A Complete Guide to Chinese Antiques and Museum Quality Fine Art
Gorgeous colors, tradition, sophistication, and innovation characterize the tradition of Chinese art, which spans thousands of years of human history.
Whether the artist was designing pieces for their aesthetic value or because they had important symbolic value, each antique comes with a story and a timeless elegance that speaks of power yet remains somehow delicate.
But how do you tell the difference between a museum quality piece and something that isn't worth what it's being sold for? The world of Chinese antiques can feel like a complex one, and in order to truly involve yourself in that world, you need to understand what you're looking at and why it's important.
That's why we've put together this guide. We want to help you understand the true value of Chinese art, and how you can curate the most incredible collection for yourself. Keep reading to find out more.
Types of Antiques
Over the centuries, Chinese art has changed and evolved to suit the cultural needs of the time. That being said, every age or era has had similar physical themes throughout. By that, we mean that while the way things were being represented changed, the physical objects themselves remained as a foundation.
We'll dive into that more when we talk about the eras, but for now, let's look at what antiques you can expect to find coming from ancient China.
These are perhaps some of the most widely collected and well-known Chinese collectibles. These can include plates, jugs, teapots, and vases, to name but a few examples. They made them from jade, bronze, clay, and glass, but arguably the most valuable and sought after are porcelain pieces.
Some of the most famous were made at what we know as "porcelain town," which is the town of Jingdezhen, in the north-eastern Jianxi province.
Painting in general, never mind Chinese painting, is one of the oldest artistic traditions in the old. In Chinese art, however, there are two distinct techniques that were predominantly used throughout time. These were gongbi and shui mo hua. Gongbi, which translates to meticulous, typically represents a narrative or story, with the artist using highly detailed brushstrokes.
This was often most practices by artisans of the imperial court. Shui mo hua was typically practiced by scholars and gentlemen, and translates to "water and ink." These are some of the most sought-after paintings now, and not only because the scholars and gentlemen became very famous, but because they have a magnificent ethereal quality to them.
Chinese sculptures are typically made from many materials, including clay, bronze, glass, and stone, but one of the most popular has to be jade. They regarded jade as the "imperial gem," and it was used to make many decorative pieces for high-ranking members of the Han dynasty.
There was a belief that jade stopped the decay of flesh, and those that had passed were encased in jade suits, made from thin slabs of jade, sewn or wired together with silver and gold thread. Just one of these suits could take up to 10 years to make and are revered antiques now.
Other sculptures could have shown anything from animals to mythical creatures, narratives, or religious icons.
The ancient Chinese had a very minimalist mat-level furniture culture, in which they typically sat cross-legged or on their knees, using low tables and woven mats. Beds, tables, cabinets, stools, seats, and wardrobes - what we now refer to as classic Chinese antique furniture - were made from the late 14th century onward.
This was at the commencement of the Ming dynasty and moved all the way through to the early twentieth century, or the end of the Qing Dynasty. As with all antiques, materials, age, condition, and provenance are all aspects that affect the value of a piece.
The quality of the materials used is important since it could mean the difference of a couple hundred thousand dollars. They made most furniture from mahogany, but easily the most prized was a hardwood found specifically on Hainan, the largest island in China. This is Zitan, a dark, dense wood from the rosewood family.
Understanding the Art Periods
China's vast and complicated history is split into several eras, depending on the reigning civilizations of the time. Each age contributed to the development of design, art, and architecture in its own way. Though we typically define the periods by dates and rulers, the art world can be a bit more fluid.
As with pieces from modern Western art, there isn't a single cutoff date. Art moves and grows organically, especially as trends and styles change, but we see some marked differences as time goes on. Some styles may overlap while others vanish entirely. We simply use dates because we must.
The Ancient Era
Chinese art played an essential role in Neolithic society, as early as 10,000 BCE, when funeral traditions became regulated and funerals included grave goods. On top of that, Northwest China's Yangshao culture developed agriculture as a way of growing and became known for their crafts, specifically textiles, metallurgy, and pottery.
They would make coiled clay pots, decorated with geometric motifs, as well as bronze statues and vessels. The Hongshan society used jade to make beautiful ceremonial items, as well as decorative pieces, like plaques, knives, and swords. They used brushes to forge an artistic legacy that has survived to this day.
The Qin Dynasty - 221 BCE - 206 BCE
This is the era of the Great Wall of China, though a concentration on law and order meant that many writings from previous generations and scholars were destroyed. This was a dynasty preoccupied with war, which left little money or time for art.
However, the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang is possibly one of the most famous pieces to come out of this era. This army comprised over 8,000 life-sized troops, archers, and horses, all made of baked, unglazed clay. The statues were buried so they may follow the Emperor into the afterlife.
The Han Dynasty - 206 BCE - 220 CE
The Han Dynasty made significant contributions to Chinese art and the world at large. Paper was now largely used over silk as a writing surface, and the Silk Road trading route was in full swing. Porcelain also gained more popularity in this era.
Han artists made porcelain, as well as earlier pieces called "proto-porcelain," and often used a glaze that is still famous (and used) today, called celadon. This had a soft green hue and has become synonymous with Chinese cultural art. This is also where jade burial suits first made an appearance.
Finally, as if they did not contribute enough, this was the era of painted clay tiles, which became a key subject in the study of Chinese art. They showed landscapes and deities and had great cultural importance.
The Tang Dynasty 618-907 CE
The Tang Dynasty was one of China's most illustrious periods of art and culture. Most notably was the art of calligraphy, which became a prized Chinese art form during this time. Both men and women practiced it, and each created their own style and method.
Because paper had supplanted silk, people had more access to the materials they needed to make their art. And, despite every person having their own style, there was an overarching concept that many adhered to. This was the concept of balance, where the letters acted as the units of measurement.
The thickness and thinness of the strokes, or the "bone and flesh", as well as the depth of ink, all came together to form entire universes, all of which could be read through the ink laid down by the artist's hand.
At this point, mural paintings were also gaining in popularity, with many Tang royals opting to have their tombs painted for the afterlife. This was also the first time very fine ceramics made their way onto the scene, both for tombs and daily use. These had a creamy white background with greens, yellows, browns, and sometimes blue decorative motifs.
The Golden Age of Painting
The Tang Dynasty was also the golden area of painting, with several famous painters were recognized by the Emperor's court, including Han Gan and Wu Daozi. Here we see the first true devotion to the subjects of man and nature, with depictions of massive mountain peaks to delicate flowers and blooms.
Artists painted the natural beauty of their world and when the Dynasty's power waned, artists focused more on showing the natural world around them as a refuge from the political turmoil that surrounded them.
The Song Dynasty - 960-1279 CE
The Song dynasty was notable for the emergence of a new social class. These were elite scholars; men who shaped Chinese life and society with their aesthetic sensibility. This was the dynasty that instituted government testing to pick the officials best suited to a job.
Before this, bureaucrats were typically hired after military service or moved on from inherited positions. The scholars of the Song era were exceptionally intelligent and well-educated, but also talented in one or more of the arts, be it painting, poetry, or calligraphy. When these men left the government, they pursued their artistic interests.
Besides calligraphy and painting, artists of this era were also famous for their wood carvings, which represented enlightened and holy figures for the inspiration of others.
The Ming Dynasty - 1368-1644 CE
After the defeat of the Mongols and the Chinese rule restored via the throne, the government played a stronger hand in the world of fine art. Here the great Forbidden city was constructed, and they encouraged painters to return to more traditional, naturalistic styles, as a nod to the past.
Mountains and waterfalls cascaded over the Earth, dwarfing the fragile humanity below. These were often frightening in their size and weight. Ink washes and calligraphy became more dominant as a combined pair, and they embroidered elaborate designs onto badges and garments to show rank.
They made these from rich textiles with colorful and intricate patterns. This included the Chinese dragon, which is still a popular icon today. Porcelain also saw its height of popularity with the famous blue and white designs, though other colors were still sometimes used. They exported these all over the world.
The Qin Dynasty - 1644 - 1911 CE
This was an age dominated by the Manchus. They were not native to China, but ruled with a strong military force. Despite their goal to separate themselves from the Chinese, the Manchus were wonderful rulers; taxes were low, people were reasonably safe, and Chinese art flourished.
Three primary categories of artists emerged during this period. They were the:
Traditionalists were popular because they made work that reflected the past. Individualists put their own stamp on their work, and courtiers worked in the Manchu court.
This was probably one of the most active dynasties in terms of trade, and the world came to know them for their pottery, with vibrant hues that appealed to the "new" world. They covered nearly every inch of the pottery in designs, resulting in a swirling, often jangling surface that was a far cry from the exquisite and pure porcelain of earlier times.
Portraiture also became a popular technique.
Knowing How to Collect Museum Quality Pieces
Mostly, Chinese art was first collected by the Chinese themselves, though the interest in collection later spread to Europe and the Americas. As with any form of historical art, it's tricky to collect authentic pieces. This is especially true because of the sheer quantity of fine reproductions and fakes.
Working with a skilled dealer online (or in-person) is easily the best way to approach the journey of Chinese art collection. Plus, while prices may seem exorbitant sometimes, with some of the finest antiques well out of reach for most budgets, there are some objects that sell for more reasonable rates.
These are especially worth keeping an eye out for at sales and auctions, especially if you have the means to have the pieces appraised beforehand, or the auctioneer can offer you a certificate of authenticity.
Grow Your Collections
Understanding not only how to collect Chinese antiques, but what the significance of the provenance means, is a tricky business. And it's certainly not something one can easily do on their own. That's why it's so important to work with a knowledgeable and reputable dealer.
If you're interested in learning more about what makes something antique or want to see our galleries, contact us today or browse our collections. We have countless museum quality pieces and we'd love to talk to you about them.