Chinese Arts - Calligraphy, Painting, Sculpture, Porcelain, Folk Art, etc.
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The Visual Arts
Chinese art, like Chinese literature, goes back many centuries.
One of the oldest and most basic forms of Chinese art is calligraphy, the painting of the Chinese characters with a brush. Calligraphy has developed as a pure art form with its own standards of excellence.
Building on the tradition of calligraphy, Chinese painting developed a distinctive style that differs greatly from Western painting. It is more efficient in terms of brushstrokes and appears more abstract.
Landscapes have always been a popular theme, and sometimes these appear bizarre to the Western eye.
With their stress on simplicity and economy, Chinese calligraphy, painting, and poetry are closely related.
In all of them, the artist seeks to express both inner harmony and harmony with the natural surroundings. Chinese poets and painters often have sought inspiration by withdrawing to isolated, mountainous areas, and these landscapes have become conventional themes of Chinese art.
Similarly, Chinese architecture has traditionally aimed to convey harmony with society and nature.
The magnificent life-size terra cotta statues of men and horses, discovered in the early 1970s in the tomb of an emperor who died in 210 BC, provide some indication of the long history of Chinese sculpture. After the introduction of Buddhism into China, Buddhist subjects became dominant themes of the sculptor's art.
Perhaps best known (and most copied) in the West, however, are the works of Chinese decorative artists, such as pottery, bronzes, lacquer ware, and exquisitely detailed jade and ivory carvings.
The Chinese were master craftsmen and produced fine sculpture, especially in bronze. Although bronze casting existed a thousand years earlier, it was in the Chou period (1122-221 BC) that China developed the art to its peak.
This is evident in the great ceremonial vessels used by the nobility for ancestor worship. From tombs of the Han Empire (202 BC-AD 220) have come a rich variety of clay figures of people, animals, and household utensils designed to make life comfortable in the next world. Other objects are wrought in bronze, inlaid with silver and gold, and elaborately ornamented with abstract and fanciful designs. Carvings in jade and bas-reliefs on tomb walls also reached a high degree of excellence.
The prosperous Tang Dynasty (618-907) developed Buddhist art to its highest level. Stone was a favorite medium for religious sculpture, and iron replaced bronze in the casting of figures. The glazed terra-cotta figures of this period are especially fine.
With the decline of Buddhism in the Song period (960-1279), Chinese sculpture lost its vigor. Nevertheless, interesting works continued to be produced, such as the Bodhisattvas.
Chinese Pottery and Porcelain
In China, the potter's workmanship was lifted above the utilitarian level and became a fine art. The great work of the imperial potters at the peak of their excellence has never been equaled in modern times.
Pottery was made in China long before history was set down in writing. A coarse gray earthenware was made before the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC), and a finer white pottery was made during this era. These vessels resemble in size and shape the Chinese bronze vessels of the same period, and it is likely that the bronzes were first copied from pottery.
It is from the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) that the history of pottery making in China is ordinarily traced. The ancient Chinese had a custom of burying the dead with pottery images of people, animals, and possessions dear to them during life. These images have given modern students a clear insight into the life and customs of these people.
The pottery horses of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907) are among the most celebrated examples of ancient Chinese art. By the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), pottery of simple design was decorated with monochrome glazes. Celadon, or sea green, is probably the best known of these glazes.
Although crazed, or crackled, glazes appear to have been used before the Song Dynasty, they are commonly associated with this period. This shrinking and cracking of the glaze, due to too rapid cooling, was probably first an accident of firing. The resulting effects were so attractive that crackled glazes became a studied effect in finer wares.
Porcelain gradually evolved in China, probably during the Tang Dynasty. It grew out of earthenware by a process of refining materials and manufacturing techniques. This true porcelain, sometimes called hard-paste porcelain, was a combination of kaolin, or China clay, and petuntse, also known as feldspar or China stone. These ingredients were called by the Chinese the body and the bone of the porcelain.
The principal porcelain factory in China was the imperial plant at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. Pottery and porcelain probably were made there long before Jingdezhen became the seat of the imperial potteries under Emperor Chen Tsung about AD 1004.
Sericulture dates back to about 2640 BC in ancient China. The Chinese Empress Hsi Ling Shi (venerated as the Goddess of Silk) gave her royal patronage to the silk industry. She invented the loom and applied it to the production of highly prized silk fabrics.
For some 3,000 years the secrets of silk production were closely guarded by the Chinese. It was not until about AD 300 that a secret mission from Japan succeeded in penetrating China. The members of the mission obtained silkworms and brought four Chinese girls back to Japan to teach the Japanese the art of sericulture and the uses of silk.
According to legend, the silk industry spread to India when a Chinese princess was given in marriage to an Indian prince. When she went to India, the princess carried silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds concealed in her headdress. From India the silk industry spread into Persia and Central Asia, then slowly filtered into the Mediterranean countries.
Beginning early in the 2nd century BC, caravans traveled the Silk Road, a 4,000-mile (6,400-kilometer) trade route linking China with the West. The route began in Sian in China and wound its way to the countries along the eastern Mediterranean shores. From there the silk was transported to Rome. The Silk Road did not begin to decline until the 7th century AD, when the sea trade routes from China became fully developed and were safer to travel than the Silk Road. The Silk Road allowed a highly lucrative trade in silk fabrics to develop.
Chinese Folk Art
Chinese folk art is as extensive as any in the world. Each section of China had its own styles, and the entire output of art was enormous for both family and community use. The art associated with festivals, weddings, and funerals was extravagant even among the poor, and vestiges of it can still be seen in Chinese holiday celebrations.
Paper was invented in China, and much folk art using paper was devoted to making shop signs and festival objects. The design and execution of wood-block prints has already been noted.
The production of furniture provided some of the finest examples of Chinese folk art. Chinese furniture was mainly of two types: plain hardwood pieces and lacquered wood pieces either inlaid with mother-of-pearl or elaborately carved. Both are products of the finest artisanship and have influenced furniture making in the West.