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The History and Development of Chinese Sculpture

Updated on April 5, 2014
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In China, where painting and calligraphy have always been regarded as the major art forms, sculpture has never played a very prominent role. Nevertheless the Chinese sculptural tradition is also a very old one and has produced some very fine works.

Early Dynastic

The beginning of the Chinese sculptural tradition can be traced back to the first historical dynasty, the Shang, which lasted from about 1500 to about 1000 B.C. The main works produced at this time were small-scale representations of animals in the form of bronze vessels as well as marble or jade carvings, which no doubt had some religious or magical significance.

With the succeeding Chou dynasty (about 1000 B.C.–about 250 B.C.), sculpture began to play a more important role. Now the human figure was also represented, and splendid images of dragons, tigers, and horses were produced. The main media employed continued to be bronze and jade, but clay and wood were also used. There was no large-scale sculpture until the Han dynasty (200 B.C.–200 A.D.), when carvings of horses and stone reliefs were produced. The most common Han images, however, were the clay grave figures that were placed in the tombs to accompany the dead into the spirit world.

Six Dynasties

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A new chapter in the history of Chinese art started with the Six Dynasties period (220–589 A.D.). This period saw the introduction of Buddhism, which completely transformed the religious and cultural life of the nation. From this time on most of the sculpture produced was devoted to the Buddhist religion and intended for Buddhist temples. The earliest of these images date from the late 4th and early 5th centuries but the finest of them come from the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Their basic concept and iconography are clearly derived from India but the artistic style of these statues, especially those produced under the Wei dynasty, reflects the more abstract and linear conventions of Chinese art.

Most remarkable are the often huge stone carvings at such great cave temples of northern China as Yunkang at Shansi and Lungmen at Honan. However, the numerous small gilt bronze images representing Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are equally fine as works of art. Secular sculpture played a minor role and usually took the form of grave figures.

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T'ang

The Six Dynasties period was followed first by the short-lived Sui period and then by the T'ang period (618–906), regarded by many critics as the greatest age in Chinese art. Buddhism continued to flourish during this era, and huge numbers of Buddhist images of all kinds were produced. Stone carvings from the T'ang period at Lungmen and at another famous cave temple, T'ien-Lung-Shan, are representative of the finest work of this time.

In their increased naturalism and fuller forms, these stone carvings clearly reflect the renewed Indian influence. Other statutes were made of gilded bronze, lacquer, wood, clay, or precious metals, all executed with great skill and a highly developed aesthetic sense. The T'ang period, an age of material wealth and splendor, also produced a good deal of purely secular art. The finest examples of T'ang secular art include stone carvings of horses and clay grave figures.

Sung, Ming, and Ch'ing

After the severe persecutions of Buddhists in the mid-9th century, Chinese sculpture declined, and though some fine carvings were still produced during the Sung and Ming periods, the great period of Chinese sculpture was over. The best of the Sung sculptures were carved in wood and painted in bright colors and were marked by a gentler and more relaxed style than had prevailed earlier.

Ming sculptures are outstanding for their realism in the representation of human beings and animals. However, they lack the expressive power and aesthetic refinement of many earlier works. The best of the late Chinese sculptures are the graceful porcelain and jade figurines made during the late Ming and Ch'ing periods (17th–early 20th century). Decorative in intent, they can be charming indeed at their best.

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