Zhou Dynasty Chinese Art - Ancient China
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Zhou Dynasty Art

a bronze cauldron with handles that stick up like rabbit ears and three feet
(Musee Guimet, Paris)

February 2017 - The first part of the Zhou Dynasty is called the Western Zhou, and it runs from about 1122 to about 722 BC. During the Western Zhou dynasty, art didn't change very much from the Shang Dynasty that came before it.

People kept on making the bronze sacrificial jars and cups that they made under the Shang emperors. Often the shapes of the jars were more complicated than they had been before. As more and more people learned to write, more people put long inscriptions on the jars. People made special bronze jars for their ancestors, and wrote long inscriptions about their own lives so their ancestors and descendants would know what they had done. A lot of the jars were in animal shapes like birds and dragons.

Then under the Eastern Zhou dynasty, beginning about 722 BC, people began to use these bronze jars and cups in their own houses, to show how rich and powerful they were, instead of only for the gods and their ancestors. People made whole sets of cups that they could use at big dinner parties in their houses. Not very many of these new jars and cups had writing on them anymore. And they began to make other things out of bronze: bells, mirrors, belt-hooks, candelabras, and weapons, for example.

 reddish cylinder container
A lacquer box from the Zhou Dynasty
men with bows and arrows and spears hunt a deer
Zhou dynasty hunting scene, Luoyang (ca.

There were some new technical ideas about how to make the bronze jars during the Eastern Zhou period as well: for instance, artists began to make the designs on the jars using stamps. And the shapes of the jars became simpler again. Most of the designs were abstract interlacing patterns, rathe than animals. Artists began using gold and silver inlays to decorate their patterns. Towards the end of the Eastern Zhou period, about 300 BC, artists began to create the first Chinese pictures of whole scenes with several people and a landscape, often hunting scenes. Probably Chinese artists saw earlier Central Asian hunting scenes and were inspired by them.

woman with phoenix
Eastern Zhou woman with phoenix bird (ca. 300 BC)
man fighting dragon
Eastern Zhou man fighting a dragon (ca. 300 BC)

Artists also kept on making jade ornaments and decorations, in complicated shapes with carving on them. Pottery techniques became more complicated too, with wheel-made pots being fired hotter (this makes them harder) and sometimes with a greenish glaze on the surface.

It was also in the Eastern Zhou period that people in China first began to make other kinds of art. Especially in southern China, people began to make things out of lacquer (LACK-urr), the colored red sap of the lac tree painted onto wood. You used lacquer to make beautiful light-weight boxes, dishes, and even small statuettes.

And at the end of the Eastern Zhou period, about 300 BC, people also started to paint scenes with people and landscapes onto silk.

Bibliography and further reading about Zhou dynasty Chinese art:

Art in China (Oxford History of Art Series), by Craig Clunas (1997). Not specifically easy reading, 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.

Chin Dynasty art
More on China in the Zhou Dynasty
Ancient China
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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