Chinese Art Review

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Chinese Art Review

Chinese are one of the most ancient cultures on earth. From the Chinese have come some amazing gifts to the world-- science, religion, food, and of course, amazing and unique artwork.

Like other ancient cultures, Chinese art dates back to prehistoric times. Incredibly enough, the very first pottery of China dates all the way back to the Stone Age-- which is as far as 10 thousand years B.C.! This demonstrates a creative and intellectual approach towards a physical material. It means that as far as 12,000 years ago, humans began to experience and explore the need for self expression.

Let's look at some of the wonderful forms of art that the Chinese have given us.


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Chinese Art general overview

Chinese art constituting Chinese cultural heritage includes: pottery, jade culture, bronze casting (of Xia Dynasty), sculpture, painting, calligraphy, architecture, poetry, and other. The development of the various art forms of China much depends on the historic developments and the ruling dynasties at the time they developed. From the very earliest specimens available, Chinese artworks bear signs of imitation of natural things: fish, animals, plants, etc. Slowly it transforms into a unique Chinese, now national, style and design.

In its every area, Chinese visual art form is unique and self-sufficient. Every art work is realized within Chinese philosophic tradition. For example fish is one of the traditionally depicted shapes. It always bears a special philosophic and metaphoric connotation.

Around the first century A.D, when Buddhism become the predominant religious practice in China, more religious elements started to be reflected in every cultural sphere. Religious influence begins to guide Chinese creative powers towards new philosophic horizons. Besides this profound religious influence, Chinese art history is specific from the point that every new ruling dynasty used to become a turning point for the nation’s creative expression. Nevertheless, there is a precisely Buddhist Chinese art-form.

Another significant wave of influence over Chinese art was with the expansion of Chinese trade which led to extensive cultural exchange throughout the Silk Road(during the Sui and Tang Dynasty). Then Chinese art experienced influences from classical Greek art and culture. However the foreign influence tended to be more underground as it was perceived as contradicting to official position of the ruling Emperors.

Also I need to say a few words about the social status of art and art workers in China. Unlike in other countries, painting and calligraphy were highly valued in China. Actually it was the occupation of aristocrats and scholars who had the privilege of leisure which they could dedicate to self perfection in the fine arts. Not as many cultures have valued the contributions of artists to that extent, not even in modern times.


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Chinese Pottery and Bronze

Yearly Chinese pottery was plain only centuries later painted pottery becomes popular. Ancient pottery developed mainly during Longshan and Yangshao dynasties. Bronze vessels served both practical and religious purposes. Along the development of Chinese art, elaborate ornaments become frequent. Usually mythological creatures such as a dragon or different monsters are depicted. However, human and abstract shapes become just as popular imagery as aesthetic senses develop. Visualization usually served as means to tell a story either mythological or religious.

Nowadays Chinese pottery is known of its high quality material – porcelain. Until recently China porcelain ware was quite expensive in Europe. It was costly not only due to high quality material but also the elegant designs of the ware and beautiful patterns.

Here I also need to mention Chinese mirrors with dragon and “T”, “L”, and “V” –like engraved patterns. Scientists deem this object served astrological and cosmological purposes. These elaborate and usually circular mirrors are bright samples of unique antique Chinese artworks. The TLV mirrors of Han dynasty date back to 2 century B.C.

Archeological Finds, Chinese Sculpture

Among some of the more unique archeological finds are ancient Chinese musical instruments, sculptures, silk painting, and other. Maybe the brightest example of Chinese monumental sculpture is the Terracotta Army of Qin - the First Emperor of China. Indeed it is an incredible sculptural ensemble consisting of seven thousand life-size warrior sculptures. Although now we see terracotta sculptures colorless it was not like this before. Initially they were colored. Exposure to air as the monumental ensemble was discovered evaporated the color pigments. The ensemble dates back to 3rd century B.C.



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Chinese Painting

Chinese painting traces back to the early pottery and sculptures. Ancient Chinese paintings survived on some tomb walls, for example “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove” and that of Lou Rui tomb. However painting in these examples is not yet represented as an individual art-form.

Painting – more as we are now used to think about it, emerges much later - in early centuries A.D. Here belongs for example the painting on a ceramic tile from a tomb near Luoyang. It represents a scene where men's figures converse in a natural manner. Early samples of more “classical” style painting are works by Zhan Ziqian, dating back to 5-6th centuries A.D. In his works predominantly nature and landscape scenes are depicted.

Normally the artist would try to depict the emotional side of the scene – not trying to show it in a naturalistic manner maximally close to reality. That is why early traditional Chinese paintings are not very rich in color but are rather monochromatic. These early paintings were made on silk till when paper was invented early in the 1st century A.D. One of the outstanding ancient painters is Gu Kaizhi – who also wrote about the theory of paining. Among others is Dong Yuan, Zhan Ziqian, and Liang Kai.



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Chinese Calligraphy

Calligraphy is a specific visual art form, also known as “the art of fancy lettering”. Calligraphy implies aesthetic and intellectual appreciation. In China calligraphy was always a much respected occupation and was regarded as the most elitist rang of paining. It implied close to perfection brush skills. Its tools and mediums were naturally extracted black inks and brush pens made from animal hair. Likewise with painting, calligraphy initially was performed on silk. Starting from the 1st century A.D. - when paper was introduced worldwide as the more effective medium for writing and paining - calligraphy continued on paper. Calligraphers wrote poetic and philosophic verses. To name few historically prominent Chinese calligraphers let me mention Wang Xizhi and Wei Shuo.


Chinese Poetry

First of all it must be mentioned that there are many dialects of Chinese language. Dialect means local variation of the language. Chinese poetry had various means of representation, for example it could be written down or chanted. It also could be folk-style chants or classical poems. Also there are different types of Chinese poetry. It can be Classical, Standard, Mandarin, Cantonese, or other. Thus there is quite a number of Chinese poetic traditions, for example: Shijing, Han, Tang, Ming, and many other. Apart from Dynasty varied poetic traditions, there are Post-imperial classical Chinese poetry and Modern (or Post-classical) Chinese poetry.

Poetry served different needs, namely that of expression, education, and other. Chinese poetry like any branch of Chinese culture represents its profound and unique civilization. The synthesis of Chinese poetry with painting which took place almost immediately as these creative spheres developed – represents their harmonious unity. To name few of outstanding Chinese poets let me mention Shi Jing (also known as Shih Ching), Chu Ci, Li Bai, Su Shi, many others and Mao Zedong.


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Chinese Architecture

Chinese architecture has its deep-rooted national traditions. Architectural principles in China remained the same for centuries and it was only the decorative elements that could differ under the rule of Dynasties or under other influence. The key characteristic of traditional Chinese buildings “pagodas” is accentuated horizontal element and not the vertical one. Royal colors of tiles are yellow, blue, and red. Pagodas have elaborated roofs.

This architecture has greatly influenced the neighboring cultures of Japan, Korea, and other. Chinese architectural principles are inborn and grounded on their world outlook, philosophical, poetic, and religious traditions. However, starting from the 20th century, synthesis of Eastern architectural tradition with that of China becomes more frequent.

It will be correct to say that there is a special philosophy in Chinese architectural works. The core of this philosophy is the balance which is found in the building’s symmetry and articulation. A yard or an open place in traditional Chinese style would be enclosed within the construction boundaries.


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Chinese Gardens

Chinese gardens are real places for solitude and meditation. Chinese gardens are visual representation of unique Chinese approach towards plants, space, senses, and other aspects of existence. Unlike with Chinese architecture, yards are normally asymmetrical. Chinese gardens would in the miniature represent natural poles of the existent universe with its diversity and contrast. There by all means should be water in the form of a lake or pond, stone - as rocks, diverse plants and trees, and spectacular pavilions. In the richly decorated garden there would also be some “empty” spaces which would bring balance to the overall composition. It would be a place to discover, or better to say, Chinese garden would slowly unveil itself before the eyes of a patient visitor. There is always a sound presence of architecture in such gardens. And an important element of classical Chinese garden would be its seclusion within a brick wall.

I hope you've enjoyed this brief introduction into Chinese art and culture, and may it inspire you.

Arts: Ancient Chinese Art - nytimes.com/video

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