A Guide to the Different Types of Chinese Art
China is home to one of the world's most ancient and stories cultures.
Its recorded history begins with the Shang Dynasty, which came to power sometime between the mid-18th to the mid-16th century BCE. To put that in perspective, this is around the same time that Shem, the son of the biblical Noah, is supposed to have died.
Chinese art has taken countless forms over that long history, and there are dedicated enthusiasts and collectors who specialize in specific eras or Chinese art forms. It would take a lifetime of study to fully understand all the Chinese types of art.
Don't let that deter you, however. As noted in the Tao Te Ching, "A journey of a thousand miles starts under one's feet."
To begin your education, let's take a look at some of the most notable types of Chinese art throughout history.
Earliest Examples of Chinese Art
While China's recorded history only goes back a few thousand years, humans inhabited the region long before that. Around 400,000 years ago, archaic humans like the Peking Man lived in what is now Beijing.
Hence, the earliest examples of Chinese art date all the way back to the Neolithic Age. These specimens include ceramic pieces crafted from around 10,000 BCE to 2,000 BCE.
Pottery from this period was almost always unpainted. However, some examples bear decorations of a different kind. The Yanshao people, who lived along the Yellow River between 5,000 BCE and 3,000 BCE, would decorate their pottery by pressing cords into the wet clay to leave imprints around the surface.
These early examples presage some of the treasures
Perhaps the most famous of ancient China's cultural treasures are the legendary Terracotta Warriors. This army of ceramic soldiers was commissioned by the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty to serve as the guardians of his tomb.
More than 8,000 of these clay warriors were entombed with the emperor, alongside several terracotta horses and beasts of burden. Archaeologists think the army took as long as 40 years to sculpt and served as a potent symbol of a unified China. As many as 700,000 artisans would have worked on the project over the decades.
Their appearance has faded with time, taking on a pale, grey hue. Recent findings suggest, however, likely would have been painted bright green, red, blue, white, and purple when they were manufactured. Each soldier is unique, with them wearing a variety of hair and beard styles, and their uniforms reflecting varying ranks and statuses.
While they're the most famous example of Chinese ceramics, they're far from the only surviving treasures of their kind.
Chinese porcelain and ceramics are so well-loved that the word "china" entered the popular parlance to describe any high-quality dining wares. Chinese porcelain, in particular, is well-known for its wide range of intricately decorated pieces.
Blue and white were the most popular colours used in these pieces. Porcelain with a red underglaze, however, was common during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368 CE).
Many of the most iconic examples of Chinese porcelain come from the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 CE). These specimens are made from traditional white porcelain with blue underglaze and are most often embossed with floral designs.
The Discovery of Jade
To this day, some of the best-known works of Chinese artistry and craftsmanship are intricated sculptures carved from jade. Like pottery, this art form developed during the Neolithic Age. It would go on to become one of the most sought-after Chinese art forms.
Jade comes from metamorphic rocks and is best known for its opaque, deep green color. It was also a durable material by the standards of the time, making it an excellent choice for many applications.
First mined around the year 6,000 BCE, jade was so prized amongst the ancient Chinese that it became known as the "imperial gem." Emperors and other prominent figures would commission extravagant treasures hewn from this luminous green mineral. The upper classes would also use jade in practical items like cups, vases, and personal care tools.
Perhaps most intriguingly is jade's use in various religious and funerary rites.
Ritual artifacts like the cylindrical cong and the bi disk, for example, were powerful symbols of the earth and the heavens, respectively. Other jade artifacts recovered from royal tombs are more mysterious, their exact nature and purposes having been lost to time.
Bronze vessels and ornaments are among the prominent Chinese antiquities to survive in the modern age. While pottery and jade remained popular art forms into the Bronze Age, Chinese artisans were fascinated by the applications of this new material. In short order, they became some of the ancient world's preeminent bronze makers.
Like jade before it, bronze was prized both for its utility and its beauty. Simple housewares and personal decorations would be made from bronze, as would ceremonial pieces like this example.
Some of these bronzes survive not only as works of art but as vital historical records.
The Chinese wouldn't develop writing until around 1400-1200 BCE. So in the early Bronze Age, they were an almost entirely oral culture. If an event was deemed sufficiently important to be recorded, they would most often do so by depicting these events in murals.
None of these ancient paintings appear to have survived. But some of the stories they told have—their tales are retold and preserved in bronze.
When you think of collectible art, you may not think of poetry at first. It's an admirable pursuit. But the works of Homer and Virgil belong to the world, not to collectors or museums.
That is where the Chinese set themselves apart.
Most cultures develop some form of poetry sooner or later. These poems can be purely aesthetic works of wordcraft or the primary means a society uses to record its history.
But most of these societies would not record their poetry in any physical form. The Illiad would not be written down until the 7th century BCE, up to 500 years after the tale takes place. In the interim, it survived as an oral tradition, passed down from one generation of poets to the next.
Much of what we know about pre-modern Scandinavia comes from similar oral traditions. Mythology and history were memorized and recited by a dedicated class of poets call Skalds. These poems and tales weren't committed to text until the 13th century CE, by which time only a fraction of them had survived.
China, by and large, does not have this issue. Once the ancient Chinese developed writing, they set to work recording history and poetry onto paper or silk handscrolls.
These scrolls would often have decorative illustrations as well as text. While not as durable as bronzes, some of these scrolls have survived for an impressively long time. The oldest of these illustrated scrolls is a Buddhist text from the 4th Century CE.
Calligraphy shares much of the same history as illustrated scrolls. The key difference is that these works of art of purely text-based.
The word "calligraphy" means beautiful writing. And indeed, China's Shang dynasty was the first culture to elevate the act of writing to a distinct art form.
By some accounts, calligraphy was viewed as a higher art form than sculpture or painting. To be a master of calligraphy meant you had achieved the very height of sophistication. Only poetry was considered a higher form of self-expression.
As with illustrated handscrolls, a surprising number of these works have survived to the modern day. It's a fact that speaks to how prized the medium was in its time. So many examples were produced that by the law of probability, a goodly number of them would have had to survive.
Many of these works now rest in the permanent collections of museums. Ancient examples, in particular, are often entrusted to these institutions for preservation. More modern specimens, however, show up on the collector's market with some regularity.
Calligraphy enjoyed something of an artistic monopoly for several centuries. The Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127 CE), however, saw the introduction of painting as a popular new art form. In particular, these 10th-century painters turned to the natural world for inspiration, capturing the beauty of the Chinese countryside in magnificent landscape paintings.
Some of these landscapes were purely aesthetic. But quite a few are profound and contain more substance than their surface beauty suggests, speaking to social, philosophical, or political concerns of their day.
These works may also offer a window into the artist's interior landscape- their emotions and thoughts. Landscape paintings served as a vital means of self-expression that goes beyond simple impressionism.
Exploring a New World of Art
For Westerners, one of the appeals of Chinese art is that it evolved from a different set of traditions than the styles we're most familiar with. Not only that, but China is a massive county, covering about 3.7 million square miles. Across that huge expanse, there are countless unique artistic traditions with a wealth of works to explore.
This brief primer is only a jumping-off point.
The best way to further your knowledge of Chinese art is to become a collector. Weisbrod Family Collections can help you take that next step. To explore our collections, contact us at +852 2868-9865.