of China to AD 900. Yale University Press: 1995. ISBN 0300059892.
  • Chinese Paintings, Chi Baishi Album Paintings, MSN. Retrieved September 3, 2008.
  • Chinese Art and Architecture, MSN Encarta. Retrieved September 3, 2008.
  • Chinese art, The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 3, 2008.

External links

All links retrieved January 10, 2018.


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