Qin Dynasty Art
Characteristics of Qin Visual Arts and Culture.

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One of several excavation sites
of The Chinese Terracotta Army
(246-208 BCE), the Qin Dynasty
ceramic masterpiece.

Qin Dynasty Art (221-206 BCE)
History, Types and Characteristics


Qin Shihuang: First Emperor to Unify China
Qin Arts and Culture
The Terracotta Army
Later Chinese Dynasties

For other contemporaneous arts and crafts,
please see: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE).

For details of ancient Chinese
arts and culture,
see: Neolithic Art in China.
For dates of other early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For more about early ceramics, see
Ancient Pottery (from 18,000 BCE)

Qin Shihuang: First Emperor to Unify China

Although shortlived, the Qin Dynasty will always be celebrated in Chinese art for at least one achievement - its role in creating the multi-figure terracotta sculpture known as The Terracotta Army, an extraordinary set of military warriors designed to protect the Qin emperor in the afterlife. The preceding era of Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE) ended in a chaotic struggle between rival kingdoms, during a time known as the Warring States (Zhanguo) period (475–221 BCE). Finally, one of these states, Qin (formerly Chin, from which we get the name China), based in modern-day Gansu and Shaanxi, succeeded in conquering the others and establishing the imperial dictatorship (221-206 BCE) of the 38-year old Emperor Qin Shihuang. While he could hardly be described as a great patron of ancient art, Qin Shihuang was the first leader to unify all of China under his rule and thus his contribution to Chinese history should not be underestimated. His introduction of a uniform written language, for instance, encouraged communication and commerce, as well as cultural development. In addition, his bureaucratic laws and standardization policies proved so effective that they served as a model for many succeeding dynasties and leaders, including Chairman Mao Zedong. Nonetheless he remains a controversial figure, not least for his grandiose architecture and engineering projects, which were made possible by his abolition of aristocrat landowners, thus giving himself direct control of the masses, and thus access to a huge public workforce. The three largest but most ruinous projects were his personal mausoleum (the size of a large town) guarded by a life-size terracotta army; his construction of part of the Great Wall; and a national road system, all of which cost the lives of thousands of his citizens, and led to the imposition of harsh taxes throughout the country. As a result, within a mere three years, a popular revolt broke out which led to the start of the era of Han Dynasty Art (206 BCE - 220 CE). Note: To see how Chinese-style arts and crafts spread across East Asia, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards). See also: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).


Qin Arts and Culture

As a soldier, politician and administrator - someone whose main interest was to create a unified nation out of a mosaic of squabbling kingdoms - Emperor Qin Shihuang was not especially interested in visual art or any particular form of culture. Indeed, he was bitterly criticized for the public burning of Confucian works and other classic manuscripts in 213 BCE - the result of his orders to burn all books except those on medicine and other functional subjects, to prevent the spread of subversive thought.

Not surprisingly therefore - except for terracotta sculpture and some goldsmithing, both used in Qin's tomb - the Qin Dynasty is not associated with any developments in fine art - including Chinese painting, or its cousin calligraphy - or decorative art - such as Chinese lacquerware or jade carving. In general, therefore, Qin cultural activities followed traditions initiated during the time of Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 BCE) or the Zhou era (1050-221 BCE), the two important periods of Bronze Age art in China.

The Terracotta Army

Obsessed with notions of immortality, Emperor Qin Shihuang approved grandiose plans for a vast personal mausoleum, which was built during the years 246-208 BCE by as many as 700,000 workers. To maintain his power in the afterlife, the mausoleum contained palaces, priceless artifacts, and up to "one hundred rivers simulated with flowing mercury". In addition, Qin Shihuang was buried along with a vast bodyguard of terracotta warriors (about 8,000 life-sized figures have been excavated so far), a hoard which represents one of the most awesome archeological finds in the history of Chinese art. Archeologists believe that about eight basic face molds were used in the creation of the army - the rest of the body's components being fired and then "assembled" conveyor belt style - after which individual facial expressions were added. Warriors vary in height and uniform in accordance with rank. When created, most had weapons such as swords, spears, pikes or crossbows (since looted), and all were coloured by Chinese painters using vivid colour pigments, before receiving a lacquer finish (now mostly faded). In all, a quite fantastic example of Chinese ceramic art, which is unlikely to be equalled.

The tomb of the Emperor himself is believed to occupy a sealed space, as big as a football pitch, located directly below the pyramid-shaped mound. No attempt has yet been made to access the tomb, probably because of preservation worries concerning the precious objects interred with the Emperor.

For the important principles underlying visual arts in ancient China, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.

Later Chinese Dynasties

- Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-589 CE)
- Tang Dynasty art (618-906)
- Song Dynasty art (960-1279)
- Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368)
- Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644)
- Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911)

For other Eastern cultures, see: Japanese Art.

• For religious art in China, see: Chinese Buddhist Sculpture (c.100-present)
• For more about visual arts in ancient China, see: Homepage.

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