Art of the Han Dynasty: History, Popular Pieces, and More
The Han Dynasty, which spanned four centuries from 206 BCE to 220 CE, is seen by many as the golden age of Chinese history. It was during this time that innovation, creativity, art, and architecture flourished.
During this period, China saw rapid advancements in technology, science, literature, astronomy, and math. The art of Han Dynasty was innovative and widespread. The artwork shifted from being used as a ritualistic and ceremonial tool to art that depicted everyday life and beliefs.
The different art styles that emerged from the Han Dynasty show us the rich history of the people who lived during this time. We'll uncover the history of the Han Dynasty and the ancient Han Dynasty art styles that came from this period in our guide below.
The History of Han Dynasty
The Han Dynasty came about after the short-lived and unstable Qin Dynasty. This new era saw a resurgence of stability and wealth for the people who lived here.
The Han Dynasty officially emerged in 206 BCE when military leader Liu Bang helped overthrow the Qin Dynasty. Liu Bang later became the emperor and adopted the name Emperor Gaozu. This emperor was said to have been born a peasant and rose to lead this new Dynasty.
The early years of the Han Dynasty were marked by the challenges of reestablishing a central kingdom following the collapse of the Qin Dynasty. Emperor Gaozu had the task of reimagining some of the authoritarian ideas left over from the previous dynasty's rule.
Confucian ideology made up the foundation of the Han Dynasty. Virtue, piety, and moderation were the cornerstones of what people believed and practiced. Emperor Gaozu started to use the Confucianism ideas of education and thought as the way the state would run.
Most people separate this Dynasty into two periods, the Western and Eastern Han. The separation marks a small time when an unsuccessful Xin Dynasty tried to take control. After the failure of the Xin Dynasty, the Han Dynasty continued its reign.
One of the most important developments made during the Han Dynasty was the establishment of the Silk Road. This road, which opened under the direction of the famous Emperor Wu, solidified trade with Western countries.
The Han Dynasty was also a time when art and science were allowed to thrive. Items that many people use in their everyday lives like the compass, paper, and the wheelbarrow were all invented by Han people during this time.
The Han Dynasty eventually came to an end in 208 BCE after several years of high taxes, famine, and a weakening government. Despite its end, it left behind a legacy of arts and culture that people wouldn't soon forget.
The Art of Han Dynasty
Art during this golden age of Chinese culture was widespread and varied. Different historical events that occurred during the Han Dynasty influenced the art that emerged from this period.
The Han Dynasty thrived in literacy and kept meticulous records. People in this dynasty were accomplished musicians and artists.
Historians have discovered that the themes of Han artwork often revolved around scenes of everyday life, portraits, and belief systems.
The names of the artists in the Han Dynasty are not something that historians know. Instead, artists had a ranking based on their craft and education level.
People sometimes compare the art found in Han tombs to what people have found in Egyptian tombs. The tombs from the Han Dynasty had many rooms made of brick that held precious objects and artwork, especially in tombs for wealthier people.
Many tombs in the Han Dynasty revealed terracotta sculptures depicting the people, locations, and objects that were used in daily life. That is because the Chinese believed that surrounding people with objects they valued in their daily lives would follow them to the afterlife.
Jade is a precious stone used in many types of Chinese art, sculptures, and figure carving. At the time, people considered this stone more valuable than gold.
Jade is a prized stone as it represents beauty, purity, and longevity. Artists had used jade as a medium in earlier dynasties, but the designs carved into jade carvings during the Han Dynasty were becoming more complex.
One of the most interesting jade finds from this era was the jade burial suits made for Prince Liu Sheng and Princess Dou Wan. Artists stitched over two thousand rectangle-carved jade pieces together with silver and gold wire to make the suits. People believed Jade would protect the wearers as they made their way into the afterlife.
Paper was invented during the Han Dynasty, but this new technology wasn't used for painting until later in the Han period. Instead, many artists in the Han Dynasty painted walls and silk screens. People used these screens to divide rooms.
Painting rose in popularity during the Han Dynasty because of the political and economic stability found during this time. People had more wealth, which many used to buy or commission art. This bigger demand for artwork allowed artists to experiment and branch out with their subject matter and technique.
Another area where painting was prominent was on tomb walls and clay sculptures. Artists made paint from mineral pigments, which resulted in bright colors.
A common type of painting that showed up during this time was portraits. Artists depicted people in many different scenarios and scenes.
Although artists didn't commonly paint landscapes during this time, this form of painting may have roots in the Han Dynasty. Paintings showing the heavens were popular, and an early form of landscape painting.
A unique style of artwork from the Han Dynasty came in the form of lacquered objects. Lacquered items are any object covered in a melted substance that creates a protective, hard coating.
Ancient artists creating Chinese lacquered objects used tree sap from the Rhus Vernicefera tree to create their lacquer. To get the resin, people would cut the tree and drain the sap from the opening.
The tree sap emerged from the tree as a milky white, but artists could change the color by adding different chemicals to the substance. Some of the most popular colors found in ancient Chinese lacquered objects were black, yellow, and red.
Artists would mix carbon with the sap to create black. They would use ochre to create a yellow. Finally, cinnabar mixed with the sap made a red lacquer.
Once the piece was coated with lacquer, the artist would leave it to slowly dry. Once dry, the piece would hold up well in harsh weather like extreme heat, rain, or cold.
The protective nature of the lacquer helped keep more fragile materials from breaking down. Artists used lacquer on materials like silk, wood, and bamboo.
In the Han Dynasty, lacquerware was a popular art form. Many shallow cups with handles shaped like birds and other animals were popular during this time. This lacquerware featured interesting patterns like dragons, circles, monsters, triangles, and zig-zags.
Another form of artwork that developed during the Han Dynasty was calligraphy. The invention of paper led to more people turning to writing as a means of record-keeping and communication. Calligraphy eventually was an expected skill that educated people were to master.
Calligraphy is the ability to form and arrange symbols beautifully and artistically. To be good at this art form, people need to learn to control the calligraphy brush, understand composition, and have neat and rapid brush movement. The best examples of calligraphy use varying brushstrokes, thickness, seamless connection, and precise arrangement.
Historians have found early calligraphy examples on wood and silk, and later paper. Calligraphy also adorned objects like screens, fans, and banners.
Another popular form of art were those of sculptures. Sculpture created during the Han Dynasty came in different forms.
You can see one example of sculpture on the walls of tombs. Artists carved bricks and stone with relief scenes. These carved pieces were seen most often on the walls in tombs.
A famous sculpture from this time comes from the Wu Liang Shrine. Here, 70 slabs with reliefs showing battle scenes and historical figures line the tomb. This example dates back to 151 CE to 168 CE, making it a great depiction of Han sculpture.
Figure sculptures were another common art form to come out of the Han Dynasty. Most of these sculptures were small and represented people in power like generals and officials.
Artists crafted these smaller figures out of bronze or terracotta. Some were also gilded with silver or gold.
Han Dynasty: A Rich History of Art Innovation
The art of Han Dynasty reflects this culture, beliefs, and everyday life experienced by people living in this time. The artwork that came out of the Han Dynasty reflects the cultural, political, and economic achievements made during this time.
Experiencing this art allows you to step back in time and brings to life the Han Dynasty's fascinating history. One of the world's leading Chinese art collectors, Michael B. Weisbrod of Weisbrod Collection, has curated a selection of these treasures you can view yourself. Download or purchase one of the Spring 2023 Exhibition catalogs today.