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 and Imaginary.
Main Forms of Ancient Chinese Sculptures.
Exquisite Paper Art and Ubiquitous Ceramics.
The Ultimate Introduction to Chinese Jade Culture.
Development and Summary of Traditional Chinese Crafts.
Traditional Performances: Dance, Music, Musical Instruments, and Puppetry.
Introduction to Traditional Chinese Architecture and Furniture.
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 Chinese culture's most influential philosophical schools, values plainness and simplicity.
Therefore, beauty is the primitive color white and black, the unadorned lotus flower in water, or the fresh sky after rain.
Since Taoism was formed by Lao Zi around 2500 years ago, this natural aesthetic has played an essential role in traditional Chinese fine art.
Royal Art — Fancy and Exquisite
Confucianism, the dominant philosophical school in the history of China, values clear hierarchy and fancy etiquette.
Color and Pattern became essential elements representing one’s social status and occupation when the royals exclusively used some 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.
Hierarchy, Pattern, Color, and Number in Ancient Chinese Art
All forms of ancient Chinese art, painting, sculpture, ceramics, architecture, jewelry, costume, and 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)
Chinese Artists in Ancient History
Throughout history, two main groups of artists were professional artisans and literate scholars.
In ancient China, artisans or craftsmen were professionals who specialized in a specific form of art, such as sculpture and pottery.
Some inherited the skills from family, and 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 (960 — 1279) — South Song Government Kiln Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Literate scholars have been considered the ruling class, besides emperors in ancient China.
These scholars were accessible to good education and usually could obtain good scores in the Imperial Examination, granting 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 a means to express their feelings.
"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
Painting, one of the most ancient art forms, could be drawn on walls, fabric, paper, pottery, and stone.
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
Mural on the wall of graves was quite famous in ancient China when people believed that a fancy tomb could ensure the decedent’s soul could live a comfortable life after death.
Therefore, Grave Murals mainly included the master’s detailed life experiences, achievements, and property, as well as a wonderous world where the decedent’s soul would be living mythical animals and beautiful clouds and stars guarded that.
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).
Murals 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, and later Buddhism was introduced to China.
Since then, Religion Mural has become an essential painting form in Chinese culture.
A Portion of Dunhuang Buddhism Mural of Mogao Grottoes, by Chinese Painters of Tang Dynasty (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 Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135)
Landscape Painting by
Tang Yin (1470 — 1524)
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 believed would protect their families from evil forces.
Soon, lucky animals, flowers, legendary figures, landscapes, beauty, and cute babies were added to New Year Paintings, representing people’s beautiful wishes.
Nowadays, different types of New Year Pictures are still quite popular among the Chinese.
As famous artist Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) had said before, calligraphy is another form of painting.
Calligraphy Work by Artist Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Since oracle inscriptions appeared in Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC), Chinese Calligraphy became a type of art that tells stories, history, spirit, and personality in Chinese culture.
It uses the 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 essential 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 — 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:
Utilization 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), each of which has several branches that have their unique writing skills and stroke arrangements.
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 carved on bronze vessels, tell important events and characteristics of Chinese throughout ancient history.
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 reigns, 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, 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 used to represent one’s status is also quite famous.
The emperor-authorized official seals were standard, square, and valuable, representing power and strong execution.
Private seals, however, could be artistically designed by the owner; jade, metal, and wood are all regular materials to make seals.
Jade Seal of Prime Minister Wang Xijue (1534 — 1611) of the Ming Dynasty — Suzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Nowadays, many Chinese still write calligraphy in their spare time as a means of self-cultivation.
Besides those ancient masterpieces, people would use calligraphy works with famous proverbs or their favorite mottoes as decoration.
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 the 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 (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Generally, however, Chinese poetries follow specific tonal patterns, parallelism, and strict rhyme rules.
As one of the most classy and appreciated art forms for literate scholars to express their feelings, show their talents, or note important events, poems were frequently written in traditional Chinese paintings or into remarkable calligraphy works.
Click to Read More About Chinese Poetry and Imagery
Hibiscus Golden Pheasant Painting (Fu Rong Jin Ji Tu) with Poetry, by Emperor Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135) — Palace Museum
Ancient Chinese Sculpture could be classified into three primary forms based on their functions.
Mausoleum sculptures, an essential 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
After Buddhism was introduced, Buddhist sculptures were raised in the Three Kingdoms, Wei, North and South Dynasties (220 — 589), and flourished in Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).
Besides exquisite statues in temples and pagodas, 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, Photo by wwbb1961.
Taoism Religion appeared in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) but didn't enshrine statues initially.
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 smaller, mostly 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 or Yuhuang Miao of Shanxi Province.
Folk Sculptures in the civilian world, from different types of decorations to refined accessories, are less grand yet diverse and vivid.
Jade Made Hat Decoration of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Pottery and Porcelain
Since pottery wares were 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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