Art in China

The art in China was developed in a relatively isolated geographical area and therefore received a strong character. Alien impulses were quickly assimilated and ordered. Precisely this particularity led to Chinese art having a dominant influence on the entire East Asian art. From the 18th century the influence can also be traced in Europe. We encounter an art that is strongly linked to the imagination, shows a developed sense of form and is based on simple, clear basic elements.

Within the sculpture, the typical and decorative, rarely the anatomical realism or the strong emotional expressions are emphasized. The highest reaches are the sculpture in the Buddhist works from the first 1000 years possibly and in the tomb figures from the same time.

The lotus plant

The lotus plant is still a favorite motif in Chinese art. The picture is a section of a painting by an unknown master, made in the 13th or 13th century. Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne.

The historical and Buddhist monumental painting that flourished under Han and in the time thereafter, and which is described in contemporary literature, has largely been lost along with the palaces and temples it adorned. Of greater importance was the intimate and free ink painting, done with black ink on silk or paper, sometimes united with a few tints of thin water colors. This painting, which is unique in world art, gained a dominant position in China’s visual arts and, moreover, great importance in Japanese art.

Its highest expression was the art of landscape art, which in China was refined into an independent art form far earlier than elsewhere. This is due in particular to the religious assumptions, the natural cult of Taoism and the meditative Chan Buddhism, which sought the truth and the fellowship of God through an immersion in nature. Nature was regarded as a reflection of the universal consciousness, and the painters were to render in a suggestive and simplified form the elements of nature as symbols of life and the forces behind things. The creative principles, the male (yang) and the female (yin), are thus symbolized by the mountains and the water, which are still the main motifs in the Chinese landscape painting.

The Chinese term for landscape, shanshui, really means mountains and water. This pantheistic and visionary canvas painting is to a great extent a hint of art. It becomes entrenched substantially and characteristic of some scarce, vibrant streaks or fine avtonet low ring. It does not seek the mathematical central perspective, but rather arranges things according to their importance to the image idea and creates space and depth effects through the denomination game or by means of the cloud layers and fog banks that occur so often. There is a close relationship between canvas paintings and Chinese writing, or calligraphy, when the writing was originally a pictorial and later became a simplification and stylization of it.

Calligraphy uses the same tools as the painting: brush and ink; it has retained some of its original imagery character and is considered an art species equivalent to painting. There is also a close connection between painting and poetry, often the same expressions and images used. The artists were often both calligraphers, painters and poets, and the canvas painting often received lyrical texts, giving the calligraphy a significant place in the composition of the image.

Chinese crafts are exceptionally high and unmatched especially when it comes to bronze art from the first two millennia BCE. and in the pottery of the Song and Ming dynasties.


In Longmen there are 100,000 statues, from an inch high to the largest Buddha statue of 17 meters.

Stone Age and Bronze Age. Shang and Zhou

The Shang and Zhou dynasties lasted from about 1700 to 200 BCE. Already in the third millennium BCE. an advanced pottery was made. This is known from discoveries around the Huang He River in the provinces of Henan and Gansu and can compare in artistic quality with the stone age ceramics in the western countries. This extensive prehistoric ceramic material ranges from primitive forms with bast matte patterns pressed into raw vessels, to more technically and artistically significant works with painted geometric motifs (see also China’s prehistory ). It is on the basis of the world of prehistoric ceramics that we must seek the conditions for the high level that characterizes bronze production during China’s first metal era. This one, which coincides withThe Shang Dynasty (c. 1766–1027 BCE) and the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1000–221 BCE) show a lushness and mastery of materials comparable to the finest created in metal art.

Chinese sculptures

A number of the most valuable Chinese sculptures are related to tombs. One of the most well-known tombs is the approximately 7,000 terracotta soldiers and horses found in the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province in northern China in 1974. The tomb belonged to the founder of the Qin Dynasty, Qin Shi Huang (250- 210 BCE).

The most central task of the period, the sacral bronzes, is monumental, often in the form of fabulous animals decorated with geometric ornamentation or stylized animal motifs in heavy relief (taotie masks).

Among such richly decorated bronze vessels are some of the oldest from Anyang in Northern Henan, which was one of the main capitals of the time. These are kept in a strong and plastic style, which alongside, among other things, jade and ceramic finds suggest a high art culture. When it comes to architecture, excavations in Anyang indicate that the Chinese Post Office was designed already during the Shang Dynasty.

In the Shaanxi Province, an army of body-size terracotta sculptures was excavated from the mid-1970s; about 7,000 warriors in full armor who were set to guard Emperor Qin Shi Hihuangdi’s (259-210 BCE) mausoleum. Each of these sculptures from the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BCE) are given individual features.

Buddha from the Yungang Caves

From Han to Tang

This period lasted from about 200 BCE. to around 600 AD During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 AD) came a new and more versatile era of Chinese art. Some monumental animal sculptures have been preserved in stone, guarded animals at lighthouse graves, including in the form of winged lions and dragon-like creatures, chimeras that have a powerful and expressive effect in their rigorous, heavy stylization. Furthermore, a group of stone reliefs are found on tombstones and from the memorial or sacrificial halls that were erected in connection with the graves. The most important are the Wulian wall reliefs in Shandong with vibrant and flat profile and face silhouettes that reproduce scenes from China’s mythology and history, and that goes back to the disappeared murals.

Mao Tomb

One of the finest finds from the Mao Tomb on Weibei High Plains, west of Xianyang in Shaanxi, is this gilded bronze horse. It weighs 25.5 kg, is 76 cm long and 62 cm high. The Mao tomb contained the assets of Liu Che (157–87 BCE), which ruled in China from 140 to 87 BCE.

The political divide between the Han and Tang dynasties (the Northern and Southern Dynasties) brought about radical changes in Chinese art, mainly because Buddhism penetrated. Buddhism, above all, led to a magnificent development of the sculpture, which from India, via Central Asia, retrieved the iconographic formulas for the production of the new deities. Formally, this sculpture was initially characterized by an ornamental linear stylization, especially in the folding treatment. The rock temples in Yungang in northern Shanxifrom the late 400s with countless images and statues carved into the rock, is the most magnificent example of early Buddhist sculpture in China. Later, the sculpture sought to reconcile features of the old culture with the new religion, including in the roughly one hundred years younger rock sculptures in Longmen (near Luoyang in Henan).

In the 300s, China’s first major, well-known painter, Gu Kaizhi, worked essentially on figurative motifs. In him, the technique and style of the painting is already designed, which indicates a much earlier development. From the 400s and 500s, several masters are known, but most of today’s painting is known only from later copies. By contrast, decorative murals from the period still exist in rock temples and tombs, including Dunhuang in northwest China.

Tang period

The Tang period lasted from 618 to 907 AD during this period, in a number of areas the Chinese culture reaches the height of its long development. To a large extent it can be said about the sculpture. In the huge Vairochana Buddha at Longmen we meet the mature, fully developed Tang sculpture, according to an inscription it was carved in 672-676. During this period, the sculpture reproduces both religious and profane motifs. Its artistic innovation and stylistic characteristics are the movement. The former frontal form of the figure-making is replaced by more vivid and naturalistic means of expression.

Bronze ax from the Shang Dynasty

By the way, the art is characterized by many new and strange features, a consequence of the kingdom’s vast expansion to the west, which brought the Chinese into closer contact with new cultural areas. Particularly lively was the connection with Buddhist India. The greatest artistic effort is made in the service of Buddhism, and by Buddhist painters, Wu Daozi must have been the leader. Among the very few authentic Tang paintings, in Japan there are five portraits of holy men, painted by Li Zhen about 800 AD.

Side by side with the sacred art, genre art is also cultivated, just as the landscape painting can count its origins as an independent art form back to this time. A master of painting horses was Han Kan. Landscape painters cite Li Sixun (651–716) and Wang Wei (699–759) as leaders of two major rival schools, the Northern and the Southern, the first formal and objective, in contrast to the other’s suggestive style and romantic subject choices. Wang Wei is considered by many to be China’s greatest painter.

Song period

When the realm of the political disintegration following the fall of the Tang dynasty reunited during the Song dynasties that lasted from 960 to 1279, new possibilities exist for the art. With painting as the leading art, Chinese culture reaches a climax of sophistication and refinement in several areas. During Emperor Huizong’s (1100–1125) active intervention in the art world, the painting academy gained a great influence.

A shorter time is characterized by deliberate approaches to reaction to the fixed tradition on which Chinese cultural development is based. The painters go completely new paths – sharp observation of nature is their working method, flowers and birds their favorite motif. The central figure of the Northern School, Li Longmian (1040–1106), clearly represents the opposite view, based on past efforts. A little older at the same time was Guo Xi (1020-1090), famous as a landscape painter. The artistic significance of the song-era lies at all in the development of landscape paintings. In the religious sphere, a clear change is now being traced during the growing spread of the Chan sect (zen). The landscape painters Ma Yuan and Xia Gui of the southern school is best known.

A worthy addition to the art of painting was the art industry, whose main means of expression, the ceramics, provides illustrative examples of technical insight and the full exploitation of the possibilities of the material. The goods are usually stoneware, in finer finish porcelain or porcelain. The epoch-making value of the song monochrome is due to the potters’ unparalleled form and coloristic mastery.

Yuan and Ming

Chinese landscape painting

The golden age of Chinese landscape painting was in the Song period (960–1278). The motifs emphasize the interaction in nature, and humans are portrayed as an integral but small part of nature. The picture is Ma Yuan’s Learned Man looking at the moon, painting from the 13th century.

During the Yuan Dynasty from 1280 to 1368, the landscape painting technique was even more strongly simplified into a kind of calligraphic idea writing, by Gao Kegong, Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen and Ni Zan, among others. Significant figure painters were Yan Hui and Zhao Mengfu. The latter was also a prominent horse painter.

The art life of the Ming Dynasty, which lasted from 1368 to 1644, was marked by an archaeological renaissance, seeking to revive the ideals of the Tang era. Apart from stone pagodas and a few other ancient buildings, all preserved architecture in China dates from the Ming era and the one that followed.

A central place during this period occupies the art industry, which had already in its time consolidated its reputation in most Asian cultural areas, and even reaches Europe. With the ceramic production at the forefront, China is currently achieving results of inspirational impact on world culture. Mainly located to the two cities of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi and Dehua in Fujian, one of China’s largest art-industrial enterprises is completing the development of the most perfect material of ceramics, porcelain. This creates the basis for the paintbrush painting and the colorful decor that marks the Ming era’s greatest artistic innovation. The highest quality reaches the best products of the periods Xuande (1426–1435), Jiajing (1522–1566) and Wanli (1573–1619).

Chinese porcelain

Chinese porcelain is world famous. Already approx. 800 BCE chemically pure porcelain was made. During the Song Dynasty (960–1278) the famous Ting works were made. They are mostly white. It is in particular the clean lines that make these works appear as one of the finest made in porcelain. The picture shows a wine heater found in Anhui Province.

Male Seven or Qing Period

This period lasted from 1644 to 1912. The greatest cultural effort of this era is characterized largely by the patronage they gave to the ceramic industry, which, although it did not give anything really new, has hardly celebrated greater triumphs than during Kangxi (1662-1722). Also in the periods Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1796) good things were made, though they cannot even compare with the simple and virile power of Kangxi or “the simple Ming porcelain”.


The most famous porcelain products come from Jindezhen. Particularly famous are the blue and white porcelain objects made from the 13th century. The picture shows a vase from the Mongol dynasty Yuan. From the 16th century large quantities of porcelain were exported abroad. In Europe, pure porcelain was first manufactured in 1709.

Recent times

During the Republic, which lasted from 1912 to 1949, traditional art lived on in its various branches, but there was no renewal. Foreign influence began to prevail, and attempts to unite traditional and new can be traced. In the People’s Republic (from 1949), art was deliberately taken into the service of politics. The artist should “serve the people” and help build socialism. More emphasis was placed on amateur art and collective art practice, and the motifs, both in sculpture and in painting, were popular and primarily had a propagandistic purpose. To the extent that the art was historical, it most often drew its inspiration from the resistance struggle against Japan (1935-1945), and usually emphasized the heroic in the people’s struggle.

After the Cultural Revolution, a “renaissance” in art developed from 1977, partly through a resumption of older traditions that coincided with major excavations and extensive archaeological and art historical investigations. Innovative and style-creating artists in traditional painting, Li Kuchan (1899–1983), Zhu Qizhan (1892–1996), Lu Yanshao (1909–1993), Cui Zifan (1915–2011), Wu Guanzhong (1919–2010) and Cheng Shifa (1921–2007), has received international attention. In response to traditional painting, avant-garde groups have been formed, and a number of artists have chosen to express themselves in a modern Western form. In recent years, China has had a period of innovative and experimental art.


On this red-lacquered throne from Qing, extra layers of lacquer are applied and cut-outs through the layers before being stiffened. 1700s. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Paintwork was made in China even before the Han Dynasty. During the Ming and Qing dynasties came a new flowering period for this original Chinese art. Varnish is a kind of varnish that is extracted from the sumakt tree. It is usually red or black.