Chinese art

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Chinese art,

works of art produced in the vast geographical region of China. It the oldest art in the world and has its origins in remote antiquity. (For the history of Chinese civilization, see ChinaChina,
Mandarin Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo [central glorious people's united country; i.e., people's republic], officially People's Republic of China, country (2015 est. pop. 1,397,029,000), 3,691,502 sq mi (9,561,000 sq km), E Asia.
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Early Periods

Neolithic cultures produced many artifacts such as painted pottery, bone tools and ornaments, and jade carvings of a sophisticated design. Excavations at B'ei-li-kang near Luo-yang date materials found at that site to 6000–5000 B.C. An excavation in the early 1970s of the royal tomb of Shih-huang Ti revealed an array of funerary terra-cotta images. In Henan, the village of Yang-shao gave its name to a culture that flourished from 5000 to 3000 B.C. Ban-p'o pottery wares were handmade and the area produced a polished red ware that was painted in black with designs of swirling spirals and geometric designs, sometimes with human faces. Later, at Ma-jia-yao in Gansu, brush-painted pottery became more sophisticated in the handling of the design. Knowledge of ancient Chinese art is limited largely to works in pottery, bronze, bone, and jade.

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 AnyangAnyang
, city (1994 est. pop. 458,400), N Henan prov., China, on the Beijing-Guangzhou RR, in a cotton-growing area. It is an agricultural and trade center with textile mills, coal mines, and a medium-sized iron and steel complex.
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, the Shang capital city, where excavations in have yielded numerous ritual bronze vessels that indicate a highly advanced culture in the ShangShang
or Yin,
dynasty of China, which ruled, according to traditional dates, from c.1766 B.C. to c.1122 B.C. or, according to some modern scholars, from c.1523 B.C. to c.1027 B.C.
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 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, ChouChou
, dynasty of China, which ruled from c.1027 B.C. to 256 B.C. The pastoral Chou people migrated from the Wei valley NW of the Huang He c.1027 B.C. and overthrew the Shang dynasty. The Chou built their capital near modern Xi'an in 1027 B.C. and moved it to Luoyang in 770 B.C.
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, and Early HanHan
, dynasty of China that ruled from 202 B.C. to A.D. 220. Liu Pang, the first Han emperor, had been a farmer, minor village official, and guerrilla fighter under the Ch'in dynasty.
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 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.

Buddhist Art

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'angT'ang
, dynasty of China that ruled from 618 to 907. It was founded by Li Yuan and his son Li Shih-min, with the aid of Turkish allies. The early strength of the T'ang was built directly upon the excellent system of communications and administration established by the Sui.
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 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 MingMing
, dynasty of China that ruled from 1368 to 1644. The first Ming emperor, Chu Yüan-chang (ruled 1368–98), a former Buddhist monk, joined a rebellion in progress, gained control of it, overthrew the Mongol Yüan dynasty, and unified all of China proper.
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 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 lacquerlacquer,
solution of film-forming materials, natural or synthetic, usually applied as an ornamental or protective coating. Quick-drying synthetic lacquers are used to coat automobiles, furniture, textiles, paper, and metalware.
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 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 DunhuangDunhuang
or Tunhwang
, town, extreme NW Gansu prov., China. Crescent Lake, a noted tourist attraction surrounded by high sand dunes, is there. The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (Mogao Caves) are at nearby Qianfodong.
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 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-chihKu K'ai-chih
, c.344–c.406, Chinese painter, one of the most eminent painters before the T'ang dynasty. He was especially noted for his portraits but also painted landscapes.
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, 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-penYen Li-pen
, d. 673, Chinese painter, foremost master of the T'ang dynasty. He became the most celebrated court painter of the 7th cent. and held several high public offices.
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, Wu Tao-tzu, Wang Wei, and Tung Yuan of the Five Dynasties.

In the SungSung
, dynasty of China that ruled 960–1279. It was divided into two periods: Northern Sung (907–1126) with its capital at Kaifeng and Southern Sung (1127–1279) with its capital at Hangzhou.
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 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'angLi T'ang
, c.1050–1130, Chinese painter of the Sung dynasty. A leader of the academy founded by the Emperor Hui-tsung, he established a mode of painting that was widely followed in succeeding centuries.
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, Hsia KueiHsia Kuei
, c.1180–1230, Chinese painter of the Sung dynasty. Little is known of his life. He and his contemporary Ma Yüan were regarded as the greatest landscape painters of the day and were the founders of the so-called Ma-Hsia school of landscape painting.
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, and Ma YüanMa Yüan
, fl. c.1190–1225, Chinese painter of the Sung dynasty and foremost of the Ma family of painters. He became one of the most important landscape painters of the 12th and 13th cent., the other being Hsia Kuei.
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. 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 YüanYüan
, Mongol dynasty of China that ruled from 1271 to 1368. It was a division of the great empire conquered by the Mongols. Kublai Khan, who adopted the Chinese dynastic name Yüan in 1271, swept down from N China, which the Mongols had ruled since the 1230s, and
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 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 MingMing
, dynasty of China that ruled from 1368 to 1644. The first Ming emperor, Chu Yüan-chang (ruled 1368–98), a former Buddhist monk, joined a rebellion in progress, gained control of it, overthrew the Mongol Yüan dynasty, and unified all of China proper.
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 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 ChouShen Chou
, 1427–1509, Chinese painter of the Ming dynasty. He and Wen Cheng-Ming (1470–1559) were the two most important painters of the Wu school, a group of leading literati artists who lived in the region around Wu-Hsien.
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, Tai Chin, Wen Cheng-ming, T'ang Yin, and Tung Ch'i-ch'angTung Ch'i-ch'ang
, 1555–1636, leading painter, calligrapher, connoisseur, and critic of the Ming dynasty. A high official in various public offices, was also regarded as the greatest art expert of his day.
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 are but a few of the many great masters of this period.

Under the Ch'ingCh'ing
or Manchu
, the last of the Imperial dynasties of China. Background

The Ch'ing dynasty was established by the Manchus, who invaded China and captured Beijing in 1644, and lasted until 1911.
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 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'aoShih-T'ao
, 1641–c.1670, Chinese painter of the late Ming–early Ch'ing period, one of the major figures in 17th-century painting. A descendant of the imperial Ming family, he escaped persecution from the invading Manchus by becoming a Buddhist monk with the name
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 and Chu TaChu Ta
or Zhu Da
, c.1626–c.1705, Chinese painter and calligrapher, also known as Pa-ta-shan-jen or Bada Shanren. Said to have been a descendant of the imperial Ming family, he was a child prodigy, a poet at 7 and a painter by his teens.
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 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 calligraphycalligraphy
[Gr.,=beautiful writing], skilled penmanship practiced as a fine art. See also inscription; paleography. European Calligraphy

In Europe two sorts of handwriting came into being very early.
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, 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 enamelenamel,
a siliceous substance fusible upon metal. It may be so compounded as to be transparent or opaque and with or without color, but it is usually employed to add decorative color. It was used to decorate jewelry in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
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 ware, lacquerware, jadejade,
common name for either of two minerals used as gems. The rarer variety of jade is jadeite, a sodium aluminum silicate, NaAl(SiO3)2, usually white or green in color; the green variety is the more valuable.
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, ivoryivory,
type of dentin present only in the tusks of the elephant. Ivory historically has been obtained mainly from Africa, where elephant tusks are larger than they are in Asia, the second major source, and much dead ivory was and continues to be taken from remains of extinct
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, textiles, and many other of the so-called minor arts, the world owes an incalculable debt to China.

Cross-Cultural Influences in Modern Times

Western influence on Chinese art has been evident since the late 17th cent., but was not of major significance until comparatively recent times. The 19th cent. produced no major Chinese masters but many competent traditionalists. Early 20th-century artists copied Western styles without real comprehension, and attempts to combine them with Chinese subject matter were largely unsuccessful. The influence of Chinese art upon other cultures has been profound. It has extended to the Muslim countries and, since the 14th cent., has affected the art of Western Europe as well.

Art under Communism

After the Communists came to power in 1949 the graphic arts useful to political propaganda were encouraged, and Western influence in the arts was strictly discouraged. Within the limits of government restrictions two painters, Li K'o-jan and Ch'eng Shih-fa, have produced works of considerable individuality. Chinese artists working outside China, including Tseng Yu-ho in Hawaii, C. C. Wang in New York, and Chao Wu-chi in France, have produced abstract works based on calligraphy that reveal some Western influence.


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).

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