Ancient Chinese Art

The art that came from the Ancient Chinese was heavily influenced by the idea of all things natural and spiritual. In many ways, it shares characteristics with Japanese and Indian art. These are typically referred to in the umbrella term of Ancient Asian art. Yet each have their own unique characteristics and show the culture and history of its origins. They all start around 653 BC and end late into the grand scale of art history, coming to an end around 1900 AD. This was likely due to that being the start of man’s true industrial expansion. They also placed value on showing the stories of everyday people as opposed to revering those in power. We will explore the intricacies of Ancient Japanese and Indian art in further blogs but for now let us focus on Ancient Chinese Art.

Chinese art takes a great deal of influence from great philosophers, teachers, religious figures and political leaders. It covered a vast and ever-changing geopolitical landscape and the art it produced over three millennia is, unsurprisingly, just as varied. Despite continuous technical developments as well as changes in materials and tastes, there are certain qualities inherent in Chinese art which make it possible to describe in general terms. It also makes it possible to recognize no matter where or when it was produced. These essential qualities include a love of nature, a belief in the moral and educational value of art as well as an admiration for simplicity and the appreciation for accomplished brushwork. There was also a loyalty to much-used and loved motifs and designs, from lotus leaves to dragons. Chinese art has tremendously influenced its neighbors in East Asia. Its reach even extended across the world through their work in ceramics, painting and jade work.

Ancient China produced many types of beautiful works of art and different eras and dynasties had their specialties. Chinese philosophy and religion have an impact on artistic styles and subjects. There is a concept that refers to The Three Perfections and refers to the arts of calligraphy, poetry, and painting. Often these would be combined together in art. It is a concept that became important with the Song Dynasty. Ancient Chinese considered writing to be an important form of art. Calligraphers would practice for years to learn to write perfectly, but with style. Poetry was an important form of art as well and great poets were famous throughout the empire. However, all educated people were expected to write poetry. During the Tang Dynasty, poetry became so important that writing poetry was even a part of the examinations to become a civil servant and work for the government. Painting was typically inspired by calligraphy and many paintings featured landscapes of mountains, homes, birds, trees, and water. Amongst these art forms, the Chinese specialized in silks, lacquers, and pottery. One of the most notable aspects of Ancient Chinese art was the construction of the Terracotta Army. It was created for the burial of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang to protect him in the afterlife. It consists of sculptures that make up an army of soldiers. There were over 8000 sculptures of soldiers and 530 horses. Every single sculpture was life-sized and highly detailed. Each soldier has his own uniform, weapons, armor and each one even had his own unique face.

An important difference between China and many other ancient cultures is that a large proportion of Chinese artists were not professionals. Many were gentlemen amateurs who were also scholars. They were students of Confucius and his principles and were often men of literature who also published poetry. For them, art was a means to capture and present a philosophical approach to life. For this reason, the art they produced is often minimal and without false details. Art throughout most of China’s history was meant to express the artist’s good character and not merely as a means to display their skills. There were, of course, professional artists too, as there are today. They were employed by the Imperial court or wealthy patrons to decorate the walls and interiors of their buildings and tombs. Of course, there were also thousands of craftsmen who worked with precious metals and crafted objects of art for those who could afford them. However, they were not regarded as artists. In ancient China, the real arts of merit were calligraphy and painting. Even back then the art world was plagued by questions of what is and what is not art.

Because of this connoisseurship of art, more and more people became collectors of it. Texts were even printed to help guide people on the history of Chinese art with helpful rankings of the various merits of past artists. In a certain way, art became quite standardized, with conventions to be adhered to. Artists were expected to study the great masters and copy their works as part of their training. One of the most famous and long-lasting sources of advice on judging art is the six-point list from 6th-century art critic and historian, Xie He. They were originally published in the now lost Old Record of the Classifications of Painters. When viewing a painting, the viewer should consult the list to determine the merit of the painting. It is as follows:

  1. Spirit Resonance, which means vitality
  2. Bone Method, which means using the brush
  3. Correspondence to the object, which means depicting the forms.
  4. Suitability to type, which has to do with laying on of the colour
  5. Division and planning, which is placing and arranging, or composition
  6. Transmission by copying, which refers to the use of reference or models.

These rigid rules of art creation and appreciation were there largely due to the belief that art should somehow benefit the viewer. The idea or acceptance that art could and should express the feelings of the artist themselves would only arrive in more modern times. That is not to say that there weren’t the occasional eccentric outliers who ignored social convention and created works in their own, original way. There will always be these people who don’t abide by the rules of convention. There are cases of artists who painted to music, not even looking at the painting. There was one who only painted drunk and another who used his fingers and toes to paint. Innovation is always present, even in a society that thrived off of structure. One does need both, to ensure balance.