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Chinese Traditional Art

China arguably has the oldest continuous art tradition in the world and defines it’s art under the imperial dynasties that ruled China. Possibly the most important style of Chinese art lies in the field of decorative arts. Chinese porcelain has been sought after across the world and in China by the rich and powerful as a sign of their wealth. Unlike in the West where pieces have been attributed to certain people and their workshops, most of the best pieces of Chinese porcelain were made by unnamed artists in huge production lines as the emperors sought to use this advanced skill to demonstrate their wealth and to give to others to secure their friendships or allegiances.

Other types of art such as Ink wash or Literati painting were performed more by scholars and painters and covered more aesthetically pleasing images such as flowers, animals and landscapes, much like Western art but being developed earlier. You will see many copies of Chinese Traditional art scenes in souvenir markets visited on many China tours.

Early Imperial China (221 BC - AD 220)

The Qin Emperor Qin Shi Huang was accompanied to the afterlife by some of the greatest sculptures in the world. These are, of course, the mighty Terra-Cotta Warriors. Over 7,000 larger than life sized characters are in the Mausoleum each with its own unique facial features, hairstyle and in many different poses fulfilling a variety of jobs.

Other art forms of this time include Jade burial suits which the rich members of Han dynasty society would be placed in before being buried. Porcelain was also becoming prevalent during the Han dynasty with the city of Jingdezhen becoming synonymous with the production of this high quality pottery.

Period of Division (220-581)

During this period their was a sharp rise in the influence of Buddhism and this was represented in the art of it’s time, particularly in the field of statuary. Towards the end of this period the art would change quite dramatically from the original Buddhist art towards more naturalism and realism.

Calligraphy was to continue to develop during this period as well, not least because of the invention of paper in the first century. This allowed silk to be phased out in favour of this new, cheaper format on which to write. Great pieces of calligraphy have been respected throughout Chinese history in the same way as paintings and are hung on walls as such.

The celebrated painter Gu Kaizhi lived during this time, writing three famous texts on painting. Three of his paintings still survive to this day and follow his belief that when painting figures, it was not the clothes or appearances that mattered but the eyes. These were where the spirit of people were to be found.

Sui & Tang Dynasties (581 - 960)

Tang dynasty Buddhist sculpture started to move towards more and more lifelike expression and were increasingly influenced by the foreigners met through the Silk Road. By the end of the dynasty though foreign religions such as Buddhism were banned. This had a massive effect on the development of the arts in China. A great place to see some of the stone sculptures from this time on China tours is Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang and the Yungang caves near Datong.

During the Tang dynasty the idea of “shanshui” painting became prevalent. It literally means “Mountain Water” and reflects the fact that these paintings concentrated on the landscape. The idea was less to accurately depict the surrounding area as it was to get a feel for the emotion that the environment stirred in you. The Tang painter Dong Yuan was the standard for the style of painting that would dominate China for the next 9 centuries.

The Sui painter Zhan Ziqian arranged the mountains in perspective. His only remaining painting is called “Strolling About in Spring” and is considered to be the first scenery painting in the world, centuries before European painters would start to do this.

Song & Yuang Dynasties (960 - 1368)

The Song Dynasty saw much more detail going into these landscape paintings and new techniques being implemented to do this such as fading mountains into the mist and conveying immeasurable distances by using blurred outlines. The object of the artist was to express the inner harmony of nature and man through their art. One of China’s most famous paintings called “Along the river during the QingMing festival” was painted by Zhang Zeduan during this time. It is a horizontal land and cityscape that is known as the Chinese “Mona Lisa” It has been much copied and has many known remakes.

The Yuan Dynasty was the time of the “Four Great Masters” and the most famous and oldest of these was Huang Gongwang a government official turned Taoist priest who rejected the convention’s of his era to become one of the great Literati painters.

Late Imperial China (1368 - 1895)

During the Ming dynasty art started to become much more diverse, incorporating a much wider spectrum of colours and a lot more going on in the paintings. European art and methods were being introduced to China as well with Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit priest, visiting Nanjing and bringing paintings that demonstrated new techniques in perspective and shading.

The early Qing dynasty saw painting split into two distinct styles called Orthodox and Individualist. Both came from one man, Dong Qichang. The Orthodox looked back to the traditional brushwork of the classical painters whereas the Individualists attempted to create something new from the tradition. The first painting manuals started to be printed at this time, some, such as Jieziyuan Huazhuan was published in 1679 and has been in use as a textbook ever since.

At the end of the Qing and through the 20th century, the Shanghai School of arts took Chinese art from it’s traditional routes and encouraged new techniques and style to be built on top of the traditional ways. This reflected the change that was coming in Chinese society as it modernised and challenged the purpose of art itself, using art as a form of social commentary.

Chinese Modern Painting

Spurred by the New Culture Movement, a group of prominent cultural philosophers who wanted to rid China of the traditionalism of it’s imperial past and embrace Western and Global ideals, Chinese art began to integrate western techniques. This was aided by groups of Chinese scholars and artists going to France to study.

With the rise to power of the Communist party in 1949 The art world was about to be turned on it’s head. Art was heavily promoted if it was friendly to the party but anything considered to be standing against them meant the artist would be sent to the countryside for “re-education”. Perhaps the most significant moment was in the campaign for the destruction of the four olds; Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas. This cornerstone of the Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of temples and works of art and the persecution of those who defended and indulged in these practices. It is something China is still in the process of restoring to the present day.

Contemporary Art Since 1979

With the death of Mao and the relaxing of people’s personal freedoms, Chinese avant-garde art began to bloom with the rise of artists such as the internationally renowned Ai Wei Wei. These artists still often live on the edge of what is excepted by the Chinese government and many exhibitions have been stopped and artists detained but the output of these artist and their numbers continue to increase as they dare to push the envelope further. You can learn more about this in our Chinese Contemporary Art section.

Content by Phil Stanley & Headseast inspired by Wikipedia


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