ART OF CHINA I – Early developments

China is a vast country that grew and developed for a long period of time without contacts with the Western world or with Southern Asia. As a consequence, some of its cultural values are quite different from those of the Western world. This fact increases the interest in this civilization not only from the point of view of the history of thought, but also from the point of view of the history of art.

This cultural isolation of China lasted until the conquests of the Emperor Wu of Han between 121 and 102 BCE, and those of the general Pan Chao between 74 and 102 CE in order to extend the Silk Route through the Pamir. Both allowed a permanent link between China, Persia and India. This communication implied the inflow of Persian artistic influences and facilitated the penetration of Buddhist statuary into Chinese territory.

The art of China has been long regarded as having the oldest continuous tradition in the world, strongly characterized by an unusual degree of continuity in its traditional artistic forms, thus lacking an equivalent to what happened in the West with the collapse and gradual recovery of the classical and ancient styles.

20,000 year old pottery fragments from the  Xianrendong cave in northern China.

Chinese art had a long prehistory. The oldest pieces found in the Xianrendong Cave site in Jiangxi province date from 20000 years ago and include ceramics with geometric painted decoration, as well as bone or flint* knives and jade axes. Contemporary to these artifacts, or at least slightly more recent, is the ceramics found in the Pan-chan region in Gansu with splendid polychrome ornamentation in the form of spirals, scrolls and lozenges*.

These ceramic vessels of Pan-chan are not related to the ones found in the excavations of the Anyang region which are white and of very refined shapes, ornamented with mold-made decorations (like frets*). These findings at Anyang corresponded to the stage of the second of the semi-mythical dynasties, the Shang dynasty (about 1500 years BCE).

White pottery pot with geometric design, (Shang dynasty, 1600–1100 B.C.E., Collection of Palace Museum, Beijing). Mainly found in the tombs of the Shang dynasty at Anyang, this type of white pottery was exclusively used by the royal family and very few pieces survived.
Painted jar from the Majiayao culture (late Neolithic period between 3300 – 2200 B.C.E.).

The Shang dynasty dominated an area of ​​400 by 300 km near the confluence of the Huang-he (the Yellow River) with its tributary Wei inside which Anyang its capital was and in whose necropolis the wonderful bronzes of the end of the second millennium BCE have been found. It was probably in this area that Chinese writing was invented, a tool with which the Shang dynasty had a powerful instrument to create and maintain a strong political tradition.

Ritual wine server (Guang) from 1100 B.C.E. (Indianapolis Museum of Art). The surface of this vessel is adorned with three primary decorative animal motifs, including fifteen imaginary creatures cast in relief along the sides

Those tomb excavations have revealed the existence of a bronze culture* that reached its peak without completely renouncing Neolithic* tools. The bronzes, jades and ceramics of Anyang are very fine artifacts. The jade must have been considered as a magical element that had to be worked with special delicacy. As for the beautifully patinated bronze vessels their ornamentation with curvilinear reliefs is very lavish and sometimes includes the inlaid of turquoise or malachite. These vessels demonstrate some fixed types that will last long throughout the cultural history of China: the gu* vessels, tall and slender with elegant gauge; the pots with two handles with lid (gui*) or without it (you*); the pots resting on tripods or li* and finally the sacrificial cups or ding* with the same tripod base. Their powerful monumental forms, their archaic expressiveness, their secure and vivid artistry that reproduces the shapes of snakes and simplified tiger heads to the point of making them enigmatic and mysterious place these bronzes among the great artistic creations of human kind. A symbolic effigy, the Taotie* or Demon of the Earth, a mask of a horned monster with a straight nose, protruding eyes and lacking a lower jaw, presides over the ornamental schemes of these bronzes. This same effigy will appear in many more bronzes that will be produced later (sometimes with zoomorphic* forms) during the time of the Zhou dynasty (VIII-VI centuries BCE) and during the so-called period of the Warring States, between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE.

The Gu was a type of ancient Chinese ritual bronze vessel from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600–256 B.C.E.). It was used to drink wine or to offer ritual libations. Gus are tall and slender, with a slightly flared base that tapers to a slim center section before widening into a trumpet-like mouth, wider than the base. Its surface is often decorated with taotie. Left: A Gu from the Shang dynasty (Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii, U.S.A.). Center: A Gu from the middle Shang Dynasty (Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China). Right: A Gu from the Shang Dynasty (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, D.C.)
A Gui was a type of bowl-shaped ancient Chinese ritual bronze vessel used to hold offerings of food, probably mainly grain, for ancestral tombs. Its constant characteristics include a circular form (seen from above), with a rounded, wide profile or shape from the side, standing on a narrower rim or foot. It usually has two or sometimes four handles, and may have a lid or a square base (or both). Top left: A bronze Gui of Shi You from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 771 B.C.E., Canadian Museum of Civilization). Top center: Western Zhou Gui vessel. Top right: Gui with four handles, a cover and a square base. Bottom left: The “Kang Hou Gui”, early Western Zhou (11th century B.C.E., British Museum, London). Bottom right: Shang dynasty bronze Gui.
A You was a lidded vessel used for liquid offerings by the Chinese of the Zhou and Shang Dynasties. It sometimes lacked taotie and was decorated with just smooth surfaces. Sometimes these vessels were zoomorphic, especially in the form of two owls back to back. Usually the handle of the You is in the form of a loop that attaches on either side of the lid, but it is occasionally a knob in the center of the lid. They can be quadruped or have a single base. Left: Hu Shi Ren You (literally: “You depicting a tiger trying to devour a man”) from the late Shang, 11th century B.C.E. (Changsha Cernuschi Museum, France). Top right: Luan Bo Tong You (lit. “Bronze You made for Count Luan”) from the Western Zhou (Gansu Provincial Museum, Lanzhou, China). Bottom right: You with zigzag thunder pattern, Early Zhou (Shanghai Museum).
A Ding was a sacrificial vessel, originally a cauldron for cooking and storing meat. The Shang prototype has a round bowl, wider than it is tall, set on three legs with two short handles on each side. Later examples became larger and were considered a measure of power. It is considered the single most important class of Chinese bronze-ware in terms of its cultural importance. There is a variation called a fangding which has a square bowl and four legs at each corner. There also exist rare forms with lids. Left: The Houmuwu ding, the largest ancient bronze ever found, is 133 cm high, 110 cm wide, 79 cm deep, and weighs 832.84 kilograms. Each side has a blank space in the middle, surrounded by a band of decoration featuring taotie and kuilong (one-legged dragons) (ca. after 1192 B.C.E., National Museum of China, Beijing). Second from left: A ding from the Late Shang Dynasty (Shanghai Museum). Third form left: Chinese bronze ding vessel with gold and silver inlay from the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.E.) (Luoyang Museum). Extreme right: A Ding from the Shang Dynasty, 13th – 12th centuries B.C.E.
Fittings in bronze in the form of tigers found at the Baoji, Shaanxi province, from the Middle Western Zhou dynasty, ca. 900 B.C.E. (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.).

This period of the Zhou dynasty (also known as Spring and Autumn period) coincided with the Golden Age of Chinese philosophy, when the Hundred Schools of Thought of Chinese philosophy blossomed, the epoch of the great Taoist thinkers such as Laozi and in which Kǒng Fūzǐ or Confucius spread his wise doctrine of coexistence that has for so long been the basis of Chinese morality. The continuous wars between the various sovereigns and against the nomadic peoples of the North characterized this Chinese feudal era during which was formed a landowning aristocracy that didn’t possess large landholdings (contrary to what happened in the West) but a multitude of scattered plots leased to the peasants. The firstborn did not inherit immediately by right: if he was unable to perform his duties, then his family chose another more competent member as head of the family, even if he was a distant relative of the main family branch. The guiding members of the family directed the management of the land, the family investments and economy, the education and marriage of the younger family members, and the maintenance of the sick, disabled and elderly. This system, which formed the basis of the educated and independent bureaucracy (“mandarins*“) explains the reason why everyone desired numerous descendants and joyfully contemplated old age, the resting period of life which represented the fullness of existence. In this period are common bronze objects encrusted with malachite, jade or mother-of-pearl, and carved with a geometric ornamentation finished in volutes which reflects a decorative grammar with a rich linear fantasy. Objects made in jade were abundant, probably used as amulets, which often portrayed the images of the dragon (the symbol of Yang*, male and celestial principle of the cosmos) and of the tiger (the symbol of Yin*, the feminine and terrestrial principle).

The Shi Qiang pan, inscribed with the accomplishments of the earliest Zhou kings, ca. 10th century B.C.E. The pan vessel (basin) is inscribed with a text that has been described as “the first conscious attempt in China to write history”. Low and round with two handles, the vessel is 16.2 cm tall, with a diameter of 47.3 cm. Its exterior is cast with a taotie design. It is regarded as a national treasure, and in 2002 it was listed as one of 64 cultural relics prohibited from leaving Chinese soil (Baoji Bronze Ware Museum,  Baoji, Shaanxi, China).
Examples of Chinese ancient jades. LEFT: Top: A Warring States Period white Jade Tiger (a pair). Second from top: A 1000 B.C.E. Western Zhou Dynasty Tiger amulet in Jade. Third from top: A Warrior States Period jade. Fourth from top: A jade Tiger (one of a pair) from the 3rd century B.C.E. Period of the Warring States to Western Han period (Harvard Art Museums). Bottom: A large grayish-green jade dragon from a pendant, Warring States Period, 4th century B.C.E. CENTER: Top: A jade Dragon, Bird and Snake from the Zhou Dynasty, Warring States Period (Harvard University Art Museums). Bottom: Zhou Dinasty decorative Dragon in jade, ca. 770-256 B.C.E. RIGHT: Top: Dragon (from a pair) in jade from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, ca. 300’s B.C.E. (British Museum, London). Bottom: A rare Chinese Eastern Zhou Dynasty jade and bronze pendent, ca. 1050 B.C.E.
The Great Wall of the Qin Dynasty (built between 221 – 207 B.C.E.) was built during the reign of Emperor Qin Shi Huang along the country’s northern border to prevent invasions by the Huns. Top left: Passing through Xiji County, Guyuan County and Pengyang County, the Great Wall in Ningxia extends over 1,500 kilometers. As Ningxia has always been a place of military strategy, the Great Wall in Ningxia was constructed over many historical periods between the Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.E.) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Bottom left: Ruins of the Qin Shi Huang Great Wall at Inner Mongolia. Right: A section of the Great Wall of Qin Shi Huang.

During the third century BCE, the Qin dynasty eliminated its rivals and founded the first unified empire that was definitely organized by the Han dynasty which lasted until the third century CE. The first ruler of the Qin dynasty who assumed the title of emperor in 221 BCE began the same year the construction of the Great Wall, the famous engineering work that covers 4000 km from the Shanhai pass in the Gulf of Bohai to the Jiayuguan pass in the Gansu province. It wasn’t only a protective fortification against the attacks of the nomads of the North, but a conclusive proof of the existence of a unifying state. Restored several times, as is today reflects the reconstruction made by the Ming Dynasty during the 16th century.


Bronze age: A historical period characterized by the use of bronze, and in some areas proto-writing, and other early features of urban civilization. The Bronze Age is the second principal period of the three-age Stone-Bronze-Iron system for classifying and studying ancient societies. An ancient civilization is defined to be in the Bronze Age either by producing bronze by smelting its own copper and alloying with tin, arsenic, or other metals, or by trading for bronze from production areas elsewhere. Bronze itself is harder and more durable than other metals available at the time, allowing Bronze Age civilizations to gain a technological advantage. Worldwide, the Bronze Age generally followed the Neolithic period, with the Chalcolithic serving as a transition. Most often, the Iron Age generally followed the Bronze Age.

Ding vessel: Prehistoric and ancient Chinese cauldrons, standing upon legs with a lid and two facing handles. They are one of the most important shapes used in Chinese ritual bronzes. They were made in two shapes: round vessels with three legs and rectangular ones with four, the latter often called fangding. They were used for cooking, storage, and ritual offerings to the gods or to ancestors.


Flint: A hard, sedimentary cryptocrystalline form of the mineral quartz. Flint is used to make stone tools dates back millions of years. Due to some properties of flint it breaks into sharp edged pieces making it useful for knife blades and other sharp tools. During the Stone Age access to flint was so important for survival that people would travel or trade to obtain flint.

Fret: In art and architecture, a repeating ornamental design of interlaced vertical and horizontal lines.



Gu vessel: A type of ancient Chinese ritual bronze vessel from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (between 1600–256 BC). It was used to drink wine or to offer ritual libations. A Gu is tall and slender, with a slightly flared base that tapers to a slim center section before widening again into a trumpet-like mouth, wider than the base. Its surface is often decorated with taotie.


Gui vessel: A type of bowl-shaped ancient Chinese ritual bronze vessel used to hold offerings of food, probably mainly grain, for ancestral tombs. Although its shape changed somewhat over the centuries constant characteristics are a circular form (seen from above), with a rounded, wide, profile or shape from the side, standing on a narrower rim or foot. There are usually two, or sometimes four, handles, and there may be a cover or a square base (or both).

Li vessel: A cauldron with three legs used in ancient China. Similar to a Ding except the legs blend into the body or have large swellings on top.



Lozenge: Often referred to as a diamond, is a form of rhombus. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for rhombus. Most often, lozenge refers to a thin rhombus: a rhombus with two acute and two obtuse angles.



Mandarin: A bureaucrat scholar in the government of imperial China, Korea and Vietnam. The term is generally applied to the officials appointed through the imperial examination system; it sometimes includes and sometimes excludes the eunuchs also involved in the governance of the two realms.

Neolithic: The Neolithic or final division of the Stone Age (Paleolithic, Epipalaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic) began about 12,000 years ago when the first development of farming appeared in the Epipalaeolithic Near East, and later in other parts of the world. The division lasted until the transitional period of the Chalcolithic from about 6,500 years ago (4500 BC), marked by the development of metallurgy, leading up to the Bronze Age and Iron Age. In Northern Europe, the Neolithic lasted until about 1700 BC, while in China it extended until 1200 BC. Other parts of the world (including the New World) remained broadly in the Neolithic stage of development, although this term may not be used, until European contact. The Neolithic comprises a progression of behavioral and cultural characteristics and changes, including the use of wild and domestic crops and of domesticated animals.

Taotie: A motif commonly found on Chinese ritual bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasty. The design typically consists of a zoomorphic mask, described as being frontal, bilaterally symmetrical, with a pair of raised eyes and typically no lower jaw area. In ancient Chinese mythology like “Classic of Mountains and Seas”, the taotie is one of the “four evil creatures of the world”.

Yin and Yang: In Chinese philosophy, yin and yang (from the Chinese “yīnyáng” meaning “dark-bright”, “negative-positive”) is a concept of dualism in ancient Chinese philosophy, describing how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. In Chinese cosmology, the universe creates itself out of a primary chaos of material energy, organized into the cycles of Yin and Yang and formed into objects and lives. Yin is the receptive and Yang the active principle, seen in all forms of change and difference such as the annual cycle (winter and summer), the landscape (north-facing shade and south-facing brightness), sexual coupling (female and male), the formation of both men and women as characters, and sociopolitical history (disorder and order).

You vessel: A lidded vessel that was used for liquid offerings by the Chinese of the Zhou and Shang Dynasties. It sometimes lacks taotie in favor of smoother surfaces. Sometimes these vessels are zoomorphic, especially in the form of two owls back to back. Usually the handle of the you is in the form of a loop that attaches on either side of the lid, but it is occasionally a knob in the center of the lid. They can be quadruped or have a single base.

Zoomorphic: (From the Greek zoōn meaning “animal”, and morphē meaning “shape” or “form”). In art the term can refer to: a) art that imagines humans as non-human animals, b) art that portrays one species of animal like another species of animal, c) art that creates patterns using animal imagery, or animal style, d) deities depicted in animal form, e) the ability to shape-shift into animal form, f) attributing animal form or other animal characteristics to anything other than an animal.