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Asian Art, Part II: Chinese Art (from Neolithic to 1279)
Articles | 18 JUN 2022 Por Valeria Correa

As the second installment in our set of articles on Asian art — here you can find the first part —, this time we present part of the history of Chinese art. Within what we consider to be art and craft, pottery and metalworking objects make up the vast history of China, making the art of this country as old as its very existence.

China's history is considered one of the most uninterrupted in the world, the influence of other cultures was less significant than the influence it had on others. Throughout this history, the reason and intention behind the production of art and its objects only changed direction once. In the beginning, the production of what we understand as art had a utilitarian intention, the objects were produced for religious and funerary purposes, this reason would continue for centuries until the appearance of the Han dynasty. From that dynasty, art began to have philosophical bases and began to appreciate both the production of images and calligraphy.

Such a change of direction is what we will share in this article in a somewhat general way, due to the great extension of the topic. In the following sections we will talk about how this change took place and the contributions of various dynasties that were at the forefront of China as rulers.

Pottery from the Neolithic period (4th millennium – 18th century)

Among the various peoples and settlements that made up ancient China, some of the northern civilizations stood out in the development and practice of pottery, this would be a constant in the country's history.

The objects they worked on were diverse, among these were dishes and utensils used mainly for funerary purposes and as part of their rituals. They used to decorate these utensils with geometric traces and lines, however, something surprising about these first manifestations was their interest in representing living beings. There are records that they came to stylize human faces and capture their understanding of these in vessels, glasses and plates. They also came to represent animals such as snakes, horses and fish, the line and the figures were synthetic, almost primitive.

These characteristics do not detract from each of these manifestations since since millennia before Christ, the Chinese already stood out in their ability to observe, interest in their environment and aesthetic sense, since they even cared about having various pigments to express themselves. . In these early steps, they possessed simple colors that they could easily obtain from nature, such as black, red, and white.

The Bronze Age (18th – 3rd century BC)

Not so far north of the country and a little further to the east, other towns focused on bronze work. Near the Yellow River these bronze objects obtained an interesting development like the ceramic objects of their neighbors to the north. Ornamental motifs and decoration on objects began to be present.

They began to worry about the design in these utensils and their value took on a cultural character, that is, they became aware of the importance they gave to these objects within their ceremonial and religious practices, so they developed greater interest in the elaboration of these.

The Bronze Age was divided into two periods, first we will talk about the Shang Dynasty (c. 1766 – 1122 BC), then the Anyang period (14th – 12th century BC) and their respective characteristics.

During the Shang period, bronze items came to prominence. The usefulness of these objects varied according to the stage of this period and by the middle of this period, the Shang had already established themselves as a Chinese people in its entirety and enjoyed good development at the hands of warrior kings and the practice of ceremonies and rituals. elaborated for which these bronze objects were made. Not only did they make bronze utensils, they also worked jade to a lesser extent and came to make animal figurines, mainly dogs and horses.

In the Anyang period there was a difference between the styles that they managed and these defined the usefulness of the objects. On the one hand, they made utensils of a representative nature, they were simple and with certain expressive intentions within their design since they not only made bronze vessels, they also created masks with animal aspects and human expressions. The second style consisted of stylized animal figurines and vessels with distinctive features such as fringes around their rims. In this style, considerable richness was intentionally presented in the reliefs, the texture on the surfaces did not compromise the quality of the objects.

On the other hand, in that style of the Anyang period, zoomorphic vessels emerged, that is, the animals were not simple statuettes, but were fused or shared part of their body with the cavities that make up the vessels. However, there were simpler statuettes, although these used to be worked more in jade.

Han Period (206 BC – 221 AD)

This was perhaps the richest and most prolific period in terms of the development of the arts. In architecture, walls began to be built which would be the base and background of what we would later know as the Great Wall of China. In turn, the beginnings of what would later be the tradition in architecture began with the Han dynasty, despite the fact that they did not consider this discipline as an art.

The Han still had important contributions to architecture, such as the appearance of mud brick and ceramic slabs.

The Chinese people experienced for the first time a unification of the territory as a nation-state and this influenced their conception of the arts and the role they had in their society. The painting began to be considered as an artistic expression and the manifestations of this enjoyed portraits made with a very good quality, richness in color and very organic lines.

The painting had themes beyond the portrait, representations of both the natural world and the conception that the Chinese had of the cosmic world were also made and the quality of the drawing began to be a concern for this discipline, since it was always appreciated that the stroke had a free and safe character. Such criteria arose from the philosophy and principles of Confucian erudition, which were first applied to calligraphy, then by relating the search for a good quality in the stroke and the use of the brush, they were eventually applied to painting. In this period, calligraphy is considered as "drawn writing".

The calligraphy was categorized according to the use that was given to it and there were up to 4 different types, some were used to make stamps and others such as "scribes" that was more expressive and drawn.

The Han also brought advances in weaving and weaving became important to them as they perfected silk thread. On the other hand, jade vessels had a more utilitarian focus, especially after improving their design and adding precious stone inlays. By changing the use of the vessels, the funerary traditions also changed a bit, the presence of art in this field was more focused on the appearance of paintings on banners to decorate the tombs. However, that was not the last change that painting had, mural painting also appeared by the end of this period, only that it was presented exclusively in Buddhist temples.

Northern and Southern Dynasties (22 – 581 AD)

With the fall of the Han dynasty, China separated again and this time it was organized between the north and the south. The north did not have many significant contributions, however, they continued to develop wall paintings in Buddhist temples, sculptures and expression remained focused on sacred art.

On the other hand, the south of China did have some more notable changes and they also focused on painting. In this, the main themes were court scenes and portraiture. Their concern for painting reached the point of needing criteria to evaluate whether they were good paintings or not, so they created the treatise "Ku Hua P'in Lu" in which the characteristics that a painting must have to be appreciated are specified. and considered good. These criteria were: the resonance of the spirit, that is, a painting had to have enough vitality in it to move; mastery of the bone cannula, the artists must have been highly skilled with the brush and the technique to use it; correspondence to the object, means that what is represented must have both the correct shape and colors; placement and planning, the arrangement between the balance of the objects and the composition had to have harmony; and finally, the transmission, it was important that the work could be copied and reproduced.

As for pottery, there was a concern to advance in a more technical and productive sense, they were not so concerned with design as such. They developed better kilns and made good glazes, a notable achievement was the appearance of green glaze.

Tang Dynasty (618 – 906)

At this stage, the porcelain flourishes and reaches a very good quality, although they still did not handle a wide variety of colors that could be applied to the pieces.

On the other hand, painting also enjoyed good development and its momentum, since patronage had a great deal of interest in this discipline. Buddhist paintings and portraits were very important, but he highlighted the beauty and dynamism that was applied in the paintings where they represented animals such as horses and dragons. In the middle of this period, landscape painting emerges.

Other advances brought by the Tang dynasty were the work of gold and silver in metallurgy, the development of lacquer and its application to handicrafts such as paintings, and the exclusive use of ink on pieces of silk to make paintings.

Five Dynasties Period (907 – 960)

During this period there was much interest in landscape painting. Compared to the landscape painting of the Tang dynasty, in these years the importance and size of the human figure in the paintings decreased, the scenes were incredible representations of the majesty of nature and this was reflected in large-format works.

Large format works were a novelty and those that dealt specifically with landscapes with mountains were called "mountain master compositions".

As for porcelain, they developed the finest porcelain of its time, creating the foundation for what porcelain would be for tea ceremonies, as well as the differences between pieces suitable for elegant tea sets and pieces delicate enough for the came.

Teh Sung dynasty (960 – 1279)

This dynasty began to seriously concern itself with the concept of elegance and how to apply it to the arts. The approach they took was based on the sober taste and sensitivity practiced by Confucian scholars again. However, those who enjoyed greater wealth, sought to demonstrate it through the ostentatiousness of their belongings as has happened throughout history in any part of the world.

The bases in ceramics and pottery for the sets of cups and teapots destined for the tea ceremony finally find their maximum splendor and a tradition in the aesthetics necessary for them emerges.

Large-format landscape paintings saw drastic changes, as not only was their size reduced, but the view they offered was also changed. While in the past period the paintings covered as much of the landscape as possible, in the Sung dynasty the painting focused on very specific parts of it, that is, the view of multiple mountains, rivers and trees is changed to one single tree branch. What they sought to convey with this was not only the sobriety of the prevailing taste, it was also considered important how well the artists managed to capture their understanding of the natural world.

During this dynasty, artists enjoyed the creation of an academy that put them on a par with philosophical scholars, giving them the opportunity to be recipients of honor within Chinese culture. Over time, the painting saw changes in composition and technique, creating the concept of a “single-corner arrangement” in which the work appears to spring from and center on a specific point on the edges of the canvas.

Other changes that the Sung dynasty would see would be the redirection of the interest of artists. As much as the taste in this period was focused on the sober and based on Taoist philosophy, the artist gradually became a romantic who sought to capture other feelings in his paintings. The “hachazo technique” also appeared, which consisted of a rapid but controlled brushstroke whose appearance is well represented by its name. In order to achieve better effects and textures, silk rolls are replaced by paper, which enriched the ink technique and the expression that artists were looking for.

Finally, the tradition that would govern Chinese painting for the following centuries and its characteristics are established, among these: sensitivity, self-awareness (artists competed with each other and with themselves), refinement of technique, concern for quality , romanticism, elegance, rich textures and the expression of subtle melancholy.

If you have reached this point in the article, we thank you for joining us on such a loaded journey. The history of Chinese art is certainly one of the richest and full of important contributions to consider. We hope we have shared the information in a pleasant way and we invite you to continue reading this series of articles on Asian art. In the next installment we will finish the subject of Chinese art and we will talk about the influences that came to Korea from China, setting standards in its artistic expressions.

Source: History of Art - art on the Asian continent.

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