Song Dynasty Chinese Art History - Ancient China
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Song Dynasty Art

Song Dynasty painting
Fan Kuan, "Traveling amid
Streams and Mountains"
(National Palace Museum,

Landscape painting got even better under the Song Dynasty than it had been under the T'ang Dynasty that came before.

Artists emphasized the simple lines of the mountains, rivers, and trees, trying to create a feeling with the fewest possible lines. Most of the time they didn't even use colors. Artists also learned to show distance with blurry outlines and mountains half-hidden by fog.

Song Dynasty painting
Cui Bai,"Two Jays and a Hare"
(National Palace Museum, Taipei)

Artists sometimes put people in their pictures, but the people were small and unimportant - what really counted was nature. This idea came from Taoist and Confucian ideas about how the world worked. It was important to these artists to show how nature and man worked together in peace.

sung branch of bamboo
Wen Tong, "Branch of Bamboo"
(National Palace Museum, Taipei)
sung metal sculpture
The boddhisatva Avalokitesvara, with a thousand arms
and a thousand eyes, about 950 AD (Musee Guimet, Paris)

Starting about 1200 AD, artists became interested in drawing smaller objects: a flower, or a bird, or a leaf. Again, Song Dynasty artists tried to draw these things using the fewest possible lines, and to show the most important things about that flower or bird, rather than drawing every detail.

sung rock formation
"Auspicious Dragon", said to be
by Emperor Hui-Tsung
(Palace Museum, Bejing)

One of the artists who was best at painting flowers was the Emperor Hui-tsung. This emperor opened a school for painters, and many famous painters came from that school.

Another group of Song Dynasty painters were Zen Buddhists, who tried to paint their ideas of calm and peacefulness with quick, clean brushwork. Buddhists brought some of the ideas of Indian art with them to China, like the many arms of this Buddhist statue. The god has many arms to show that he has many different powers.

sung Chinese dragon
Song Dynasty dragon, in silver with gold
and turquoise inlays (Musee Guimet, Paris)
sung porcelain pitcher
Song Dynasty vase (Musee Guimet, Paris)

Bibliography and further reading about Song Dynasty 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.

Yuan Dynasty (Mongol period) art
More about Song Dynasty China
Ancient China home

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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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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 24 April, 2017