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Ancient Chinese Art

Ancient Chinese Art

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Maxwell Hearn, the new head of Asian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, demonstrates the art of understanding and appreciating Chinese scroll paintings, among other ancient Chinese art, and how those pieces are significant in connecting humans with their environment.

Ancient Chinese Art - History

When we are talking about the ancient Chinese civilization, there is no help to talk about the ancient Chinese art too. After all, the Chinese arts had dated back way back to the history – to the times where agriculture was first found and ancient people changed the way of their hunting (as the main source of food) to settle down and farm.

If you want to think of it, the ancient Chinese art is one of the oldest and also the most important contributions that such civilization had done to our modern world. This is the oldest continuous methods and traditions that still exist in the world. Those arts were created or formed during the Neolithic Period in 10,000 BC. At that time, simple sculptures and pottery were common. Naturally, since then, the art had developed and evolved as time passed by. The art was determined by philosophy, political figures, and also religions.

When we are talking about Chinese arts, we often connect them to paintings, poetry, and calligraphy. But the Chinese ancient art had much more of their shares in the modern world. Not to mention that each style of painting, calligraphy, and poetry would be different from one era to another – or from one dynasty to another. Each of them had their own unique traits. Let’s discuss further about these ancient forms of arts from the ancient civilization, shall we?

10. Neolithic Pottery

Neolithic Pottery

During Neolithic Period, life was pretty simple. Ancient people had just started to understand and practice animal husbandry and farming, resulting in the needs of storage containers for their produce. According to the archeologist, the arts during this time were classified and divided into 22 regional cultures mosaic. According to the findings (and the evidence on the archeological site), arts started to develop and really shaped in a real form in 7,500 BC. At that time, it was ceramic arts that were most popular. The arts involved four serious steps of forming, and then firing, and followed by decorating and finally refining. The first ever proof of pottery use was seen during 18,000 BC.

Chinese ceramics at that time were made from clay and then hardened by heat. The ceramics would cover porcelain, stoneware, and earthenware. The Chinese pottery, later on, had an important role and also influence to the development of European pottery.

The pottery then evolved along with time.The very early construction was made from crude cord-marked artifacts and pottery that was decorated with geometric shapes and designs. It is believed to date back to Mesolithic Period. The age of the material was unknown but it is believed to be around 8,000 years old. And then a significant advance showed during the Neolithic Period. Known as Yangshao pottery, the art came in the form of funerary storage jars with ring or coiling method. The upper half only is decorated with variants of volutes, whorls, sawtooth, and geometric shapes along with red and black pigment. Some of the potteries had plant, deer, bird, and fish designs which are believed to be thematically related to gathering and hunting.

As time went by, the techniques for making the pottery were evolving and growing. During The Shang Dynasty, for instance, which lasted from 1600 BC to 1046 BC, the pottery technology was quite advanced. Ancient Chinese people had developed high fire and hard bodied pottery glazes and stoneware. They also developed a fine white ware with soft body employing kaolin – which was likely used for ceremonial usage. And then, later on, in 4,000 BC, color ceramic ancient Chinese art began to appear. When the ancient Chinese civilization practices pottery, such a practice wasn’t common in other civilizations. This what makes this Chinese civilization quite unique in its own senses.

9. Jade Culture

You may think that jade is a valuable and priced stoned. But in Ancient China, it was the symbol of nobility, perfection, constancy, and immortality. For the people, jade was considered the representative of heaven and earth essence. Moreover, the final polished piece had its own culture essence – again, of heaven and also earth. In their belief, heaven was round while earth was square. The rectangular side shape of jade ornament was called tsung and it was created to pay respect to the earth. And then, the center hole (or also known as the pie) was made to pay respect to gods of heaven.

Basically, jade was a metamorphic rock that has the natural color of white, yellow, red, and green. When treated and polished properly, the colors will be vibrant and extraordinary. But the most popular jade is the green one with its emerald hue. Jade is important because of its social value, function, and also beauty.

In case you don’t know it, there are two types of jade: nephrite (soft jade) and jadeite (hard jade). China only had the nephrite. Later on, during Qing Dynasty, jadeite was imported fromBurma. During pre-Columbian America, only jadeite was available so all jades originating from Native American are jadeite. For Burmese jadeite, it is referred to feicui. When feicui and nephrite are compared against each other, feicui is more valuable and popular.

During the ancient Chinese art development, the jade was functional for ornamental and practical purposes. In the early Hemudu Culture (existed in Zhejian Province) during Neolithic Period, jade was playing a crucial role in ritual setting. It lasted from 7000 BC to 5000 BC. Carved jade that was dating back to Longshan Culture by the Yellow River was also found, dated back to 3500 BC to 2000 BC.

Thereis also archeological evidence of Jade uses during Liangzhu Culture in Yangtze River Delta, dated back to 3400 BC to 2250 BC. The most popular ones were the ritual jades (that are pretty big too) like Yue axes, BI discs, or Cong cylinders. The arts also portrayed animal shapes like fish, birds, and turtles. During Shan Dynasty from 1766 BC to 1122 BC, jade manufacturing began to flourish. They had the technology to create the jade with every possible imaginary object. New efficient methods started to use to make the jade masterpiece .

8. Han Art

It is considered one of the most important times in the development of ancient Chinese art. Taking place in Han Dynasty (thus, gaining the name), dated back to 206 BC to 220 AD, the ancient arts in Chinese had reached its greatness. You can say that it was the golden era for the arts development in China. During this Dynasty, great improvement was made in literature, poetry, music, and also visual art because there was a new desire in representing historical stories, mythological familiarity, and also everyday life. The development in the art sector wastriggered by economic prosperity and political stability. Moreover, the successful development of paper, ink, and brushes had influenced the bloom in art. It was the same period where Tomb art developed. There are some tombs artifacts that were known to be exclusive for funerals.

This was also the time when there was a huge development on the bronze sculpture. Based on archeological sites and findings, some bronze horses figures had been found in tombs at Katsu, dated back to 2nd century BC. Miniatures of social figures bronze statues were quite popular back then, along with decorated mirrors and glided lamps bronzeware. At the same time, the artists were able to create and develop further technologies in jade carving, lacquerware manufacturing, painting, and calligraphy. When we are talking about one of the successful times of ancient Chinese art, it was during the Han Period.

7. Gu Kaizhi Paintings

Gu Kaizhi Paintings

Another contribution made in the ancient Chinese art is the paintings made by Gu Kaizhi. His signature style was the detailed elements that made the paintings look real – even came alive. Copies of his work had been distributed through silk hand scroll paintings. Gu Kaizhi was a talented painter born into a government official family. His family had resided in Wuxi in Jiangsu Province. Gu himself had served as an officer since he was young. Because of his job, he had toured in many beautiful places and he captured all of those beauties through essays and poetry.

The story of his success started when he was trying to help construct a temple for Jiankang (or Nanjing). The abbot and monks didn’t have enough money and they couldn’t collect it. Gu offered them a big sum of money as the donation. But he wanted to draw a Buddha picture on the wall in order to collect the money. Gu worked for 3 days to finish the work. People flocked to see him working on those days. When he finally completed the picture, the picture of Buddha was very beautiful and real. People commended him for his skill and artistry. Gu finally was able to help the construction of the temple from the donations.

Gu had the skill to create portrait painting, capturing the expressions of his subjects. For him, the expressions were his main focus while other elements (trees, mountains, stones, etc) were only serving as ornaments. For him, the expressions were important because he could expose their spirit and true feelings. When he was able to develop his techniques and skills, the so-called graphic techniques of him had sparked inspirations for other Chinese painters and scholars. Not to mention that his skill in calligraphy and poetry also developed, making him a very talented artist in this period. Gu was also known as an author when he summarized painting theories. Some of his works are Notes on Painting Yuntai Mountain and Painting Thesis. He had created 70 paintings – all of which were based on human figures, animals, historical stories, rivers, mountains, and Buddha. His scroll paintings (three of them) are still existing until now: Luoshen Appraisal Painting, Lenv Renzhi Painting, and Nvshi Zhen Painting. But he was also known for The Admonition of the Instructress to the Court Ladies, Wise and Benevolent Women, and Nymph of the Luo River.

6. Buddhist Sculpture and Architecture

Buddhist Sculpture and Architecture

Buddhism spread in the mainland of China in around 67 AD, which happened in the period of Han Dynasty (lasted from 206 BC to 220 BC). At that time, Buddhism had a significant and very important effect on the cultural and art development. Because of it, many Buddhist scriptures were created and built. When further developments were made, scriptures were translated. In Jin period from 265 BC to 420 BC, a lot of Buddhist writing came out. Most of them were also translated.

Buddhism legacy in China is very powerful and solid. The influence and effect had created an impressive number of Buddhist arts collections in the country alone – and it managed to spread to other areas, continents, and countries. Because of the Buddhist influence, some of the most well-known sculptural sites and locations were created, like the Longmen, Bingling Temple, and Mogao Caves.

5. Cloisonné


Cloisonné is probably a French word but this type of art originated from the ancient Chinese art that manages to survive and remain until today. The word alone means ‘partition’ which refers to one of the most ancient technique used to decorate metalwork objects and items. It was quite popular to adorn bronze or copper utensils. The technique involves a thin copper wire that was glued onto the objects. Afterward, the fine pieces of theme or design would be drawn over it.

In the ancient time, Cloisonné was a popular technique in Yunnan Province, which was under Mongolian rule. The people were able to make some of the finest and most beautiful pieces. However, the earliest Cloisonné was super fragile. Only a few pieces managed to survive up to now.

The development of the technique alone dated back to Yuan Dynasty (between 1271 BC and 1368 BC) in Beijing. Later, during Ming Dynasty (from 1368 BC to 1644 BC), the Emperor improved the color processing. Because he was interested in the technique of bronze casting, he developed the color processing resulted in bright blue hue appealing to the aesthetic sense. It was called Jingtai Blue. The development of Cloisonné reached its artistic peak during Qing Dynasty under Emperor Kangxi and also Qianlong reign. At that time, they created to make more flexible filigrees, bigger scope, and more delicate colors.

4. Landscape Paintings

Landscape Paintings

The history of China has undergone a very long period of development, chaos, wars, and improvement. Arts and crafts had also improved as dynasties came and went. In ancient Chinese civilization, they had experienced one of the greatest and also finest landscape paintings, especially from the famous Five Dynasties to the Northern Song era. No wonder if this period known as the great time for Chinese landscape.

During that time, there were two different techniques being used. In the northern areas, the painting depicting towering mountains was liked. It was commonly painted with back lines, ink wash, and also accompanied by dotted and sharp brushstrokes. The popular artists were Fan Kuan, Jing Hao, and Guo Xi. In the southern areas, they preferred the paintings of hills and rivers. The technique was using rubbed brushwork depicting native countryside. The popular artists were Ju Ran, Dong Yuan, and others.

Later, during the early Tang Dynasty, the paintings were known as Shanshui or Mountain Water paintings. Most of the landscape drawings were monochromatic and sparse. The idea was to depict a surrounding or emotion. This technique was known as the mind landscape that contained calligraphic brushwork representing the artist’s inner spirit. Needless to say, this type of ancient Chinese art had its own signature style.

3. Poetry

During ancient Chinese civilization, poetry was used to express private and public emotions. The writer could include their inner life while the readers could abstract its insight through reading the poem. Classic Chinese poetry has 3 basic elements of ci, shi, and qu.

During the period of Han Dynasty, a poetry with folk style (known as yuefu) became very popular. And then there was a development in the subject during the Six Dynasty. Unfortunately, there are only a few proof and evidence of ancient Chinese poetry. Many of books had been burnt and scholars were buried by Qin Shihuang. There were also other cruel events that marked the destruction of books and written records.

Some of the remaining pieces of poetry from ancient Chinese art are Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove or the Midnight Songs of the Four Seasons poetry.

2. Chinese Music

Chinese Music

The music of ancient Chinese people was actually originating from Africa. During that time, they used hand bone drums or pipes and clapped hand while singing. In Zhou Dynasty, Ling Lung was a man who invented the first bamboo pies as a musical instrument. The item could produce birds’ sound. He was then considered as Chinese music founder, managing to invent tone foundation.

Later, in Qin Dynasty, they established the first ever imperial Music Bureau. It was expanded and improved during Han Wu Di reign. The oldest written ancient Chinese art in musicis Youlan or the Solitary Orchid by Confucius. However, the rank of musicians was lower when compared to painters although music was quite popular.

1. Chinese Silk

Silk isn’t only art but it is one of the best (and also greatest) inventions of the ancient Chinese civilization. Silk fiber is thin but very strong. Silkworms produce silk when they make cocoons but they can only make 1000 meters of it in their 28 days of lifespan.When woven, the result would be a very smooth and soft fabric. Since the invention, silk had a crucial role in Chinese economy and culture.

Silk can be used in many things like clothing and fishing. But it can also be used as musical instrument or in writing and painting. Silk was very expensive with high value. The Chinese exported silk through the overland route that was later known as the Silk Road. At that time, status symbol could be shown from wearing the silk. At first, only royal family members could wear the silk clothes. And then it was later restricted to noble class only. Peasants and merchants weren’t allowed to wear it. But later during Qing Dynasty, peasants were allowed to wear silk although only them who had the money who could wear silk clothing.

Chinese Art Ancient China for Kids

Ancient Chinese art is rich in beauty and variety. Some art forms, still popular today, started over 8,000 years ago! Ancient Chinese art includes calligraphy, embroidery, paintings, statues, buildings, shrines, porcelain, silk, puppets, lacquer ware, firecracker folk toys, opera, paper fans, paper cutouts and lanterns and kites, seals, swords, daggers, and more! The ancient Chinese used paints, dyes, brushes, paper, stone, bronze, copper, gold, silver, jade, clay, and other materials found in nature to create beautiful art!

The Tang Dynasty is famous for it's encouragement of literature, dancing, music, scroll painting, and art. Craftsmen worked with bronze and silver and gold and copper. Scroll painting became popular during Tang times. Pottery was painted with ornate scenes of daily life, and of carriages, and bridges, and signs of the zodiac. People came from as far away as India and Korea to study the arts in China. There were special rooms in the imperial palace for training. You had to have talent, but the opportunity was there.

Facts about Chinese Art 5: the contemporary art in China

In China, the contemporary art began to develop after it had contact with the western art.

Facts about Chinese Art 6: the techniques of traditional Chinese painting

The people employ the similar technique for painting the traditional Chinese art and Chinese calligraphy. The painters do not use the oils. They include the black or colored inks to dip the brush and paint the art on the paper or silk.

Importance of the Chinese’s people calligraphy in their works of art.

In early times the Chinese paintings were made using a lot of colors and artistically located in them was their calligraphy, once this one was invented, to the point that it prevails over the images represented throughout its history in some stages.

The calligraphy of China raise the level of their artistic decorations and was perfectly integrated into their pictorial representations, on the embossment of practical bronze vessels, as well as in the grip of weapons, in their beautiful lacquered wood objects, in their colorful textiles of exquisite beauty and even in decorative wood elements that were part of its buildings.

This form of artistic expression and communication is considering an art that is helping today the better understanding of their plastic works in general and the historical and socio-economic context in which they were created. Skill and expressive quality in the practice of calligraphy and painting helped establish one’s status in a society of learned individuals from the Song dynasty (960–1279) onward.

Calligraphy was represented in decorations since the days when they only were pictograms, until they become ideograms artistically representing ideas trough symbols. Their calligraphy was unified by imperial decree throughout China by the first emperor Ying Zheng, so even though they were speaking different dialects across the country could understand each other thanks to the writing symbols. He imposed in the country the use of the zhuanshu style as standard writing system, laying thus the basis for the further evolution of Chinese characters. Calligraphy has also led to the development of many forms of art in China, including carved seals, ornate paperweights, flags or banners and other pieces made of stone. All made with a practical function but in which the decorative aspect was also observe.

Their representation of nature although very detailed and colorful in early periods as mentioned earlier, dramatically changed along the way to become a painting style with two tones of colors with different shades, although they continue working with high attention to details. This change is related to the school of painting creation by the artist and patron, Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty in the 12th century, which promotes Taoism during his tenure. This is the style of Chinese painting period in which their artistic creations were not based on real scenes, they are more idyllic, yet imaginative and gentle, with very detailed depiction of nature feature, but in which the human figure is no more than a tiny element represented in beautiful and romantic landscapes and integrated seamlessly in it. The calligraphy gets from this point on an important role in the painting.

The Ancient Chinese people art and their religious belief representation.

For the ancient Chinese was always very important show respect to their ancestors, probably to the same level as other cultures worshipped their gods. They performed the Oracle divination by reading the bones. Remains of those pertaining to the Shang dynasty have been found in which can be perceive they valued bronze material more than gold. On the bronze vessels, the Shang King offered wine as a tribute to their gods and honored their ancestors. The bronze also was used in domestic tasks developing vessels to contain wine and water, although its high content of lead may had been harmful to their health.

Religion was associated with the cosmology in ancient Chinese culture, the movements of the planets and stars were represented in Shang dynasty (1766-1050 B.C.) showing their acute observation capacity and proverbial patience when they use this knowledge to their advantage in agriculture. They represented in art this knowledge, leaving proof of this in pottery with decorations of stars and Zodiac symbols.

Ancient China

It’s remarkable that we know anything at all about the first Chinese dynasties, the Xia (2070–1600 BCE), Shang (1600–1046 BCE), and Zhou (1046–256 BC). While archaeologists have discovered Bronze Age artifacts that date to the Xia dynasty, no written records of the period remain, and the only records of the Shang dynasty are the oracle bones of Anyang, engraved with the names of emperors who hoped to see the future.

So how do we know about Lord Yu, who in 2200 BCE stopped a decade of terrible floods by building a network of canals? How do we know about Emperor Zhou’s attempt to turn his palace into a zoo in 1050 BCE?

When you look far enough back in time, the line between history and mythology becomes thin. But Ancient China was gifted with an incredible culture of historians. Thousands of years of Chinese history were transcribed from court records into massive volumes like the Shujing Book of Documents, the Ji Tomb Annals, and the Shǐjì, the ‘Records of the Grand Historian’ — a monumental breakdown of the lineage of China’s rulers from Huangdi the Yellow Emperor, who reigned in 2600 BCE, to the Emperor Wu of Han in 100 BCE.

For centuries these books were considered mythology, until in 1928 the Chinese Academy of Sciences began excavations at the ancient city of Xiaotun, uncovering a multitude of oracle bones — the shoulder-blades of sacrificed oxen, used for divination, and inscribed with names that match the Shang dynasty list of emperors and kings from the ancient texts. While the full accuracy of The Records and other Chinese histories is still debated, we know at least that they are grounded in reality.

So Ancient China saw the rise and fall of three great dynasties. The Xia dynasty saw dramatic urban development, sophisticated bronze implements, and agricultural growth in the wake of the floods that were stopped by Lord Yu. The Shang dynasty saw Yinxu rise as a prosperous capital city, where archeologists have uncovered eleven royal tombs and the foundations of sprawling palaces. People of the Shang dynasty were intensely religious, worshiping a ‘high god’ as well as many generations of ancestors.

The Zhou was the longest-running dynasty in China’s history, and it saw a tremendous amount of cultural evolution. Politically, the Zhou was a feudal dynasty, with the now-massive empire split into fiefdoms ruled by lords, with local serfs farming the land. The development of the well-field system, where one ninth of all crops were donated to the state, prevented famine and brought a measure of stability.

But around 600 BCE, during the Warring States period, when the feudal lords divided and fought each other for land and power, Chinese culture got a massive shot in the arm. Constant conflict and danger forced social issues into popular awareness, and many Chinese scholars took up a nomadic lifestyle to learn council local leaders and prevent as much damage as possible. During this time, the philosopher Confucius codified ethical leadership, the sage Laozi laid the foundations of the Taoist philosophy, and Zou Yan founded the School of Naturalism or Yin-Yang. This explosion of philosophy, study and religion shaped every aspect of Chinese culture, in ways that still echo today.

6. La Ferrassie Cave Petroglyphs (60,000 BC)

This Neanderthal cave, situated in southwest France, is famous for “cupule,” a primitive form of rock art that existed on the populated continent and was practiced around the three eras of the Stone Age. It is one of the oldest prehistoric forms of art in Europe. The extinction of Neanderthal man around 40,000 BC suggests that this art can be dated back to between 70,000 and 40,000 BC.

Department of Art History

Wu Hung has published widely on both traditional and contemporary Chinese art. His interest in both traditional and modern/contemporary Chinese art has led him to experiment with different ways to integrate these conventionally separate phases into new kinds of art historical narratives, as exemplified by his Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (1995), The Double Screen: Medium and Representation of Chinese Pictorial Art (1996), Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square: the Creation of a Political Space (2005), A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Art and Visual Culture (2012), and Zooming In: Histories of Photography in China (2016). Several of his ongoing projects follow this direction to explore the interrelationship between art medium, pictorial image, and architectural space, the dialectical relationship between absence and presence in Chinese art and visual culture, and the relationship between art discourse and practice.

Wu Hung has received many awards for his publications and academic services, among which he is most proud of the Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching at the University of Chicago (2007) and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the College of Art Association (2008).

Wu Hung is Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia, and Consulting Curator of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. He is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and sits on the boards and advisory committees of many research institutes and museums in the United States and China.

Wu Hung will be delivering the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures at the National Art Gallery in 2019.

Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present)

Giant Buddha of Leshan (713-803)

Here is a chronological list of dates showing the development of Chinese art and civilization from the Stone Age onwards, together with the history of Korean art, its closest neighbour. Beginning with the era of prehistoric art, it includes all major art forms, such as ancient pottery, bronze casting, calligraphy, ink and wash painting, jade carving, porcelain, Buddhist sculpture and lacquerware. The cultures of China, Korea and Japan developed strong associations and affinities with each other. Cultural exchanges were initially facilitated by land bridges connecting Japan with the continent of Asia, after which Korea became the main conduit of Asian culture to Japan, in many fields of visual expression, notably metalwork, painting, and ceramics. Similar religious faiths - including Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto - also exerted a unifying influence. Two forms of visual art were of particular importance to East Asian culture: the fashioning of clay-formed vessels and calligraphic expression through the ink-charged brush. Moreover, since Chinese painting derived in large part from calligraphy, mastery of the brush-rendered calligraphic line was essential for Chinese painters. As a result, calligraphy was of major significance in the transmission of cultural values. For the background to ancient China, see Prehistoric Art Timeline. For the evolution of Western culture, please see the list of dates in our History of Art Timeline. For the aesthetics of Far Eastern arts, see Characteristics of Traditional Chinese Art. For more about the cultural practices of East Asia, see Japanese Art.



Earliest known form of Asian art (SE Asia) - the Sulawesi Cave art in Indonesia.
Chinese pottery begins. Oldest example is the Xianrendong Cave pottery, from Jiangxi. Clay pottery is the most ancient art in China. See: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 works.
Yuchanyan Cave pottery is made in the Yangzi River Basin.
Beginning of Jomon Pottery, Japan's oldest ceramics.
Amur River Basin Pottery, Russian Far East - Russia's first ceramics.
Final period of Paleolithic art and culture. Earliest known examples of Japanese pottery.
Melting of Ice Age glaciers cause the sea level around Japan to rise, flooding all land bridges to China and isolating Japan from the Asian mainland.
Jomon Period of Japanese culture, named after the rope (jo) patterns (mon) on its distinctive earthenware pots. During the mid-Jomon period of Mesolithic art in Asia, potters produce highly sculptural vessels, as well as an assortment of clay figurines. For more, see: Pottery Timeline.
Neolithic art in China grows up along the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys. Neolithic culture is noted for its ceramic art, fired in bonfires silk-making (from the 6th millennium) and its turquoise and ivory carving, and its bone flutes (eg. Jiahu Carvings, 7000-5700 BCE). In Korea, Siberian X-ray style rock art is practised on the southeastern coast of the peninsula. Earliest known examples of Korean pottery are identified as being from the Jelmun pottery period.
Jiahu script, earliest known form of written language based on pictographs in China.
Dogs and chickens domesticated for the first time.
Yangshao Culture flourishes in Henan, Shaanxi, Shanxi. Oxen and sheep domesticated.
Earliest examples of jade carving. a major form of Neolithic art in China.
Hongshan Culture (4700-2900) evolves in Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, and Hebei in northeastern China. Noted for pig dragon jades and clay statuettes of pregnant women.
First known examples of lacquerware. Bird designs carved in bone and ivory.
Banpo script is developed. Also, invention of Chinese watercolour painting. Note: While water-based painting (rather than oils) is one of the most distinctive Chinese arts, neither sketching nor preparatory drawing are part of the tradition of Chinese painting.
Beginning of "Painted Pottery Culture" in China (ends 2000 BCE). At the same time, middle and lower Yangtze River valley cultures produce eggshell-thin goblets and bowls decorated with black or orange designs. Compare: Ancient Persian Art (from 3500 BCE).
The oldest example of Chinese silk - found in Henan province. Later silks from the Liangzhu culture site at Qianshanyang, Zhejiang, date to about 2570 BCE.
Pit-Comb Ware culture in Korea start of the Middle Jeulmun pottery period.
Liangzhu Culture produces first known examples of the "cong" and "bi" jades. Compare Liangzhu culture with Egyptian Art (3100 onwards).
Indus Valley Civilization which developed along the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra rivers in India (also known as Harappan Civilization after the type site Harappa, in the Punjab). Start of Indian sculpture in bronze.
Beginning of Chinese Bronze Age.
Majiayao Culture in China. First bronze objects found.
Longshan Culture emerges in the central and lower Yellow River region. Longshan artists are famous for polished, black, thin-walled egg-shell pottery and for their sericulture (silk production). The Buffalo is domesticated ploughs are used.
Acupuncture already being used in Chinese medicine.
Xia Culture begins (ends 1600 BCE).
India ink first made in China. Some scholars disagree, saying it was first produced after the Han Dynasty (c.220 CE).
Bronze casting established on a large scale at Erlitou, first major metalworking centre in China. Invention of Chinese calligraphy also occurs about now.
Era of Shang Dynasty art begins (ends 1050 BCE), noted for its ceremonial bronze vessels with zoomorphic and abstract ornamentation.
Beginning of the Korean Mumun pottery period.
Sanxingdui bronze sculpture made. These Sanxingdui bronzes, excavated near Nanxing Township in Sichuan, reveal an advanced culture which evolved independently of other Yellow River cultures. Largely figurative, they depict heads of humans, animals and birds.
Use of images of tigers, wolves, eagles, antelopes becomes common in Chinese art.
Era of Zhou Dynasty art begins (ends 221 BCE).
Korean metalworkers influenced by Siberian designs produced bronze daggers and mirrors similar to those used by the Scythian peoples of the Eurasian steppe. Compare these with: Hallstatt Celtic Culture. Korean jade carvings also appear.
Beginning of the Liaoning bronze dagger culture in Korea.
Birth of Confucius (551-479).
First reference to the Chinese board game Weiqi, known as Go in Japan.
Warring States Period begins (ends 221 BCE). Cast iron, made from melting pig iron, is developed. First iron ploughs appear. During the Warring States Period Chinese painters first produce representational art, as they begin to represent the world around them. Until now most paintings have been decorative.
Approximate date of the earliest example of silk embroidery in China, found in a tomb at Mashan in Hubei province. Most Chinese embroideries are made in silk, and production peaked in the 14th century under the Mings. The four most important regional styles are: Hunan embroidery (Xiang Xiu), Suzhou embroidery (Su Xiu), Sichuan embroidery (Shu Xiu), and Guangdong embroidery (Yue Xiu).
Tomb of Yi, Marquis of Zeng, built in Suizhou, Hubei.
Earliest examples of the art of silk painting.
Laozi's Daodejing inspires the founding of the Chinese philosophy of Daoism. First Chinese dictionary produced. Beginning of the Yayoi culture in Japan (ends 300 CE), noted for elegant, painted or burnished pottery. Bronze casting techniques imported from Korea lead to the production of bronze implements and dotaku bells.
Era of Qin Dynasty art begins (ends 206 BCE).
Completion of Terracotta Army Warriors, the greatest ever hoard of terracotta sculpture.
Era of Han Dynasty art begins (ends 220 CE). Noted for "jade suits" for deceased nobles (eg. Prince Liu Shen, his wife Princess Dou Wan, Prince Zhao Mo) to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife. Han culture is also exemplified by exquisite jewellery art made from opal, amber, quartz, gold, and silver. Han Dynasty painters are the first to focus on figure painting, known mainly from burial sites, where paintings are executed on silk banners and tomb walls. First decorations appear in the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, Western India: see Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE).
Completion of famous tomb of Han Emperor Liu Sheng.
China creates first colonies in northern Korea, including Nangnang, near Pyongyang, which becomes a centre of Chinese ceramics, bronze sculpture and metalwork.
Three Kingdoms Period (57 BCE – 668 CE) in Korea. Country is ruled by three differing cultures: the Goguryeo (Koguryo) kingdom (c.37 BCE𤲌 CE) (capital Pyongyang) the Baekje (Paekche) kingdom (c.18 BCE𤲄 CE) and the kingdom of Silla (57 BCE𤲌 CE) (capital Gongju [Kyongju]). Later in this period, Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are introduced into Korea from China.
First ever reference to the wheelbarrow.

The earliest examples of celadon are reportedly discovered during tomb excavations in Zhejiang, dating to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25𤫌 CE). Other experts claim that celadon was not created until the start of the Northern Song Dynasty (960�).
Arrival of Buddhism in China (sponsored by Liu Ying, son of Emperor Guangwu) (not widely practised until about 300). This convincing universalist system of belief, inspires numerous forms of Buddhist religious art (notably stone sculpture and mural painting) celebrating the life and ideology of Siddhartha Gautama, worshipped as Buddha.
The White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China, is built.
Invention of paper. This had a huge impact on art, including printing. First true Chinese porcelain reportedly made at Zhejiang during late Han Dynasty (100-200 CE).
Arts of the Six Dynasties begin (ends 618 CE).
Beginning of Kofun culture in Japan (ends 552), noted for its tumuli, or grave mounds, built for the elite and furnished with ceramics, bronze mirrors, and stone jewellery, as well as clay sculptures (haniwa) in the form of shamans, warriors, animals and birds. In addition, calligraphy is introduced to Korea from China.
Monumental sculpture begins to appear from the 4th century onwards - nearly all of it Buddhist and modelled on Greco-Buddhist figures imported via the Silk Road.
Classical Chinese landscape painting supposedly begun by Gu Kaizhi (344-406).
Buddhism introduced into Goguryeo from China. Becomes a major influence on Korean designs for Buddhist temples plastic art, particularly Buddhist statues, jades and ivory carving.
First appearance of shan shui ("mountain-water") paintings, during the 5th century Liu Song Dynasty (420-479). This form of Chinese painting depicts natural landscapes, using a brush and ink rather than more conventional types of paint.
Dhan Buddhism, a variant of Mahayana Buddhism, appears in China during the 6th century before spreading to Vietnam, Korea and Japan (where it is known as Zen Buddhism).
Construction of 130-foot high Songyue Pagoda, the first pagoda in China to be built out of brick.
Tomb art flourishes on the Korean peninsula: see the tomb of King Munyong in Kongju.
Asuka culture begins in Japan (ends 645), noted for the introduction of Buddhism (552), a parallel ideology to the native set of beliefs known as Shinto, or Way of the Gods. (Note: In Shintoism, the believer worships spirits believed to inhabit natural phenomena like trees, rocks, waterfalls, mountains.) Buddhist monasteries became major art patrons.
The Lashaosi Dafo Gautama Buddhist statue was carved into the mountain in Wushan County, Gansu.
Invention of Chinese papercutting (jianzhi), the art of cutting paper designs, often seen during celebrations for the Chinese New Year. Earliest known example is found in Xinjiang.
The Xishan Dafo Buddha Amitabha statue was erected at Taiyuan, Shanxi.
Era of Sui Dynasty art begins (ends 618).
Completion of the Grand Canal of China.
Era of Tang Dynasty art begins (ends 906). Noted for monumental Buddhist stone sculpture. Also famous for the development of Chinese porcelain (notably Sancai) and for exquisite goldsmithing. Like Han Dynasty artists, Tang painters focus on the human figure. Indeed elegant realism in figurative painting reaches new heights at the court of the Southern Tang (937-975). Other important forms of painting developed under the Tangs include ink and wash painting, as well as shan shui landscapes.
First Christian missionaries (Nestorian monks) arrive in China.
Nara culture begins in Japan (ends 794), noted for the growth of Buddhist architecture and sculpture. Temples are built and filled with statues of Buddhist deities, sculpted in bronze, wood, clay and lacquer. The gigantic bronze Buddha (Daibutsu) of Todai-ji temple is erected. Nara-era paintings and sculpture are modelled closely on those of the Chinese Tang dynasty.
Invention of woodblock printing. First recorded example, unearthed from a Tang tomb near Xian, is a single-sheet Dharani Sutra printed in Sanskrit on hemp paper (650-670 CE).
The Silla Period begins in Korea (ends 935). Witnesses a golden age of ancient Korean art including the zenith of Korean naturalism in sculpture. Buddhist statues, bronze bells and ceramic urns were other Silla specialities.
Emperor Xuanzong rules over a classical period of Chinese visual arts and literature, which sets the standards for future generations.
The Leshan Giant Buddha (completed 803), the largest Chinese Buddhist sculpture, is carved in rock in Sichuan province.
First examples of Chinese ink and wash painting, by Wang Wei (699-759).
Heian culture begins in Japan (ends 1185), noted for the transfer (794) of the capital from Nara to Heian-kyo. New forms of Buddhism enter Japan from Korea and China. By 1000, Esoteric Buddhism is eclipsed by Amida Buddha, leading to elegant architectural designs and a new idyllic style of paintings and sculpture. Japanese scholar-artists and other members of the elite develop distinctive styles of Japanese calligraphy and painting.
Chinese woodblock printers produce The Diamond Sutra, the world's first regular-size, full-length book complete with illustrations.
Start of the Great Age of Chinese landscape painting (ends 1127).
In Korea, Goryeo Dynasty culture (918-1392) becomes noted for its superb glazed celadon, marked by its sanggam inlaid decoration, by Goryeo ink and wash painting and by its mastery of goldsmithing and precious metal designs. In addition, Buddhism becomes the state religion.
Era of Song Dynasty art begins (ends 1279). Neo-Confucianism becomes dominant ideology. Later, dhan philosophy (Japanese Zen) influences painting, calligraphy and pottery. Song porcelain is famous for its Jian Tea Wares (known in Japan as tenmoku wares) made in Jianyang, Fujian. It is also famous for its Longquan Celadon, made in the southern province of Zhejiang. Song Emperor Huizong is the leading patron of the arts.
Northern Song culture (960-1127) is noted for its Ding ware - the the first porcelain officially adopted by the Emperor - its undecorated and understated Ru ware, and its Jun Ware, made at Yuzhou, in Henan Province. The Chinese art of paper folding, or zhezhi is invented around the 10th century.
Kandariya Mahadeva Hindu Temple (Khajuraho) built in Madhya Pradesh, India.
Movable type printing invented by Bi Sheng.
The camera obscura is first described by Shen Kuo.
Chinese painting and the Imperial Painting Academy (founded in the 10th century) flourishes under Song Emperor Huizong (ruled 1100-26). The most popular bases are paper and silk, while finished works are typically mounted on scrolls, album sheets, walls, lacquerware, and folding screens.
The northern third of China is overrun by Manchurian Jurchens under the Jin Dynasty. Beginning of Southern Song culture (1127-1279), noted for its Guan ware, manufactured as a replacement for Ru ware, and for its Qingbai ("clear blue-white") porcelains, produced at Jingdezhen and at various other locations in the south of China.
Angkor Wat Khmer Temple built in Cambodia.
Completion of Samguk sagi (The Histories of the Three Kingdoms), the earliest surviving history of Korea.
Start of Kamakura culture in Japan (ends 1333), noted for its temple designs, and realistic style of sculpture and painting.
Era of Yuan Dynasty art begins under Kublai Khan (ends 1368). The Yuan Mongols offer no encouragement to indigenous artists in China.
Marco Polo becomes first European to visit Chinese imperial court.
Neo-Confucianism introduced into Korea by the Yuan Emperors.
Completion of the Korean Samguk yusa (History and Legends of the Three Kingdoms), the second-oldest history chronicle of Korea.
Wang Zhen enhances movable type printing by using the first wooden type characters.
Fonthill Vase (made c.1330) is first item of Chinese porcelain to arrive in Europe. Start of the era of Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century).

The Cicada in China

Cicada on tree branch Wang Zhen (1867–1938) China, modern period, autumn 1919 fan mounted as album leaf ink on gold-flecked paper Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art, F1998.222.2

The cicada’s role in Chinese culture is a longstanding and fascinating one. Meanings associated with the insect range from simply indicating the onset of summer to more complex themes, such as rebirth and immortality. The cicada can even represent the pathos of nature, in which we are all prey in the end.

In general Chinese lore, cicadas are creatures of high status. They are considered pure because they subsist on dew and lofty because of their perch in high treetops. An ancient analogy in China suggests that a high-ranking official should resemble a cicada: residing high, eating a pure diet, and with sharp eyes.

Also in antiquity, the headgear of rulers and nobles incorporated a golden image of a cicada with prominent eyes. The emblem signaled refinement, modesty, and a full awareness of one’s surroundings.

Attachment China, Period of Division, 3rd–4th century gold, bronze The Dr. Paul Singer Collection of Chinese Art of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution a joint gift of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, Paul Singer, the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, and the Children of Arthur M. Sackler, RLS1997.48.4455

Since ancient times, the cicada has been seen as a symbol of resurrection, an association that owes to its fascinating life cycle. Newly hatched insects drop from branches to burrow into the ground, where they nourish themselves on tree roots for as long as seventeen years before emerging into the sunlight. Then, they climb high into the trees, and their outer skin splits open to allow the full-grown insects to appear.

This process was seen as an analogy for the spirits of the dead rising on a path to eternal existence in a transcendent realm. In the Han dynasty, jade amulets shaped like cicadas were placed on the tongues of corpses, no doubt to symbolize a hope for rebirth and immortality.

Tongue amulet in the form of a cicada (hanchan) China, Han dynasty, 1st century BCE–1st century CE jade (nephrite) Gift of Arthur M. Sackler, S1987.693

The cicada is the most conspicuous summer insect and sometimes represents the season. Its desiccated image when the autumn chill sets in, however, stands for pathos in some Chinese works. Take for example, an anecdote from the Zhuangzi, a compilation of writings by Zhuangzi (late fourth century BCE) and others. While out in a chestnut grove aiming to shoot a jay, Zhuangzi was distracted by a cicada carelessly settling in the shade. A mantis devoured the insect before it was, in turn, caught by the jay. Unsettled by the natural cycle of one species preying on the next, Zhuangzi decided not to shoot the jay. The tale has been turned into a pithy saying about the circle of life: “As the mantis catches the cicada, the jay is just behind.”

Jan Stuart

Jan Stuart is the Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Chinese Art at the Freer and Sackler, where she recently curated the exhibition Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912 in 2019. She was head of the Asian art department at the British Museum from 2006 to 2014. Jan began her career after holding a Mellon Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in Chinese art, language, and culture.

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