Discovering Art From China: Why Is It So Valuable?
Art's heart lies in China. $3.7 billion worth of art was sold in China in 2019. That number accounts for more than half of global auction sales.
If you are looking to expand your collection of valuable and beautiful art, you should examine art from China. But you shouldn't start buying Chinese art just yet.
What is the history of Chinese art? What did Chinese artists depict, and how did their styles evolve through time? Who are some important Chinese artists you should collect?
Answer these questions and you can find great artworks without breaking a sweat. Here is your comprehensive guide.
Humans have lived in China since antiquity. The Neolithic period is not the first period during which humans lived in China. But it is the first period from which scholars have recovered substantial works of art.
During the Neolithic period, Chinese people began codifying different funeral customs. They placed burial goods in graves, usually for financially successful people. The Yangshao culture of northwest China also developed several crafts, including pottery.
Though Neolithic artforms have not stood the test of time, some of the period's motifs have. Archaeologists have found ceramic wares and jade figures with dragons on them. These artworks comprise the beginning of the dragon in Chinese art.
Works of Neolithic art include funerary urns, plaques, and bronze statues. Some online marketplaces value Neolithic jars at thousands of dollars.
The Han Era
Previous dynasties like the Qin dynasty had influences on Chinese art. Artists created the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang during the Qin era in 210 BCE.
But the Han dynasty helped create numerous Chinese traditions that are still influential today. Paper began being used as a writing and painting surface instead of silks. Silk paintings are more expensive than paper ones, but you can find more paper artworks.
Porcelain became a popular material for pottery and painting. Jade also spread, with members of the dynasty being buried in jade suits.
Artisans developed numerous paintings on clay tiles. These paintings depict landscapes and supernatural beings such as deities. Artsy and other marketplaces value some Han-era paintings at tens of thousands of dollars.
Buddhism arrived in China around 2,000 years ago. It took more than a century for Buddhism to spread out, as texts from India needed translations into Chinese.
Chinese artists began making Buddhist art during this time period. But it became prominent during the Tang dynasty in the 7th century CE.
Monks opened temples throughout China. Many of them contained statues of the Buddha and other important religious figures.
These statues were meditation and prayer tools for the monks, though some laypeople saw them. Some statues were made of gold and bronze while others contained wood and terracotta.
Other monks wrote texts and books. Calligraphy became its own art form, with each stroke revealing something about the artist themselves.
Many collectors start buying Chinese artwork with Buddhist art. You should have a firm understanding of Buddhism in China before you start buying Chinese antiques. It can be easy to confuse Gautama Buddha with other Buddhas in artworks.
Though Buddhism became prominent, previous Chinese beliefs did not go away. In particular, Taoism inspired the yin and yang motif popular through Asian art.
The Song dynasty took place between 960 and 1279 CE. It saw the rise of scholar-officials, who were public intellectuals who studied many subjects.
One subject many scholar-officials focused on was art. Making art was a way for elites to cultivate their morality and escape from societal ills.
In particular, elites focused on painting, as it was a traditional artform untainted by corruption. Artists created landscapes with surreal elements, featuring gods and ghosts. These paintings were created to reveal the painter's spirit, not to depict the literal landscape.
Some portraits do survive. Paintings show scholars in natural sites like waterfalls. The scholars observe nature around them, suggesting quiet study and the power of the natural world.
You can find monumental paintings that can cover entire walls. Some of these paintings are "hanging scrolls" that combine calligraphy with landscapes.
Elites collected many ancient works, which is why paintings from previous dynasties remain today. If you buy a Chinese painting, see if you can track its provenance through time. Paintings connected to important scholar elites tend to be valuable.
You can find other works from the Song period besides painting. Wood-carved figures of holy people still exist, and they have been sold for thousands of dollars in auctions.
The Mongols invaded China and caused the collapse of the Song dynasty. It took decades for the Mongols to be defeated and for Chinese emperors to return. Their return sparked the Ming dynasty, which occurred between 1368 and 1644 CE.
Ming dynasty officials directed the production of art. Painters were encouraged to depict even bigger landscapes, with awe-inspiring mountains and waterfalls.
Artisans were encouraged to pursue porcelain. They began painting their ceramics with blue and white designs, which remain popular in Chinese art today.
Textiles also became commonplace. Artisans created badges that people wore on their clothes, signifying their social rank. The badges were elaborate, depicting animals in bright colors.
The Qing Period
The Qing dynasty took over China in 1644. They were China's last imperial dynasty.
The dynasty developed a strong military, but they did not exert as much control over art as the Ming did. This resulted in several schools of artists developing.
The Qing rulers also interacted with Europe and the West. Artists studied Western painters and took influence from them. Chinese artists became famous in their own right, and you can buy many paintings from famous names.
The Orthodox School pursued traditional forms of Chinese art. They drew inspiration from previous traditions and depicted important figures in Chinese history.
The artists drawing inspiration from Ming and other dynasties did not limit themselves to duplicating previous artists. They created landscapes that contained empty space and mist, not just huge mountains.
Notable Orthodox artists include Wang Hui. Wang painted intricate landscapes with precise brushwork that showed off the textures of plants and rocks. Wang's work has been featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other important institutions.
The Individualists were loyalists to the Ming dynasty. They were upset and aggravated over the rise of the Qing, and they used art to make their feelings known.
Their paintings are extremely expressive. They contain strong contrasts in texture and tone. Focal points are distant from the foreground, making the viewer feel small and scared.
Individualist artists of note include Gong Xian. He was an aspiring politician who turned to art after the Qing dynasty began. His work is in the collections of museums all over the world, such as the Rietberg Museum.
Courtiers were artists who lived inside the Qing court. They produced artworks at the request of officials.
Many courtiers painted portraits of important figures. The paintings were representational, designed to depict how the figures were in real life. They also made works to commemorate important events like public gatherings and holidays.
Xu Yang was one important courtier. He made paintings commemorating the emperor's inspection tours and diplomatic missions.
His work focuses on landscapes, placing the emperor in a large scene. This shows how the people and land are interconnected with each other, with one inseparable from the other.
Modern Art From China
Some 20th-century Chinese artists studied in European schools. Artists like Xu Beihong imitated European pencil works using Chinese brushes.
Yet many Chinese artists resisted adopting Western techniques. The rise of socialism in china encouraged political artists to pursue wood-block printing. They made artworks depicting important historical events, including World War II.
Mao Zedong's government issued decrees on art production in the 1950s. Political art showing Mao and other figures in landscapes became common. Art for individual expression or fun was restricted.
China developed an avant-garde scene in the 1980s. The government shut the scene down, but artists managed to escape and establish their careers abroad.
Current trends in Chinese art include "Political Pop." This is a form that juxtaposes communist symbols with capitalist ones, ridiculing both. Important modern Chinese artists include Ai Weiwei, whose works have been sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
The Best Art From China
Art from China has a long history. You can buy Neolithic funerary works from thousands of years ago.
If you're interested in pottery, you can collect Han and Ming porcelain works. Ming works contain blue-and-white designs familiar to many westerners. You can also buy Buddhist sculptures.
If you like paintings, you have many options from the Song dynasty. You can also turn to the Qing period and modern artists. Wang Hui and Gong Xian are two notable painters.
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