Chinese art

Chinese art

Chinese art, works of art produced in the vast geographical region of China. It the oldest art in the world and has its origins in remote antiquity. (For the history of Chinese civilization, see China.)

Early Periods

Neolithic cultures produced many artifacts such as painted pottery, bone tools and ornaments, and jade carvings of a sophisticated design. Excavations at B'ei-li-kang near Luo-yang date materials found at that site to 6000-5000 B.C. An excavation in the early 1970s of the royal tomb of Shih-huang Ti revealed an array of funerary terra-cotta images. In Henan, the village of Yang-shao gave its name to a culture that flourished from 5000 to 3000 B.C. Ban-p'o pottery wares were handmade and the area produced a polished red ware that was painted in black with designs of swirling spirals and geometric designs, sometimes with human faces. Later, at Ma-jia-yao in Gansu, brush-painted pottery became more sophisticated in the handling of the design. Knowledge of ancient Chinese art is limited largely to works in pottery, bronze, bone, and jade.

The Early Dynasties: Ritual Bronzes

During the Shang dynasty (c.1750-1045 B.C.), some of China's most extraordinary art was created—its ritual bronzes. Cast in molds, these sacrificial vessels display stylistic developments that began with early bronzes at Erh-li-tou and reached their apex at Anyang, the Shang capital city, where excavations in have yielded numerous ritual bronze vessels that indicate a highly advanced culture in the Shang dynasty in the 2d millennium. The art of bronze casting of this period is of such high quality that it suggests a long period of prior experimentation.

The ritual bronzes represent the clearest extant record of stylistic development in the Shang, Chou, and Early Han dynasties. The adornment of the bronzes varies from the most meager incision to the most ornate plastic embellishment and from the most severely abstract to some naturalistic representations. The Later Han dynasty marks the end of the development of this art, although highly decorated bronze continued to be produced, often with masterly treatment of metal and stone inlays.

Buddhist Art

The advent of Buddhism (1st cent. A.D.) introduced art of a different character. Works of sculpture, painting, and architecture of a more distinctly religious nature were created. With Buddhism, the representation of the Buddha and of the bodhisattvas and attendant figures became the great theme of sculpture. The forms of these figures came to China from India by way of central Asia, but in the 6th cent. A.D. the Chinese artists succeeded in developing a national style in sculpture. This style reached its greatest distinction early in the T'ang dynasty. Figures, beautiful in proportion and graceful in gesture, show great precision and clarity in the rendering of form, with a predominance of linear rhythms.

Gradually the restraint of the 7th cent. gave way to more dramatic work. Major sites of Buddhist art in cave temples include Donghuang, Lung-men, Yun-kang, Mai-chi-shan, and Ping-ling-ssu. For about 600 years Buddhist sculpture continued to flourish; then in the Ming dynasty sculpture ceased to develop in style. After this time miniature sculpture in jade, ivory, and glass, of exquisite craftsmanship but lacking vitality of inspiration, was produced in China (and was also made in Japan).

Chinese Painting since the Fifth Century

Little painting remains from the early periods except for that on ceramics and lacquer and tiles, and tomb decorations in Manchuria and N Korea. It is only from the 5th cent. A.D. that a clear historical development can be traced. Near Dunhuang more than a hundred caves (called the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas) contain Buddhist wall paintings and scrolls dating mainly from the late 5th to the 8th cent. They show first, simple hieratic forms of Buddha and of the bodhisattvas and later, crowded scenes of paradise. The elegant decorative motifs and certain figural elements reveal a Western influence.

A highly organized system of representing objects in space was evolved, quite different from Western post-Renaissance perspective. Rendering of natural effects of light and shade is almost wholly absent in this art, the greatest strength of which is its incomparable mastery of line and silhouette. One of the earliest artists about whom anything is known is the 4th-century master Ku K'ai-chih, who is said to have excelled in portraiture.

The art of figure painting reached a peak of excellence in the T'ang dynasty (618-906). Historical subjects and scenes of courtly life were popular, and the human figure was portrayed with a robustness and monumentality unequaled in Chinese painting. Animal subjects were also frequently represented. The 8th-century artist Han Kan is famous for his painting of horses. The T'ang dynasty also saw the rise of the great art of Chinese landscape painting. Lofty and craggy peaks were depicted, with streams, rocks, and trees carefully detailed in brilliant mineral pigments of green and blue. These paintings were usually executed as brush drawings with color washes. Little if anything remains of the work of such famous masters as Yen Li-pen, Wu Tao-tzu, Wang Wei, and Tung Yuan of the Five Dynasties.

In the Sung dynasty (960-1279) landscape painting reached its greatest expression. A vast yet orderly scheme of nature was conceived, reflecting contemporary Taoist and Confucian views. Sharply diminished in scale, the human figure did not intrude upon the magnitude of nature. The technique of ink monochrome was developed with great skill; with the utmost economy of pictorial means, suggestion of mood, misty atmosphere, depth, and distance were created. During the Sung dynasty the monumental detail began to emerge. A single bamboo shoot, flower, or bird provided the subject for a painting. Among those who excelled in flower painting was the Emperor Hui-tsung, who founded the imperial academy. Hundreds of painters contributed to its glory, including Li T'ang, Hsia Kuei, and Ma Yüan. Members of the Ch'an (Zen) sect of Buddhism executed paintings, often sparked by an intuitive vision. With rapid brushstrokes and ink splashes, they created works of vigor and spontaneity.

With the ascendance of the Yüan dynasty (1260-1368) painting reached a new level of achievement, and under Mongol rule many aspects cultivated in Sung art were brought to culmination. The human figure assumed greater importance, and landscape painting acquired a new vitality. The surface of the paintings, especially the style and variety of brushstrokes, became important. Still-life compositions came into greater prominence, especially bamboo painting. During this time, much painting was produced by the literati, gentlemen scholars who painted for their own enjoyment and self-improvement.

Under some of the emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) a revival of learning and of older artistic traditions was encouraged and connoisseurship was developed. We are indebted to the Ming art collectors for the preservation of many paintings that have survived into our times. Bird and flower pictures exhibited the superb decorative qualities so familiar to the West. Shen Chou, Tai Chin, Wen Cheng-ming, T'ang Yin, and Tung Ch'i-ch'ang are but a few of the many great masters of this period.

Under the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1912) a high level of technical competence was maintained, particularly in the applied arts, until the 19th cent., when the output became much more limited. The famous four Wangs imitated the great Yüan masters. Among painters of less orthodoxy, Shih-T'ao and Chu Ta were outstanding as artists of remarkable personal vision. However, there was little innovation in painting. Throughout the history of Chinese painting one characteristic has prevailed—the consummate handling of the brushstroke. Paintings were executed in a dry or wet-brush technique, with an incredible versatility ranging from swirling patterns to staccato dots.

Calligraphy and the Minor Arts

The mastery of brushwork was directly related to calligraphy, traditionally regarded by the Chinese as the highest art form. Masters of calligraphy such as Wang Hsi-chih (c.303-361) and his son were revered and their works copied for the perfection of their writing. Reliance on calligraphic techniques in later painting, however, produced a sterile art of overworked formulas in painting of the 19th cent. Elegant inscriptions and poems were often included within the painting, which took the form of a handscroll, hanging scroll, or an album leaf, made of silk or paper.

The fine art of Chinese ceramics followed to some degree the development of painting, reaching its highest perfection in the Sung dynasty and its extreme technical elaboration and decorative style in the Ming. In enamel ware, lacquerware, jade, ivory, textiles, and many other of the so-called minor arts, the world owes an incalculable debt to China.

Cross-Cultural Influences in Modern Times

Western influence on Chinese art has been evident since the late 17th cent., but was not of major significance until comparatively recent times. The 19th cent. produced no major Chinese masters but many competent traditionalists. Early 20th-century artists copied Western styles without real comprehension, and attempts to combine them with Chinese subject matter were largely unsuccessful. The influence of Chinese art upon other cultures has been profound. It has extended to the Muslim countries and, since the 14th cent., has affected the art of Western Europe as well.

Art under Communism

After the Communists came to power in 1949 the graphic arts useful to political propaganda were encouraged, and Western influence in the arts was strictly discouraged. Within the limits of government restrictions two painters, Li K'o-jan and Ch'eng Shih-fa, have produced works of considerable individuality. Chinese artists working outside China, including Tseng Yu-ho in Hawaii, C. C. Wang in New York, and Chao Wu-chi in France, have produced abstract works based on calligraphy that reveal some Western influence.


See L. Sickman and A. Soper, The Art and Architecture of China (1956); O. Sirén, Chinese Painting (7 vol., 1956-58); J. Cahill, The Art of Southern Sung China (1979), The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty, 1570-1644 (1982); M. Sullivan, The Arts of China (rev. ed. 1984); W. Fong, Beyond Representation (1992).

Chinese art is art that, whether ancient or modern, originated in or is practiced in China or by Chinese 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 dynasties, most of which lasted several hundred years. The Chinese art in the Republic of China (Taiwan) 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 ceramics were unpainted and most often cord-marked. The first decorations were fish and human faces, but these 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

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 Cong cylinders, Bi 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 foundries 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 ding, 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 (yue) was the same as that for joy (le). 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 ("rites"; "etiquette") 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 (Shi Jing), a second early and influential poetic anthology was the Songs of Chu made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semilegendary Qu Yuan (c. 340278 BC) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century BC). 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, 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 phoenix 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 (221 BC–AD 220)

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 Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang) in 210209 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.


Porcelain is made from a hard paste made of the clay kaolin and a feldspar called petuntse, which cements the vessel and seals any pore. 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 (that is, added water has a noticeably greater effect on the plasticity for porcelain than other clays), 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 (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 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. 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. However, the oldest known landscape art scene tradition in the classical sense of painting is a work by Zhan Ziqian of the Sui Dynasty (581–618).

Period of division (220–581)

Influence of Buddhism

Buddhism arrived in China around the 1st century AD (although there are some traditions about a monk visiting China during Asoka's reign), and through to the 8th century it became very active and creative in the development of Buddhist art, particularly in the area of statuary. Receiving this distant religion, China soon incorporated strong Chinese traits in its artistic expression.

In the fifth to sixth century the Northern Dynasties, rather removed from the original sources of inspiration, tended to develop rather symbolic and abstract modes of representation, with schematic lines. Their style is also said to be 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, progressively led to a research towards more naturalism and realism, leading to the expression of Tang Buddhist art.


Historical records indicate Cao Cao was a brilliant ruler and poet. Cao Cao was also the father of the well-known poets Cao Pi and Cao Zhi.

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 front-running candidate for the throne; however, such ability was devoted to Chinese literature and poetry, which was encouraged by his father's subordinate officials. Later he surrounded himself with a group of poets and officials with literary interests, including some who continually showed off their smartness at the expense of Cao Cao and Cao Pi's subordinates and even Cao Cao himself.

Tao Qian's poetry influenced the work of many subsequent poets. Approximately 120 of his poems survive, which depict an idyllic pastoral life of farming and drinking.


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 alone had the leisure to perfect the technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was thought to be 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. But after the invention of paper in the 1st century, silk was gradually replaced by the new and cheaper material. Original writings by famous calligraphers have been greatly valued throughout China's history and are mounted on scrolls and hung on walls in the same way that paintings are.

Wang Xizhi was a famous Chinese calligrapher who lived in the 4th century AD. His most famous work is the Lanting Xu, the preface of a collection of poems written by a number of poets when gathering at Lan Ting near the town of Shaoxing in Zhejiang province and engaging in a game called "qu shui liu shang".

Wei Shuo was a well-known calligrapher of Eastern Jin Dynasty who established consequential rules about the Regular Script. Her well-known 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 is a celebrated painter of ancient China born in Wuxi. He wrote three books about 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 today. They are "Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies", "Nymph of the Luo River" (洛神赋), and "Wise and Benevolent Women".

There are other examples of Jin Dynasty painting from tombs. This includes the 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. Each of the figures are labeled and shown either drinking, writing, or playing a musical intstrument. Other tomb paintings also depict scenes of daily life, such as men plowing fields with teams of oxen.

The Sui and Tang dynasties (581–960)

Buddhist architecture and sculpture

Following a transition under the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist sculpture of the Tang evolved towards a markedly lifelike expression. 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 4th to the 11th century, Tang dynasty Buddhist sculpture assumed a rather classical form, inspired by the Indian art of the Gupta period.

However, foreign influences came to be negatively perceived towards the end of the Tang dynasty. 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 Taoism. He confiscated Buddhist possessions and forced the faith to go underground, therefore affecting the ulterior development of the religion and its arts in China.

Most wooden Tang sculptures have not survived, though representations of the Tang international style can still be seen in Nara, Japan. The longevity of stone sculpture has proved much greater. Some of the finest examples 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 AD.

Golden age of Chinese poetry

Yue fu are Chinese poems composed in a folk song style. The term 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. The term covers original folk songs, court imitations and versions by known poets.

From the 2nd century AD, the yue fu 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 own persona rather than the adopted characters of the yue fu; many were romantic nature poems heavily influenced by Taoism.

The term gushi ("old poems") can refer either to the first, mostly anonymous shi poems, or more generally to the poems written in the same form by later poets. Gushi in this latter sense are defined essentially by what they are not; that is, they are not 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 both lived during the Tang Dynasty. They are regarded by many as the greatest of the Chinese poets.

Over a thousand poems are attributed to Li Po, but the authenticity of many of these is uncertain. He is best known for his yue fu poems, which are intense and often fantastic. He is often associated with Taoism: there is a strong element of this in his works, both in the sentiments they express and in their spontaneous tone. Nevertheless, his gufeng ("ancient airs") often adopt the perspective of the Confucian moralist, and many of his occasional verses are fairly conventional.

Much like Mozart, many legends exist on how Li Po effortlessly composed his poetry, even (or some say, especially) when drunk; his favorite form is the jueju (five- or seven-character quatrain), of which he composed some 160 pieces. Using striking, unconventional imagery, Li Po is able to create exquisite pieces to utilize fully the elements of the language. His use of language is not as erudite as Du Fu's but equally effective, impressing through an extravagance of imagination and a direct connection of a free-spirited persona with the reader. Li Po's interactions with nature, friendship, and his acute observations of life inform his best poems. Some of the rest, like Changgan xing (translated by Ezra Pound as A River Merchant's Wife: A Letter), records the hardships or emotions of common people. Like the best Chinese poets, Li Po often evades translation.

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.

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; this poem brings out the tension between the need of acceptance and fulfillment of one's duties, and a clear-sighted consciousness of the suffering which this can involve.

Du Fu's work is notable above all for its range. He mastered all the forms of Chinese poetry: Chou says that in every form he "either made outstanding advances or contributed outstanding examples" (p. 56). Furthermore, his poems use a wide range of registers, from the direct and colloquial to the allusive and self-consciously literary. The tenor of his work changed as he developed his style and adapted to his surroundings ("chameleonlike" according to Watson): his earliest works are in a relatively derivative, courtly style, but he came into his own in the years of the rebellion. Owen comments on the "grim simplicity" of the Qinzhou poems, which mirrors the desert landscape (p. 425); the works from his Chengdu period are "light, often finely observed" (p. 427); while the poems from the late Kuizhou period have a "density and power of vision" (p. 433).

Late Tang poetry

Li Shangyin was a Chinese poet of the late Tang dynasty. He was a typical Late Tang poet: his works are sensuous, dense and allusive. The latter quality makes adequate translation extremely difficult. Many of his poems have political, romantic or philosophical implications, but it is often unclear which of these should be read into each work.

Li Yu was a Chinese poet and the last ruler of the Southern Tang Kingdom. His best-known poems were composed 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.


Beginning in the Tang dynasty (618907), the primary subject matter of painting was the landscape, known as shanshui (mountain water) painting. In these landscapes, usually monochromatic and sparse, the purpose was not to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere so as to catch the "rhythm" of nature.

Painting in the traditional style involved essentially the same techniques as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black or colored ink; oils were not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk. The finished work is then mounted on scrolls, which can be hung or rolled up. Traditional painting also is done in albums and on walls, lacquerwork, and other media.

Dong Yuan was an active painter in the Southern Tang Kingdom. He 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. As with many artists in China, his profession was as an official where he studied the existing styles of Li Sixun and Wang Wei. However, he added to the number of techniques, including more sophisticated perspective, use of pointillism and crosshatching to build up vivid effect.

Zhan Ziqian was a painter during the Sui Dynasty. His only painting in existence is Strolling About In Spring arranged mountains perspectively. Because the first pure scenery paintings of Europe emerged after the 17th century, Strolling About In Spring may well be the first scenery painting of the world..

The Song and Yuan dynasties (960–1368)

Song poetry

Ci is a kind of lyric Chinese poetry. Beginning in the Liang Dynasty, the ci followed the tradition of the Shi Jing and the yue fu: they were lyrics which developed from anonymous popular songs (some of Central Asian origin) into a sophisticated literary genre. The form was further developed in 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 (9601279), 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 Taoist and Buddhist concepts.

Liang Kai was a Chinese painter who lived in the 13th century (Song Dynasty). He called himself "Madman Liang," and he spent his life drinking and painting. Eventually, he retired and became a Zen monk. Liang is credited with inventing the Zen school of Chinese art.

Wen Tong was a painter who lived in the 11th century. He was famous for ink paintings of bamboo. He could hold two brushes in one hand and paint two different distanced bamboos simultaneously. He did not need to see the bamboo while he painted them because he had seen a lot of them.

Zhang Zeduan was a notable painter for his horizontal Along the River During Qingming Festival landscape and cityscape painting. It has been quoted as "China's Mona Lisa" and has had many well-known remakes throughout Chinese history. Other famous paintings include The Night Revels of Han Xizai, 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 gentry class 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 Xuanzong (712755), who founded the "Pear Garden" (梨园), 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" (梨园子弟). In the Yuan dynasty (12791368), forms like the Zaju (杂剧, variety plays), which acts based on rhyming schemes plus the innovation of having specialized roles like "Dan" (旦, female), "Sheng" (生, male) and "Chou" (丑, Clown), 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 (南戲), or the Nanxi (Southern opera), which was performed in public theaters of Hangzhou, then capital of the Southern Song Dynasty. With the invasion of the Mongol army, Emperor Gong (Gong Di (恭帝 Gōngdì)), Zhao Xian (趙顯 Zhào Xiǎn) 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 Cantonese. Until the 20th 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 the Forest Grotto.

Zhao Mengfu was a Chinese scholar, painter 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 (1235-1305), 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 (1368-1911)

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 (On Superfluous Things).

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 (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. 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 (1644–1911). 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 melodies, 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 (隨園詩話) stressed the importance of personal feeling and technical perfection.

Early Qing painting

Bada Shanren, Jiang Tingxi, Shitao

Shanghai School

The Shanghai School (海上画派 Haishang Huapai or 海派 Haipai) 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" (中国画), or guohua (国画) 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 (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, calligraphist), 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.

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 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 he would compile the tales into collections such as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.

New China art (1912-1949)


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 cinema, 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 Sanmao 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 (1950-1980s)

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 Destruction of the Four Olds, 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 yellow music (pornography). On the contrary, revolutionary music was promoted and brought to new heights like never before. The film and animation 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 195657, 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 vers libre) 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, 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, Zhu Yu, 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 (栗宪庭) 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.

Revival (2000s - Present)

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 USD $ 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 Macau Casinos as well as Stephen Wynn, 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 HKD $ $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. Fuck Off 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.


See also



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 (200-750 AD). 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.
  • S. Diglio, Urban Development and Historic Heritage Protection in Shanghai, in Fabio Maniscalco ed., "Web Journal on Cultural Patrimony", 1, 2006

External links

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