Chinese art has been very diverse throughout its long history, divided into several dynasties or periods, with developing progress. China's art was influenced by great philosophers, political leaders, teachers, and religious figures. Chinese art, and especially, Chinese painting is highly appreciated around the world, since it can be traced back to six thousand years ago in the Neolithic Period. Although Chinese painting was very important, its ceramics and pottery left a remarkable legacy in today's world because of its effective yet visually comforting aspects. Most of the art pieces involved the element of nature because the Chinese believed it showed inherent poetry. Along with its varied elements, the techniques they used were very precise and unique, involving lots of time and dedication. This research paper will offer several different aspects of Chinese art during the early stages, such as the Neolithic, Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties.
The Neolithic Period was the earliest era where art had first developed in China, in 10,000 B.C. to 2100 B.C. This was the time where men first settled in villages and developed agriculture. The remains of ancient dwellings, as well as excavated tombs containing pottery, have revealed valuable information concerning the way of life of the Chinese Neolithic Age. One culture within this period was the Yangshao Culture, where the first major society developed. This was when the need for a natural water source and fertile land gathered small ethnic groups together over time, eventually forming a single culture centered around the Yellow River Valley.
The Yangshao culture's pottery was mostly created for its functions. Their pots were used as funerary jars, cooking vessels, wide- and narrow-mouthed storage jars, bowls of various shapes, as well as other utilitarian objects. The clays varied in color from red, early in the period, to gray or brown tones later on. The first objects were formed by the coil method, but there is evidence that they were wheel-turned on a primitive revolving stone. Pottery was decorated with painted pigments of brown, red, black, and white; or incised with lines formed by hitting the exterior with a corded pad. Regardless, the most common archaeological survivors of this culture are storage pots, which varied greatly in size and color.
In the later years of the Neolithic period came the Longshan culture, a combination of several cultures that evolved from the Yangshao and other independent societies. "This period was traditionally linked to the production of black pottery. The development of the potter's wheel enabled the creation of thin-walled vessels, some so fine that they were as thin as an eggshell."1 The unpainted black pottery had a mirror-like deep black surface and an almost porcelain-like hardness.
Jade pieces were used in the Neolithic period by priests and military men to worship ancestors and deities. They were considered to be authority objects that stated power. The Chinese thought that their ancestors communicated with supernatural symbols and beings that were placed on jade ornaments, since it commanded mystical forces. Circular jades were also very common in the Neolithic period. They were discs with a small hole in the middle, with different colors depending on the region it was created at. However, most of them were green and primarily used as ritual objects or just plain ornaments.
The first Neolithic people in the region figured out with distinct methods of architecture to build their homes. They dug out floors and pit walls with tamped earth -earth pounded flat and hard with smooth rocks. "A shallow fire pit was dug in the floor, and sometimes storage cubbyholes and ledges were carved into the mud walls."2 Above the dugout floor and subterranean wall was a lean-to roof from connected wooden poles covered with thatch. Amazingly, these Neolithic people discovered that if they made a hole in one pole and sharpened the end of another, the two poles could be connected and would stay together even if the rope tying them became loose. This was the earliest known example of the "mortise and tenon" joinery, a key characteristic of the complex and beautiful Chinese architecture that was to come.
The Xia dynasty started approximately from 2200 B.C. and ended in 1600 B.C. This dynasty was made out of agrarian people, with several religious beliefs and an advanced society. This was the time where the emphasis on advancing farming techniques was replaced by the growing trade of manufacturing in metal; and as the society developed, so did its art. Pottery vessels were popular at this time, with geometric patterns, various colors and incised markings. "There also was some evidence that the people from this stage attempted writing in these ornaments."3
The oldest bronze vessels are from the Xia dynasty, when the Yellow Emperor had thrown nine bronze mounts to symbolize the nine provinces under his rule. These bronze vessels are filled with decorative patterns, some being the outlines of the faces of random beasts or dragons. Some were exclusively for the noble and others were for religious purposes, either to commemorate their deceased ancestors and gods or to have spiritual and political ceremonies. They also symbolized social status and often was related to music, culture, and ancient imperial ethos.
The Shang dynasty was another period where tons of artistic ideas and aspects appeared. It was approximately from 1600 B.C. and ended in 1100 B.C., and was generally considered to be the first true Chinese dynasty. Ritual killing to honor their gods and predecessors were an important part of Shang religious beliefs. Some people practiced divination, deciphering the patterns made by burnt tortoise shell ashes. Others set a great interest in pottery production regarding the "kitchen ware", where the tools were made in bronze, often imitating established pottery shapes. There was also the introduction of a new green-glazed ware, later named "celadon" by the French. These green wares appear to have made their debut in the form of a proto-porcelain body (composed of a mixture of porcelain stone and kaolin clay), which was fired with a glaze containing iron oxide. Another form of pottery that was discovered was the white pottery, a soft and fine-bodied white ware implicating kaolin, used for ceremonial use.
Archaeologists have found evidence of calligraphy since the Shang dynasty. "The pictures and signature emblems turned out to be the early attempts of writing, and eventually turned into pictograms (more stylized representations of the original pictures)."4 By the Shang dynasty, the original picture writing had already evolved into pictogram writing. Later in the period, calligraphy was a form of religious communication, since kings had their scribes write questions for the gods on ox bones or turtle shells. After a question had been written out, a red-hot piece of metal was applied to the bone or shell, and the cracks that appeared were interpreted as the answers from the gods.
Bronze was very popular in the Shang dynasty because of the bronze vessels. These vessels had elaborate caldrons, water vessels, and wine jars used to offer drinks and food to spirits, royal ancestors, and gods. There were also decorated with animal-shaped handles and were very similar to the ceramic vessels. People from this period also developed various designs that helped archeologists to determine the expansion of the culture. The decorations and figures used with bronze included bears, wolves, tigers, eagles, hawks, dragons, and masks. Circular jades were also used in the Shang dynasty. They had thin outer edges and raised inner rims, with carved circles and different images of animals.
The Zhou Dynasty was approximately from 1100 B.C. to 256 B.C., and it was divided in two parts. The Western Zhou was characterized by their ancestor worship practiced in the temples. They also adopted several aspects of the Shang dynasty, such as its writing systems, rituals, and farming techniques. The Eastern Zhou went through great internal upheavals, since there was an unbalance of kingdoms. "All the rudiments of Chinese values, morals, political theory and culture evolved from this war-torn period."5 However, its ceramics and pottery flourished.
Although bronze production increased in quantity and variety, the Western Zhou also saw a continuation in the production of primitive porcelain, which today would be termed "stoneware". It was a strong and opaque material that soon became the forerunner of the proto-porcelain of the Han Dynasty. Architectural pottery became a manufacturing industry for the first time in China during the Zhou dynasty. For buildings, rectangular or square building bricks were made and utilized. Gray earthenware, which had seen some refinement from the Shang and the Western Zhou, continued in production in the Eastern Zhou, sometimes embellished by burnishing designs to stand out from the duller dark gray body in the style of cast bronzes.
The custom of killing living beings was changed with the custom of burying people with wooden burial figures or pottery in the Zhou dynasty. This was because in ancient times, humans thought that the souls of the dead people revived in another world, where the necessities were the same. The practice of burying ceramic facsimiles, minqi, with the dead began to replace actual living sacrificed of people and animals.
In modern times, China has undergone a series of major social upheavals. It has also been, to a rare extent in its long history, susceptible to influences from several cultures. When similar circumstances prevailed in the past, China not only saw changes, but a genuine flowering of its arts. Chinese culture developed largely in isolation and therefore was unique. Along with its development, China gradually progressed in the arts, such as with pottery, ceramics, bronze vessels, architecture, etc. The first four stages of the entire Chinese history were the periods that started a whole new beginning regarding its art. The work done during these dynasties was soon influential to the rest of China, which kept on developing and improving its flaws, trying to make the pieces functional yet visually attractive. The early steps of these stages were the catalysts of the whole new society that China is today, and had a profound effect on Chinese art of actual times.
This research about Chinese art made me see how our logical senses make us create something as beautiful as art. I learned that art is something intuitive and comes out by instinct, rather than having to force the actions of creating it. It made me reflect on other cultures apart from China as well, and made me realize how such small steps can lead into something as great as our present society. I also learned about the legacy such forms of art had in the later period of China, and how it helped to create greater things. For example, the pots were first made as the most basic and functional item of the daily life, but later on, the pot gets transformed into something fancier, where it can also be used as an ornament because of its elaborate decorations. Lastly, I learned a lot that the purposes of the pieces of art I mentioned above are for religious ceremonies or values. This made me contrast the different societies I am facing -the spiritual ancient China and the materialistic society of today.
- Robert Mascarelli, The Ceramics of China: 5000 B.C. to 1912 A.D. (China, 2003) 11.
- Sheila Hollihan, Art and Architecture of China (India, 2006) 24.
- Richard Barnhart, Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting (China: Beijing, 1997) 48.
- Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Art (New York: Morrow, 1992) 183.
- Corinne Debaine-Francfort, The Search for Ancient China (New York, 1999) 77.
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- Debaine-Francfort, Corinne. The Search for Ancient China. New York: Abrams, 1999.
- Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Art. New York: Routledge, 1992.
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- Hollihan, Sheila. Art and Architecture of China. India: Mason Crest, 2006.
- Lin, Leng. "The China Dream." Chinese Type Contemporary Art Magazine. 8 Aug. 2001: 26-27.
- Mascarelli, Robert. The Ceramics of China: 5000 B.C. to 1912 A.D. China: Schiffer, 2003.