Chinese Art — Aesthetics, Characteristics, and Forms

What is the Aesthetics of Ancient Chinese Art?

Hierarchy, Pattern, Color Symbolism, and Use of Numbers in Ancient Chinese Art.

 

A brief introduction to Chinese Artists in ancient history. 

 

Classifications of Traditional Chinese Painting

 

Appreciating Chinese Calligraphy.  

 

Brief Introduction to Classical Chinese Poetry. 

 

Main Forms of Ancient Chinese Sculptures.

 

The Ubiquitous Ceramics.

 

The ultimate introduction to Chinese Jade Culture

 

Development and summary of Traditional Chinese Crafts

 

List of traditional Chinese Musical Instruments.

 

A brief introduction to Traditional Chinese Architecture.

 

Exceptional Building Complexes: Palaces and Gardens of China. 

 

Chinese Art in Apparel: Costume, Jewelry, Pendant, and Headdress.

 

Aesthetics of Ancient Chinese Art

Influences of Taoism — Natural and Simple

 

Taoism, one of the most influential philosophical schools in Chinese culture, values plainness, and simplicity. 

 

Therefore, beauty is the primitive color white and black, the unadorned lotus flower in water, or the fresh sky after a rain. 

 

Since Taoism was formed by Lao Zi around 2500 years ago, this natural aesthetic has played an important role in traditional Chinese art. 

Jade Cup of the Wei Kingdom (220 — 266)

Jade Cup of the  Wei Kingdom (220 — 266) — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Royal Art — Fancy and Exquisite

 

Confucianism, the dominant philosophical school in the history of China, values clear hierarchy and fancy etiquette. 

 

Color and Pattern, then, became important elements that represent one’s social status and occupation when some of them were exclusively used by the royals in the recent millennium. 

 

Therefore, more items that could show one’s nobility and wealth were used in royal art, such as valuable gold and gem, exquisite embroideries, fancy jade pendant, etc.

Golden Gem Cup of Emperor Qian Long (1711 — 1799)

Golden Gem Cup of Emperor Qian Long (1711 — 1799) — Palace Museum

 

Hierarchy, Pattern, Color, and Number in Ancient Chinese Art

 

All forms of ancient Chinese art, painting, sculpture, ceramics, architecture, jewelry, costume, jade articles, follow the rule of social hierarchy. 

 

Hence, some important elements, like pattern, color, and number, have been widely used to represent one's social status in history, whose utilization followed strict regulations.  

 

Read Ultimate Introduction to Traditional Chinese Patterns, Color Symbolisms, and Chinese Numbers Cultural Meanings.

Bronze Tripod with Beast Patterns of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Bronze Tripod with Beast Patterns of the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Chinese Artists in Ancient History

 

Throughout history, there were two main groups of artists: professional artisan and literate scholars. 

 

Artisan

 

In ancient China, artisans or craftsmen were professionals that were specialized in a certain form of art, such as sculpture and pottery. 

 

Some of them inherited the skills from family, some learned from a master. Those extremely talented ones would be selected to provide for the royals. 

 

In history, the artisan was an inferior occupation to the peasant.

Cyan Glaze Tea Cup with A Tray (Zhan Tuo) of the Song Dynasty

Cyan Glaze Tea Cup with A Tray (Zhan Tuo) of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) — South Song Government Kiln Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Literate Scholars

 

In ancient China, literate scholars have been considered the ruling class, besides emperors. 

 

These scholars were accessible to good education and usually could obtain good scores in the Imperial Examination, which would grant them high social status and bright futures in politics.  

 

For well-educated scholars, including emperors, painting, calligraphy, and poetry have been the three most important and classy art forms that could show one's talent. 

 

Unlike professional artisans, literate scholars had the highest social status in history and mostly did artwork as hobbies or means to express their feelings. 

"Hu Zhong Fu Gui Tu" that Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Painted to Award His Exceptional Prime Minister Yang Shiqi (1365-1444), Wishing Him A Long and Wealthy Life

"Hu Zhong Fu Gui Tu" that Xuande Emperor Painted to Award His Exceptional Prime Minister Yang Shiqi (1365-1444), Wishing Him A Long and Wealthy Life — Taipei Palace Museum

 

Chinese Painting

 

Painting, one of the most ancient art forms, could be drawn on walls, fabric, paper, pottery, and stone.

Landscape Painting by Wang Ximeng (1096 — 1119)

Part of Painting Thousands Miles of Mountains and Rivers (Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu) (1191.5 cm × 51.5 cm). By  Artist Wang Ximeng (1096 — 1119) — The Palace Museum

Mausoleum Painting

 

Mural on the wall of graves was quite popular in ancient China when people believed that a fancy tomb could make sure the decedent’s soul can live a comfortable life after death. 

 

Therefore, Grave Murals mostly included the master’s detailed life experiences, achievements, property, as well as a wonderous world where the decedent’s soul would be living in that was guarded by mythical animals and beautiful clouds and stars. 

Grave Mural of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) 7.3 m × 0.7m

Grave Mural of Dahuting Tomb of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) Drawing about the Owner's Banquet

Earliest Existing Silk Painting in China, from Ma Wang Dui Tomb

Earliest Existing Silk Painting in China, with Auspicious Animals and Deities Welcoming the Owner to Heaven, Unearthed from Mawangdui Tomb of Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD).

Wall Mural

 

Mural on the wall of Palaces became popular after the first unified empire, the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), was established. 

 

Palace Fresco was usually quite fancy and exquisite. Famous sages, meritorious officials, and respectable immortals were the most frequent content. 

 

Centuries later, Taoism Religion was formed, later Buddhism was introduced to China.

 

Since then, Religion Mural has become an essential painting form in Chinese culture.

Portion of Dunhuang Mural of Mogao Grottoes (around 618 — 907)

A Portion of Dunhuang Buddhism Mural of Mogao Grottoes (Built Around 618 — 907) 

Traditional Chinese Painting

 

From painting on fabric to paper, traditional Chinese painting consists of three main subjects: figure, landscape, and animal. 

 

They are less focused on perspective, light, and precise similarity; instead, the conception, wholeness, line, and blank-leaving are highly valued. 

Figure Painting by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135)

Figure Painting by

Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135)

Landscape Painting by Tang Yin (1470 — 1524)

Landscape Painting by

Tang Yin (1470 — 1524)

Animal Painting by Lv Ji (Around 1429 — 1505)

Animal Painting by

Lv Ji (Around 1429 — 1505)

New Year Picture

 

Around 2000 years ago, Chinese people started to paste lucky pictures, including couplets, on doors and windows, pray for fortune, and to celebrate the Spring Festival

 

New Year Pictures originally were images of immortals, then influential historical figures like brave generals, whom people believe would protect their family from evil forces. 

 

Soon, lucky animals, flowers, legendary figures, landscapes, beauty, and cute babies were added to New Year Paintings, which represent people’s beautiful wishes.

 

Nowadays, different types of New Year Pictures are still quite popular among the Chinese.

New Year Picture of Door Gods in the Forbidden City
Traditional New Year Picture in Chinese Culture

Calligraphy

 

 

As famous artist Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) had said before, calligraphy is another form of painting. 

 
Calligraphy of Artist Zhao Mengfu

Calligraphy Work by Artist Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Chinese Calligraphy is a type of art that tells stories, history, spirit, and personality in Chinese culture.

It uses Chinese Brush and Ink to write Han Zi on paper, stone, or fabric.

 

In ancient times, scholars wrote to record life experiences, express emotion, commemorate important people, and document history. 

Calligraphy Work of Great Politician and Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 — 784), to Memorize His Heroically Sacrificed nephew Yan Jiming and Brave Soldiers of Tang in the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion

Calligraphy Work of Great Politician and Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 — 784), to Memorize His Heroically Sacrificed nephew Yan Jiming and Brave Soldiers of Tang in the Intense Fights in the An-Shi Rebellion — Taipei Museum

Appreciating Chinese Calligraphy
 

Nowadays, besides those who studied calligraphy, it is not very easy for ordinary Chinese people to appreciate calligraphy works. 

 

One of the most important reasons is that appreciating Chinese Calligraphy consists of many aspects: 

 

  • Apply and strength of Chinese brush;

 

  • Order and structure of writing stroke;

 

  • Arrangement of all characters and blank;

 

  • Use of ink and water.

 

Moreover, there are five main calligraphic fonts in history (Zhuan, Li, Kai, Xing, and Cao), and each of them has several branches that have their special writing skills and stroke arrangements. 

Calligraphy of Artist Su Shi (1037 — 1101)

Calligraphy Work by Artist Su Shi (1037 — 1101) — Taipei Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Story and Spirit behind Chinese Calligraphy

 

Han Zi on bones and tortoise shells, and those on bronze vessels, are telling important historical activities that happened over 3000 years ago. 

 

Since the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), carving Han Zi on stone became famous in China. Those Stone Inscriptions were used to:

 

  • Eulogize exceptional reign, such as those in worship ceremonies on Mount Tai;

 

  • Appreciate amazing scenery;

 

  • Commemorate decedents, such as those Han Zi carved on tombstones or walls;

 

  • Record religious scripture and story.

Calligraphy Inscriptions on Mount Tai

Calligraphy Inscriptions on Mount Tai, the Gold Characters on the Right was Written by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (685 — 762) to Memorize the His Grand Fengshan Ceremony and Exceptional Achievements.

Besides those giant Stone Inscriptions, seal carving that is used as a representative of one’s status is also quite famous. 

 

Official seals that were authorized by the emperor were standard, square, and valuable, which represents paramount power and strong execution.

 

Private seals, however, could be artistically designed by the owner; jade, metal, and wood are all normal materials to make seals. 

Unearthed Jade Seal of Prime Minister Wang Xijue (1534 — 1611) of the Ming Dynasty

Jade Seal of Prime Minister Wang Xijue (1534 — 1611) of the Ming Dynasty — Suzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Nowadays, many Chinese are still writing calligraphy in their spare time, as a means of self cultivating.

 

Besides those ancient masterpieces, people would use calligraphy works with famous proverbs or their favorite mottoes as decoration.

 

Poetry

 

Classic Chinese Poetry is one of the most brilliant literature styles, which carries exceptional historical, cultural, and artistic values. 

 

In Classic of Poetry or Shijing, the earliest Chinese poetry anthology compiled by Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC), hundreds of folk songs, noble songs, and imperial sacrificial songs from around 11th Century BC — 6th Century BC are included, which preserves and presents different social aspects of that ancient era. 

 

In successive dynasties, different types of poetry were popularized, such as Fu in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Shi in Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Ci in Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), and Qu in Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368).    

Cyan Glaze Porcelain Bottle with Love Poem of the Tang Dynasty — Changsha Museum

Cyan Glaze Porcelain Bottle with Love Poem of the Tang Dynasty — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Generally, however, Chinese poetries follow certain tonal patterns, generally are parallelism and with strict rhyme rules. 

 

As one of the most classy and appreciated art forms for literate scholars to express their feelings, to show one's talents, or to note important events, poems were frequently written on traditional Chinese paintings, or into remarkable calligraphy works.

Hibiscus Golden Pheasant Painting (Fu Rong Jin Ji Tu) Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song

Hibiscus Golden Pheasant Painting (Fu Rong Jin Ji Tu) with Poetry, by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) — Palace Museum

 

Sculpture

 

Ancient Chinese Sculpture could be classified into three main forms, based on their functions.

 

Mausoleum Sculptures 

 

Mausoleum sculptures, an important part of the ancient Chinese funerary culture, are made to serve the deceased master in the afterlife world. 

 

Sculptures of human portraits and animals were used to replace the human sacrifice, and statues of mythical creatures and beasts were placed to guard the tombs. 

 

One of the most famous mausoleum sculpture masterpieces is from The Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (259 BC — 210 BC), including the Terracotta Army the guarding troop, and large numbers of valuable animals' sculptures in other burial pits.

Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terracotta Army Pit.

Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terracotta Army Pit

Religious Sculptures

 

After Buddhism was introduced, Buddhist sculptures were raised since the Three Kingdoms, Wei, North and South Dynasties (220 — 589), and flourished in Tang Dynasty (618 — 907). 

 

Besides exquisite statues in temples, Buddhist grottoes constructed during these eras carry extraordinary cultural and artistic values, the best-preserved examples are Mogao Grottoes, Yungang Grottoes, and Longmen Grottoes.

Stone Carving Statues of Longmen Grottoes

Stone Carving Statues of Longmen Grottoes, Photo by wwbb1961.

Taoism Religion appeared in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), but didn't enshrine statues in the beginning.

 

Until the Three Kingdoms, Wei, North and South Dynasties (220 — 589), sculptures of Taoism Religion became popular. 

 

Unlike grand grottoes, ancient Taoism Religion sculptures are relatively smaller, mostly are refined statues of deities enshrined in temples.  

 

In the ancient Jade Emperor Temple of Shanxi Province, painted sculptures of deities of the Twenty-eight Lunar Mansions of ancient Chinese Astrology of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) are one of the best existing Taoism Religion masterpieces. 

Painted Sculptures of deities of the Twenty-eight Lunar Mansions in Jade Emperor Temple of Shanxi Province.

Painted Sculptures of deities of the Twenty-eight Lunar Mansions in Jade Emperor Temple or Yuhuang Miao of Shanxi Province.

Folk Sculptures

 

Folk Sculptures in the civilians' world, from different types of decorations to refined accessaries, are less grand, yet diverse and vivid. 

Jade Made Hat Decoration of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368)

Jade Made Hat Decoration of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Pottery and Porcelain

 

Since pottery wares had been invented in the Neolithic era, they have been widely used in people's daily lives. 

 

From royals to civilians, daily necessities to burial ceramics, porcelains of each dynasty throughout history developed different characteristics and masterpieces. 

 

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