Traditional Chinese Art
Characteristics and Aesthetics of Visual Arts in Ancient China.

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Bronze Head with Gold Foil Mask
(1100-1000 BCE)
Sanxingdui Museum, Guanghan.
Part of the extraordinary hoard of
monumental Sanxingdui bronzes,
dating to the 12th century BCE.

Traditional Chinese Art


How Eastern Art Compares to Western Art
The Magnificence of Early Chinese Art
Buddhism Enters Chinese Art
Ceremonial Bronzes
Jade Carvings
Scythian Origins of Chinese Metal Sculpture
Buddhist Religious Art
Clay Statuettes
Linearity in Calligraphy and Painting
More About Asian Art

Kublai Khan out Hunting (c.1280)
Handscroll painting by Liu Guandao,
one of the top Chinese painters
from Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368).

For chronology and dates,
see: History of Art Timeline.

How Eastern Art Compares to Western Art

The Eastern nations from Persia to China developed civilizations distinguished by ancient art suffused with the qualities of the spirit. The Greek way was to reject the unknowable, to distrust what could not be identified by the brain, and (instead) to advance by intellectualization, to fix in artworks the naturally beautiful, the rational, the deduced ideal. Thus Greek art rises out of sensitive observation, and results in clear, realistic representations - or, in architecture, in logical, functional structure, sparsely ornamented.

The Oriental way - as exemplified by Chinese art - is to discount the observed natural phenomenon, to seek the essence of life in intuitively apprehended values, in spiritual intimations, and in the abstract elements of colour and creative formal organization. Eastern art, less obviously humanistic, natural, and intellectual, feeds the spirit. Its glories are achieved in the realms of the near-abstract, the contemplatively mystical, and the richly sensuous.

Possibly the best in Western art has arisen when waves of influence have surged in from the East. Just as the most profound of Europe's religions came from Asia, so Europe's visual art has been richest and most warming and satisfying when the rather bare classicism and intellectualism of the West have been enriched by the mysticism, the colour (in the widest sense), and the refined aesthetics borne in by invaders from the Middle and Far East. There can be no doubt that today the West is disillusioned over the art of its post-Renaissance period, and is at last aware that the Greek achievement, for all its perfection of forms, was limited to a narrow segment of the field open to the artist; that the larger body of profound and masterly art belongs to China and Persia, and, in only a slightly lesser degree, to India, Indonesia, and Japan.

The Hindu philosopher, in an effort to express the inexpressible, offers a figure which is helpful to the Western observer dismayed by the surface strangeness of Oriental art. The soul, he says, is an interior eye. It looks not out upon the external world but toward eternal realities. It sees the universe in essence, in spiritual significance. The Oriental addresses his art to this inner eye instead of trying to please the outer eye by familiarity or clever imitation, or the intellect by reasoned expression. The abstract elements in art - colour, rhythm, formal vitality - are a language intelligible to the soul and welcome to the inner vision.

This eye in the centre of consciousness, atrophied in most Western men through neglect, or deliberately blinded in favour of the reasoning intellect, can be opened, grows sensitive with use. It alone detects the most joyous and profound pleasures possible to art. It is concerned with those values associated with feeling rather than with statement, asks no translation through senses and brain, transports the beholder at once to the source at which the artist found his inspiration and conceived his image.

The Western eye, one might truly say, has been fact-seeking, nervous, eager for objective report, contemptuous of the unfamiliar. It has been form-blind and imagination-shy. But now for the first time since Renaissance art, great numbers of Occidental people are trying to understand the implications of the symbol of the inner eye. They recognize that without stilling the mind and developing an inner contemplative vision they cannot hope to apprehend the message and to relish the formal beauty of a Zhou bronze or a Song landscape painting.

Chinese painting is strange because it is an expression of the soul's quietude, of spiritual contemplation. Its language is more of abstract and universal movement and mood than of observed effect and concrete natural detail. It speaks best to those who meet its quiet with quiet, who come to it innocent of realistic expectation.

Even a spirited monster carved by a Han sculptor is more a product of the feeling evoked by the monster idea, and by masses of stone, than a representation.

The observer who sincerely desires to experience the Oriental work of art - no less than the artist who wishes to break through the restraints put by intellect upon creation - does well to ponder over the symbol of the eye at the centre of being. Pondering and understanding, he may find new quietude in living; new insight, even ecstasy, in contemplation; and a new world of formal enjoyment opened before him in the realm of Oriental art. At the best he may experience the glow of the soul, the suffusing illumination of the inner being, which comes with surrender to the spirit and its participation in the rhythmic creative ordering of existence.

As a last word about the spirit and intent of Asiatic art one may say that it does not hold up a landscape as an exhibit. It aims rather to enable the beholder to feel his oneness with the creative order, the harmonious oneness at the source of all life. Similarly Asiatic religious painting and sculpture exist, not to instruct and impress and glorify, as does Western religious art, but to afford a feeling of utter peace, of rightness, of suffusing joy. This art is at once a direct, gratifying visual experience, the means to a cosmic self-identification, and a conveyor of the feeling of order as the foundation of the spiritual-material world.

Whatever one's personal response, it is no longer possible to refuse to place the body of Asiatic art above that of any other continent. In the great number of masterpieces of painting and sculpture bequeathed to later ages, in the splendour and sensitivity of the art-life of cultured people in era after era, and most of all in the plastic and sensuous richness of the so-called minor arts, in pottery and porcelain, in textile and costume fabrics, and in jade carving and lacquerware, the East is superior.

It generally comes as a surprise to the Westerner, in his assumption of superiority - perhaps well founded in the fields of science, invention, and warfare - that Orientals look down upon the arts of the West. They have examined realism and have found it an inferior type of expression. They miss the accent of cosmic calm, the abstract signs of spiritual penetration, the serenity that comes after contemplation.

In the world stream of art no current, except possibly Egyptian art, ever flowed through so many millenniums with a single distinctive accent as has the Chinese. The art of Ancient Persia has flowered at intervals through a period as long, but with interruptions. Beside these two, Japanese art and culture seems comparatively new and immature; yet it has an unbroken history of fourteen hundred years, and its arts were flourishing centuries before the English language was born.

It is time that we of the New World, of Europe and America, recognized this elder Asiatic culture, that we accepted it as a main current in the stream of the world's significant art. In relating our Western accomplishment to it we shall need to acknowledge not only its surpassing beauty but also the enriching influence it has had upon our own visual culture, not only in Byzantine art and the Ravenna mosaics, but in Moorish Spain, in Venice, in nineteenth-century Europe; perhaps, too - in some untraced circuit from Asia across the Bering bridge - influencing Oceanic art and perhaps by a back road into the European-derived American culture.


The Magnificence of Early Chinese Art

Paleolithic culture in China yields up the usual potteries, stone weapons, and bone implements of early crafts and craftsmanship. The clay vessels are somewhat more intricately and sensitively ornamented than is pottery in many other Neolithic cultures. One important bit of information prised out of the finds and conclusions of archeologists is that the Chinese of historic times are descended from Stone Age ancestors resident on the same soil. This had been challenged: for long it was believed by Occidental scholars that the Chinese culture had been imported at an advanced stage from some region to the west. Now, from the evidence of graves not later than 3000 BCE, and of remains from the Bronze Age, a continuity is proved. This does not preclude the probability, even the certainty, that influences from the outside were felt again and again. See also: Neolithic Art in China (7500-2000 BCE).

The historical sequence of certain characteristics is first established in some bronze vessels dated vaguely "after the fourteenth century BCE," but the magnificent decoration and expert craftsmanship indicate a long antecedent period of experiment and maturation. The ceremonial character of the caldrons, wine-vessels, and bells, often engraved with commemorative inscriptions, leaves no doubt that here Bronze Age art was already marked by profound skill and the use of sumptuous materials. Possibly the feudal aristocrats or war lords enjoyed their culture amid conditions of exceptionally savage exploitation and mass murder and against a background of crude superstition; but the relics of art and ritual are nonetheless splendid and everlastingly eloquent of an advanced, if barbaric, civilization.

Although Chinese history is chronicled from about 1000 BCE, it is not until the third century BCE that scholars describe the forms of life in detail. The priest-kings and feudal lords then gave way to the first Universal Emperor - he officially took that name - who united the country into one empire, built the Great Wall, and carried on the established magnificence of court custom and art. His dynasty gave place to that with which the first great flowering of the sculptural art is associated, the Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 BCE to 220 CE. This is one of the periods of truly outstanding sculpture in all world history. In the same period the aim and methods of painting became fixed; the works are almost wholly lost, however. Pottery also was carried to new refinements.

For important dates in the evolution of traditional arts and crafts in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

Buddhism Religion Enters Chinese Art

Since art in China is so closely attuned to the spiritual life, it is well to remind ourselves that in the sixth century BCE there had lived in that country two of the greatest religious prophets of all time, the Taoist Laozi (Lao-tzu) and Confucius. It was the century of the coming of Buddha to India, and the one preceding the rise of profane philosophy and intellectual inquiry in Greece (these largely took the place of religion in the classic world thereafter). The connection between Chinese painting and the Taoist philosophy, serene, spirit-centered, is not to be missed. Buddhism, when effectively introduced into China during the era of Han Dynasty art (206 BCE - 220 CE), brought its own methods and its own emblems, and these were absorbed, not without a lingering influence of Indian-Buddhist art, into the Chinese practice of sculpture and painting during the Wei Dynasty, toward the end of the four-hundred-year period lying between the achievements of the Han and the Tang dynasties.

It was during the era of Tang Dynasty art that East Asian culture recorded its greatest triumphs. In this dynasty's three-century rein (618-906 CE) the arts extended into annexed lands and determined the direction of Korean art as well as that of Japan. Chinese Buddhism fixed its course, somewhat away from the asceticism of India. A more humanistic note suggests the surviving influence of Laozi, foreshadowing the later Taoism in which the two religions found harmonious accord. In painting and in sculpture, in porcelain and in small scale terracotta sculpture, in textile and jade, this was one of the most prolific and exciting periods in the history of art, corresponding incidentally with the stagnant Dark Ages in Europe. Poets, painters, and scholars were invited to the imperial court and encouraged to carry on their work under generous imperial patronage.

Most authorities regard painting as the key cultural achievement of the era of Song Dynasty art (960-1279) the more masterly in the field of painting, although agreeing that sculpture then declined. This period is represented today by many more actual works, including the first great surviving body of landscape painting - often directly associated with the Taoist emphasis upon inner and abstract values.

There is one further notable, not to say surpassingly lovely, phase of Chinese ceramic art in the Ming period (1368-1644). But that corresponds to the later Renaissance era in the Western world. Meantime the artworks of the Tang, and Song Dynasties demand attention, for they are related in time to the Medieval Christian art of the Western peoples - and in the plastic arts we must also consider the bronze sculpture from preceding dynasties.

Ceremonial Bronzes

That the artist-craftsman was an important personage in cultured Chinese society from as early as the end of the second millennium BCE is to be inferred from the ceremonial bronzes produced then and through the following fifteen centuries. It is so usual to designate only free-standing sculpture and painting by the term "fine art" that decorated vessels are sometimes overlooked as examples of masterly design. But there is a magnificent, even monumental quality about the great bronze vases, sacrificial urns, and caldrons of the pre-Han period. (For comparison, see the La Tene style: Gundestrup Cauldron c.100 BCE.)

In them the Chinese combined a creative handling of large forms with extraordinary richness of decoration. The coordination of functional expressiveness and ornamentation is as nearly perfect as it is in the output of utilitarian or ceremonial metalwork objects of any civilization. The celebrated high-relief silverware of Rome seems in this company to lack integrity and restraint. The point to be observed is that, despite the wealth of ornament, even its profusion, the average vessel is strongly outlined, and the structural and utilitarian values are accentuated rather than obscured.

The motifs of Chinese goldsmithing differ with the succeeding periods and changes in national life, and the types of ornamentation vary from the most delicate and intricate all-over pattern to the most pronounced high-relief conventionalizations of animal forms or geometrical figures. The earlier recognizable motifs are like formalizations, almost abstract, of fanciful animals, such as dragons and ogres, and the source is probably to be sought in ancient animistic religions.

The massiveness so characteristic of early times persists in the Han bronzes. But the decoration is then curbed. There is sometimes rich surface patterning, but it is lighter, often engraved - the earlier custom of casting the entire vessel, with its ornament, in one piece, had resulted in deeper-cut and more strongly dynamic relief. That the Han artists should have refined ornament without impairing the larger vitality and the plastic life of the object, retaining the purity and strength of the outlines, is testimony to exceptional creative sensibility. The simple, admirably functional vessels of that era would be judged elsewhere to be from the early, most virile period of an art development, rather than representative of a phase that came after fifteen hundred years of expert production in the field.

In later examples - for bronze manufacture continued, although partially replaced by porcelain, through the Tang and Song Dynasties - the strength and the formal inventiveness seeped out. The usual expedients of decadence - lifeless copying, the use of stock patterns, and the over-elaboration of ornament - finally closed the history of a unique craft. It is probable that the religious customs which gave rise both to the uses of many types of vessel and to the ornamental motifs had then disappeared. They had afforded inspiration to the artist and encouraged the patron; but when ceremony changed, the art declined. What is known definitely of the bronzes is bound up in grave-lore (important always to the ancestor-worshipping Chinese) and literary references to sacrifice and commemorative ritual. The Tang bronze mirrors are often finely decorative in a rather profuse way, but the earlier ones, in this case too, are more intriguing and more alive.

Jade Carvings

The manner of ornament of the bronze vessels and bells is repeated in miniature on jade talismans or signets of the pre-Han period. There is, incidentally, in this jade carving - as in the ornamental bronzes - a striking likeness to decorative compositions of the Mayan civilization in Mexico and Central America, one which gives rise to the interesting hypothesis of a probable cultural link between Asia and Pre-Columbian art in America, though this is not historically proved.

Chinese jades are an outstanding and celebrated contribution to the world's jewellery art. They range from undecorated amulets in disk, ring, or tablet form, shaped to enhance the native loveliness of the translucent stones - sufficiently beautiful in themselves as "crystallized bits of moonlight" - through abstract, ornamental emblems, to miniature figure pieces. In the latter the formalization is usually rigid, the animals being only briefly outlined.

While the ancient examples appeal to us today by their firm yet jewel-like sculptural beauty, they had for the artists and users in early times an additional symbolic value. Not only are they found in graves but they were commonly used as charms or fetishes, if we may judge by the placing of them on dead men's mouths and eyes. The elaborate structure of precise symbolism erected in later days by Chinese scholars, who ascribed a specific meaning to each colour, pattern, or ornamental motive, is perhaps to be suspected; but one may believe that ideas out of the very old but gradually changing worship of nature and ancestors gave larger significance to these charms. Thus green, red, white, and blue jade, each in a traditional shape, may have signified North, South, East, and West, while there were the proper "signs" for heaven and earth, for fertility, and for peace; and two natural forms side by side may have stood for wedded bliss. All this is bound up with the intricate network of ritual, sacrifice, and funeral custom that underlay religious observance before the introduction of Buddhism. But today all that counts is that the carved jades are compellingly endowed with the nobility and formal life which we sometimes call beauty.


Chinese pottery is a third instance of surpassing mastery in those early times before sculpture and painting had emerged in what is now considered "characteristic Chinese form." From time immemorial Chinese clay vessels had taken on exceptional refinement. [For the world's most ancient pottery, see Xianrendong Cave Pottery, 18,000 BCE, from Jiangxi Province, SE China; and Yuchanyan Cave Pottery, 16,000 BCE, from neighbouring Hunan Province.] Superiority in this craft was to continue through later ages until "china" became the name for the world's most finished pottery, no matter where made. The Persians and the Chinese were supreme masters in this field. Chinese ceramic art is exemplified by the extraordinary Terracotta Army (c.246-208 BCE), created during the era of Qin Dynasty Art (221-206 BCE), and by world-renowned Chinese porcelain, notably the blue and white porcelain developed during the era of Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644) at Jingdezhen, in the late Kangxi period.


Oversize stone monsters, monumentally impressive, incomparably spirited, gorgeously decorative; tiny bronze or gold plaques, fibulas and charms, virilely rhythmic in silhouette and massing, strongly formalized; matchlessly graceful figures in clay and porcelain, polo-players and camels and court ladies, with indescribable sculptural fullness and sophistication - these are images that leap to mind at mention of Chinese sculpture: three utterly different branches of the plastic art of carving, each mastered within a single culture. Even then one has not mentioned the Buddhist cave statues that are second only to the Hindu figures, and a very special sort of low-relief mural art, and the medieval full-round figures of Bodhisattvas that constitute one of the noblest and serenest types of religious sculpture in history. No other land exhibits so great a range of excellence in a single art, from miniature plaque to monumental statue, from simplest austere statement to gorgeously elaborated decoration, from calm to exuberance and spirited elegance.

But to begin the description of these exciting monuments and figures and jewel-like emblems with a semblance of order, let us go back to the shadowy era before the Han accession in 206 BCE. There then existed, says legend, or history, colossal bronze statues, but they seem mostly to have been melted down for money under later regimes. There is, indeed, surprisingly little sculpture in the round, considering the mastery long since attained in the design and casting of the bronze dishes, vases, and bells, and in the carving of miniature jade charms. The art exists rather in figures accessory to the utilitarian bronzes. Not uncommonly, vigorous little animals stand up like sentinels at corners of the ceremonial vessel, or lie snugly against the lid; while others, more formalized, constitute handles or spouts or simply lend compositional accents. Often they all but disappear in geometric abstractions.

In the Han Dynasty, however, we see them come down, so to speak, into the open. Soon there are bronze animals, stone animals, and clay animals. The little bronze bears are especially well known; there is in them a tendency toward realism, but they are very simple and broadly proportioned for formal effect. A wide range of favourite pets appears in clay, in miniature, as figures for deposit in tombs, so that the deceased may have beside him the companions he valued in life. In this connection there are also figurines of fine ladies, indicating a gratifying change in etiquette. A wife had formerly been buried alive with her dead husband, but now a clay effigy was entombed as substitute. Along with the wives and servants are the charming little pigs, hens, and ducks. Almost none of these, human figure or animal, is to be compared with the truly surpassing statuettes of the Tang era, a few centuries later; but there are many arresting and rewarding examples, and a rare demure girl or a spirited horse from one of those ancient Chinese burying places still stirs our deepest admiration.

The monumental statue of a horse beside the tomb of General Ho Ch'u-ping, who had travelled as far west as the Persian border, is dated by archeologists at about 117 BCE and is one of the oldest surviving examples of a type of commemorative art that flourished in China through many centuries. But it is better to skip over this and the other large sculpture of the Han period, and most of the Six Dynasties period, to the truly grand stone animals of the fifth and sixth centuries CE. These may be divided into two sorts: lions more or less plain, and lions with additions that make them into unearthly monsters - chimeras and such. In practically all, the sculptural conception and the treatment are so direct, simple, and creative that the figures are lifted to a plane of formal nobility. They are filled with the spirit of the animal and with the spirit of creative sculpture. In their massing, proportioning, and rhythmic organization they are impressive, virile, even dramatic. Here, writ large, is the same sculptural vitality or energy of movement, combined with suave, rhythmic conventionalization, which is found at the supreme level in the small animal bronzes. There is in both fields the linear enrichment of surface, the use of silhouettes echoed in incised lines, of minor rounded forms repeated and juxtaposed. There are few sculptural exhibits in all history so stirring, few monumental sculptures so essentially right.

The larger ones still lie where their creators placed them, often covered completely or partially by the dirt of the ages. Today examples rise up, half uncovered, in farmyard or field, reminders of the glories of Chinese life fourteen centuries ago. Or should one say instead, "the glories of Chinese death"? For these were funerary figures, markers pointing the way to the tomb of a celebrated man, or perhaps indicating the way of the spirit from the tomb. There is no record elsewhere on an equally colossal scale of man's age-long preoccupation with life beyond death, except in Egypt. The funerary and commemorative arts of these two ancient civilizations offer a fruitful field of comparative study.

The art of the Han era had continued the ornamentalism of the preceding periods, and was direct and vigorous. Despite the linear tracing, added on the surface of the mountainous masses of the lions and chimeras, as well as on the small bronzes, the general feeling of simplification and of unified rhythm had persisted into post-Han sculpture. In seeking the source of this lasting influence in works both large and small, and predominantly in animal figures, one is carried back to one of the most fascinating theories in the history of art.


Scythian Origins of Chinese Metal Sculpture

This theory has it that centuries earlier, in faraway northern or western Asia, there had originated a distinctive and instantly recognizable type of sculpture in metals, known until recently as "the Scythian animal art". And that in the course of time, through repeated migrations of the barbarians of the Eurasian steppes, southward and eastward at first, then westward, the style had been carried to Persia and to the upper valleys of China, where it took hold and became a main root of pre-Buddhist sculpture, and, in the west, to scattered areas of "barbarian culture" from Finland and the land of the Vikings, to Visigothic Spain and Lombardy. It was essentially the art of the nomad tribes of the north, pouring out of that Asiatic reservoir which had held from time immemorial shifting and mixing tribes, Aryan and Mongolian, known to later history in a shadowy way as Scythians, Sarmatians, and Huns.

The evidence seen in survivals of the art itself is strongly in favour of a common origin for the Luristan animal figures of Persia, the early animal sculpture of China, and the Scythian originals found in lower Russia. The rare North European examples are so akin in both motifs and sculptural feeling or method, that an assumed relationship is at least defensible; and there is even reason to wonder whether the Etruscan formalization (so soon snuffed out after the classicized Romans laid hands on it) may not have arisen out of contact with the Russian sculpture of Scythia. Lately the tendency among archeologists has been to drop the name "Scythian art," to speak of "the Eurasian animal art" or "the art of the steppes." Some authorities, attempting to reconcile art terminology to one or another racial classification, speak of this development as Indo-Germanic art, or as the Iranian-European style. At least one authority broadens the idea and tags it "Amerasiatic."

The single certainty is that one of the great manifestations of the sculptural art exists in a widely scattered yet recognizably related display of animals in metal, found in the tombs of Scythian chiefs in southern Russia and Siberia, in the graves of warriors in Luristan in western Persia, and in the graves on the borders of western China. The many examples discovered in these three chief caches are matched by odd pieces discovered along the European trails of Bronze Age art.

The Scythian style, if we may still term it that, died out in its own land unless perchance it had something to do with the vigour of Russo-Byzantine art. In Persia it flowered once, in a restricted district, was lost to sight, although it affected other visual arts. In China alone it was absorbed, or rather it triumphed, and found continuous life over a period of many centuries; its spirit spread from the miniature bronze bears and boars and deer to the monumental stone chimeras.

The hallmarks of the style are three: (1) strict decorative formalization; (2) extraordinary plastic vitality; and (3) strong simplification of main motifs along with rich counterplay of minor forms. The strength, the unity within richness, may be said to constitute a cardinal virtue of all art in which formal excellence and sensuous adornment are expertly combined; but the effect of concentrated energy, of spirited movement, within a profusely decorative composition is here surpassingly mastered in many of the brooches, talismans, and plaques. Whether in a gold buckle from Scythia itself, or in a Luristan harness-ring, or in an ornamental stag in bronze from the Ordos Desert, there is the vital movement, the dominating, compelling single animal-rhythm, cushioned in decorative outline and patterned accessory.

There is an impression of largeness even in small pieces. Practically always there is distortion of the object as it would be seen by the camera: there is no breath here of the realism of Mesopotamian Sculpture or of Greece or Rome. It is decorative art, not naturalism, that the artist has intended: vigorous, forthright ornamentalism, and always the extraordinary boldness and virility. There is almost always, too, an avoidance of symmetry, an avoidance inevitable in any art so dynamic and so individualized.

Most of the miniature examples of the style (by far the larger proportion of the whole range) are in low relief. Even when technically "in the round," the figure is considerably flattened. Animals, single or in groups, free figures geometrized until their outlines form their own frames in almost mathematical regularity, ornamental plaques pierced through to give additional sharpness to the silhouette, vigorously carved dagger-handles - these are typical. There is, too, that other non-realistic touch, the increase of formal elegance by surface patterning - sometimes by traced lines; more often, as befits sculpture, by repetitions of minor swelling forms, as in the horns of a stag or mountain goat, or in the mane of a horse or lion. This particular sort of sculptural counterpoint is nowhere else manipulated with such telling effect.

Just when the "animal style" entered China is still uncertain. It may have come as a gradual infusion, as wave after wave of invaders from the vague "West" bore in. There is a possibility that the pre-Han bronze vessels had gained their animal masks and claws and occasional full animal figures from contact with the West, if not through invasion from that quarter. Certainly a wide range of decorative motifs on earlier examples indicates as much. When independent sculpture appeared, the subject-matter was such that one can only assume the foreign origin; the animals are so often those important to a hunting people, not to an agricultural people like the Chinese.

The actual examples closest to the Scythian and Luristan prototypes are found on the western borders of Old China - mainly in the Ordos Desert, from which they derive their designation as the Ordos bronzes. From the same direction came the hosts and leaders who again and again conquered the static but lasting Chinese nation.

Until archeologists and anthropologists piece together more of the puzzle of cultural inter-penetration and tribal shifts, it is fruitless to do more than accept the fact of a common Eurasian heritage, and to note that in China the animal-art vitality, slowly modified in its miniature forms, passed over into larger sculpture: the result being those outstandingly decorative monumental lions which served as the point of departure for this disgression. But the world is likely to hear more rather than less of a mother art of the Asian steppes.

Buddhist Religious Art

Buddhism followed the trade routes into the China of the middle Han emperors in the centuries just before and after Christ's birth. Already the Greek influence had been felt in India, and this led to the first representation of Buddha as a man; but the East could not give up its formalism for Hellenistic realism, and the sculptural treatment became conventional and decorative. In India certain attitudes and accessories had become stereotyped; and in another direction (carrying on a pre-Buddhist Brahmanic expression) there was a profuse, exuberant sculptural art of multiplied forms and repeated areas of high and low relief. (See also India: Painting and Sculpture.)

All this was carried over into China - bodily, perhaps, in certain examples of the smaller things, when in the mid-first century CE an emperor, having dreamed of a saint in the West, dispatched emissaries to Central Asia and received back news and tokens of Buddha and his religion. Certainly it was not much later that China became dotted with shrines and monasteries of the Buddhist faith.

Because the new religion celebrated the human body as the temple of the spirit, man became for the first time a main motif in Chinese art. Serenity and compassion entered into the expressiveness; into attitude and facial expression on the one hand, and into the sculptural handling on the other. There came a new kind of plastic rhythm, aided by a melodious and graceful linear counterplay.

From the typical figures of Buddha and of Bodhisattva - a figure midway between human and divine - taken bodily from India, there was to develop a long line of religious effigies. This culminated in the sumptuously enriched yet calm and uninvolved Bodhisattvas of the Tang era. The best of them seem to breathe a spirit of peace and harmony and repose, to suffuse the temple or shrine with spiritual light. The sculptural method is perfectly fitted to the supra-mundane intention: it reinforces the religious symbolism by its dignity and its felicitously established and delicately echoed play of volume and plane. The figures constitute an impressive reminder of the age-old truth that the spirit of an era and a people may express itself most vitally in art forms.

In the other direction, that of profuse decorative adornment of shrines and temples, Chinese Buddhist sculpture followed equally the tradition of India, with similar native modification. The iconography was, as we have seen, fixed, not only in certain attitudes of the figure - all in seated or standing positions of relaxation and repose - but in symbolic accessories such as the nimbus or halo, and the draperies. In multiplying carved figures in the cave shrines and sanctuaries, the Chinese artists set these larger effigies in appropriate niches, and, as was done in India, surrounded them with countless smaller images carved in relief directly on the flanking rock walls, sometimes multiplying the figures till the entire cave had the effect of being abundantly peopled with gods and supernatural attendants.

The atmosphere of the cave shrines is incomparably rich, and yet austere and mysterious. Considering the wholesale nature of the sculptors' task, the artistic standard is singularly high. Detached areas of the bas-reliefs, no less than single Bodhisattvas or now removed heads, repay study. If the quality is very like that of the earlier Brahmanic and Buddhist cave-ensembles of India, the point to remember is that there is a like high achievement marked in the two phases. In general, the Chinese is a little more restrained. It rules out the sinuosity and the lighter sensuous decorativeness of the Hindu tradition, and gains thereby a new distinction. Not infrequently the Far Eastern artists introduced remnants of their vigorous animal art, as in the Yungang Grottoes in the province of Shaanxi, in compositions not unlike the greatest sculptural achievements of Europe as exemplified by the cathedral tympanums in the style of Romanesque and Gothic sculpture in France.

For Chinese Buddhist art see also: Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-589) as well as Sui Dynasty Art (589-618).

In the Yun Kang caves it is possible to see in the ensemble - completed after a century and a half of effort, from about 450 CE onwards - the effect of successive minor changes in style and treatment, as new waves of influence bore in from the West, or a revived breath of local tradition swayed the sculptural thought. In general, throughout the caves, the colossal Buddhas are least appealing - the formalization there becomes wooden, and the concentrated feeling is dispersed. The spirit of the brooding Compassionate One is not magnified easily, even by the master sculptors, as had been, for instance, the rhythmic vitality, the proud boldness, of the Ordos animals when they were metamorphosed into the oversize stone lions and chimeras.

Often the Chinese sculptors carved stone stelae that are like sections cut from the cave walls. Buddha sits serene in a central niche, while the surrounding face of the flattened shaft is incised with low-relief Bodhisattvas and attendants, with incidental birds, abstract patternwork, and so forth. Sometimes, again, the elements obviously imported with Buddhism are mixed with survivals of the ever-energetic animal art.

Clay Statuettes

Finally, there is still another type of Chinese sculpture which has widely and surely captured the Western fancy. (The Chinese, by the way, consider sculpture one of their lesser arts, as compared with painting and calligraphy.) The clay statuettes of the Tang era comprise at once a comedie humaine of the cultured life of the period and a diversified and endlessly appealing exhibition of sculptural suavity, elegance, and sheer virtuosity. This is not, like the Buddhist sculpture, a result of artistic impulse carried over into religious and spiritual reverence or reverie. It is an expression, rather, of lighter mood, of love of the graceful, even the playful.

The very subjects are eloquent of a devotion to the recreational sides of life: horseback-riders, polo-players, animal pets, dancing girls, musicians; though there are also more serious pieces - beasts of burden, warriors, and officials. But fascinating as is the documentary picture of living thus fixed for the delight and amusement of later generations, the most notable fact is the unrivalled plastic aliveness, the sculptural verve and vividness, here exhibited. Comparable to the Greek Tanagra figurines in size, method, and range of intimate and genre subject-matter, the Chinese statuettes are superior as pure sculptural art. The dancing figure or poloist or camel or horse immortalizes the spirit or feeling of the subject, even while pushing the boundaries of miniature art into new regions of expressiveness. The object as viewed in nature is penetratingly realized, but the actual visual impression is thrust back, modified, transformed, till an organized equivalent, creatively shaped in the most expressive and concentrated values possible to the materials and methods of clay sculpture, takes its place. Seldom have sculptors combined, in a long series of works, such essential truth to model or character with so eloquent a rhythmic movement; seldom such an aspect of freedom and spontaneity with sound and delightful sculptural orchestration.

The statuettes are usually coloured. Commonly they are glazed, although the glaze may have been left off certain portions of the clay where directly applied pigment gives the better effect. As glazed pieces, the statuettes are sometimes omitted from the history of sculpture and are relegated to the books on pottery instead - as if they were not among the very masterpieces of free sculpture! In any case, their fresh liveliness, brilliant vigour, and formal beauty are unforgettable, a source of purest aesthetic enjoyment. Luckily, the pieces are finding their way into many of the best art museums in the West, and even masterly examples are common enough to permit modest private art collectors to own them. Probably thousands of figures will yet be dug from ancient graves. Incidentally the subjects prove, as did many of the reliefs in Egyptian tombs, that a people accustomed to make grave-offerings need not by that token be considered inordinately sad or obsessed by grim thoughts of the after-life. The Tang statuettes are joyous in theme, in every sculptured syllable.

In China there grew up an exceptional sort of shallow relief sculpture in which an elaborate story composition was outlined on the stone, and the space around the figures and objects cut away to a slight depth. Flat slabs so treated might be used in series around the tomb-room; and the method often was combined with high-relief figures on the Buddhist stelae. This sort of sculpture puts an exceptional burden on silhouette, and the virtues are linear rather than three-dimensional. Indeed, many examples are nearer to engraved than to sculptured stone.

In some examples of the second century CE, with figures done by scratch-drawing, and backgrounds then chiselled out, there is the usual Chinese vigour, not without a virility reminiscent of the steppe tradition. There is, too, a diverting series of stories and incidents told in the idiom - myth and historical legend, barbarian custom and homeland festival - all pictorially described, to which may be added homilies of filial piety, patriotic sacrifice, and conjugal fidelity. The totality of such works forms a sort of stone picture book of Chinese mythology, folklore, history, and etiquette. Although these early moralistic stone sculptures are the most memorable things in the mode, the shallow-relief art was practiced importantly through many centuries. Some of the Tang stelae have panels distinguished by fullness and elegance, in the tradition.

Adding together relief and statue, miniature and colossal figure, stone and bronze and clay, all represented by exceptionally good work, even when judged by world standards - to which may be added a high achievement in wood carving, incomparable jade-sculpture, ivory carving and a unique sort of portrait sculpture in built-up lacquer - one has in China, the entire range of the sculptural art.


Chinese aesthetics were summarized by the painter Hsieh Ho as far back as the 6th century. To begin with, he said, a painting should have "rhythmic vitality and a life-movement of its own", a description which fits both Oriental art and modern expressionism! Hsieh Ho stresses the importance of movement and rhythmic vitality, but most importantly he also emphasizes the idea of "life in the painting". In this connection note that most thinking about art revolves around one or the other of two quite different concepts: either, the depiction or representation of life around us; or the creation of something new that has an animation or life-movement of its own.

The Chinese regard the depiction or imitation of natural things as secondary. Their main object is to inject the artwork with the elements of life-movement, rather than to replicate or interpret - after all, what else does creation mean? Excellence in a painting derives from the vitality of the painting itself, rather than the life or object depicted. Thus the Chinese painter infuses his art with independent life, with movement in line and colour. And all this is merely an extension of his way of life: that is to say, if he has great sensitiveness and serenity in his own soul, his painting will exude these same qualities.

There are five other principles in Hsieh Ho's summary of aesthetics. Broadly speaking, they concern structure, harmony with nature, colour, composition according to hierarchic order, and fidelity to the wisdom of other masters, all of which was perfectly consistent with the Chinese passion for ordering and classifying the elements of art. Unfortunately, it stifled innovation - at least over the long term - so that by the end of the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644), painting had become dominated by repetition and academic formality, varying only in its degree of intellectualism. Clearly, once all painting has been reduced to formulaic methods, and exact rules regulate the drawing of mountains and the representation of trees or waterfalls, or even human figures, it ceases to exude any form of vitality or life-movement. Fortunately, the history of painting in China includes so many periods of surpassing beauty and richness that the lifeless interludes may be forgiven.

Another traditional Chinese art - invented, it is said, during the Song dynasty around 1,000 - is "zhezhi", better known in the West as Origami, the name given to its later sister version from Japan.

Linearity in Calligraphy and Painting

Ever since the third century CE, the art of calligraphy, (fine art writing), has been regarded as the most prestigious of all the visual arts in China. Not only does calligraphy require profound skill and precise judgment, but it is seen as a window onto the character and culture of the writer. Calligraphy acquired its spiritual aura during the period of Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 BCE), when oracle bones and tortoise shells were first used for divination purposes, and blossomed during the era of Zhou Dynasty Art (1050-221 BCE). Ever since, the Chinese have believed that calligraphy requires exceptional personal qualities and unusual aesthetic sensibility. (See also: Pen and Ink Drawings.)

Likewise - to a degree - Chinese ink and wash painting. After all, the painter employs essentially the same instruments as the calligrapher - brush, ink, and silk or paper - and art critics in China judge his work by similar criteria: the vigour and expressiveness of the brush stroke, and the harmonious rhythm of the composition as a whole. In this sense, painting in China was essentially a linear art, and Chinese painters were primarily concerned not with the depiction of nature or the representation of reality - through, for instance, the use of chiaroscuro, shading or linear perspective - but with the expression, through the rhythmic movement of the brush stroke, of the inner essence of things. It is the rhythmic movement of the line, in response to the natural movement of the painter's hand, that endows Chinese painting with its remarkable harmony and unity of style. The introduction of perspective came later during the era of Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911).

More About Asian Art

For more about the art and culture of the Indian subcontinent, please see Asian art, or refer to the following articles:

Indian Sculpture (3300 BCE - 1850)
Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE)
Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century)
Mughal Painting (16th-19th Century)
Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century).


• For more about traditional art in China, see: Homepage.

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