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Ancient Chinese Art

Chinese painting
Song Dynasty painting

From the earliest Stone Age art to the Ming Dynasty in 1500 AD, Chinese artists took up the same themes over and over again. They were interested in swirling lines. They were interested in nature: animals, trees, flowers, rocks, water. Chinese artists wanted to express the relationship between people and nature.

But there were also big changes in Chinese art, some caused by new ideas within China, and some by new ideas coming from India, Central Asia, or West Asia. In the Stone Age, Chinese artists were experimenting with pottery. Decorating the pots, we already find the swirling brushwork that will continue throughout Chinese art. Beginning in the Shang Dynasty, artists also cast bronze jars in molds with designs of dragons, elephants, and other creatures. During the Zhou Dynasty, Chinese artists also began to make all kinds of lacquered boxes.

But painting people and landscapes came very late to China, spreading slowly east across Asia; while people were painting images in 30,000 BC in Europe, and by 3500 BC in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and by 500 BC in Iran, paintings of people and trees only reached India with Alexander about 300 BC, and came to China about the same time, with the first Eastern Zhou paintings on silk cloth.

When Chinese people learned about Buddhism, under the Han Dynasty, they also learned about Buddhist art styles in India, and these new styles had a huge effect on Chinese art. Chinese sculptors learned to make life-size stone statues. About the same time, traders on the Silk Road began to bring Roman blown glass to China. Chinese potters, perhaps trying to imitate blown glass, soon created porcelain. Around the same time, Chinese artists invented paper and began to use it for painting on.

By the time of the Three Kingdoms, Chinese painting became much more important. Artists worked with swirling brushstrokes to create striking line paintings. T'ang Dynasty paintings depict people, horses, and elaborate landscapes colored with green and blue paints. Song Dynasty paintings, influenced by Taoism and Confucianism, often show tiny people dwarfed by nature. Artists became concerned with economy of line: one simple line makes us see the whole cliff, or flowers, or birds. They began to draw just one flower, or one bird.The Mongol invasions brought a new energy and enthusiasm to painting, but then under the Ming Dynasty artists began to explore still-life painting, and to reconsider and revive the styles of the past.

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese art:

The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, by Jessica Rawson and others (1996). Rawson is a curator at the British Museum, and she uses the collection of the British Museum to illustrate this book. Library Journal calls it "easily the best introductory overview of Chinese art to appear in years".

Art in China (Oxford History of Art Series), by Craig Clunas (1997). Not specifically , but a good introduction to the spirit of Chinese art. Warning: this one is not arranged in chronological order. Instead, it has chapters on sculpture, calligraphy, and so on.

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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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