Neolithic period, ca. 8000–ca. 2000 B.C.
In China, Neolithic cultures emerged around the eighth millennium B.C., and were primarily characterized by the production of stone tools, pottery, textiles, houses, burials, and jade objects. Such archaeological finds indicate the presence of group settlements where plant cultivation and animal domestication were practiced. Archaeological research, to date, has led to the identification of some sixty Neolithic cultures, most of which are named after the archaeological site where they were first identified. Attempts at mapping Neolithic China have typically grouped the various archeological cultures by geographic location in relation to the courses of the Yellow River in the north and the Yangzi River in the south. Some scholars also group Neolithic culture sites into two broad cultural complexes: the Yangshao cultures in central and western China, and the Longshan cultures in eastern and southeastern China. In addition, changes in ceramic production over time within a "culture" are differentiated into chronological "phases" with corresponding ceramic "types." While ceramics were produced by every Neolithic culture in China, and similarities existed between many different sites, the overall picture of cultural interaction and development is still fragmented and far from clear.
Yangshao culture (ca. 4800–ca. 3000 B.C.)
The Yangshao archaeological culture is well known for its painted pottery. It consisted of hundreds of settlements along the Yellow River and Wei River regions, and stretched across the northwestern plains from Shaanxi province in central China to Gansu province in the west. Material finds discovered at Yangshao culture sites include a variety of shards and vessels, many of which were decorated with painted designs. The paint used to decorate these pots is a fluid mixture of the same clay material as the pottery with added mineral pigments. By about 3000 B.C., the painted decoration begin to show undulating lines, fluid contours, and tapered endings, which indicate the use of a flexible brushlike tool. Wide-mouth bowls and basins with flat bottoms were commonly built by stacking coiled strips of rolled clay that were then smoothed before firing. This technique produced vessels characterized by a gently swelling silhouette with the upper register of the body slightly contracted below an everted rim. Such wares were used in daily life and for burial purposes.
Yangshao culture in central China can be divided into two main phases: Banpo (ca. 4800–ca. 4300 B.C.) and Miaodigou (ca. 4000–ca. 3500 B.C.). The archaeological site at Banpo was located just east of modern-day Xi’an in Shaanxi province. Banpo was discovered in 1953 and excavated between 1954 to 1957. Little is known about the daily lives of the people at Banpo, but excavations have uncovered a settlement covering around 50,000 square feet that included dwelling areas, subterranean storage pits, pens for holding livestock, several pottery kilns, and cemetery areas. The settlement was also located above a stream that provided a reliable water source, and terraces were built to prevent flooding.
The Miaodigou phase is named after a site in northwestern Henan province. The type of ceramic produced in this phase was commonly decorated with painted black lines, dots, leaf-like shapes, and roundels. This decorative vocabulary appears to be the basis for designs on later Miajiayao culture pottery.
Majiayao culture (ca. 3800–ca. 2000 B.C.)
Majiayao culture sites are distributed from Shaanxi province westward along the Wei River to Lanzhou, Gansu province, and along the upper reaches of the Yellow River and into Qinghai province. Phases of Majiayao culture included Majiayao (ca. 3100–ca. 2700 B.C.), Banshan (ca. 2600–ca. 2300 B.C.), and Machang (ca. 2200–ca. 2000 B.C.).
Majiayao phase pottery typically has a red-buff earthenware body with a smoothed surface often finished with black painted decoration, including complicated running-spiral designs with two to four arms. Majiayao pots vary greatly in shape, ranging from bowls to jars with tall necks.
The Banshan phase has a narrower range of pottery shapes and designs. Its large earthenware pots and urns often have designs in black and maroon-red paint on their shoulders. This use of two colors is a chief distinction between Banshan and Majiayao painted pottery.
Dawenkou culture (ca. 4300–ca. 2400 B.C.)
Dawenkou culture takes its name from the archaeological site near the town of Dawenkouzhen in Shandong province. Dawenkou sites have been found along the eastern coast of China in the lower Yellow River valley region in Shandong and northern Jiangsu provinces, and in its later stage extends west into Henan province. Radiocarbon analysis indicates a long period of cultural activity from around 4300–2400 B.C. that is commonly divided into three phases:
- Early Dawenkou, ca. 4300–ca. 3500 B.C. - Middle Dawenkou, ca. 3500–ca. 2800 B.C. - Late Dawenkou, ca. 2800–ca. 2400 B.C.
Tombs of various sizes have been excavated at Dawenkou sites, and range from sparsely equipped small burials to large tombs with up to about 180 objects. Artifacts found in the tombs include ceramic vessels, stone tools, jade ornaments, turtleshells, extracted human teeth, dog sacrifices, and pig skulls. The ceramics produced included earthenware vessels colored white, black, red, gray, brown, and yellow, whose types and their shapes changed considerably over the course of the Dawenkou period. The ceramics generally have a smooth finish, and often have been burnished, and they can be decorated with paint, carved, openwork, stamped, or applique designs. In addition, the selection of the clays for particular vessels was often tailored to its purpose. Carefully washed fine clays were reserved for delicate ritual wares, while clay with fine– or coarse–grained sand were often used for heavier utilitarian wares.
Qijia culture (ca. 2200–ca. 1800 B.C.)
The Qijia archaeological culture was discovered in 1923 by the Swedish archaeologist and geologist Johan Gunnar Andersson (1874–1960) along the Tao River in Gansu province, but it was only recognized in 1924 and named after a site at Qijiaping, Guanghe county, Gansu. Qijia succeeded Majiayao culture at the end of the third millennium B.C. at sites in three main geographic zones: Eastern Gansu, Middle Gansu, and Western Gansu/Eastern Qinghai. In addition, Qijia sites were also found in Ningxia province and Inner Mongolia. Cold-hammered and cast metal utensils and mirrors have also been found at Qijia sites, showing that Qijia culture was in a transitional stage between Neolithic and Bronze Age development.
Qijia pottery featured unpainted vessels with flat bottoms, and bodies of an orange-yellow or red-brown clay. Common Qijia vessel types include one- and two-handled jars, and large-mouth jars. The distinctive broad, arched, strap handles and rivet-like details characteristic of Qijia ceramics are imitative of sheet-metal work, and suggests the existence of metal vessels at this time. There were also examples of Qijia painted pottery, especially in Western Gansu and Eastern Qinghai.
Longshan culture (ca. 2600–ca. 2000 B.C.)
The term "Longshan culture" is a general reference to several regional culture centers. In the lower Yellow River basin in northeastern China, the Dawenkou culture was succeeded by Shandong Longshan (ca. 2400–ca. 2000 B.C.). The Middle Yellow River region saw Yangshao culture gradually being replaced by the regional cultures of Shaanxi Longshan (ca. 2300–ca. 2000 B.C.), Henan Longshan (ca. 2600–ca. 2000 B.C.), and Taosi Longshan (ca. 2500–ca. 1900 B.C.). A strong connection to Longshan pottery is also apparent in Liangzhu culture (ca. 3300–ca. 2200 B.C.) in the lower Yangzi River basin in southeast China in the production of unpainted pottery, gui tripod ewers, pierced-stem bowl vessels, and thinly–potted black and gray wares using a reduced–oxygen firing process.
In the Shandong peninsula up until the fifth millennium B.C., ceramic techniques and decoration were similar to other areas. While nearby white wares continued to be produced, a unique potting tradition developed in Shandong by the early fourth millennium B.C. Feather–light wares emphasizing the beauty of the vessel shape were created with extremely thin bodies, and by the third millennium B.C., painted ceramic decoration had all but disappeared. Fast-speed potters' wheels appear to have been first used by Shandong potters. They allowed vessels of eggshell thinness to be produced that may be some the finest earthenware pottery ever made. The overall impression of lightness was sometimes further enhanced with pierced openwork designs. Unattainable with the use of an oxidation firing process, the thinness of the earthenware body was strengthened through the use of a reduced–oxygen firing and carbonization process that produced a completely black surface that was sometimes burnished. Delicate thin blackware stemcups, jars, and vases were found at Shandong Longshan sites but did not seem to have been produced by the Longshan cultures located in the Middle Yellow River region.
Xia period (Protohistoric), ca. 2100–ca. 1600 B.C.
Shang dynasty, ca. 1600–ca. 1100 B.C.
The Shang people arose from diverse Neolithic cultures in north China, and from around 1500 B.C., inhabited the area along the Yellow River in present-day Henan province. They belonged to a highly stratified society ruled by an aristocracy where kings were the political, military, and religious leaders. Although the Shang were an agricultural people who principally cultivated millet, they also built large cities, had a well-organized government administration, and often engaged in warfare to ensure territorial boundaries. They practiced human sacrifice, mastered technology, domesticated the horse, and introduced the horse-drawn chariot. They were also the first culture in China to have a fully developed writing system. Current knowledge about the Shang dynasty derives from later historical texts, excavations of tombs and other archaeological sites, and Shang divinations inscribed on . Among the artifacts that survive are bronze vessels, tools, and weapons, elaborate jades and hard stones, as well as high-fired ceramics, carved wood and ivories, and silk textiles. To date, the Shang dynasty is the earliest period in China for which textual and archaeological evidence both exist, although early historical Chinese texts identify the as the first dynasty in China. Art during the Shang dynasty generally had a functional or ritual purpose and was found primarily within tomb and burial contexts.
Religion established the underlying framework of Shang society with an emphasis on ancestor worship and a belief in a pantheon of gods headed by the supreme deity . The Shang used ritual ceremonies to communicate with their ancestors since the welfare of the living was contingent on the support and good will of ancestral spirits. Ancestors were consulted before any major undertaking. Their responses to the living’s questions about war, hunting, or the harvest were relayed through divinations on oracle bones. Elaborate cast–bronze food and wine vessels likewise were employed in ceremonial offerings and sacrifices. The masklike motif often decorates the surface of these bronzes, and as some scholars interpret, reinforce the bronzes’ ritual function and connections to the spirit world.
Labor-intensive bronze production was as symbolic of ruling authority as they were representative of Shang ritual ceremonies and burial traditions. As emblems of power and prestige, Shang bronze objects were interred in the tombs of the elite. The quantity and variety of finely created ritual vessels from this period attest to the existence of workshops of bronze production and the Shang people’s ability in large-scale mobilization of material and human resources. Shang bronze casting technology distinguished itself with the method, which differed from the lost-wax process, a procedure that the Chinese did not master until the fifth–century B.C.
While the Shang people ruled parts of central China, contemporaneous cultures existed in areas such as Xin’gan in the southeastern province of Jiangxi and Guanghan in the western province of Sichuan. The use of bronze technology and the appearance of similar decorative motifs from these cultures demonstrate contact with the Shang, revealing ancient China to have multiple centers of culture.
Zhou dynasty, ca. 1100–256 B.C.
The Zhou dynasty is divided into two periods: the Western Zhou (ca. 1100–770 B.C.) with the capital near present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi province, and the Eastern Zhou (770–256 B.C.) when the capital was moved to Luoyang, Henan province. The Eastern Zhou is traditionally divided into the Spring and Autumn period (770–ca. 470 B.C.) and the Warring States period (ca. 470–221 B.C.). After the move of the Zhou court to Luoyang, China was ruled by many smaller contending states until the rise of the Qin dynasty in 221 B.C.
Early on, the Zhou people occupied an area in present-day Shaanxi province to the west of the Shang territories, but around 1100 B.C. conquered the Shang to whom they had at times served as a tributary state. Historical documents demonstrate that the Zhou rulers saw themselves as the cultural and political successors of the Shang state. The Shang production of in bronze and jade continued unabated. Many Zhou inscriptions on ritual bronzes indicate the importance of ancestor worship and veneration. Bronze design motifs were sometimes created with repetitive stamps, pointing to the nascent development of mass production techniques. The reduction of human sacrifices found in tombs is one way Zhou culture departed from its predecessor. This tendency may demonstrate a shift in perceptions of the afterlife, where human assistance for the deceased was now embodied by straw, wooden, or ceramic replicas. Accompanying burial articles placed in tombs also began taking the form of miniature models and simulacra that, along with the funerary architecture, may both have been conceived as .
The Zhou rulers worked to extend their territory and developed a system of governance that gave hereditary power to local leaders, including relatives of the royal family, trusted subordinates, and loyal local chiefs. This decentralization eventually broke down as power and ambition grew in regional centers. In 770 B.C. the Zhou sovereign was killed by an alliance of his vassals and enemies. His son was enthroned and the main capital moved east to Luoyang. This was the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period, but the Zhou rulers never regained their former supremacy.
Constant warfare dominated the Eastern Zhou period. This led to many technological advances made in connection with military matters. By the seventh century B.C., advancements in iron production allowed for new and stronger weapons and farm tools. More peaceful and artistic advances were also made. Bronze coinage was introduced and widely circulated. Lost–wax, inlay, and intricate bronze casting techniques were refined, as seen on mirrors, bells, lamps, and surviving metalware. During this period, relationships between designs and motifs of different media, such as jade and bronze or lacquer and textiles, also raise questions about the transmission of workshop practices and the cultural interaction within and beyond China's borders.
The later Zhou period is best remembered as a time of intellectual adventurism as new philosophical schools, such as Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism, flourished in abundance. Perhaps the most famous of these schools was founded by Confucius (551–479 B.C.), whose societal vision called for individuals to understand and accept their position in the social and familial hierarchy. Confucius' transmitted teachings later became the crux of a political system that emphasized the proper relationships between different members of society. Particularly attractive to rulers were the Confucian precepts calling for loyalty and obedience to one's ruler, father, and family. This created a strict hierarchy of ritual and social self-control. As Confucianism spread it became the overarching ethical code throughout much of East Asia, palpable even today.
Another important native school of thought was Daoism, which in the Zhou period was an eclectic group of popular beliefs in which humans were not seen as the dominating entity. Instead they were urged to seek a balance with the natural world. The Zhou dynasty figure Laozi (literally, "Old Master") is usually seen as the founder of Daoism.
- Western Zhou, ca. 1100–770 B.C.
- Eastern Zhou, ca. 770–256 B.C.
- Spring and Autumn period, 770–470 B.C.
- Warring States period, ca. 470–221 B.C.
Qin dynasty, 221–206 B.C.
In the contentious Warring States period during the late Eastern Zhou dynasty, the state of Qin launched a series of conquests in the fourth century B.C. After securing the prosperous Sichuan region as an economic base, the Qin defeated rival states across central China, leading to final unification and the beginning of China's imperial era in 221 B.C. The conquering ruler, King Cheng, was well aware of his unique place in history and proclaimed himself the "First Emperor of the Qin dynasty" (Qin shi huangdi; literally the "First Supreme Ruler of Qin").
The consolidation of the empire led to a centralization of government authority and efforts to unify the written script, units of measurement, and monetary currency, as well as standardization of road construction and axle lengths. Qin conquest was partly enforced by the building of palace replicas in the architectural styles of the subjugated states at the Qin capital at Chang'an where the defeated aristocracies were relocated. The authority of Qin rule was also pronounced in calligraphy inscribed in stone on what may be the earliest commemorative steles, and erected at famous mountain sites.
The First Emperor also commanded mass conscriptions for major building projects during his reign. The various sections of defensive walls in northern China were linked together to form the Great Wall, impressive palaces were built at the capital, and the Lishan necropolis, the First Emperor's massive tumulus and funerary complex including the famed terracotta army, were all built in a short period of time at an enormous cost. The hardship caused by these building endeavors, along with his efforts to burn books and bury scholars in an effort to censor knowledge, has tainted the legacy of the First Emperor. In total, the empire only lasted fifteen years, from 221–206 B.C., falling early in the reign of the Third Emperor.
Han dynasty, 206 B.C.–A.D. 220
Following the fall of the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty was established by Liu Bang, a man of humble origins whose posthumous title was Gaozu (259–195 B.C.). Lasting over four hundred years, the Han is divided into three historical periods: the Western or Former Han (206 B.C.–A.D. 9), when the capital was located to the west at Chang'an, near modern Xi'an, Shaanxi province; followed by the Xin dynasty, an interregnum by the usurper Wang Mang (9–24); and concluding with the Eastern or Later Han (25–220) when the Liu imperial house was reestablished and the capital moved east to Luoyang in Henan province.
The Western Han began with a period of political consolidation building on the centralized administrative institutions and legal system of statutes and ordinances inherited from the Qin dynasty. Within the structure of the central and provincial governments, a civil service system was instituted that emphasized the learning of the Confucian Classics and other texts as a means for testing candidates for office. Besides providing moral and ethical standards of social and government conduct, the Classics also became the source for aesthetic judgment in later periods. In calligraphy, because clerical scripts had been used to transcribe and explain the Classics, it was adopted as the official scribal style for government, official documents, and often used for public monuments. Paper was invented in the Han, but most books, documents, and paintings were brushed on bamboo or wood strips tied in the form of rolls, on silk scrolls or banners, or directly on stones, walls, or screens.
Within China's borders, revenues were generated by government monopolies in iron, salt, coinage, and mining. These monopolies grew to include the manufacture of many artifacts for daily or funerary use, including bronzes, ceramics, lacquers, stonework, and textiles. Workshops were set up to produce such items, leading to greater specialization and mass production techniques. Clay figures of animals, people, and models, such as buildings or wellheads, were individually sculpted or produced from molds. Bronzework continued to utilize late Zhou dynasty casting practices, and were often inlaid with gold, silver, and gemstones, or developed new polychromatic effects by casting different colored alloys in successive stages. Bronze artifacts included ritual and everyday vessels, lamps, mirrors, belt hooks, and figural sculpture. Silk weaving also became a major industry and the geometric and cloud textile patterns influenced lacquerware designs. Lacquer production was refined in the Han and became so highly valued that bronzes and ceramics were sometimes painted to imitate lacquerware.
During the reign of the Wudi emperor (140–87 B.C.), military campaigns and colonization expanded the Han dominion into areas of south and southwest China and Vietnam, northeast into Korea, and west into parts of Central Asia. Territorial expansion was accompanied by the opening of overland trade routes through Central Asia known as the Silk Routes, and by sea to Burma and India. Interaction with Central Asian, Iranian, Hellenistic, and Roman cultures led to opportunities for the mutual introduction of new artistic, commercial, intellectual, and religious ideas. Metal, glass, and ceramic vessel types, ornamental designs, and musical instruments were introduced. Within China's borders, government officials were posted to various regions of the country, including frontier garrisons, and many may have brought local artisans and traditions with them. This relocation, along with interregional trade, may partially explain the process whereby many common stylistic motifs and thematic designs are to be found in many areas even when separated by vast distances.
A series of weak emperors, combined with court intrigue, misguided land-use policies and natural disasters, engendered widespread dissatisfaction in the late Western Han. In A.D. 5, Wang Mang, the nephew of the Empress Dowager, was appointed regent for the new child emperor. Upon the young ruler's death in A.D. 9, Wang Mang seized the throne, proclaiming the Xin dynasty. During his brief reign, Wang Mang attempted to change the structure of government, issue new coinage, and institute social and land reform measures. In imperially sponsored cultural projects and building efforts, he tried to legitimize his rule through imitation of historical and ritual precedents. His policies met with strong opposition and ended with his capture and death in A.D. 23.
The Liu imperial family was restored to dynastic power in A.D. 25 by Liu Xiu, a distant cousin of the last Western Han emperor whose posthumous title was Guang Wudi (reigned 25–57). This marked the beginning of the Eastern Han dynasty, when the capital was moved eastward to Luoyang. During the early Eastern Han, Chinese influence was again reasserted in the south, as well as briefly to the west into Central Asia, reopening foreign trade routes. Early efforts to strengthen central governmental authority gave way in the second century to struggles over imperial succession and rivalries between powerful landowning families, palace eunuchs, and imperial consort families. Constant local rebellions and messianic movements also forced the court to delegate greater authority to provincial authorities. Along with factional infighting, these factors all contributed to the downfall of the dynasty and national division in A.D. 220.
The Western and Eastern Han capitals were located at the eastern terminus of several overland trading routes through the deserts of Chinese Turkestan, also known as Chinese Tartary, Eastern Turkestan and Serindia. Passing through the western regions of Bactria and Samarakand to the west, these Silk Routes also permitted an exchange of goods and ideas. This was one of the principle routes by which Buddhism infiltrated China during the Eastern Han period. Buddhism also appears to have entered China by sea trading routes in this period.
Funerary arts and tomb structures in the Han dynasty reflect evolving views of the afterlife from merely supplying the needs of the tomb occupant to notions of a hierarchical underworld bureaucracy and belief in immortal paradisiacal realms. The design of tombs may reflect these changing notions by being designed as cosmological models of the realms of life and afterlife. From early vertical pit tombs built of wood, burial structures began to be increasingly constructed of large hollow bricks in the early Han that were often decorated with stamped designs. In the middle Han, small solid brick tomb construction with vaulted ceilings became prevalent, and in the Eastern Han period, some tombs began to be built using stone slab construction. It is this transition from wood to masonry funerary construction in the Han that has given rise to the misleading generalization that Chinese architecture for the living is built of wood, and underground funerary architecture for the dead are built of stone.
Inside tombs, the walls were often decorated in stamped, painted, or carved relief pictorial images illustrating scenes of legendary rulers, paragons of filial piety and loyalty, historical and mythological stories, and scenes of feasting, homage, processions, and other subjects as patterns of life and afterlife. A paradigm for Han pictorial carved stone funerary art has been the so-called Wu Family Shrines. Also found inside Han tombs were ritual jade and bronze artifacts, and tomb furnishings increasingly included ceramic and metal replicas and miniatures. More than just supplying the needs of the dead, the tomb layout, pictorial images, and burial artifacts can all be seen functioning as exemplary models picturing or embodying the universe of the living and the dead.
Han dynasty sumptuary codes regulating the size, design, and embellishment of art and architecture reflected the social and political hierarchy. However, with the gradual dissipation of central authority in the latter half of the Eastern Han, extravagant burials exceeding acceptable propriety and decorum flourished, and numerous moral condemnations and proscriptive laws were enacted in attempts to curb the excess. The adherence or transgression of these codes and proscriptions are reflected in the story of art in the Han dynasty.
- Western (Early) Han, 206 B.C.–A.D. 9 _ Xin dynasty, 9–24 _ Eastern (Later) Han, 25–220
Period of Disunity
After the collapse of the Han dynasty, China splintered into a series of small kingdoms, beginning centuries of political disunity. These political divisions are often differently grouped and their periodization is confusing. The era immediately following the Han is known as the Three Kingdoms (220–265), during which the Wei (220–265), Wu (222–280), and Shu Han (220–265) kingdoms contended for power. After the Wei briefly reunited China under the Western Jin dynasty (265–317), the Xiongnu people succeeded in occupying northern China, including the old areas of Chang'an and Luoyang. The Western Jin was forced to relocate their capital to Jiankang (present-day Nanjing) in the south, becoming known as the Eastern Jin (317–420) and initiating an era known as the Northern and Southern Dynasties (317–589) or as the Six Dynasties period (222–589).
In the south, six successive dynasties had their capital at Jiankang and are known as the Six Dynasties. Saved from the devastation of fighting in the north, the south flourished and became a center for Chinese art, literature, and intellectual thought. It was during the Eastern Jin period that Wang Xizhi (303–361) is credited with raising calligraphy to an art form. The handscroll Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest in the Princeton University Art Museum is an early Tang dynasty tracing copy that preserves Wang Xizhi's calligraphy. This tracing copy remains one step removed from an original work, but because no authentic work by Wang survives, its value to the study of Chinese calligraphy is invaluable. The Eastern Jin was also the age when the famed painter Gu Kaizhi (ca. 345–406) and poet Tao Yuanming (365–427) both lived.
The north was dominated by the Sixteen Kingdoms (304–438) ruled by five non-Chinese peoples: the Xiongnu, Jie, Qianbei, Qiang, and Di. Next, a branch of the Xianbei people succeeded in unifying the north under the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535). With their capital at Pingcheng (near present-day Datong, Shanxi province), the Northern Wei ruling house were ardent Buddhists who sponsored the remarkable Buddhist cliff carvings in the cave temples at Yungang. The Buddhist sculpture from this period reveals stylistic borrowings from the western regions including Bactria, Gandhara, and India, and large sets of ceramic burial sculpture have been recovered with figures of foreigners, ox carts, camels, musicians, horses, and tomb guardians. Frontier rebellions in 534 resulted in the separation of the north into the Eastern Wei (534–550) and Western Wei (535–557). These shortlived dynasties were succeeded by the Northern Qi (550–577) and Northern Zhou (557–581). With its capital at Chang'an, the Northern Zhou succeeded in reunifying China.
- Three Kingdoms period, 220–265
- Wei, 220–265
- Shu Han, 220–265
- Wu, 222–280
- Western Jin dynasty, 265–317
- Northern Dynasties, 386–581
- Sixteen Kingdoms, 304–438
- Former Liang, 314–376
- Later Liang, 386–403
- Southern Liang, 397–414
- Western Liang, 400–422
- Northern Liang, 398–439
- Cheng Han, 304–347
- Former Zhao, 304–329
- Later Zhao, 319–351
- Western Qin, 365–431
- Former Qin, 349–394
- Later Qin, 384–417
- Xia, 407–431
- Former Yan, 333–370
- Later Yan, 384–409
- Southern Yan, 398–410
- Northern Yan, 409–436
- Northern Wei, 386–535
- Eastern Wei, 534–550
- Western Wei, 535–557
- Northern Qi, 550–577
- Northern Zhou, 557–581
- Sixteen Kingdoms, 304–438
- Southern Dynasties, 317–589
- Eastern Jin, 317–420
- Liu Song, 420–479
- Southern Qi, 479–502
- Liang, 502-557
- Chen, 557–589
- Sixteen Dynasties period, 222–589
- Wu, 222–280
- Eastern Jin, 317–420
- Liu Song, 420–479
- Southern Qi, 479–502
- Liang, 502-557
- Chen, 557–589
Sui dynasty, 589–618
After centuries of division, the Northern Zhou general Yang Jian (541–604) reunified China in 589 to establish the Sui dynasty, and became known as Emperor Wendi. Southwest of the Han dynasty city of Chang'an, Wendi built the new capital of Daxing, which later became the Tang dynasty capital. The Grand Canal system was also constructed to link the north and south, facilitating grain transport and communications. The two emperors of Sui were devoted Buddhists and promoted the creation numerous Buddhist temples, images, and sculpture. The second emperor, Yangdi (569–618) rebuilt the eastern capital of Luoyang and established relations with Taiwan and Japan. Military expansion into Gansu province and eastern Turkestan to establish colonies along the overland trade routes was followed by failed campaigns against Korea and against the Turks. This led to political disarray, rebellions, and dynastic downfall. Although shortlived, the Sui dynasty set the political, institutional, and economic foundations for the following Tang dynasty.
Tang dynasty, 618–907
The Tang dynasty enjoyed a long period of stable government and political rule bolstered by its strong military and centralized civil service examination system. It was also an era of great territorial expansion and prosperity. The capital city of Chang’an (present-day Xi'an, Shaanxi province), became a great cosmopolitan center situated at the terminus of the Central Asian silk route, attracting foreign visitors and goods from various oasis towns located along the Taklimakan Desert. The cultural achievements of the Tang were no less impressive; the arts and poetry of this period represent a pinnacle of Chinese civilization.
The Tang dynasty was founded by the Sui dynasty general, Li Yuan (566–635), who was posthumously known as Emperor Gaozu. Retaining many Sui administrative institutions and policies, the early Tang government was highly centralized and depended on a complex system of administrative law. Over time, the authority of the ruling aristocracy gave way to professional bureaucrats who were recruited through the civil examination system. The reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756) is considered one of the most brilliant cultural periods of the Tang. Xuanzong was himself a scholar and patron of the arts, and his court became a center of cultural activity.
The Tang was also an active period of cultural interaction between China and her neighbors. Buddhism flourished as foreign missionaries, monks and teachers passed through Chang’an, bringing with them new ideas and religious texts that were initially welcomed by the Tang rulers. The monk Xuanzang (602–664) visited India and Nepal, returning with Buddhist texts, many of which were then translated into Chinese under government sponsorship. By the mid-ninth century, however, as China turned inward and government finances grew strained, Buddhism suffered significant persecution. Under the great proscription of 842–845, millions of Buddhist monks and nuns were forcibly secularized and placed back in the tax rolls, while Buddhist land and temples were reclaimed by the state.
Painting and Calligraphy
Tang painting is represented in surviving wall paintings found in the tombs of high-ranking individuals. While few original mural paintings are still in situ, many examples can be found in museum collections. Generally, mural paintings tend to depict scenes from court life, including images of officials, court ladies, and their attendants; imperial processions with carriages, horses, and banners; funerary processions; and gaming and banqueting scenes. Tomb painting also featured activities such as netting butterflies and watching bees, as well as images of birds and flowers. In figural delineation, artists succeeded in reconciling the articulation of volume with a two-dimensional surface. Various techniques contributed to a sense of modeling, including the use of thickening and thinning brush lines.
Small format paintings may also be an important source for studying Tang painting styles. Among the few surviving paintings attributed to Tang masters is Yan Liben’s (d. 673) Portraits of Thirteen Emperors (Boston Museum of Fine Arts). The large scale of the figures, linear delineation of the robes, and use of shading in the facial features may all reflect a Tang style.
Tang dynasty calligraphy underwent significant stylistic innovation and was deeply linked to ethical and political concerns embodying moral virtue and upright government. An important figure was Emperor Taizong (r. 626–649), who excelled at calligraphy and amassed a palace collection that included all known pieces by the revered fourth-century Southern calligrapher, Wang Xizhi (303–361). In ordering court calligraphers to study the Wang Xizhi tradition, Taizong may have recognized the value of its association with the political reunification of North and South China.
Court calligraphers of the Tang court—including Yu Shinan (558–638), Ouyang Xun (557–641) and Zhu Suiliang (596–658)—also developed a new standard-script (kaishu) style that combined the Southern calligraphic tradition of fluid, free strokes with blocky, angular forms associated with Northern monumental stone engraving style. The new standard-script style combined the fluid brushwork (taken from Wang Xizhi) with upright and balanced positioning within a rectilinear frame of supports and walls. Each character stroke, hook, and dot is fully articulated, and each of these elements interacts in a tightly knit construction. The resulting standard-script style was adopted nationwide, appearing in monuments and steles erected at palaces, temples, and tombs.
One of the leading calligraphers of this new monumental standard script was Yan Zhenqing (709–785), who died a loyalist martyr and became an enduring figure of heroic virtue. Rejecting the Tang court manner of refined fluid brushstrokes, in his calligraphy Yan created a bold style. The structural cohesiveness of his calligraphy quickly came to symbolize upright principles and moral rectitude, as well as strength and harmony. Another leading calligrapher at the other end of the spectrum was Huai Su (ca. 736–ca.799). His innovations in untrammeled wild cursive (kuang cao) script had enduring effects on the history of calligraphy. Huai once remarked, "When I see extraordinary mountains in summer clouds, I try to imitate them. Good calligraphy resembles a flock of birds darting out from the trees, or startled snakes scurrying into the grass, or cracks bursting in a shattered wall."
Sculpture during the Tang dynasty can be found in the context of burial sites and religious temples and caves. The placement of stone sculptures aboveground, along the spirit path (shendao) near tombs was a practice dating as far back as the Western Han dynasty. Wood and ceramic tomb sculpture were also buried in tombs, and many fine figures have been found in burials in the areas of the main capital, Chang'an, and the secondary capital, Luoyang. The multitude of Buddhist sculpture produced for temples also demonstrates significant artistic innovations in representing spatial volume and physical form.
Tang funerary ceramics are best known for figures of horses and camels, tomb guardians, court ladies, and decorated vessels. Figures and vessels were embellished using various techniques including brightly colored glazes and painted pigments. A distinctive decoration known as "three-colors" (sancai) glaze combined lead glazes of different colors; predominantly green, amber, and cream, but also cobalt blue, yellow, brown, and black. Stoneware vessels produced at regional kilns exhibit different characteristics. Gray-green wares were produced at the Yaozhou kilns in the north, olive-green or gray glazed Yue wares were made in the east, and vessels with dark brown and transparent glazes were made in Hunan province near Changsha. White-bodied porcelain wares also began to be produced in the late Sui dynasty, and the best Tang examples are the Xing ware vessels from kilns in Hebei province.
Liao dynasty, 907–1125
The Khitan (Qidan) people were sedentary tribesmen who occupied the lands to the north of China. Probably descendents of the Xianbei people who ruled northern China during the fourth century, the Khitans slowly renounced their nomadic life and became an organized military threat to Chinese regimes. The Khitan/Liao dynasty was founded in 907 and lasted until 1125. In this respect, the Liao dominion was older and survived longer than the Northern Song. In military prowess, the Liao in the north was very much an equal to the Song in the south. Between 946 and 947 the Liao launched an attack on the Northern Song capital of Kaifeng and succeeded in holding the city for a short period. The Liao remained problematic for the Song dynasty and until 1005, when the Shanyuan Covenant was concluded. The terms of the treaty established formal boundaries and diplomatic equality between the two nations, and an annual Song tribute payment of silk and silver to the Liao.
As communication and interaction continued between the Song and Liao regimes, the Liao began to borrow certain elements of Chinese culture. They created a Khitan script based on Chinese characters and used Chinese methods of producing iron and managing agriculture. Occupying the far–northern region China, the Liao often employed Chinese artists and craftsmen, and in art and architecture retained many features from the Tang dynasty.
Many Liao paintings focus on their outdoor way of life and include images of equestrian lifestyles as well as images of courtly activities such as deer and swan hunts. Liao ceramics also rely heavily on Khitan material culture, as seen in several surviving vessels that mimic the shape of leather water bottles. Excavated Liao tombs feature lively wall paintings. An important group of Liao and Jin painted tomb and coffin panels in the Princeton University Art Museum portrays horses, boats, flowers, attendants, and figures preparing for and having a banquet.
The fall of the Liao was partially due to the shifting of attention away from military matters, which left them open to attack. The demise of the dynasty was hastened by a series of floods and droughts that further weakened the regime. Sensing vulnerability, the Song established an alliance with another northern tribal state, the Jurchen Jin state, to finally defeat the Liao.
Five Dynasties period, 907–960
The next fifty years after the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907 saw northern China ruled by five short–lived military regimes based in the Yellow River Valley. This period is known as the Five Dynasties, which included the Later Liang (907–923), Later Tang (923–936), Later Jin (936–946), Later Han (946–950), and Later Zhou (951– 960). At the same time, ten more stable regimes, mostly centered in the south, vied for control. These Ten Kingdoms included the Wu (902–937), Former Shu (907–925), Later Shu (934–965), Min (907–946), Jingnan (907–963), Wuyue (907–978), Chu (927–956), Southern Tang (937–975), Southern Han (907–946), and Northern Han (951–979).
Traditional views hold that continual warfare ravaged the Five Dynasties in North China, resulting in flooding and famine. During this same period, the Khitan/Liao empire (907–1125) occupied territories along China's northern border including parts of Henan and Shanxi provinces, adding to martial tensions. On the other hand, the Ten Kingdoms, with the exception of the Northern Han (based in parts of Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Hebei provinces), were all found in the south of China. Their greater stability attracted large numbers of immigrants from the Central Plains, who brought with them artistic and literary skills, along with scholarly and scientific knowledge.
During this period advancements were made in printing and the arts. The first woodblock printing of a complete set of the Confucian Classics was produced by Feng Tao (882–954) from 932 to 953. Many legendary painters worked in this era, but few surviving works can be verified as being by their hands. Landscape masters included Dong Yuan (d. 962), Li Cheng (919–967), and Jing Hao (act. ca. 870–ca. 930). The latter is also believed to be the author of Notes on the Method for the Brush (Bi fa ji), an influential treatise on landscape painting. Xu Xi (d. before 975) and Huang Quan (903–968) excelled in bird and flower painting, and would later be set against each other as representatives rival painting styles.
Ceramic production centers continued to operate during this period of political turmoil and military conflict. In many ways the wares of this period can be seen as a transition between the Tang and Song dynasties. White wares, probably from the Ding prefecture kilns in Hebei province, were more finely potted than Tang examples, but did not yet exhibit the ivory-white glaze found in the Song.
- Later Liang, 907–923
- Later Tang, 923–936
- Later Jin, 936–946
- Later Han, 946–950
- Later Zhou, 951–960
Song dynasty, 960–1279
The collapse of the Tang dynasty in 907 set the stage for the swift rise and fall of a series of Five Dynasties (907–960) in the north. Zhao Kuangyin, a general of the Later Zhou, was compelled by his troops to become emperor, and finally succeeded in reunifying China in 960. Reigning as the Taizu emperor (r. 960–76), he established the capital of the Northern Song (960–1127) dynasty in Kaifeng, Henan province. This initial period of the dynasty was followed by the Southern Song (1127–1279) when the capital was relocated south to Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
In order to prevent the rise of strong military leaders who might challenge the throne, Taizu sought to shift the bureaucratic balance in favor of civil rather than military officials. This policy changed the landscape of Chinese society as it heralded the elevated position the scholar-official (shi) class, which would be maintained until the end of dynastic China. The shi class depended on the civil examination system, which was further developed during the Song. The numbers of examinees swelled as the dynasty continued. This growth was aided in part by the booming printing industry that allowed for the mass production and dissemination of various classics and treatises, upon which the exams were based.
As the ranks of the civil bureaucracy grew, so too did increasing factionalism among officials. The boiling point was reached during the reign of the Shenzong emperor (r. 1067–85) when a series of reforms was introduced by the influential official Wang Anshi (1021–1086). Wang’s proposals angered many of his contemporaries, such as the poet-artist Su Shi (1037–1101) and the historian Sima Guang (1019–1086). Both denounced the reforms as non-Confucian. As the two sides became entrenched in their positions, many capable officials fell victim to court purges, with paralyzing effects on the government.
The Huizong emperor (r. 1100–26) is remembered for his strong patronage of the arts, and his ignoble capture when northern China was subsumed under the Jurchen Jin dynasty in 1126. The Song dynasty was hastily and shakily reorganized in the south with the capital at Lin'an (present-day Hangzhou) by Huizong’s sixth son, Gaozong (r. 1127–62). The loss of the north, traditionally considered China’s heartland, became an oft-noted sentiment during the Southern Song (1127–1279). It threads through paintings and poetry of the period, some of which leaned heavily on tropes concerning longing and homesickness. In this atmosphere a new school of Confucianism flourished. Known as Neo-Confucianism, this school promoted a return to the basics of Confucian teachings through refining one's inner self.
Painting and Calligraphy
The art of painting thrived at the beginning of the Song more so than at any earlier period. At the front of this burst of creativity were artists eager to engage with nature in ways that had never been attempted before. The monumental landscapes by Li Cheng (919–967), Guo Xi (ca. 1000–ca. 1090), Fan Kuan (act. ca. 990–1030), and Li Tang (ca. 1070s–1150s) glorified mountains and streams, downplaying the human role in nature, and experimenting with different types of brush strokes and compositional devices. Ideas about space and depth were of particular interest to these artists.
Other painting genres blossomed during the Song, such as architectural rendering, narrative scenes, and depictions of flora and fauna. One the most famous handscrolls of the period combined many of these types. Painted by Zhang Zeduan (act. early 12th century), the surviving section of Going up the River on Qingming Day (Beijing Palace Museum) is a tour de force representation of the bustling city of Kaifeng and its environs on a festival day. The painting details daily activities including travel, trade, eating at teahouses, shopping, and even loitering, within an urban setting with buildings, walls, and bridges rendered in a ruled-line (jiehua) technique.
The dynastic shift to the South did not greatly affect painting styles, as a conscious attempt was made to preserve and continue Northern Song forms. However, a certain introspective attitude is visible. The paintings of the Ma family, the most notable being Ma Yuan (act. ca. 1190–1225) and Ma Lin (act. ca. 1180–after 1256), epitomize this sentiment. Their compositions often have a strong sense of the diagonal, with elements concentrated in one corner. Ma family paintings also frequently leave large portions of their paintings devoid of major compositional elements, implying great, unknown spaces in the misty distance.
Calligraphy during the Song was a dynamic mixture of the traditional—the Wang Xizhi (303–361) and Yan Zhenqing (709–785) manners—and individual styles. One of the great calligraphers of the period was Huang Tingjian (1045–1105) whose Scroll for Zhang Datong (Princeton University Art Museum) demonstrates an individualistic flair incorporating large characters with long wavering strokes and short quick ones. A contemporary of Huang’s was Mi Fu (1052–1107), another famed calligrapher and painter. His work Three Letters (Princeton University Art Museum) reveals his idiosyncratic running-script style, which ranged from a stable elegance to a more frenetic cursive style.
Major advances in ceramic technology took place in the Song. Kiln construction continued to evolve to be as efficient as possible, allowing more and more pieces to be fired at the same time. Decorative patterns were sometimes applied using molds, which also shortened production time. Glaze usage was refined so that coatings were even and color gradations were more predictable.
Five great wares are usually associated with the Song:
- Ru ware with an opaque blue-gray glaze was produced from about 1107 to 1125 in Baofeng county, Henan province, for the Northern Song court. Surviving examples are rare, with less than one hundred known pieces in the world.
- Guan ware (literally “official ware”) was made during the Southern Song in an attempt to replicate northern wares, such as Ru ware. The glaze was applied in several layers that induced as the layers cooled at different rates after firing. The result was a network of delicate glaze cracks that came to have aesthetic appeal. (Ru ware is sometimes considered to be the first crackle ware, but the effect may at first have been unintended.) The color of Guan glazes ranged from brownish gray to gray and light blue.
- Ding ware was produced at kilns in Ding prefecture, Hebei province. The kilns are best known for high-fired porcelaneous, thin-potted, white wares with clear or ivory colored glazes, but were also fired with black, russet, green, purple, or red glazes. In the late Tang and Five Dynasties period, these wares have a whiter appearance, and pieces carved with the character “official” (guan) are thought to have been made for the imperial court. In the Song the classic ivory glazes appear. The clay bodies were often wheel-turned over a hump mold and decorated afterwards. Early wares were decorated with incised patterns that included flora, waterfowl, and fish. In the twelfth century, molds were used to form the decorative patterns. Many vessel shapes imitated metalwork, and some “persimmon,” or russet- glazed, wares had gilt surface designs to imitate the appearance of lacquer wares. In the eleventh century, a technique was developed whereby bowls and dishes were fired upside down on stepped . This prevented warping; after firing the unglazed rims were often wrapped in copper or other precious metals.
- Jun ware has a thick, opaque glaze that can be colored iron-oxide blue, lavender, or green. Later examples were sometimes decorated with splashes of copper–oxide red or purple. Produced in Henan province, some Jun ware was made during the Song, but most surviving examples date from the Jin, Yuan, and early Ming periods.
- Ge ware features a gray glaze punctuated with distinctive crackling. Although this ware is traditionally connected with the Song, it may actually date to the Yuan or Ming dynasties. Ge may have been made in kilns located in Zhejiang or Jiangxi provinces, and was reproduced in the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries at the Jingdezhen kilns.
- Northern Song, 960–1127
- Southern Song, 1127–1279
Xi Xia, 1038–1127
Dali kingdom, 937–1253
Jin dynasty, 1115–1234
The Song government could hardly have expected their new northern friends, with whom they had collaborated to defeat the Liao, to turn on them with such ferocity and success. In 1126 the Jurchen ruler launched an attack on the Song capital of Kaifeng. He took the city and transported the last Northern Song ruler, Huizong, and most of the imperial family into the far northern heartland of the Jurchen tribe, and established the Jin dynasty in the northern portion of the former Song state. The Jin ruled over northern China for nearly a century, but in many ways Chinese life and culture continued unabated. In fact the Jurchens were patrons of Chinese painting, literature, and ceramics.
Throughout the Jin dynasty pressure continued to be exerted on the Southern Song court in Hangzhou, even though a peace treaty was signed in 1142. The eventual demise of the Jin came at the hands of yet another powerful northern people, the Mongols.
Yuan dynasty, 1260–1368
The relative stability of the early thirteenth century, with the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in the north and the Southern Song in the south, was shattered by Mongol incursion. Chinggis Qan (Genghis Khan) (ca. 1165–1227) and his ferocious army swept into China on horseback. With the fall of its capital at Beijing, the Jin dynasty was defeated in 1215. After the death of Chinggis Qan, the military campaign was taken up and completed under the leadership of his grandson, Qubilai Qan (Khubilai Khan) (1215–1294). The Southern Song fell in 1279, and once again north and south China were reunited. Qubilai had assumed the title of Great Qan in 1260, and proclaimed himself emperor of China in 1271. Earlier in 1259, before he became the Mongol leader, he had established a princely residence in the city of Shangdu—the famed pleasure-dome in Coleridge's poem "Xanadu." Shangdu was planned for Qubilai by the Chinese monk-official Liu Bingzhong (1216–1274), who was also responsible for the design of the new Yuan dynasty capital city of Dadu, located at the site of present-day Beijing.
The Mongols ruled China for about one hundred years. During this short time, they established new rituals and institutions that heavily influenced the following Ming and Qing dynasties. The Mongols adopted many features of Chinese culture, but early in their rule they were suspicious of having native Chinese serve in government. In turn, many Chinese scholars and officials felt alienated and refused to serve the Yuan, preferring instead to live in retirement or pursue unconventional professions. Rather than stifling creativity, however, the tension between the Mongols and their Chinese subjects seems to have energized the arts of the period. In addition, new religious and secular practices were introduced into China. At different times, the Yuan government alternated in its support between Daoism and Buddhism; and the Mongol rulers particularly favored Lamaism, a form of Tibetan Buddhism.
In their conquest of China, the Mongols had relied on their military prowess. Accustomed to a mobile steppe society, they had to devise new institutions that would enable them to rule a land in which they were a decided minority. Within a hundred years, the military strength of the Mongols was no longer dominant. Political infighting further weakened the ruling house, and widespread dissatisfaction and rebellion erupted around the country.
Painting and Calligraphy
A return to past styles by Yuan artists led to the use of expressive calligraphic brushwork in painting to express images of nature and of the mind. Calligraphy became critical to the practice and understanding of the pictorial arts, and can be seen in the works of Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) and Ni Zan (1301–1374).
Zhao Mengfu looms over the history of both calligraphy and painting during the early Yuan. A descendant of the Song imperial family, Zhao followed the example of many other loyalists by withdrawing from public life. He was eventually coaxed into government service by Qubilai Qan (Emperor Shizu, r. 1260–94), and held several prominent official posts. As an amateur painter, Zhao Mengfu undertook a comprehensive study of the styles of earlier masters. As a calligrapher, he explored an equally diverse range of styles. Combining principles of monumental writing from the Han and Tang dynasties with the fluid, more intimate brushwork of Wang Xizhi (303–361), he produced a new model of standard script, as displayed in his Record of the Miaoyan Monastery (Princeton University Art Museum). Within a short time, his standard-script style became a model for calligraphy and typeface for woodblock printing throughout China.
One of the of the late Yuan, Ni Zan is widely known for his landscape style, characterized by dry brushwork. He became a model for later literati painters, who admired his noble character and praised his seemingly simple paintings as reflecting inner strength and fortitude. In 1353 Ni Zan began twenty years of waterborne wandering. One of the richest and most cultured men of his region, he was forced to flee from his lands during a period of Chinese rebel uprisings. This phase of his life may be reflected in a poem on his painting Twin Trees by the South Bank (Princeton University Art Museum), which mentions how he moored his boat, visited a friend, and left behind the painting as a remembrance.
With new market demands resulting from the reunification of north and south, as well as new Mongol tastes and the demand for exports to the Near East, Japan, and Korea, the Yuan was a period of innovation in ceramic production. Sources for new decorative motifs and vessel shapes came from Near Eastern metalwork, Tang dynasty features surviving in Jin dynasty ceramics, and archaic Chinese bronzes and jades.
In this period, the center of ceramic production shifted to the south, where overseas trading routes led to markets as far away as Japan, India, and Africa. At the Jingdezhen complex of kilns in Jiangxi province, yingqing and qingbai porcelains exhibiting a bluish-tone glaze continued to be produced along with new types of porcelains painted with underglaze copper-red and colbalt-blue designs. Celadons with a more olive-green shade than their Song counterparts continued to be produced at the Longquan kilns in Zhejiang province. Some of the most innovative techniques were developed for stonewares produced in the area of Cizhou, Shanxi province. Having a dark clay body, these wares were decorated in various manners. Some had a white slip ground painted with underglaze black-iron pigment and sometimes incised designs, while others were detailed using a process, overglazes, polychrome, and numerous other techniques.
Ming dynasty, 1368–1644
In 1368, the troops of the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398) captured the Yuan dynasty capital of Dadu to end Mongol domination. Native rule returned to China and Zhu Yuanzhang became the founding ruler of the Ming dynasty, reigning as the Hongwu emperor (r. 1369–98). In the early Ming, the primary capital was established at Zhu Yuanzhang's southern base at Nanjing, Jiangsu province. After his death the throne was usurped by Zhu Di (1360–1424), who reigned as the Yongle emperor from 1403 to 1424. During his father's lifetime, Zhu Di had been enfeoffed as the Prince of Yan at Beiping (later Beijing), which became the center of his military strength. Upon seizing the throne, new imperial palaces were built at Beiping between 1406 and 1421. In 1421, the city was renamed Beijing (literally the "Northern Capital") to become the main capital; Nanjing ("Southern Capital") was lowered to auxiliary status. Duplicate imperial institutions and government bureaucracies were maintained at both locations. As it turned out, the main halls of the newly completed Beijing palaces suspiciously burned early that same year, preventing the transfer. Only after the destroyed halls were rebuilt was Beijing once again elevated to become the primary capital in 1441. Although almost all the Ming palace structures have been later restored or rebuilt, with the result that the present-day Forbidden City retains the basic layout of this era.
During the nearly three centuries of Ming rule, tributes recognizing Ming hegemony were submitted at various times from Annam (present-day Vietnam), Burma (present-day Myanmar), Korea, Mongolia, Siam (present-day Thailand), and from rulers in Chinese Turkestan as far west as Samarkand. Seven maritime fleet expeditions led by the eunuch Zheng He (1371–1435) were undertaken between 1405 and 1433, reaching India, Sri Lanka, and the east coast of Africa. Direct contact with European traders and missionaries also began in the sixteenth century with the arrival of the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch. The Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) arrived in China in 1583 and succeeded in gaining the favor of the Ming court. The Jesuits were able to introduce Western methods of math and science, becoming employees of the Bureau of Astronomy. They also brought new artistic techniques such as chiaroscuro and perspective rendering, setting the stage for later cultural interaction.
The imperial bureaucracy was reorganized by the Hongwu emperor in 1380. Instead of reporting to the chief administrative agency of the Grand Secretariat as in the past, the ministries now reported directly to the emperor. This reorganization functioned well when the emperor was able to devote his energies to governance, as in the case of the Hongwu and Yongle emperors. Afterwards, however, few Ming emperors were as conscientious in their duties, which eventually led to eunuch control, factional conflict, corruption, and disregard for responsible government. The reign of the Xuande emperor (r. 1426–35), however, was a stable period when support for the arts flourished. The emperor was himself an artist, poet, and significant patron of the arts. Imperial sponsorship of the ceramics kilns at Jingdezhen resulted in unsurpassed blue-and-white porcelains and wares imitating Song dynasty types.
The Chenghua (1465–87) and Hongzhi (1488–1505) emperors also were capable rulers, but later emperors withdrew from their duties. The late Ming saw a rise in peasant unrest, the spread of native and Japanese pirates affecting commerce, and a re-emergent threat from Mongolian and northern tribes. In the Tumu Incident of 1449, the Chinese emperor was even captured by the Mongol troops and had to be ransomed.
The Ming government became increasingly ineffective in the late sixteenth century. The decline of the dynasty has traditionally been ascribed to the reign of the Wanli emperor (r. 1573–1620). The reign started well with new reforms, but as the emperor became estranged from the government bureaucracy, factional disputes embroiled many of the leading political figures of the day, including many scholar-artists and their patrons. As rebel forces entered the imperial palaces in Beijing, the Ming dynasty collapsed with the suicide of the last Ming emperor in 1644.
Painting in the Ming is commonly regarded as a series of oppositions: court–sponsored professional and literati amateur painters, Zhe and Wu Schools, or Northern and Southern Schools. Highly skilled painters in the Painting Academy at court were expected to work within rules and regulations to satisfy imperial tastes. Academic painting of the Song dynasty was often taken as a model. In landscape, Ming professionals imitated the traditional Song styles of Ma Yuan (act. ca. 1190–1264), Xia Gui (act. first half of 13th century), Guo Xi (ca. 1020–ca. 1070), and the colorful blue-and-green landscape manner. In the area of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, a loosely associated group of professional landscape painters working in a freer Ma–Xia manner became known as the Zhe School. This group was heavily influenced by the court artist Dai Jin (1388–1462) after his dismissal and return to Hangzhou.
In court painting circles the category of bird-and-flower painting was split between two main camps following Song academic models. The vigorous inkwash manner of Lin Liang (ca. 1450–ca. 1500), associated with Xu Xi's (d. ca. 975) use of "boneless" inkwash without outlines, was pitted against the descriptive-realism of Lü Ji (b. 1477) following the meticulous outline and color technique linked with Huang Quan (903–968). Such infighting within the professional orbit, however, was soon overshadowed by scholar-amateur painters in the sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries from the Wu region around Suzhou, a city now famed for its reconstructed gardens.
The formation of the Wu School painting tradition is credited to Shen Zhou (1427–1509), who refined the expressionistic brush-oriented manner of the Yuan dynasty masters. The outcome was a simplified brush idiom that reflected the aura of a "gentleman." Transmitted from master to pupil, first to Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) then to Chen Chun (1483–1544), this style developed alongside the growing influence of literati garden culture in Ming society. The garden, like painting, calligraphy, and poetry, had become an expression of personal virtues and sometimes political aspirations.
The traditional categorization of Ming painting into opposite camps is woefully inadequate to explain the era's complexity. Paintings by artists such as Tang Yin (1470–1524)—his Seeing off a Guest on a Mountain Path (Princeton University Art Museum)—defy classification into any one camp. Also evident are numerous individual and regional styles, which have elicited the comment that there were as many schools of painting as there were painters in the Ming. Into this mix stepped the scholar-artist Dong Qichang (1555–1636), who served as an official during the Wanli reign. Dong reasserted the reading of painted brushstrokes as calligraphic expression, and promoted the enlightened creation or "grand synthesis" (da cheng) of artistic style through the study of past masters. In order legitimate his own artistic achievements, Dong arbitrarily theorized that past painters belonged to one of two stylistic lineages: the expressive, understated brush styles of literati painters in the Southern School, and the descriptive, decorative tradition of professional artisans in the Northern School. More than a variation of the commonly held rivalry between the Zhe and Wu Schools, Dong positioned himself at the end of the Southern School as the true inheritor of a tradition of literati painters that included Dong Yuan (act. 937–976), Fan Kuan (d. after 1023), Mi Fu (1052–1107), the [Four Great Masters](/# Four Great Masters of the Yuan dynasty: Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), Ni Zan (1301–1374), Wu Zhen (1280–1354), and Wang Meng (1308–1385).) of the Yuan, and the Wu School artists in the Ming.
During the early decades of the Ming, major calligraphers, including Song Ke (1327–1387), Shen Du (1357–1434), and Shen Can (1379–1453), were honored by the imperial court. By the middle of the fifteenth century, however, imperial interest in calligraphy had waned, and it was among private individuals, not scholars engaged in government service, that a wide range of new trends in calligraphy emerged. Led by Shen Zhou (1427–1509), calligraphers in the city of Suzhou revived the styles of Northern Song masters. Shen Zhou based his own running script, marked by plump, rounded strokes written with a slightly trembling rush, on that of the Northern Song calligrapher Huang Tingjian (1045–1105); Shen’s student Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) also followed this style.
Zhu Yunming (1461–1527), another Suzhou native, excelled at small standard script (xiaokai); but his greatest impact came from his experiments in wild-cursive (kuangcao). In handscrolls of poems written in this script, such as his transcription of two poems by Li Bo (701–762), "Arduous Road to Shu" and "Song of the Immortal" (Princeton University Art Museum), Zhu attacked the paper with such verve that some characters seem to explode into patterns of ink dots that evoke the turbulent emotions expressed by the verse. His friends attributed his affinity for this highly expressive calligraphy to his impetuous personality.
The theory and practice of calligraphy from the late Ming were dominated by Dong Qichang. A native of Songjiang prefecture, Dong disparaged the achievements of calligraphers in nearby Suzhou, and stressed the need to study works from the Eastern Jin and Tang dynasties. He advocated not close copying of these models, but probing analysis of what was most essential in their styles. Dong’s colophon dated 1609 to Wang Xizhi’s (303-361) Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Princeton University Art Museum), synthesizes the powerful, blocky standard script of the loyal official Yan Zhenqing (709–785) and the wild-cursive characters of the monk Huaisu (ca. 736–ca.799), both of the Tang dynasty.
A final generation of Ming calligraphers, several of whom lived to see the dynasty fall to the Manchus in 1644, explored highly idiosyncratic styles. Contemporary critics, as well as several of the calligraphers themselves, used the term qi, translatable as "unusual" or “strange,” to describe innovations in calligraphy of this period that departed radically from long-accepted norms of composition and brushwork. Wang Duo (1592–1652), who claimed that his style, though strange, was based on that of classical masters, dedicated much of his career as a calligrapher to copying works by Wang Xizhi, but his re-creation of these models completely reconfigures them. In his large hanging scroll Calligraphy after Wang Xizhi (Princeton University Art Museum), he combined the texts of two letters by Wang, rewriting the characters in sinuous cursive script and amplifying the original letters into works of monumental size. In spite of the seeming wildness of his writing, however, Wang Duo’s inventive personal style fulfills Dong Qichang’s dictum that calligraphy must not copy but transform past models.
White porcelain with underglaze blue designs reached the pinnacle of refinement in the Xuande reign period (1426–35). These porcelains were made at the Jingdezhen complex of kilns in Jiangxi province, which had become the largest center for ceramic production by the middle of the fifteenth century. Fine monochrome wares were produced along with blue and white wares for the palace as well as for both domestic and foreign markets. Export wares reached countries in Southeast Asia and reached Europe by the seventeenth century.
Ceramics were also produced at other regional kiln sites. At Dehua, Fujian province, a special white porcelain ware was produced along with sculptural figures. When this ware reached Europe in the seventeenth century it became fashionably known as "blanc-de-Chine." Ceramic sculptural figures decorated with (sancai) glaze were produced in family workshops in Shanxi province. A fine example is a Guanyin sculpture (Princeton University Art Museum) bearing an inscription dated 1500 and signed by the craftsman Qiao Bin. Several other ceramic figures by the same Qiao family are also known in various collections.
Gardens and Architecture
In the Ming period, the relationship between buildings and gardens was redefined. Prior to the Ming, gardens were usually seen as attached to a dwelling, but by the late-Ming, buildings became structures placed in a garden; that is, buildings had now become subordinate to gardens. The garden became the center for social and cultural interaction and a magnet for art and patronage. This new model of the private garden was to have far-reaching influence.
Qing dynasty, 1644–1912
The Ming dynasty was weakened by factional infighting, rebellion, and natural disaster in the early seventeenth century. When rebel forces overran Beijing in 1644, the Manchu armies followed, sweeping into China on the pretense of defending the Ming imperial house. The Manchus, a confederation of peoples based in the area of present-day Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces, were ruled by Nurhachi (1559–1626), who founded the Later Jin. His son Abahai (1592–1643) renamed the dynasty Qing. After the conquest, the Manchus adopted Beijing as their new capital, although Ming resistance persisted in the south until the 1680s. Over the years, repair and rebuilding have replaced most of the former Ming palace halls, and what remains today in the Forbidden City was mostly built in the Qing. Besides Beijing, the Manchus also continued to maintain their ancestral palaces at Shenyang, Liaoning province.
With the establishment of the Qing dynasty in 1644, the Manchu rulers needed to find ways to occupy, order, and govern the many peoples in the far reaches of their realm. The Qing emperors took on the trappings of Chinese culture, becoming patrons and practitioners of the arts, sponsoring scholarly projects, and adopting the Chinese bureaucratic system and ritual symbols of dynastic legitimacy. At the same time the Manchus strove to maintain their ethnic identity by organizing martial exercises for the military "banner" units; living most of the year in newly developed "imperial garden-palaces," such as the Yuanming Yuan outside Beijing and Imperial Summer Villa at Jehol, away from the urban confines of the Forbidden City. In their palaces the Manchu rulers built secret ritual precincts, and they forced the Chinese male populace to adopt the Manchu custom of shaving their heads and wearing queues.
The reigns of the Kangxi (r. 1662–1722), Yongzheng (r. 1722–1736), and Qianlong (r. 1736–95) emperors brought peace and prosperity to China. The Kangxi emperor pacified the Ming loyalists in the South, and began the process of attracting Chinese scholars into government service. The empire was consolidated under the rule of the Yongzheng emperor, and the long reign of the Qianlong emperor is seen as one of China's golden periods. During the Qianlong reign, the empire was extended from Manchuria and Korea in the northeast to the establishment of a protectorate in Tibet and conquest of the Ili and Turkestan in the west. In addition, Burma became a tributary nation and military expeditions were sent to Vietnam and Nepal. Contacts also increased with the West through Christian missionaries and later with traders and the European colonial powers. Controls on trade with the West were instituted in the mid-eighteenth century, and in 1793 the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, was granted an audience with the Qianlong emperor at the Jehol Imperial Summer Villa, the location where the Manchus received tribute from their so-called barbarian neighbors and allies.
Overseas commerce brought large sums of silver into China, allowing a switch to a silver-based economy, which eventually led to increasing inflation and usury. The consequences were manifold and had a major impact on the way craftsmen and artisans were employed, and how they were organized as a profession. The prosperity of the Qianlong reign ended with corruption and inefficiency after the emperor had entrusted great responsibility in the running of the government to the powerful eunuch Heshen (1750–1799). The White Lotus Rebellion (1796–1805), one of many later secret society uprisings organized by desperate peasants, did much to reverse the stability of Qing finances. The following nineteenth century has generally been perceived as a period of decline, when Western trading interests came into sharp conflict with China's internal policies and struggles.
As Spanish and Portuguese galleys continued to bring silver from Europe and the Americas, opium was introduced into China to create a "dependent" market and reverse the trade imbalance. After attempts by the Qing government in Canton to suppress the trade of opium by the British, the First Opium War (1839–42) resulted in Chinese indecision and humiliation. The terms of the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing forced China to pay huge indemnities, open new trading ports, and to cede Hong Kong to Britain until 1997. Later, as more trading and diplomatic rights were demanded, resistance by the Qing government led to the Anglo-French War of 1856–1860. This war is sometimes known as the Second Opium War, or Arrow War, and culminated in 1860 when the Qing emperor was forced to flee the capital to take refuge at Jehol. Occupying Beijing, the British and French commanders ordered the burning of the summer palaces. The main target of looting and destruction was the nearby Yuanming Yuan imperial garden-palace. While the Qing struggled against European forces, several rebellions erupted in the mid-nineteenth century causing famine and devastation that resulted in a population drop of over sixty million people. In particular the Taiping Rebellion (1851–64) posed a serious challenge to the Manchu rulers. Hong Xiuquan (1813–1864) was the rebel leader who organized a religious-military organization based on a mix of Christian teachings and personal visions in which he was sent by God to slay demons and eradicate demon worship. He deemed the Manchus as propagators of demon worship who needed to be overthrown to usher in an era of "Great Peace" (Taiping). The Taiping forces occupied Nanjing as their capital, and attracted followers with their anti-Manchu sentiment and notions about social and economic reforms. The rebellion, however, failed to consolidate its territories, was not able to establish an effective administrative structure, and was not even able to keep the focus of its leader.
In the late nineteenth century, territorial losses continued as China ceded Taiwan to Japan, Korea became fully independent, Britain annexed Burma, the French occupied Vietnam, and further concessions had to be made with the European nations. Growing anti-foreigner sentiments led to the Boxer uprising in 1900, which was suppressed by international troops. Recognizing China's weakness, efforts were made at reform but proved ineffective. Advised by the reform advocate Kang Youwei (1858–1927), in 1898 the Guangxu emperor (r. 1875–1908) instituted a series of edicts aimed at modernization that has come to be known as the "Hundred Days of Reform." Included were proposals to form a constitutional state, reform the education system to include Western studies, as well as ideas to promote commerce and industry, and strengthen the military. These proposals met with strong opposition, and after only three months, a coup d'etat returned authority to the Empress Dowager, Cixi (1835–1908). Just before her own death, she had the emperor executed and installed on the throne the Last Emperor, Henry Puyi (r. 1909–1912), then only two years of age.
Early Qing literati painting was influenced by the theories of the late Ming artist and collector Dong Qichang (1555–1636). A new orthodox lineage of painting that sought to create artistic style through the study of past models coalesced around Dong's disciple, Wang Shimin (1592–1680). Later known as the Orthodox School, this group of painters included the Four Wangs—Wang Shimin, Wang Jian (1598–1677), Wang Hui (1632–1717), and Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715)—along with Wu Li (1632–1718) and Yun Shouping (1633–1690). As Chinese scholars were lured into government service in increasing numbers, this literati painting style was eventually appropriated by the imperial court. While some literati refused to submit to foreign rule or shunned bureaucratic servitude, others including, Wang Hui and Wang Yuanqi, accepted imperial commissions and patronage.
Individualist painters in the early Qing are often associated with developing deeply personal styles that sometimes concealed strong messages of political protest against the Manchu rulers or expressing loyalty to the fallen Ming dynasty. Born to the Ming imperial family, the dynasty's fall in 1644 prompted Zhu Da (1626–1705) to retreat into the mountains where he become a Buddhist monk. After more than thirty years of self-imposed exile, he returned to secular life as a poet and painter in 1680. Often feigning madness in his dealings with others, in painting he developed an eccentric style that relied heavily on calligraphic brushwork. Frequently animated with plants, flowers, birds, fowl, insects, shrimp, crabs, fish and other delicate creatures, his paintings has often been read as deeply personal statements concerning the fragility of life under the Manchu conquerors.
One of the true geniuses in the history of Chinese painting, Shitao (1642–1707) was born a prince in the Ming imperial family. In the turmoil following the Qing conquest, he became an itinerant monk. His exposure to Chan Buddhist teachings may have led him to explore the self-expressive potential of calligraphy in painting. Shitao's paintings are characterized by fluid brushwork and moist graded ink-tones. Experimenting with novel brush manners, he claimed "no method" as his method, and shunned the imitation of past styles. Late in life, Shitao settled as a professional painter in the city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, where his innovative spirit was to influence a later group of painters commonly known as the Yangzhou Eccentrics.
In the Qing period, many regional styles of painting and groups of painters developed in such places as Yangzhou, Nanjing, and Anhui province. Painting styles ranged from the technical mastery of the professional court painters to idiosyncratic and personal styles. Innovation was prompted by new avenues for artistic transmission and instruction afforded by growing numbers of printed illustrations and painting manuals such as the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (1679, 1701). In addition, elements of chiaroscuro and perspective drawing introduced by European artists—including the Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766) and Jean Denis Attiret (1702–1768)—were also incorporated by some Chinese artists. At Yangzhou a group of innovative painters became known as the Yangzhou Eccentrics. Among the individualist painters working in this commercial center who are represented in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum are Hua Yan (1682–ca. 1756), Gao Fenghan (1683–1748/49), Li Shan (1686–ca. 1756), Jin Nong (1687–1764), and Luo Ping (1733–1799).
The Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722) was an expert calligrapher who greatly admired the calligraphy of the Ming artist and critic Dong Qichang (1555–1636), which became a style used for government documents. Kangxi’s grandson, the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–95), was also an avid practitioner and student of calligraphy, and he amassed the single largest collection of this art in China. Among his treasures was Wang Xizhi's (303–361) Ritual to Pray for Good Harvest (Princeton University Art Museum). In addition to his many seals, traces of the emperor’s ownership appear in the form of colophons through which Qianlong asserted his own position at the end of a distinguished lineage of calligraphers going back to Wang Xizhi himself. Through the culture of calligraphy, the Qianlong emperor, both as a practitioner and collector, symbolically asserted his legitimacy to rule China.
To document the choicest works from his collection, in 1747 Qianlong commissioned an anthology of rubbings known as Model Calligraphies from the Hall of the Three Rarities (Sanxitang fatie). Like earlier imperial anthologies, the rubbings published under Qianlong’s aegis functioned as a state-sanctioned overview of the history of calligraphy. In spite of Qianlong’s efforts, many Qing calligraphers rejected the canonical authority of these types of anthologies, arguing that these compilations, often based on works of dubious authenticity, distorted the history of calligraphy. Seeking inspiration in earlier models, calligraphers turned to ancient stone and bronze inscriptions. The calligrapher-officials Liu Yong (1720–1802) and Yi Bingshou (1754–1815) based their styles on ancient metal and stone inscriptions and were exemplars of an artistic and scholarly movement known as the Stele School (Bei xue).
Benefiting from technological improvements and artistic innovation, porcelains produced under the reigns of the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong emperors represent the pinnacle of Qing ceramics in terms of quality and diversity. Considering imperial wares alone, vessels ranged from the most simple in form and monochrome decor to the most extravagant in decoration, and some were modeled after ancient vessels.
At the end of the Ming, financial difficulties at court caused a cessation in the production of ceramics at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. After the Manchu conquest, efforts were made to re-establish the imperial kilns. But it was not until after the pacification of the South and the completion of a new complex of kilns in 1683 at Jingdezhen that Qing imperial production attained a consistently high level in quality. Imperial ateliers for porcelain were also established by the Manchu rulers in the Beijing palaces. Plain white porcelains were sent from Jingdezhen to the capital, where they were decorated in the imperial workshops. Some of the finest overglaze painted enamel porcelains were made in this manner during the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns.
Improvements were made in the body material and glazes used for Qing porcelains. In the eighteenth century the clay composition was refined to be fired at higher temperatures, resulting in a whiter, smoother, and more transparent appearance. A new opaque white glaze was developed for use with overglaze enamels.
Underglaze blue and underglaze red techniques were successfully revived, but now sometimes used together or with other glazes and relief decoration. In the Kangxi reign, underglaze blue was combined with overglaze enamels in a variation of the "five-colors" (wucai) palette—usually red, green, yellow, and brownish-black—that displayed the use of a new pale green enamel. This variant developed into a style of overglaze decoration known as famille verte.
New blue, gold, and fine black enamels were also developed, as well as a rose-pink enamel that became the distinguishing trait of famille rose decoration. The pink enamel was invented near the end of the Kangxi reign but the full famille rose palette was not brought together until the Yongzheng reign. The original impetus for this palette came at the wishes of the Kangxi emperor to imitate the decoration found on Western enamels on metal. This may be the reason why the term "foreign colors" (yangcai) generally is used today to refer to famille rose decorated wares.
In 1934 the Princeton University Art Museum received the bequest of about five hundred Chinese snuff bottles from Colonel James A. Blair, Class of 1903. Ingeniously decorated using techniques that run the gamut of Chinese artistic production, snuff bottles are said to embody the Chinese art world in miniature. Ironically, the practice of taking snuff in China derived from the import of tobacco and nasal etiquette from the West. By the late sixteenth century, after its discovery in the New World, the American sotweed, tobacco, was introduced to China. Traded or given as gifts by Western merchants and clerics, tobacco became known in China as "smoke-weed" (yancao). By the seventeenth century, tobacco smoking had become widespread. In its levigated, or finely powdered, form, it was administered for its supposed medicinal properties and usually stored in medicine bottles (yaoping). In general, the European habit of taking snuff did not win greater acceptance until the Qing dynasty, during the reign of Qianlong. Because the emperor himself imbibed, the fashion of taking snuff grew at the Manchu court and gradually spread to the rest of the country by the middle of the eighteenth century.
The production of snuff accoutrements—bottles, funnels, dishes—also developed with this new, imported habit. According to reports, exquisitely wrought European snuffboxes had already been presented as official gifts to the Chinese court in the late Ming dynasty. Such containers, however, proved unsuited to China's humid climate. Elaborating on earlier medicine bottles, miniature stoppered bottles with tiny spoons were soon invented. Crafted from a variety of materials, including jade, metal, wood, ivory, horn, lacquer, coral, glass, stone, and ceramics, the bottles protected their contents from moisture and could be carried on the person. Decorated with traditional Chinese artistic techniques, including painting, calligraphy, carving, enamel, cloisonné, and ceramics, the bottles also show Western-influenced decorative methods and styles. The Blair collection contains inside-painted glass and quartz bottles that combine Chinese-style painting with a back-painting technique (i.e., églomisé) brought to China in the mid-eighteenth century by the Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione. Some of the finest snuff bottles in the Blair bequest are copper vials with Western figures painted in famille rose enamels. Many such foreign-style bottles, though produced for export, were cherished in China as a form of "Occidental" exoticism.
[Modified from Cary Y. Liu, "Asian Art Collection: From Exotica to Art and History," Record of the Princeton University Art Museum 55, nos. 1–2 (1996), pp. 126–28.]
The tumultuous changes in China in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave rise to new artistic and cultural paradigms. Modern and contemporary painting, calligraphy, and experimental art reflect these changes, and, when set against the long artistic tradition of pre-modern China, allow for an engagement with such issues as art education, cultural identity, modernization, politicization, and cultural interaction with the West.
With the opening of additional ports to Western powers following the Opium War (1839–42), the city of Shanghai became a major commercial center. A new thriving urban culture and system of art patronage emerged to attract many of the brightest talents. Living as a professional artist, Li Ruiqing (1867–1920) moved to Shanghai where his close friend the calligrapher Zeng Xi (1861–1930) also resided. A Qing loyalist, Li is known for infusing his modern calligraphy and painting with elements of historical seal- and clerical-script calligraphy discovered on ancient bronze vessels and stone carvings. For many artists of this period, and down to the present, such elements of China's past figured heavily in an ever–present dialectic tension between cultural identity and modernization. A somewhat similar trend is also seen in a group of traditionally trained painters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who painted for literati scholars and the new mercantile elite in Shanghai. Influenced by the styles of the Yangzhou Eccentrics, the Shanghai School painters used past styles in different ways, in new contexts, and in new combinations. In bird-and-flower painting they commonly mixed bright colors with a highly expressionistic loose-brush manner. Among their ranks were the painters Ren Yi (1840–1895), Xu Gu (1824–1896), and Wu Changshuo (1844–1927).
With the fall of the Qing dynasty and founding of the Republic of China in 1912, the legacy of traditional painting, calligraphy, literature, and learning came to be relegated to the classical or dynastic past. In the arts, the call for national reform and modernization was championed by both those who called for the adoption of European techniques to transform Chinese painting into a Westernized style (xiyanghua), and those who looked to past Chinese models to define a new modern national style (guohua). In the early twentieth century the first public art schools were established, and teaching focused on a division between Western techniques and traditional Chinese styles. During this period, many painters also studied abroad in Japan and Europe, yet worked in modified traditional styles once they returned home. Many of these artists, such as Chen Hengke (1876–1923) and Xu Beihong (1895–1953), became teachers of Western techniques and theory in public art schools.
With the goal of modernity there also came notions of greater social and political functionality. Art was no longer only a private pleasure enjoyed in leisure; in cosmopolitan centers and through printed or photographic reproductions, it developed a wide public audience. Whereas painters advocating a Westernized style sought to achieve realistic representation so as to be more easily understood by a broad public, the proponents of a national style endeavored to move beyond mimetic realism. They argued that beyond the form-likeness achieved by photography or "scientific" methods of representation, works of art had an inherent poetic or expressive quality beyond representation. An example of such an expressive form in the arts of China is calligraphy, where a single brushstroke, a dot or line, can be intrinsically beautiful by itself. The traditionalists turned to Chinese calligraphy and paintings of the past, seeking elements that could serve the purpose of modern expression while at the same time fostering a Chinese cultural identity.
In the Republican period between 1912 and 1949, attempts at modern painting were clothed in a wide variety of styles, based on both traditional Chinese and Western methods. In common among these artists was a renunciation of the traditional literati styles of painting and calligraphy. Painters in the Shanghai School used traditional forms in innovative ways. In Canton, Gao Jianfu (1879–1951) returned from Japan to found the Lingnan School, convinced that a combination of Western realism with traditional Chinese painting could give rise to a modernized style. Oil painting based on Western models also came to exert a significant influence, but never found a market in China, instead becoming an important academic endeavor that became culturally significant through reproductions in print and other media.
Against the prevalent belief in Social Darwinism and the benefits of Western science and democracy, the First World War brought disillusionment, which was further compounded by the disappointing treatment of China by the Allied powers in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. German territories in China were not to be returned to China, but were instead to be given to Japan. On May 4, 1919, three thousand students gathered in protest in Tiananmen Square, ending in violence and mass arrests. Against the background of the May Fourth movement, the writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) and his group began using the ancient Chinese art form of pictorial woodblock printing in combination with Western avant-garde print styles to express moral, political, and social concerns.
In the eight years of Japanese military occupation between 1937 and 1945—followed by four more years of political strife and warfare associated with the Communist struggle for power—calligraphy, painting, and woodblock printing were used to rally anti-Japanese resistance, expose social problems, and offer political criticism and satire. Social utility became an integral part of artistic duty and prepared the way for the Russian-inspired styles of socialist realism after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The era of Socialist Realism was dominated by didactic figure painting and patriotic landscapes. The audience was now the general populace, and oil on canvas served as a potent vehicle for the new art, which was now also disseminated in print media. A distinctly Chinese adaptation of the Socialist Realist style was developed by the 1960s with the incorporation of traditional ink painting methods and a folk, or people's, aesthetic.
People's Republic, 1949–
The Cultural Revolution (1966–76) marks a crossroads when traditional literati values were eviscerated but never extinguished. Paintings such as In Revolution There Is Justice (1968) in the Princeton University Art Museum exemplify a style developed in deliberate reaction against the elite or literati painting and calligraphy traditions in imperial China. Such reactions can be seen in the use of bright colors and the development of an impersonal, mechanical calligraphy script. Art theory and manifestos of the period adopted the cry for art to serve the aims of the state. In contrast to the personalized tradition of literati art, the new paintings were often anonymous or signed by a factory division or collective group.
After the Cultural Revolution era, many artists struggled to reconnect with traditional styles of painting and calligraphy, but the old methods for learning, such as tutelage under a master or training in a workshop, had largely disappeared. Each artist approached the problem of searching for tradition and identity in novel ways. Some taught themselves brushwork through photographic reproductions, while some adapted Western techniques and ideas of composition to traditional themes and materials. In Taihang Mountains (Princeton University Art Museum) painted in 1985 by Jia Youfu (b. 1942), the artist combined observation from nature with the monumental landscape tradition of the Northern Song (960–1127). Jia devoted fifteen years to painting the Taihang mountain range, which was not only a patriotic site during the Sino-Japanese war but was also the epitome of the Northern Song landscape vision as seen in the recluse painter Fan Kuan's (d. after 1023) Travelers amid Streams and Mountains (National Palace Museum, Taibei).
Other artists chose to confront traditional painting and calligraphy, thereby establishing a dialogue linking the past and present. Xu Bing's (b. 1955) Book from the Sky (Princeton University Art Museum) is composed of some 4,000 invented characters that have the appearance of Chinese characters but are totally unreadable. First exhibited in the 1989 China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing that was linked to the tragic June Fourth student demonstration at Tiananmen Square, the books represent a reaction to the history of writing, calligraphy, and book culture in China. In an essay for the Princeton University Art Museum's Book from the Sky exhibition in 2003, Jerome Silbergeld writes that "Xu Bing's 'writing' (or non-writing) might be considered an 'abuse of language,' a reminder of how language has already been abused by those in control of it, and as a strike against those who have violated the written word through modern political propaganda."
Besides contemporary painting in traditional styles, experimental art addresses some of the most controversial issues in Chinese art today. In the years since the Cultural Revolution, the influx of outside artistic and cultural ideas has led to experimentation in a wide range of media and forms, including digital, film, installation and performance art, and photography. Theoretical and visual developments from outside China were often assimilated out of historical and cultural context and refashioned in novel ways that transgressed boundaries. Up until the 1990s, much of this type of experimentation reflected upon the memory of the Cultural Revolution, as can be seen in Hai Bo's (b. 1962) Them #6 (Princeton University Art Museum), which poignantly juxtaposed group portraits of the same sixteen women taken in 1973 and again as survivors in the post Cultural Revolutionary period. Since the 1990s, the themes explored in experimental works have increasingly focused on the alienation and dislocation that have been the result of the rapid societal and cultural changes that China has endured during the past quarter century.
As Chinese experimental and commercial art has taken its place in the international arena, new issues have arisen about the identity of the arts of China. Some artists now create for the international art market, and many now work and reside in countries outside China. Should the work of these artists, as well as those of Chinese descent who have never lived in China, be considered Chinese, and what about the greater numbers of non-Chinese artists who are now working more and more in Chinese manners and styles?