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Chinese Art — Aesthetics, Characteristics, Forms, Artists, and Cultural Significance

Chinese art, with unique aesthetics and features, encompasses a realm of poetic brilliance, timeless beauty, refined techniques, and classic allure.

From the noble and literati's "Three Perfections" art forms—poetry, calligraphy, and painting—to the delicate craft masterpieces of professionals, from grand architectural buildings to exquisite attire, Chinese art reflects a civilization that has flourished for millennia.

Landscape Painting of Mythical Penglai Island

Landscape Painting of Mythical Penglai Island Painted by Artist Qiu Ying (about 1498 — 1552)

Aesthetics of Ancient Chinese Art

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


Chinese Artists in Ancient History: A Brief Introduction

Classifications of Traditional Chinese Painting


Appreciating Chinese Calligraphy


Classical Chinese Poetry and Imaginary: A Brief Introduction

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


Traditional Chinese Architecture and Furniture: An Introduction

Exceptional Building Complexes: Palaces and Gardens of China


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

Chinese Clothing in "Eighty-Seven Celestials"

Chinese Clothing in "Eighty-Seven Celestials" by Artist Wu Daozi (about 680 — 758)

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 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. 

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 intricate 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 signify one’s nobility and wealth were employed in royal art, such as valuable gold and gems, exquisite embroideries, fancy jade pendants, etc.

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

Golden Gem Cup of Emperor Qianlong (1711 — 1799)— Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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


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


Hence, some important elements like pattern, color, and number were widely used to represent one's social status in history, and their 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 in China: professional artisans and literate scholars.


Professional Artisans


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 their families, and others learned from a master. The exceptionally 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


Literate scholars have been considered part of the ruling class, alongside emperors, in ancient China. 


These scholars had access to good education and could usually achieve decent scores in the Imperial Examination, granting them high social status and promising 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 showcase one's talent. 


Unlike professional artisans, literate scholars held the highest social status in history and mostly engaged in artwork as a hobby or a 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 paintings on the walls of graves were quite famous in ancient China when people believed that a fancy tomb could ensure the deceased's soul lived a comfortable life after death. 


Therefore, Grave Murals mainly depicted the master’s detailed life experiences, achievements, and property, along with a wondrous world where the decedent’s soul would reside, often guarded by mythical animals and surrounded by 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

Murals on the walls of palaces became popular after the establishment of the first unified empire, the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC).


Palace frescoes were typically fancy and exquisite, often featuring famous sages, meritorious officials, and respectable immortals. 


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


Since then, religious murals have become an essential form of painting in Chinese culture.

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

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. 


These paintings are less focused on perspective, light, and precise similarity; instead, they highly value conception, wholeness, line, and leaving areas blank. 

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 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.


Click to Read More about Chinese Painting

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

Chinese 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)

Since oracle scripts appeared in the 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 Hanzi 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

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 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

Hanzi 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 Hanzi 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 Hanzi 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 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. 

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 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.

Click to Read More about Chinese Calligraphy



Classic Chinese Poetry is one of the most brilliant literary styles, with 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 the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Shi in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Ci in the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), and Qu in the 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 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) 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

Chinese Sculpture


Ancient Chinese Sculpture could be classified into three primary forms based on their functions: Mausoleum Sculpture, Religious Sculpture, and Folk Sculpture.

Mausoleum Sculptures


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.

Bronze Chariot Unearthed from the Terracotta Army Pit

Religious Sculptures


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

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 Taoist 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 some 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 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)

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. 


Click to Read More about Chinese Ceramics

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