What Dynasty Are My Chinese Antiques From?
Ancient Chinese art is some of the oldest on Earth. The history of Chinese ceramics alone dates back over 10,000 years. Chinese artisans of the Yangshao culture during the Neolithic Age were already beginning to decorate earthenware vases while many other cultures were still making cave art.
This means that to truly know the length and breadth of Early Chinese art, you'd have to be an archaeologist as well as an art historian. There is such a breadth of knowledge around this fabulous, fantastic artwork from all eras.
We've prepared a bit of a primer on Chinese antiques to help you ascertain which era your collectibles may be from, as well as to help you fall in love with the deep field of Chinese ancient art.
Like other aspects of Ancient Chinese history, the different ages are named after the rulers of their time. The exception to this naming convention is the Ancient or Neolithic ages, dating back to around 10,000 BCE. The Yangshao Culture would rise to prominence during this time, from about 5000 - 3000 BCE.
Despite its antiquity, some of the earliest Ancient Chinese art originates from the Ancient and Neolithic eras. Artisans were already making decorative artifacts at this stage. Painted clay pots are some of the most common, including funerary urns. These pots tend to be coiled and painted with geometric designs.
These designs mark the beginning of Chinese calligraphy, which is still practiced to this day.
The Hongshan culture started shaping jade during the Neolithic Age, as well. Jade could be used to craft ceremonial swords, reaping knives, and plaques.
Chinese sculpture from the Neolithic Age can be found at times, as well, although it's rare. Bronze statues and ceremonial vessels were used for religious ceremonies. Wine vessels in the shape of animals have been found from this era, as well.
Neolithic/Ancient Chinese art isn't really a particular era or style. It's really just another way of saying Prehistoric. The Xia dynasty was the first official government of Ancient Chinese, ruling from around 2070 to 1600 BCE. As such, Xia art forms an important bridge between the Neolithic era and later influential eras like the Shang Dynasty.
Before the Xia Dynasty, most Ancient Chinese art was mainly comprised of pottery. Although still quite sophisticated, most Neolithic Chinese art was made of naturalistic materials like bone, clay, ivory, or stone.
The Xia Dynasty's main contribution to Early Chinese art is the introduction of bronze, gold, and other forms of metallurgy. The arts developed during the Neolithic era continued to evolve and become more refined. Vases and pottery from the Xia era began to be lacquered for the first time, for instance.
Chinese brushstroke would continue to evolve during the Xia dynasty, as well. This is when the first examples of Chinese calligraphy began to emerge.
Although previous eras laid the groundwork for Chinese art and culture, the Qin era is the beginning of what many think of when they think of Ancient Chinese art. This is largely to due to the fact that many of the most famous examples of Chinese art were created during 221 and 206 BCE. This includes the Great Wall of China which is not just a marvel of the ancient world but remains a wonder, even today.
The importance of the Qin Dynasty to Ancient Chinese history also has to do with the fact that we don't know a ton about what came before. The rulers of the Qin Dynasty were obsessed with law and order, causing them to burn many books and writings of an older era in the pursuit of stability.
One of the other most famous and well-known examples of Ancient Chinese art, specifically Chinese sculpture, is from the Qin Dynasty as well. The Terracotta Army of over 8,000 life-sized soldiers cast in terracotta is an impressive spectacle and achievement still to this day.
Despite being the source of many of our ideas and conceptions of Ancient Chinese art, the Qin Dynasty wasn't particularly focused on culture, especially not the visual arts. The Qin emperors were soldiers and were more focused on defense and the military. The true Golden Age of Early Chinese art wouldn't come until the following era.
The Qin Dynasty may be responsible for some of the most enduring images of Ancient Chinese history, but the Han Dynasty may be the first real Golden Age of Chinese culture. This is reflected in the duration itself. The Qin Dynasty lasted a scant 15 years.
The Han Dynasty, on the other hand, spanned over 400 years. The period between 206 BCE and 220 AD is so influential that some scholars of Ancient Chinese history consider anything that comes after modernity.
While the Qin Dynasty may have been obsessed with military might, stability, and order, the Han Dynasty focused more on the culture. The Han era is considered a high point of not only Ancient Chinese culture but the world of antiquities in general.
This is around the point when Chinese culture and philosophy began to interact with the wider world as the Silk Road began to flower and flourish.
Like the Qin era, many of the major artistic achievements of Han era are refinements of traditional art forms. Pottery, painting, silk weaving, and jade carving would all experience a renaissance during the Han Dynasty.
The major innovation of the Han Dynasty is the introduction of porcelain. Chinese porcelain originated in the province of Zheijiang between 100 and 200 AD.
Both fine art and decorative art flourished during the Han Dynasty. One of the major contributions of the era is the evolution of funerary arts. During the earlier half of the Han Dynasty, people were buried with items they'd typically use in daily life.
By the latter half of the Han Era, items were being made specifically for funerary rites. These could include miniature items of things in life, from pig farms to buildings to agricultural centers which were often rendered in ceramic.
Visual arts weren't the only art form to flourish during the Han Dynasty. Everything from architecture to music to philosophy would similarly blossom during these impactful 4 centuries. Confucianism became popular again during this era after the repressive book-burning of the Qin Dynasty.
An emphasis on decoration returned during this time, as well, especially decorative bricks and tilework. Some of these arts are among some of the most impressive and accomplished works of the Ancient World. They still tour the globe to this day, wowing audiences and art-lovers with their technical finesse and timeless charm.
If you have an object cast in ceramic depicting ordinary Chinese life or an artifact decorated with Confucian wisdom in early Chinese calligraphy, there's a chance it's from the Han Era.
With a history of more than 10,000 years, we're forced to pick and choose about which Chinese ancient art we're able to cover. To cover all of the incredible achievements, and the cultural and historical forces that inspired them, would take several encyclopedias to comment on fully.
Instead, we must focus on some of the most influential and impressive examples of Ancient Chinese art to give as broad of an overview as possible.
By the time the Tang Dynasty had come to fruition, Buddhism had been introduced to Ancient China. A number of other religions and philosophies had, as well. Art from the Tang Era reflects this cosmopolitan attitude, absorbing influences from India, Persia, and Central Asia.
The major innovations to come from the Tang Era was the evolution of Ancient Chinese painting, particularly of landscapes. The style known as shan shui, which translates to 'mountain-water', was incredibly popular although they tend to be rendered with pen-and-ink rather than painting. In shan shui, naturalism was not the goal but rather capturing the spirit or essence of a place.
Many of the masters of shan shui were scholars rather than professional artists or artisans. They created their works on scrolls, intended for private gatherings instead of public display. So if you have an Ancient Chinese scroll featuring a poetic rendering of a misty mountain using pen-and-ink, there's a chance it's from the Tang Era.
Ancient Chinese sculpture would also experience a renaissance during the Tang Dynasty. The emergence of Buddhist sculpture in China stems from the Tang Dynasty, although not much is left in China itself. It exists more as an influence as ancient Japan was heavily influenced by the Tang Dynasty.
Chinese Buddhist sculpture differs from other Buddhist art in subtle but striking ways. Chinese Buddhist sculpture was more fluid and lifelike than their more static counterparts from other cultures. This fluidity even caused some controversy during its time as some of the statues were thought to resemble court dancers more than saints.
Jade carving was still the most revered form of Ancient Chinese sculpture during the Tang Dynasty.
A number of "minor arts" would also flourish during the Tang Era. This includes the art of printmaking, thanks to the invention of woodblock printing during this time period.
Chinese woodblock printing is a precursor of the Gutenberg press. They helped to dramatically increase literacy rates during this era. Some of the earliest religious texts date back to the Tang Dynasty such as A miniature Buddhist dharani sutra from 650 - 670 AD.
We'll round out our tour of Ancient Chinese art with one of its most famous eras. The Ming Dynasty lasted from 1368-1644 AD. It's responsible for some of the finest art this world has ever known.
The name Ming itself is synonymous with quality and craft. This is due to the Ming vases which are coveted by art and antique collectors. It's easy to understand why as these Chinese artifacts are stunningly beautiful.
Ming pottery is best known for its iconic blue and white pattern. It can sometimes be found in sea-green celadon and all white, as well. The colors aren't the only things that make Ming pottery notable, however.
Ming ceramics were sometimes treated the cobalt blue with manganese. This results in a sharper, more defined image in the underglaze decoration. Vases were sometimes decorated with paintings atop the glaze, as well. These would be fired at a lower temperature which results in more vivid colors.
Ming pottery can be divided into a number of unique eras. They are:
- Yongle period (1402–24)
- Xuande period (1425–35)
- Chenghua period (1464–87)
- Zhengde period (1505–21)
- Jiajing period (1521–67)
- Wanli period (1572–1620)
All of these innovations, taken together, make this one of the most vibrant periods in art history. The Ming Era would also introduce the sancai style, which is pottery featuring three colors. Cloisonne enameling was also introduced into Chinese art during this time.
As you can see, there's a lot to know about Ming art. You could spend an entire career focusing on this era alone! Suffice it to say, if you have a blue and white Chinese vase that seems old you may want to get it appraised. A plate from the Ming era sold for over $675,000 not too long ago!
Ancient Chinese art is a vast, endless subject. It's a living embodiment of ancient history cast in stone, ceramic, and porcelain. It remains a stunning accomplishment even now, thousands of years later. Ancient Chinese art offers an opportunity to own a small piece of that vast history.
Are You Looking For Chinese Antiques?
Chinese antiques come in all shapes and sizes. They range from scroll fragments to Terracotta Warriors, Ming vases to jade earrings. It's nice to have a trusted guide to help you navigate the world of Ancient Chinese art.
If you're looking to get started in the world of Ancient Chinese art or if you have an item you think would find a home at the Weisbrod Collection, contact us today to set up an appointment.