Chinese Art Traditions

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 subject matter and style of Chinese art. For more info on this please visit

Neolithic pottery

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. There’s a very interesting piece here about Neolithic pottery from the Met Museum

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.

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.

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.

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.

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