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From Early Civilization to the Han Dynasty

A History of Chinese Art and Culture

For more than seven thousand years, through multiple periods of war, unrest, and varied dynastic rule and the modern republic, the Chinese civilization has grown immensely (to an area just larger than the United States) and, through it all, the culture and art have evolved yet remained constant. Numerous Chinese dialects have emerged, but the written language has remained relatively unchanged and is read throughout the country. In fact, the basic pictographic style of writing that was developed sometime in the early Shang dynasty—perhaps as early as 1700 B.C.—appears related to the writing of today. Such characters emerged from inscribed design elements that adorn excavated relics of the ancient Chinese past and have become an essential part of ancient Chinese art (Rawson 1980).

Various civilizations often developed in separate, remote areas of the vast, relatively isolated area of modern-day China. These many peoples gradually came together and shared the innovations of their societies, from utilitarian household objects to the decorative relics of their artists and craftspeople. These objects in particular demonstrate a continuity of a culture and of a people attuned to nature and to one another (Sullivan 1999). The artists of China, from the dawn of civilization to the first imperial dynasties in the early centuries of the Common Era, show a remarkably advanced ability to work with and develop materials into useful and even beautiful things. Early Chinese artists and craftspeople established the foundations of the ingenious people who would go on to become the world’s most enduring civilization.

Emergence of Civilization and the Neolithic People

Researchers suggest that technologies of bronze, agriculture, and certain animal domestication seem to have more southern origins, but evidence is incomplete, and the drier north has produced more archaeological findings. The production of pottery for surplus goods likely began before 8000 B.C. Such early people belong to the new Stone Age “Neolithic” cultures and were originally believed to overlap and merge somewhere as late as 1500 B.C. (Murphey 2006). Further carbon-14 scientific dating suggests the likelihood that, in particular, the Black Pottery Longshan people (named after the chiefly black ornament distinctive to archaeological finds from this era) developed out of the Banpo settlements of the Painted Pottery Yangshao culture. Archaeologists are tracing a potential centrifugal path outward from the Yangshao center.

A 1953 find demonstrates a developed society with a cemetery and clustered villages with framed housing and multiple rooms separated by baked plaster walls (Sullivan 1999). Kiln-firing technology also served the artists, as is apparent in advanced earthenware pottery made on wheels and elegantly painted. The introduction of the pottery wheel certainly only improved the craft for artists already technically advanced in the trade. A hand-built vase (or hu) from Banpo dates to about 5000 B.C. and demonstrates graceful, simple lines curving up and out from the base to a bulbous lip before gradually moving inward and culminating at a long, slender neck that mushrooms out at the opening (Tansey and Kleiner 1996). Modifications in shape and function along with new pottery designs and a wider palette of color demonstrate the evolution of the craft throughout the Neolithic period, but also continue to show the connection of the people to the world around them (Sullivan 1999). That forms of animals consistently appear in the work of the craftspeople comes as no surprise especially given such divination practices as scalpulamancy, which interpreted heat cracks found in animal bones. Artists employed animalistic designs in their work ranging from the abstract and stylized to complex, composite elements that would especially emerge in the first recorded kingdoms of China.

The Earliest Dynasties

The earliest dynasties and the period of the Warring States spanned nearly fifteen hundred years and oversaw times of great cultural development and conflict that resulted in the various regions crumbling into independent strands of society in a state of constant unrest. It would not be until the Qin dynasty of the third century—the first imperial empire—that the beginnings of China, as known to the modern world, truly came into existence (Murphey 2006).

The first archaeologically confirmed dynasty is known as the Shang. Within the Shang, early foundations of Chinese society developed. Great capitals like the major city center of Anyang had walls more than thirty feet high and sixty feet wide that took years and hundreds of workers to build (Rawson 1980). Wheat, rice, and millet were agriculture staples, and the people extensively practiced hunting and domestication and maintained an array of livestock. Art of the period is a reflection of the society, as utilitarian implements with a variety of ornament have been uncovered. Impressive tombs have been uncovered with sophisticated bronzes for chariot parts, weapons, and vessels. Rudimentary work in copper had been dated prior to the Shang dynasty, but the development of a truly bronze-based society really came about as a gradually process. In all, the Shang dynasty appears to have covered the six centuries, from 1650-1050 B.C., and their extensive use of bronze is a defining characteristic of the dynasty. A “guang” from about 1200 B.C., described as a “covered libation vessel,” is an astonishing composite of creatures and decorative elements. It is almost perfectly preserved and demonstrates iconographically the Chinese respect and admiration for nature (Tansey and Kleiner 1996).

A slave revolt brought down the oppressive final king of the Shang dynasty but retained the technological advances and the cultural evolution that had occurred. Circa 1027 B.C., the dynastic change to the Zhou marked a dynamic and spirited artistic period reflecting the presence of conquering forces and the onset of a new era. But such a spirit was quickly replaced again by more utilitarian craft that represents the continuity of this ancient culture. Adding to this, writing in brush and ink was developed, and many Chinese literary classics and recorded histories are said to have originated from this period, though they survive only in copies made later.

Iron became plentiful and agriculture greatly expanded with the development of the iron-tipped plow, a thousand years earlier than found in the west (Murphey 2006). Jade played an important role and seemed to have specific symbolic importance to various strata of society, based on the shape of the jade. The Zhou dynasty was largely a continuation of the civilization developed during the Shang, so similar domestic, funerary, and decorative objects have been found and are only occasionally more evolved. Bronzes from Western Zhou are highly valued for their detailed inscriptions both topical and historical but, through gradual distancing, seem less sophisticated than their predecessors. Rising feudal states interacted more frequently with later Zhou kings and stylistically influenced the artists of the period, including intricate combinations of animalistic forms and patterns. Bronze ritual tiger sculptures from the Western Zhou and a ritual vessel hu from the Eastern Zhou demonstrate both the contemporary style as well as the regional differences evolving from increased political isolation (Sullivan 1999).

The kingdom of Zhou persisted after the Wei Valley capital was sacked and the king killed. His son ruled over the remaining fragment while previously dependent vassals formed the rival states of Qin, Jin, Yan, Qi, Chu, and other smaller states. The constant state of warfare continued to allow for exchange to some extent, but the times were better suited to philosophical meditation on the state of things. Confucius and Laozi (or Lao-tzu), though from opposing schools of thought, waxed poetically on the appropriate course of action—or inaction—and their poetic philosophies have followers to the present day. The period of the Warring States saw exceptional political upheaval. But tombs continued to be stocked with an assortment of jade implements to seal the body, stone and metal tools, carriages with horses, and decorated utilitarian pottery ranging from early ceramics (the predecessor of the great porcelain of later imperial dynasties) to lacquered wood and even inlaid bronze.

Only recent excavations have uncovered the true extravagance of the aristocratic courts of the feudal states. Bronzes inlaid with gold and silver vary from vessels featuring narratives of the hunt and religious practices, flasks, bells, and mythical creatures, and they are examples of the array of artistic objects found in royal tombs from the period. Historical records suggest some of the narratives likely had origins in paintings though, like the brush-and-ink writings, they were likely applied to surfaces such as silk and bamboo and have been lost. However, astonishing examples of advanced pictorial art and finely embroidered textiles--as well as beautifully crafted jade, bronze mirrors, and lacquered wood--have been uncovered in a southern state that had remained mostly isolated until the rising power of the state of Qin finally defeated them (Sullivan 1999).

The First Imperial Dynasties: Unification and Expansion

In the third century B.C., the disciplined farming society of Qin rose up and built a vast empire out of the Warring States, as well as with new territories. Under the new and first official emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, an immense imperial infrastructure built through public works projects was begun. The Great Wall is the most notable of the projects, linking major existing walls into one 1,400-mile-long barrier and taking nearly a million lives in its construction. Other enduring legacies of the Qin dynasty include the persecution of scholars and the destruction of countless texts and relics of the past. Art and commentary from the period is appropriately reflective of the policy of the state that allowed for no criticism (Murphey 2006).

In 1974, a major excavation began of an enormous underground tomb of Shi Huangdi. Thousands of life-size clay (and some bronze) sculptures of the soldiers and horses of the Imperial Bodyguard were unearthed. Each figure is said to be modeled after a living person, but only in the sharp, realistic detail of the face. The outward appearance demonstrates formalistic qualities of simple, rigid poses that vary only slightly from one another (Tansey and Kleiner 1996). The dynasty lasted only about fifteen years before being toppled, with two regions viciously fighting for the next few years before the Han dynasty prevailed, yearning for stability and unity. A re-examination of the past was allowed along with new philosophy. Despite competing thought and seemingly omnipresent warfare, many earthenware crafts depict scenes of everyday life, history, mythology, and folklore (Rawson 1980). The prevailing agricultural and connected artistic society persisted despite the never-ending internal conflict, expansionist policy, and trade along the Silk Road. It was all part of the long process of unification.

The Han dynasty endured for more than four centuries, experiencing only brief interruptions. Regional differences persisted, though exchange of ideas and innovations continued. A hallmark of later Han artistic sophistication is the bronze flying horse found in a tomb at the western edge of the empire. Its theme common to Chinese art, the sculpture is majestically rendered with the impression of motion and active muscles giving it the appearance of flight, though one hoof balances the piece on a small pedestal (Tansey and Kleiner 1996).

From bronze, jade, lacquered wood, and early ceramics to ink-and-brush pictorial illustration and weaving in silk, the early arts of China demonstrate a remarkable evolution and adeptness in media and inventiveness, often hundreds of years before the West. A contemporary of the Roman Empire, the Han Dynasty lasted until A.D. 220. Although the Han would be replaced, the Chinese civilization would endure while the Roman Empire would fall and mark the beginning of a so-called Dark Age for the European continent. The foundations laid by its earliest dynasties were strong and, as a result, the China of today is connected to a continuous cultural history that is longer than any other civilization on the planet.

-- Posted January 30, 2008


Murphey, Rhoads. 2006. A History of Asia. New York, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Rawson, Jessica. 1980. Ancient China: Art and Archaeology. London, England: British Museum Publications Ltd.

Sullivan, Michael. 1999. The Arts of China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner. 1996. Gardner’s Art through the Ages. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.