Three Kingdoms Art – Early Medieval China

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clay statuette of a camel with saddles lying down

Wei Dynasty camel (northern China, 500-550 AD) (Musee Guimet, Paris)

It was in the time of the Three Kingdoms that the first artists appear whose names we still know today. One of the earliest Chinese artists whose name we know is Ku K’ai-chih, who lived in the 300s AD (when Constantine was first building Constantinople in West Asia).

stone carving of a floating man in a fancy doorway

Wei Dynasty (northern China, 504 AD), Buddha going up to Heaven (Musee Guimet, Paris)

Ku K’ai-chih is said to have been a great portrait artist – he painted pictures of people. But nothing he painted has survived for us to look at today.

Chinese artists kept on being inspired by Buddhist themes. Beginning in the 400s AD, they began to paint the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang. The earliest paintings in these caves were simple pictures of Buddha and his boddhisatvas. The style of these paintings shows that the Chinese artists had been looking at Indian and Roman paintings, though there are many Chinese elements in the style as well.

Caves of a Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang, 400s AD – Buddha and his boddhisatvas

fragmentary clay: two people on an elephant's back

Royal couple on an elephant, 500s AD (possibly a Buddhist scene) (from Musee Guimet, Paris)

a painted horse in clay

Wei Dynasty (northern China) armored horse, 400-600 AD, in painted clay (Musee Guimet, Paris)

What about Sui Dynasty art?

Bibliography and further reading about Three Kingdoms Chinese art:

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.

China: Dawn Of A Golden Age (200-750 AD), by James Watt and Prudence Harper (coming soon – fall 2004). This is the catalogue from an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City – it has great pictures and also a detailed discussion of the art of this period.

Sui Dynasty art
More on China in the Three Kingdoms
Ancient China
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By | 2018-04-18T09:54:17+00:00 June 5th, 2017|Art, China|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Three Kingdoms Art – Early Medieval China. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 5, 2017. Web. June 23, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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