Traditional Handicrafts in Chinese Art
Ancient Chinese barely have sculptures of famous figures.
The reason is that in ancient times, portrait statues (mainly slaves or servants) were used to replace the Human Sacrifice that was set to serve the deceased master. Therefore, nobles and scholars wouldn’t be made into a statue by all means.
Having been significantly influenced by Traditional Chinese Painting.
Ancient sculptors in China were mainly low-status artisans or manual workers who followed the instructions of painters or designers.
Unlike today, sculptors are important, respectful artists, just as people working in other art forms.
Ancient Chinese sculptures were mainly used in mausoleum, religion, and folklore.
Mausoleum Sculptures, such as the Terra Cotta Warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), were designed to serve the decedent in the other world.
Therefore, the common ones were soldiers, servants, and valuable animals.
Bronze Carriage in Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Mausoleum — Half Size of the Real Chariot
Religion Sculptures are of great artsy values in Chinese culture. Famous religious sculptures are those in grottoes and temples.
Folklore Sculptures are those in people’s daily lives, such as stone guardian lions, decorative handicrafts, etc.
From the neolithic era to today, many types of materials have been used in traditional Chinese sculptures, such as stone, bronze, jade, wood, bamboo, pottery clay, lacquer, and dough.
Traditional Chinese vessels had some basic functions: funeral or worship ceremony ware, important etiquette, daily use, and decoration.
Meanwhile, wares that were specifically made for funerary uses wouldn’t be used by living people.
Ceramics includes historical Pottery (invented around 12,000 years ago) and more exquisite Porcelain (appeared about 2000 years ago).
Painted Pottery of Yangshao Culture (Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC) — Taipei History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Cyan and White Glaze Bowl of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Exquisite Famille-rose Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Chinese Bronze Ware developed in Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC), flourished in Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC), reached a peak in Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), and gradually disappeared at the end of the Warring State Period (403 BC — 221 BC) when the iron was invented and widely applied.
Lost Wax Casting Made Bronze Ware (Zun Pan) of Lord Zeng Hou Yi (475 BC — 433 BC) — Hubei Museum
Besides daily and military uses, the most important function of bronze ware in ancient China was in rituals.
As valuable ritual vessels, bronze wares were strictly divided into different types:
Food Ware: to boil, steam, or place food;
Wine Ware: to store, take, modulate, pour, or drink wine;
Water Ware: to place or pour water, to wash hands, or to store ice;
Musical Ware: to play music in sacred ceremonies.
Food Ware (1046 BC — 771 BC) — Zhenjiang Museum
Wine Ware (1600 BC — 1046 BC) — National Museum of China
Water Ware (770 BC — 403 BC) — Henan Museum
Musical Ware Chime Bell of Lord Zeng Hou Yi (475 BC — 433 BC) — Hubei Museum
Inscriptions and Pattern
Decorations of Chinese bronze wares are relatively simple.
Mythical animals, like dragons, are the commonest decorative patterns.
Decorative Animals on Bronze Ware (1046 BC — 771 BC) — Anhui Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Some fancy bronzes also have inscriptions carved on, to record significant events.
Inscriptions on Bronze Tripod of Duke Mao (1046 BC — 771 BC) — Taipei Palace Museum
Over 7000 years ago, ancient Chinese started to use lacquer to protect and decorate vessels.
Black and red are the earliest and dominant colors used in ancient lacquer wares, with colorful paintings or inlaid gems as decorations.
Lacquer Cup (403 BC — 221 BC) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Jade is a special representative of Chinese culture.
Since jade was found in around 8000 years ago, it has been used as the most valuable article in worship and ritual ceremonies.
Worship Heaven 202 BC — 8 AD
Worship East 1636 — 1912
Worship North 202 BC — 8 AD
Worship South 1046 BC — 771 BC
Worship West 202 BC — 8 AD
Worship Earth 3300 BC — 2000 BC
After Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC), the first emperor in Chinese history, having made a jade imperial seal as the representative of his paramount supremacy, the following Chinese emperors followed this rule in the next 2000 years.
Moreover, there are over 100 types of jade wares, and over 200 Han Zi about jade, most of them are popular characters that are used in people’s names.
Nowadays, jade accessories are still quite popular among Chinese people, for both decorative or religious uses.
This is a quite exquisite technique that draws gold (sometimes silver too) into the fine thread to braid into artworks and then inlays using fancy gems.
Gold Filigree Mythical Animal Bi Xie (25 — 220)
Gold Filigree had been only used to make accessaries or some important vessels for the royals in history. Nowadays, this is still a popular technique in China, and more materials have been used.
Chinese Paper Cutting
Papercutting, as popular folk art, has been quite popular in Chinese culture.
Over 2500 years ago, before the paper was invented, materials like fabric, leather, or foil were cut into different shapes, as a means to decorate one’s family or applied as women’s makeup.
Ancient Cosmetic on Woman's Forehead
In the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), the paper industry became quite mature. Meanwhile, scissors, knives, and pens were all cheap and accessible.
Since then, paper-cutting became a professional career, and most people would use paper-cut to decorate everything they like.
Great philosopher Mozi used 3 years to finish a wooden bird about 2400 years ago, but this bird only flew in the sky for 1 day and then was broken. Later, his apprentice applied lighter bamboo that made the birds fly for longer days.
This was the earliest kite.
Soon, fabric and even bamboo whistles were added to kites too, which could make musical sounds when it's flying in the sky.
At that time, the kite was used to test wind and distance, to spy on the enemy, or to send info.
In the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), flying kite became a popular activity for people to have fun when the paper and more lucky patterns and colorful decorations were applied.
Potted Landscape that mainly uses plant and stone is stereoscopic, exquisite natural scenery inside pots.
It appeared and popularized in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) when the Potted Landscape became an important decoration in houses and gardens.
Besides plant and stone, designing of the pot, stand and the inscription are all of great significance.
Meanwhile, Artificial Potted Landscape, which is made of valuable gems using exquisite technics, had been quite appreciated by the nobles for a few centuries.
Jade Artificial Potted Landscape of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
Emperor Liu Che (156 BC — 87 BC) started to hold a big sacrifice ceremony to worship an honorable immortal named Tai Yi on the 15th of January in the Traditional Chinese Calendar, the first full moon of a year.
This grand rite included many night activities, therefore, many types of fancy lanterns were invented.
Centuries later, the 15th of January was officially set as the Lantern Festival, which has been traditional Chinese Valentine's Day.
Lantern Festival of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)
Around 1500 years ago, more fancy materials and techs were added to making lanterns.
Until today, talented artists are still designing more beautiful lanterns, for people to appreciate in the Lantern Festival.
Chinese Puppet Show and Shadow Play
Puppet Show was evolved out of the wooden figurine that was used in the sacrifice ceremony.
Shadow Play was invented by a minister, who made a vivid silhouette of Liu Che’s (156 BC — 87 BC) favorite imperial concubine, as a means to ease the emperor’s grief about her passing away at a young age.
These two both appeared in the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), and soon developed as popular shows that could be played from the fancy royal palace to remote villages.
Gradually, people added more stories, musical instruments, stage properties, songs, and lines into the shows, while the main actors, the puppet and shadow figurine, became more exquisite.
Chinese Shadow Play
For most ordinary people in history, different types of plants were the most accessible materials that have been used to weave various artworks.
Bamboo, rattan, straw, palm or pillow leaves, hemp, and string are all widely used in Chinese weaving products.
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