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By Alex Brown


1.0    Main Influences on Chinese Art & Design


There is a close relationship between religion and art/design expressions and is further surrounded by a strong literary tradition.


 a) Ancestral Observance and Worship inspired art/design for tomb decoration, rite and  ritual divination and court events. Examples are:


During the Shang and Chou (1111-255BC) dynasties, the art of bronze casting becomes highly developed. Finely cast and richly decorated pieces included cooking and serving vessels, bells, drums, weapons and door fittings were found.


The oldest art forms in China are music and dance. A 5000 year old pottery bowl is painted with 5 dances adorned with Head-dresses and sashes and stepping in unison. Music played an important role in Chinese courts and rituals. Bronze bells were instruments of investiture and reward. An ancient bell set (c. 430 BC) contains 64 bells, each producing a distinct tune in harmony with the rest. More than 120 music instruments were also recovered from the same tomb,  mouth organs, zithers, flutes, drums and stone chimes.


 b) Daoism inspired the love of nature and simplicity and is shown mainly in large brush  painting of landscape in a linear and decorative style. Landscape gardening and  architecture have also been influenced by Daoism.


 c) Confucianism inspired the literary tradition in arts especially in calligraphy and  other painting. Thus, it is not uncommon to find poems or literary writings on paintings.  Master apprentice relationship is also influenced by Confucian value of respect for the    elder.


2.0    Calligraphy


In a visual culture dominated by artefacts, calligraphy played an integral part since the early divination inscriptions. Styles of writing developed gradually as inscriptions were cast into bronze or cut into stone and bone. Later, ideas of spatial composition emerged.


Early Chinese calligraphy was also found in silk cloth. With the introduction of brush, ink and paper, calligraphers and painters found means to express themselves. Sophisticated brushwork began to appear and with it, the criteria for compositional judgement.


By the 4th century, calligraphy was considered an art. It expresses aesthetic and moral values  A tool that conveys spontaneous feelings of the individual. Comparable to poetry expression it became a scholarly pursuit by the Tang Dynasty era.


2.1    The Chinese Appreciation of Calligraphy


For the Chinese written language particularly the written characters rivals painting as fine art and play an important role when poetic captions are incorporated into painting, thereby enhancing the overall aesthetic quality.


Calligraphy was seen to possess a number of abstract aesthetic qualities:









There was a freedom of expression in the creation of new or derivative styles in the formation of the meticulous and laborious 'seal' characters or the flamboyant and unconstrained 'grass' characters.


3.0     PAINTING


Chinese painters employed the skills of brush and ink too expressing narrative themes of myth and history and also exploring poetic form of expression in landscape painting, and more decorative compositions in animal and Mower painting.


These forms of painting: narrative, decorative, romantic, poetic were pursued by professional painters and scholar painters i.e. the literati, elite educated class.


3.1    Chronology


Early anonymous and folk- oriented paintings were found on tomb and cave walls (many more were found during the Han Dynasty (206BC- 220AD). Historical records showed fine art painters were known by the 6th century AD and their works were serially copied. Landscape painting called shanshui hua (mountain waterpainting) became prominent during the Tang Dynasty and reached the most vigorous period under the Sung and Ming Dynasties spanning from 960 to 1644 AD. In the 20th century, painter Ch'i Pai shih, developed new distinct styles that internationalised traditional Chinese aesthetics. After 1949, pressure for social realism ( Chinese painters were also sent to Soviet Union and other East European countries for art classes) made painters to shift their focus to such subjects like factory scenes, peasant villages, industry objects like buses, machines etc. Since Mao's dead in 1976 and with the liberalisation of arts that followed, more traditional forms of Chinese begin to reassert again.


3.2    Chinese Landscape Painting


It represents the Chinese spirit away from the pomp of Imperial courts and Confucian morality.


"The wise men find  pleasure in waters; the virtuous men find it in the mountains"(Confucius)


For the Daoist, water was an example of the Dao, and classic texts celebrated places where streams from the mountain gathered together. Basically, landscape paintings were painted to satisfy the longing for streams, forests and mountains, for companionship with mists and vapours, for the love of rural wild scenery seen in an aesthetically and sentimental way.


3.3    Main concepts of Chinese landscape painting




"Resemblance reproduces formal aspects of objects, but neglects their spirit. He who tries to transmit the spirit by the means of formal aspect by merely rendering the outward appearance, will produce a dead thing" Painter Ching Hao (900-960 AD)



The Points of view


The observer has multiple points of view of a painting. The spanning eye, camera……


Shifting Perspective


The power to engage the spectator to make an imaginary journey within the landscape painting. Not to take the panorama with a glance but to wander, to explore and contemplate the nature as it portrays.



No four walls framing;  appreciation extends beyond the painting. Profound and eternal.



Absence of a lighting source to show limitless space and time though intensity and emphasis may vary in terms of ink tones.




The concept of completion is utterly alien to the Chinese way of thinking.The Chinese painter deliberately avoids a complete statement because he knows that we cannot know everything of what we describe, that what he paints cannot be complete, and can be true in a very limited sense. His landscape is not the final statement, but a starting point, not the end but the opening of a door.




Sculpture and carving have prehistoric links. However it never reached the renewed status of western individual artists as it is treated as artisan art. Sculpture abounds China in the forms of:


 figures of animals standing on temples, tombs, guarding doorways

 decorative figurines of roofs

 carved grand cliff images of Buddha

 carved wooden, jade and ceramic images of gods


Funeral Sculpture


Mythical animals, terracotta army of the Qin emperor etc.


Buddhist Sculpture


Buddhism influences inspired sculpture as a form of religious art. E.g. caves at Dunhuang, cliffs and caves of Yungang. As Buddhism encouraged adaptation and flexibility, new forms and stylese merged as the Chinese adapted the teachings.




No other great architecture, except the Egyptian, can match this longevity or the slowness of change it entailed. Wood was the main Chinese building material for both secular and religious structures while stone and brick were used mainly for fortifications. Earliest wooden buildings go back to the 6th century namely the masonry pagodas.


Pagodas are the exclusively Chinese and they are evolved from the Indian stupa and the Han watch towers. Pagodas began to appear in China's architectural landscape under the Sui Dynasty. Pagoda is a purely symbolic structure, a signal of faith in the greatness of Buddha, towering above the sacred relics buried in its foundations. It is found in monastery grounds and palaces.


Chinese architecture places visual importance to the roof.  The basic roof construction is perfected by the 6th century, is intricate, a concave distinguishing profile.




A recurrent theme in Chinese art is the reproduction of the world in miniature. It is a desire to give a sense of order to world and representing it in a small comprehensible form.


House Garden (or Chinese Garden)

       People could wander around in ecstasy.

         Admiring shanshui i.e. replicated artificial hills imported rocks man-made streams and lakes. In short, it is heaven                 and earth, a paradise.

         the garden is also designed to be looked at from definite places during the walk.

          moon gates formed a frame to the view.

          pavilions intricate cross-latticed windows to provide delightful viewpoints.


The pending paradise is often in an enamel or ceramic basin with small real trees, grass, rocks etc. Sometimes these elements were made of jade, ivory and coral. A human figurine may be depicted too.


Chinese landscape gardens had influenced the European change towards informal garden. Before the 18th century, traditional concept of huge splendid gardens eg. Versailles, royal palace in Paris prevailed. It was the Jesuit accounts of Chinese gardens in the late 17th century that created the fashion.




Since the Silk Road, there is a tradition in the West demanding luxury goods from China. Art and craft objects in demand are:


Bronze & other metalwork (gold especially)

Jade Carving

Pottery & Porcelain/ Ceramics

Silk Embroidery

Lacquering & Lacquer Carving


Furniture Rosewood making





Most enduring of all Chinese decorative arts, it has been in production since more than 8000 years ago. Functions of ceramic production:









Chinese porcelain is often highly regarded for its distinctly 'abstract' character. They are admired for their clarity, harmony, economy, unity, rationality of shape and decoration.



Eras famous fortheir ceramic products:

Cosmopolitan Tang period

Tang horses and camels

Court ladies, dancing acrobats

Arhats and the luohans (Mostly ceramic objects/sculptures)


Elegant Sung period

white lying wares, the subtle Ku green wares (duck egg blue),

the Guan (crackled grey green) and the jade green wares.


Brilliant Ming period

blue Ming porcelain, famous cobalt blue underglaze (factories of Jingdezhen)


Refined Complexity Ching period

Technical improvements, use of new pigments, complexity of designs


Chan Buddhism also brought the production of ceramics to a higher classic perfection especially the heightened meaning of tea drinking and tea ceremony (more in Japan).




Theatre is an important popular art form in China. It originated from early religious dances and 

festivals to exorcise demons.

Preparation for harvest,hunting, warfare.

Range of theatrical genres include acrobatic performances (since Tang Dynasty) and displays of martial arts.


performances at eating houses etc.



architecture, design history, cultural history of Europe, US, Asia, gothic, islamic, renaissance, baroque, modern, postmodern, 

Architecture Art Design Cultural History and Theory and More

From Undergraduate to Graduate: its all here. Packed with information. Everything you wanted to know about :



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