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The Early Dynasties: Ritual Bronzes
During the Shang dynasty (c.1750–1045 B.C.), some of China's most extraordinary art was created—its ritual bronzes. Cast in molds, these sacrificial vessels display stylistic developments that began with early bronzes at Erh-li-tou and reached their apex at Anyang, the Shang capital city, where excavations in have yielded numerous ritual bronze vessels that indicate a highly advanced culture in the Shang dynasty in the 2d millennium. The art of bronze casting of this period is of such high quality that it suggests a long period of prior experimentation.
The ritual bronzes represent the clearest extant record of stylistic development in the Shang, Chou, and Early Han dynasties. The adornment of the bronzes varies from the most meager incision to the most ornate plastic embellishment and from the most severely abstract to some naturalistic representations. The Later Han dynasty marks the end of the development of this art, although highly decorated bronze continued to be produced, often with masterly treatment of metal and stone inlays.
The advent of Buddhism (1st cent. A.D.) introduced art of a different character. Works of sculpture, painting, and architecture of a more distinctly religious nature were created. With Buddhism, the representation of the Buddha and of the bodhisattvas and attendant figures became the great theme of sculpture. The forms of these figures came to China from India by way of central Asia, but in the 6th cent. A.D. the Chinese artists succeeded in developing a national style in sculpture. This style reached its greatest distinction early in the T'ang dynasty. Figures, beautiful in proportion and graceful in gesture, show great precision and clarity in the rendering of form, with a predominance of linear rhythms.
Gradually the restraint of the 7th cent. gave way to more dramatic work. Major sites of Buddhist art in cave temples include Donghuang, Lung-men, Yun-kang, Mai-chi-shan, and Ping-ling-ssu. For about 600 years Buddhist sculpture continued to flourish; then in the Ming dynasty sculpture ceased to develop in style. After this time miniature sculpture in jade, ivory, and glass, of exquisite craftsmanship but lacking vitality of inspiration, was produced in China (and was also made in Japan).
Chinese Painting since the Fifth Century
Little painting remains from the early periods except for that on ceramics and lacquer and tiles, and tomb decorations in Manchuria and N Korea. It is only from the 5th cent. A.D. that a clear historical development can be traced. Near Dunhuang more than a hundred caves (called the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas) contain Buddhist wall paintings and scrolls dating mainly from the late 5th to the 8th cent. They show first, simple hieratic forms of Buddha and of the bodhisattvas and later, crowded scenes of paradise. The elegant decorative motifs and certain figural elements reveal a Western influence.
A highly organized system of representing objects in space was evolved, quite different from Western post-Renaissance perspective. Rendering of natural effects of light and shade is almost wholly absent in this art, the greatest strength of which is its incomparable mastery of line and silhouette. One of the earliest artists about whom anything is known is the 4th-century master Ku K'ai-chih, who is said to have excelled in portraiture.
The art of figure painting reached a peak of excellence in the T'ang dynasty (618–906). Historical subjects and scenes of courtly life were popular, and the human figure was portrayed with a robustness and monumentality unequaled in Chinese painting. Animal subjects were also frequently represented. The 8th-century artist Han Kan is famous for his painting of horses. The T'ang dynasty also saw the rise of the great art of Chinese landscape painting. Lofty and craggy peaks were depicted, with streams, rocks, and trees carefully detailed in brilliant mineral pigments of green and blue. These paintings were usually executed as brush drawings with color washes. Little if anything remains of the work of such famous masters as Yen Li-pen, Wu Tao-tzu, Wang Wei, and Tung Yuan of the Five Dynasties.
In the Sung dynasty (960–1279) landscape painting reached its greatest expression. A vast yet orderly scheme of nature was conceived, reflecting contemporary Taoist and Confucian views. Sharply diminished in scale, the human figure did not intrude upon the magnitude of nature. The technique of ink monochrome was developed with great skill; with the utmost economy of pictorial means, suggestion of mood, misty atmosphere, depth, and distance were created. During the Sung dynasty the monumental detail began to emerge. A single bamboo shoot, flower, or bird provided the subject for a painting. Among those who excelled in flower painting was the Emperor Hui-tsung, who founded the imperial academy. Hundreds of painters contributed to its glory, including Li T'ang, Hsia Kuei, and Ma Yüan. Members of the Ch'an (Zen) sect of Buddhism executed paintings, often sparked by an intuitive vision. With rapid brushstrokes and ink splashes, they created works of vigor and spontaneity.
With the ascendance of the Yüan dynasty (1260–1368) painting reached a new level of achievement, and under Mongol rule many aspects cultivated in Sung art were brought to culmination. The human figure assumed greater importance, and landscape painting acquired a new vitality. The surface of the paintings, especially the style and variety of brushstrokes, became important. Still-life compositions came into greater prominence, especially bamboo painting. During this time, much painting was produced by the literati, gentlemen scholars who painted for their own enjoyment and self-improvement.
Under some of the emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) a revival of learning and of older artistic traditions was encouraged and connoisseurship was developed. We are indebted to the Ming art collectors for the preservation of many paintings that have survived into our times. Bird and flower pictures exhibited the superb decorative qualities so familiar to the West. Shen Chou, Tai Chin, Wen Cheng-ming, T'ang Yin, and Tung Ch'i-ch'ang are but a few of the many great masters of this period.
Under the Ch'ing dynasty (1644–1912) a high level of technical competence was maintained, particularly in the applied arts, until the 19th cent., when the output became much more limited. The famous four Wangs imitated the great Yüan masters. Among painters of less orthodoxy, Shih-T'ao and Chu Ta were outstanding as artists of remarkable personal vision. However, there was little innovation in painting. Throughout the history of Chinese painting one characteristic has prevailed—the consummate handling of the brushstroke. Paintings were executed in a dry or wet-brush technique, with an incredible versatility ranging from swirling patterns to staccato dots.
Calligraphy and the Minor Arts
The mastery of brushwork was directly related to calligraphy, traditionally regarded by the Chinese as the highest art form. Masters of calligraphy such as Wang Hsi-chih (c.303–361) and his son were revered and their works copied for the perfection of their writing. Reliance on calligraphic techniques in later painting, however, produced a sterile art of overworked formulas in painting of the 19th cent. Elegant inscriptions and poems were often included within the painting, which took the form of a handscroll, hanging scroll, or an album leaf, made of silk or paper.
The fine art of Chinese ceramics followed to some degree the development of painting, reaching its highest perfection in the Sung dynasty and its extreme technical elaboration and decorative style in the Ming. In enamel ware, lacquerware, jade, ivory, textiles, and many other of the so-called minor arts, the world owes an incalculable debt to China.
Cross-Cultural Influences in Modern Times
Art under Communism
See L. Sickman and A. Soper, The Art and Architecture of China (1956); O. Sirén, Chinese Painting (7 vol., 1956–58); J. Cahill, The Art of Southern Sung China (1979) and The Distant Mountains: Chinese Painting of the Late Ming Dynasty, 1570–1644 (1982); W. C. Fong, Beyond Representation (1992); M. Chiu, Art and China's Revolution (2008); M. Sullivan, The Arts of China (5th ed., rev. and expanded, 2008); C. Clunas, Art in China (2009) and Chinese Painting and Its Audience (2017); Wu Hung et al., ed., Contemporary Chinese Art (2010); Lü Peng, A History of Art in 20th Century China (tr. 2010); J. C. Y. Watt, ed., The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty (2010); Gao Minglu, Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth Century Chinese Art (2011).