A Brief History of Chinese Art

A Brief History of Chinese Art

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This video describes the history of Chinese art in brief.

The History Of Chinese Art You Should Know About

When we talk about Chinese art, we refer to all the art produced during millennia by the Chinese civilization, which throughout the centuries remained isolated from the rest of the cultures. Because of this isolation, its style, its way of understanding art, underwent very few changes from antiquity to the 20th century.

From the beginning of Chinese history, the main materials and one of the essential beginnings of this art were unknowingly created. These materials are jade and bronze. Furthermore, with these materials and the technical knowledge of this culture, the artistic forms characteristic of this type of art were gradually characterized.

However, the works made in this type of art were decorated depending on the social hierarchy in which the artist was, and with this different theory of Chinese art were created, these theories are Confucianism and Taoism. In the field of arts, Chinese art stood out, not only in architecture and sculpture, but porcelain and silk, both used to manufacture sumptuary items.

Another type of art, which we could include within the decorative arts, is the development of traditional furniture, this type of art evolved from simplicity to complexity and was closely linked to the lifestyle and economic and cultural changes of China throughout its history.

Chinese architecture is understood as a style of architecture that has taken shape in East Asia over many centuries, which is shared with neighboring countries. The structural principles of Chinese architecture have remained virtually unchanged, with the main changes occurring in the decorative arts and its constructions are based on deep cultural traditions highlighting the ideology of the superiority of imperial power and its compact class system.

Chinese Art Before 1300

To begin, ask your class to describe their impressions of what Chinese art is–most likely, their response will be a narrow version that has been digested and transformed by Western culture. China is an immense geographical region whose borders have grown and shrunk over the centuries, containing a diverse group of ethnicities, religions, historical ruling parties, time zones, and ecological environments. The whole concept of “Chinese” art, however, is really a notion that only began in the nineteenth century and is a term that can encompass a wide variety of heterogeneous practices. Yet, the broad scope of this topic can be divided into three areas of artistic expression, including works of art created for burial practices, Buddhism, and the courtly cultural elite. At the start of the lesson, review the basic tenets of the three major worlds of thought that influenced Chinese culture during this period: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism

Since their conceptions, the philosophical systems of Confucianism and Daoism have worked hand in hand with Chinese culture. Confucianism developed during the Zhou dynasty, in which Confucius was born c. 521 BCE . A non-metaphysical and humanistic system, Confucianism is about man’s place in society, a society that can be perfect if people conduct themselves perfectly. It is also a conservative and hierarchical system, which places men over women, and the ruling class over peasants, without any chance for upward social mobility. Seemingly at odds with Confucianism, Daoism’s origin is attributed to Lao Zi who lived during the fifth century BCE and is thought to be the author of the Dao de Jing (the Book of the Way and Its Power).

Where as Confucianism is about man’s place in society, Daoism ignores society and, instead, concentrates on man’s relationship to the natural world–the Dao–in which man’s goal is to live in perfect harmony. All natural phenomena can be explained by the yin and yang, opposing forces in nature that blend together in perfect harmony. The yin is female, soft, slow, cold, etc. and the yang is male, hard, fast, hot, etc. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), Daoism began to incorporate magical rites to help reach followers reach immortality deities also play a role in these rites and have eventually become part of Chinese popular culture.

Buddhism came to China in 65 ce. and introduced presuppositions that differed from the dominant Chinese philosophies. Buddhism operates with the notions of samsara and karma, the belief that life is an endless cycle of rebirth and deeds from past lives determine an individual’s place in this life and future lives. Because Chinese culture already had established concepts of the afterlife, these new ideas were not readily accepted. The influence of foreign rulers was needed to bring Buddhism into cultural prominence.

Background Reading

Colossal Buddha, cave 20, Yungang, c. 460-493 CE, Northern Wei dynasty.

Michael Sullivan’s The Arts of China (Oakland, 2009) is a well-organized and thorough college-level, survey textbook. This text treats the art of China in a more or less chronological manner, which can be quite helpful for the undergraduate student new to the subject. For a very brief history of Chinese art, Mary Tregear’s Chinese Art (World of Art) (London, 1997) is well written and organized. Craig Clunas’ Art in China (Oxford, 2009) provides a different thematic approach to the subject–dividing his book into chapters that relate to different contexts of art. This text, however, lacks some of the most famous images in Chinese art.

For a more specialized introduction on China’s Bronze Age, Maxwell Hearn’s Ancient Chinese Art (New York, 2012) is a recent publication that centers on the Ernest Erickson Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Denise Leidy’s The Art of Buddhism (Boston, 2009) is an excellent source about Buddhist art throughout the world, suitable for both undergraduates and scholars.

In terms of online sources, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn’s Timeline has excellent sections on Chinese art. The Khan Academy is an excellent reference for Chinese art starting from the Qin dynasty. Even though he specialized in art after 1300, the late James Cahill’s website includes many lectures and resources. The Princeton University Art Museum has excellent resources for educators and the China Institute has an arts and culture section on their website. In terms of videos, Maxwell Hearn’s New York Times video, which explains how to look at Chinese painting, is excellent. His video of the Metropolitan’s Chinese Garden Court is also an excellent introduction about how art fits within Chinese culture. It illustrates how the garden is microcosm of the Chinese worldview, who owned the garden and who visited the garden. It is worth viewing even though the Chinese Garden at the Metropolitan is modeled after a Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) garden, therefore it falls outside of the timelines of this lecture.

Content Suggestions

The following list includes Chinese art within the contexts of the tomb, Buddhism, and art of the courtly elite within an hour and fifteen minute session:

  • Funerary Jar, Banshan phase, from Gansu, third millennium BCE
  • Yu, Shang dynasty, eleventh century BCE
  • Terracotta Army, tomb of the Emperor of Qin, (d. 210 BCE), from Lintong near Xi’an, Shaanxi, Qin dynasty, 221-207 BCE
  • Funeral Banner from the Mawangdui Tombs, Changsa, c. 168 BCE, Han dynasty
  • Colossal Buddha, cave 20 at Yungang, Shanxi, c. 460-93 CE, Northern Wei dynasty
  • Shakyamuni and Prabhutaratna, 518 CE, Northern Wei dynasty
  • Horse and Female Rider, Tang dynasty, seventh-eighth century CE
  • Guo Xi, Early Spring, early eleventh century CE, Northern Song dynasty
  • Ma Yuan, On a Mountain Path in Spring, twelfth-thirteenth century CE, Southern Song dynasty
  • Music, Six Persimmons, thirteenth century CE, Southern Song dynasty

The earliest cultures in the Henan, Shanxi, and Shaanxi Provinces along the Yellow River in the “heartland” of China, developed during the Neolithic period, in which civilizations produced utilitarian objects with decorations. The earthenware Funerary Jar, decorated with slip, is one such example found in the context of a tomb. Scholars know that Neolithic earthenware pottery was used for daily life and funerary purposes, but beyond that, not much information about this jar or its culture exists. Scholars do not know how it was intended to serve the deceased in the afterlife. A good explanation of the chronological phases of Neolithic pottery can be found on the Princeton Art Museum’s website.

Bronze vessels, produced during the Bronze Age after the Neolithic period, characterize the Shang period (c. 1500-1050 BCE) culture, which had the most highly developed bronze technology of the ancient world. The Shang kingdom was a single political entity ruled from a sequence of capitals in the present-day Henan province. Although it was surrounded by rival states, Shang culture spread beyond the Shang kingdom. The site of Anyang was the center of Shang ritual culture from 1300 BCE until the end of the dynasty in c.1050 BCE. Here, bronze was used for weapons, chariot fittings, horse trappings, and for vessels. Bronze vessels were used during special banquets in order to honor deceased members of high society–in addition to human and animal sacrifices. Therefore, all of the deceased needs were met in the afterlife. Nobles performed these sacrifices and rituals to insure their success by appeasing their deceased ancestors.

The making of bronze vessels suggests a stratified society and urban centers of production. A good interactive site explains how bronze vessels from the Princeton University Art Museum were made. The Yu is a bronze wine vessel that was used during great banquets of lavish food and drink to honor ancestors. The vessels were then subsequently buried with other members of the elite–the higher a person’s rank, the more objects buried with them. Shang dynasty bronzes, covered completely with decoration, utilize many zoomorphic motifs with surfaces that usually display horror vacui. One interesting motif found on the Yu, the taotie (usually translated as “ogre”) mask, is a symmetrical composite zoomorphic design. It is a full-face mask that can be divided down the nose, with both sides depicting one-legged, bird like creatures. The exact meaning of the taotie is unknown, but because it appears so often on early Chinese vessels, it is apparently an auspicious motif. More information on the Shang dynasty can be found in the Teacher’s Guide created for a past exhibition called “the Great Bronze Age of China” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The first emperor of China, Emperor Qin (reigned 221-210 BCE), was the first to unite the empire and the first to give himself the title of Imperial Sovereign. He was anti-Confucian and is thought to have burned its books and killed its scholars via live burial. He also standardized weights, measures, and writing systems, built roads to move his massive armies, and started building the Great Wall. Under Qin’s rule, this period was the first time China was thought of as a cultural entity.

A farmer accidentally found Qin shi huang di’s tomb in 1974. Since then, a thousand terracotta soldiers have been uncovered in military formations, with seven thousand soldiers estimated in total. The Chinese government is reticent to do more excavating as the terracotta soldiers can easily break (at least that is the official statement). The soldiers are all life size from five to six feet tall and originally, they were painted to enhance the life-like appearance of the figures. Although terracotta is not a luxurious material, the massive scale of this tomb’s construction was incredible, involving hundreds of workers who were deployed for this operation. Hundreds of tons of firewood and many massive kilns were needed to fire the figures, created by a modular system of prefabricated parts: a plinth, a set of legs, a torso, two separate arms, two hands and a head. To increase the number of unique combinations, there were three plinth styles, two types of leg sets, eight torsos, and eight heads. The hands were composed of smaller molded parts and the facial features and hair were customized per figure. The consequent variety of soldiers with life-like appearances helped better fulfill their roles as guardians of the master in the netherworld. The emperor’s unprecedented rule made construction of this massive tomb possible, and helped to immortalize him in history for generations to come.

In addition to this elaborate tomb for the First Emperor, other elite members of the populace were preoccupied with their immortality during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), which can be evidenced in the Mawangui tomb complex. This preoccupation caused myth, miracles, and magic to be incorporated into Daoism, which previously had emphasized living in harmony with nature. Mawangdui has three tombs in which archeologists have found several artifacts–including many surviving Daoist and Confucian texts, mainly in Tomb 3. Since Confucian and Daoist texts were privileged property of elites, they were buried with them. The Funerary Banner from the Mawangdui Tombswas found in Tomb 1 draping the inner coffin of the Marquise, the wife of the Marquis of Dai, the chancellor of the Kingdom of Changsa. This banner is often considered to be the precursor of the hanging scroll, prominent in Chinese culture after the eleventh century, and can be interpreted in terms of Confucianism and Daoism.

The banner has three levels: the upper level represents the heavens, the middle the earth, and the bottom the netherworld. The upper level depicts a sky filled with mythical creatures that recall Daoism mythology: a raven in the sun, a toad on the moon, and celestial dragons fly through the heaven (as they are explained in Daoist texts). The middle section shows Confucian scholars bowing down to the elderly, well-fed Marquise with her female attendants. This section uses hieratic scale to portray the hierarchy of Confucian society, meaning that the most important figures are the largest. The lower portion of the banner depicts men performing rituals with bronze vessels, a tradition that developed during the Shang dynasty (c 1500-1050 BCE) to honor the deceased. This tradition is clearly adapted here as a Confucian tradition: Confucianism stresses respect to elders, ancestors, and a hierarchical society. A serpentine beast supports the netherworld, which is another visual interpretation of Daoist mysticism.

Originally a people of Turkic origin from the Russian steppes, the Northern Wei (383-535 CE) rulers conquered China in the early fifth-sixth centuries CE and were the first to widely spread Buddhism. The Northern Wei rulers were great patrons of Buddhist art and expanded the number of monastic establishments to 13,272, but there were some periods of Buddhist persecution under their rule. An anti-Buddhist imperial decree was established from 444-451 CE, reversed upon the death of its advocate.

After this decree was reversed, Tanyao, a Buddhist monk, suggested the construction of the Buddhist site of Yungang. Often called the Tanyao caves, the site has five caves which house five colossal Buddhas, which may represent and glorify the five Northern Wei emperors up until that time. The construction of these caves was purposely meant to outdo the contemporary rock-cut architectural sites of India and Central Asia. Since Tanyao was trained in Kashmiri Buddhism, the five Buddhas could also represent the protection of the Wei state based on the cosmology of his Kashmiri Buddhist sect. Although information on the Yungang site is limited, scholars do know that after initial funding given by the court, it was also funded by other parts of society. Many families pooled their resources together, as evidenced by inscriptions at the site that bestow blessings on them. The variety of styles in the carvings suggests that many different workshops and hands worked at the site.

A great example of private art during this period includes the sixth century altar depicting Shakyamuni and Prabhutaratna. Commissioned by groups of aristocratic families, gilt bronze altarpieces would have been part of the main altar in Buddhist temples. The figures are depicted in an elongated manner with little corporeal reality and their drapery is emphasized, with sharp “saw tooth” points carved into the bottom of their robes. Their heads are adorned with pointed and flaming halos, an indicator of divinity and a hallmark of the Northern Wei style of the sixth century CE. The iconography of this sculpture represents a story in the life of Shakyamuni, the Historic Buddha, and his encounter with Prabhutaratna, a Buddha of the remote past. In the story, while Shakyamuni gives a sermon on the Vulture Peak, a miracle occurs and Prabhutaratna emerges from his stupa (reliquary) to listen and the two Buddhas sit together. The two figures are identical in appearance because conceptually they are the same: all mortal Buddhas live the same lives and give the same teachings.

The Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) was a period of increased global contact since its capital at Chang’an was an active trading center on the Silk Route. Due to this internationalism, multiple religions and art traditions were practiced in the capital. Tang upper class tombs were decorated with ceramic sculptures, many of which portray images associated with wealth. The tomb ceramics were cast from molds and assembled in sections, which made construction of the objects quicker and more easily available for tomb furnishings. In ceramics, the horse was a popular subject as it suggests wealth, trade, and can be associated with the military. Projecting these values, the Horse and Female Rider, for example, is typical of the Tang’s famous three-color glaze technique called sancai. The glaze contains lead and its ability to drip during the firing process was a desired, decorative effect. The female rider is shown wearing a close fitting garment that was especially useful when riding through the desert.

After the Tang, by contrast, the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 CE) was a period of great unrest, constantly threatened by invasion. Despite this underlying conflict, this period also saw the establishment of the professional Imperial art academy. Artists, part of the cultural elite, held civil service jobs, which allowed them ample opportunity for artistic pursuits. Guo Xi served in the Academy and his painting, Early Spring, is considered to be a masterpiece of Northern Song dynasty painting. Utilizing the mountain and the water (called shan sui) as the yin and the yang, the painting is believed to represent a Daoist Paradise. In Early Spring, the mist obscures a solid mountainside, as if the mountain does not exist. Guo’s use of empty space is just as important as the subject matter, balancing the composition. This painting is over five feet tall, yet it still remains an intimate artwork since its detailed brushwork requires the viewer to be up close. For a detailed exploration of this image, the University of Washington’s site about Northern Song landscape painting is an excellent source.

The formats of East Asian painting differ greatly from those of Western art. Early Spring is a hanging scroll painting, therefore it can be rolled up and removed easily depending upon the wish of the owner. Western paintings are not usually moved as easily. The hand scroll format is viewed in small segments with only up to three people at a time. Album leaves, the third major format, are about the size of notebook paper and are meant to be viewed from up close. Please refer to Maxwell Hearn’s video about hand scroll viewing explains the intimacy of the art form and more.

The Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279 CE) is thus named because the capital was moved from Kaifeng in the North to Hangzhou in the South. The Jurchin Jin dynasty had taken over the northern lands. The geography and climate in the South greatly differs from the North, including much more water, rolling hills, and valleys. Courtly painters in the Song Dynasty, like Ma Yuan, favored the album leaf format. His On the Mountain Path in Spring is the quintessential depiction of the life of a gentleman scholar. Ma Yuan depicts the scholar figure in hieratic scale, relatively larger than his servant (who carries a musical instrument) in order to show his importance. The leaves on the tree are just beginning to bud and birds have taken flight, representing the beginning of spring. The artist included a poem by Emperor Ningzong in the upper corner of the painting, demonstrating the interconnectedness of poetry, painting, and calligraphy in Chinese art. Calligraphy, in fact, is considered the highest art form and painting is the lowest. For a closer view of this painting please refer to the Southern Song landscape page from the University of Washington. James Cahill also devoted a lecture to On a Mountain Path in Spring, which is available on his website.

Another artist in the Song Dynasty, Muqi was a Chan Buddhist monk, hence a “non-professional” painter. Chan Buddhism was brought to China at the end of the twelfth century CE and is a direct and brief doctrine that emphasizes mindfulness, meditation, and the immediacy of experiences. Chan is commonly known as Zen (after the Japanese word for Chan) in the West. Muqi is an exponent of the “spontaneous mode of painting,” a type of painting that requires great brush skills, yet looks effortless. The persimmons in Six Persimmons look as if they are floating on the surface of the paper, their stems made out of perfect calligraphic brushstrokes. Since the Southern Song dynasty Chan Buddhist painting style is favored in Japan, the Six Persimmons is held in the Daitokuji in Kyoto and is rarely seen in person. James Cahill also dedicated a lecture to Chan Buddhist painting which is available on his website.

Historical Development to 221 BCE

Neolithic Pottery

Black eggshell pottery of the Longshan culture (c. 3000–2000 B.C.E.) / Photo by Editor at Large, Wikimedia Commons

Early forms of art in China are found in the Neolithic Yangshao culture (Chinese: 仰韶文化 pinyin: Yǎngsháo Wénhuà), which dates back to the sixth millennium B.C.E. Archeological findings such as those at the Banpo have revealed that the Yangshao made pottery early ceramics were unpainted and most often ornamented by with marks made by pressing cords into the wet clay. The first pictorial decorations were fish and human faces, which eventually evolved into symmetrical-geometric abstract designs, some painted.

The most distinctive feature of Yangshao culture was the extensive use of painted pottery, especially human facial, animal, and geometric designs. Unlike the later Longshan culture, the Yangshao culture did not use pottery wheels in pottery making. According to archaeologists, Yangshao society was based around matriarchal clans. Excavations have found that children were buried in painted pottery jars.

Jade Culture

Jade bi from the Liangzhu culture. The ritual object is a symbol of wealth and military power. / Photo by Editor at Large, Wikimedia Commons

Tools such as hammer heads, ax heads and knives were made of jade nephrite during the Neolithic period (c. 12,000 – c. 2,000 B.C.E.). The Liangzhu culture, the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River delta, lasted for a period of about 1300 years from 3400 – 2250 B.C.E. The jade from this culture is characterized by finely worked, large ritual jades such as Cong cylinders, Bi discs, Yue axes, pendants and decorations in the form of chiseled open-work plaques, plates and representations of small birds, turtles and fish. Liangzhu jade has a white, milky bone-like aspect due to its origin as Tremolite rock and the influence of water-based fluids at the burial sites.

Bronze Casting

Shang Dynasty (Yin) bronze ritual wine vessel, dating to the thirteenth century B.C.E. / Wikimedia Commons

The Bronze Age in China began with the Xia Dynasty (ca. 2100 – 1600 B.C.E.). Examples from this period have been recovered from ruins of the Erlitou culture, in Shanxi, and include complex but unadorned utilitarian objects. In the following Shang Dynasty (商朝) or Yin Dynasty (殷代) (ca. 1600 – ca. 1100 B.C.E.), more elaborate objects, including many ritual vessels, were crafted. The Shang are recognized for their bronze casting, noted for its clarity of detail. Excavations show that Shang bronzesmiths usually worked in foundries outside the cities and made ritual vessels, weapons and sometimes chariot fittings. The bronze vessels were receptacles for storing or serving various solids and liquids used in the performance of sacred ceremonies. Some forms such as the ku and jue can be very graceful, but the most powerful pieces are the ding, sometimes described as having an “air of ferocious majesty.”

It is typical of the developed Shang style that all available space is decorated, most often with stylized forms of real and imaginary animals. The most common motif is the taotie, a symmetrical zoomorphic mask, presented frontally, with a pair of eyes and typically no lower jaw area. The early significance of taotie is not clear, but myths about it existed around the late Zhou Dynasty (周朝 1122 B.C.E. to 256 B.C.E.). It was considered to be variously a covetous man banished to guard a corner of heaven against evil monsters or a monster equipped with only a head which tries to devour men but hurts only itself.

A Zhou Dynasty bronze musical bell / Photo by Dr. Meierhofer, Wikimedia Commons

The function and appearance of bronzes altered gradually from the Shang to the Zhou, and they began to be used for practical purposes as well as in religious rites. By the Warring States Period (fifth century B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E.), bronze vessels had become objects of aesthetic enjoyment. Some were decorated with scenes of social life, such as banquets or hunts while others displayed abstract patterns inlaid with gold, silver, or precious and semiprecious stones.

Shang bronzes became appreciated as works of art during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 C.E.), when they were collected and prized not only for their shape and design but also for the various green, blue green, and even reddish patinas created by chemical action as they lay buried in the ground. The study of early Chinese bronzecasting is a specialized field of art history.

Early Chinese Music

The origins of Chinese music and poetry can be found in the Book of Songs, containing poems composed between 1000 B.C.E. and 600 B.C.E.. The text, preserved among the canon of early Chinese literature, contains folk songs, religious hymns and stately songs. Originally intended to be sung, the music accompanying the words has unfortunately been lost. The songs were written for a variety of purposes, including courtship, ceremonial greetings, warfare, feasting and lamentation. The love poems are among the most appealing in the freshness and innocence of their language.

Early Chinese music was based on percussion instruments such as the bronze bell. Chinese bells were sounded by being struck from the outside, usually with a piece of wood. Sets of bells were suspended on wooden racks. Inside excavated bells are grooves, scrape marks and scratches made as the bells were tuned to the right pitch by removing small amounts of metal. Percussion instruments gradually gave way to string and reed instruments toward the Warring States period.

Significantly, the Chinese character for the word music (yue) was the same as that for joy (le). Confucians believed music had the power to make people harmonious and well balanced, or to cause them to be quarrelsome and depraved. According to Xun Zi, music was as important as the li (rites, etiquette) stressed in Confucianism. Mozi, philosophically opposed to Confucianism, dismissed music as useless and wasteful, having no practical purpose.

In addition to the Book of Songs (Shi Jing), a second early and influential poetic anthology was the Songs of Chu (Simplified Chinese: 楚辞 Traditional Chinese: 楚辭 pinyin: Chǔ Cí), made up primarily of poems ascribed to the semilegendary Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 B.C.E.) and his follower Song Yu (fourth century B.C.E.). The songs in this collection are more lyrical and romantic and represent a different tradition from the earlier Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing)

Chu and Southern Culture

Chinese pu vessel with interlaced dragon design, Spring and Autumn Period (722 B.C.E.-481 B.C.E.). / Wikimedia Commons

A rich source of art in early China was the state of Chu (722 – 481 B.C.E.), which developed in the Yangtze River valley. Painted wooden sculptures, jade disks, glass beads, musical instruments, and an assortment of lacquerware have been found in excavations of Chu tombs. Many of the lacquer objects are finely painted, red on black or black on red. The world’s oldest painting on silk discovered to date was found at a site in Changsha, Hunan province. It shows a woman accompanied by a phoenix and a dragon, two mythological animals that feature prominently in Chinese art.

An anthology of Chu poetry has also survived in the form of the Chu Ci, which has been translated into English by David Hawkes. Many of the works in the text are associated with Shamanism. There are also descriptions of fantastic landscapes, examples of China’s first nature poetry. The longest poem, “Encountering Sorrow,” is reputed to have been written by the tragic Qu Yuan as a political allegory.

The Percival David Collection : A Brief History Of The Collection

The 1920s and 1930s

Percival David was born in Bombay, India, in 1892, and inherited his father’s baronetcy in 1926. He was married in London in 1912 and began collecting Chinese art shortly afterwards. By 1924 Percival David had already acquired a considerable mastery of the Chinese written language, but at the time there were few opportunities in the West for serious study of Chinese art. The few examples of Chinese art that had found their way to England so captivated him that he decided to visit China itself. His aim was to study the tradition of art connoisseurship as it was practised in China, and at the highest level – that of the Imperial Collection.

Forbidden City Exhibition

The Imperial Collection was housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing (Peking) and at that
time little regard was paid to its display. Sir Percival convinced the palace officials that a more impressive display of some of their treasures might be arranged in one of the smaller pavilions within the Forbidden City and also offered to finance the project himself. The exhibition was a great success, an accompanying catalogue was published, and the attendance surpassed expectations.

Purchase from the Yuin Yeh Bank

In 1927 rumours began circulating that prospective buyers were attempting to acquire
some of the Imperial Collection which had been offered as collateral to the Yuin Yeh Bank by the Dowager Empress at the time of her departure from the Forbidden City in 1901. Amidst intrigue, threats to his physical safety and downright dishonourable dealing on the part of the bank, Sir Percival eventually managed to purchase his chosen forty pieces.

There then followed a series of equally complicated arrangements for transporting the
pieces from Beijing to the United States in three separate shipments.

In 1930-1 Sir Percival returned to China where he again worked with the palace officials
within the Forbidden City in organising other exhibitions, and in making a comprehensive inventory of the contents of the various halls and places. He was also able to acquire through dealers and other contact many more fine pieces for his collection.

Dorchester Hotel

In 1931 the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane opened and Sir Percival’s Collection, having
outgrown its accommodation in the Mayfair Hotel, was installed. It remained there until
the outbreak of the Second World War, when it was sent to Sir Percival’s country home for safety.

Chair of Chinese Art and Archaeology

It was also in 1931 that Sir Percival took the first step towards creating a programme of
study of Chinese art. He established a Chair of Chinese Art and Archaeology at the
Courtauld Institute, which is affiliated with the University of London. The position was held by Professor Perceval Yetts until his retirement in 1946.

The International Exhibition of Chinese Art

Sir Percival was determined at this time to organise an exhibition in London of some of the pieces he had helped to put on display in the Forbidden City, as well as important Chinese treasures from other country’s collections. He enlisted the help of three renowned English experts of the subject, R. L. Hobson of the British Museum, George Eumorfopoulos and Oscar Raphael.

The Royal Academy were delighted to sponsor the exhibition and ‘The International
Exhibition of Chinese Art opened at Burlington House in November 1935. It was the first
time that the magnificence of the artistic tradition of China was revealed to the West.
Sir Percival’s favourite piece in the final consignment of treasures acquired from the Bank in 1928 was chosen as the most beautiful object in this exhibition, and was illustrated in the colour frontispiece for the appropriate article in the ‘Burlington Magazine’. It was an exquisite pear-shaped Guan ware vase, the pale bluish-green glaze with wide irregular crackle stained golden brown.

The War Years

The Aircraft Industry

Sir Percival wished to offer his financial assistance to the aircraft industry, which he perceived to be the most crucial front of the war. He travelled to the United States in 1940, where he spent a year studying the various types then in production and in visiting aircraft factories.

Sir Percival then decided that the British ‘Mosquito’ was the machine he most favoured and made a financial contribution to its production.

Shanghai and South Africa

In 1941 whilst travelling from the USA to India Sir Percival and his wife found themselves in Shanghai at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and were subsequently interned by the Japanese. They were eventually exchanged, along with other American and British personnel, or an equal number of Japanese citizens held in Mozambique.

During their period of internment Sir Percival developed the crippling disease, amyotophic lateral sclerosis, which was to leave him wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. Sir Percival and Lady David spent the remaining years of the war in South Africa and during this time crystallised some of their plans for the eventual disposition of their Collection and Library, the most significant part of which was that the Collection and Library should remain a separate entity.

USA and Canada

In 1945 Sir Percival and Lady David travelled to the United States together with Judge Davis, a South African fellow collector of Chinese ceramics. In Toronto they were able to show Judge Davis sixteen of Sir Percival’s finest pieces, which had originally been sent in 1938 for exhibition at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, and, following the outbreak of war, remained on exhibition in Toronto where it was decided they would be safer.

The Post War Years: Friendships and Travels

King Gustav VI of Sweden

King Gustav VI of Sweden, a fellow collector and connoisseur of Chinese ceramics, had been a personal friend of Sir Percival’s for many years before he became King in 1950, and made several visits to London to examine pieces in the Collection during their post-war unpacking and to help in the process of elucidating the various types and periods of ceramics.

Sir Percival and Lady David were frequent guests of His Majesty and Queen Louise and were able to study the Royal Collection, the collections of the two national museums and those belonging to the King’s friends. Their last visit was in 1963 for the official opening by King Gustav of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities and participating in an accompanying seminar on Chinese Art.

Michel Calmann, an old friend and fellow Oriental art collector and enthusiast, was also
concerned with the ultimate destination of his own renowned collection. He greatly admired Sir Percival’s gift to the University of London, and the fact that it had been achieved successfully during his lifetime. He was a member of the Board of Governors of the Musée Guimet in Paris and their principal adviser on Chinese Art and considered this establishment to be the correct venue for his collection. Michel Calmann had a great respect for Sir Percival’s discernment over the finest pieces, and worked with him to select the pieces from his own collection to transfer to the Guimet.

In 1959 Sir Percival was invited by the Director of the Uffizi in Florence to investigate the possibility of some Chinese objects finding a home in the gallery. They were rewarded with the discovery of a group of 14th century celadon dishes and several rhinoceros horn cups in the storage area. The horn cups were unique in that they were embellished by European silver gilt mounts.

Taiwan and Japan

The Imperial Collection had been ferried from the mainland to Taiwan in 1948 by the United States Air Force. It was contained in 95 crates, and housed in mountain caves at Taizhong. In 1956 Sir Percival and Lady David travelled to Taiwan where they were to spend six months, visiting the caves every day. Lady David said of this visit that ‘never again would we see so many objects of the highest quality day after day for such an extended visit.’ By the time of their second visit a Chinese-style museum had been built on the outskirts of Taibei which then housed the objects. The following year Sir Percival and Lady David made a long visit to Japan to see an exhibition of Chinese ceramics and to visit other museums and private collections.

In 1958 Sir Percival was invited to Chicago by Avery Brundage, a frequent visitor to the
Foundation, in order to appraise his collection of Chinese art. The resulting selection formed a collection representing all phases of Chinese ceramics which, together with a financial donation, added a wing to the H. M. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, and made it at the times a premier establishment for Chinese Art on the West Coast of the USA.

Moscow and Leningrad

In 1960 Sir Percival and Lady David attended the 25th Congress of Orientalists in Moscow where they revelled in the experience of meeting so many Orientalists from all over the world. They also visited Leningrad, and the Hermitage Museum with ‘its fifteen miles of rooms and passages, crammed with superb works of art of every age and of every country.

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The Chinese Art

In fact, even the political leaders that have ruled over China have had an influence on the Chinese art.

Of all the Chinese artworks, the most demonstrative are Bronze Vessels, Folk Toys, Calligraphy, Poetry, Cloisonne, Painting, Silk, Lacquer, Porcelain, Terracotta Army, Seals, Opera and Shadow puppetry.

These works not only reflect the culture of China but also the talent which people possessed.

Bronze Vessels

These were invented some 5,000 years ago. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin with lower melting point and a higher degree of hardness than those of copper. When it is cast, bronze has the advantages of minimum air bubble production and maximum flow quality.

This can give objects razor-sharp edges, thus making it a suitable material for durable weapons, tools, and containers. China produced bronze objects as long as four thousand years ago in the period of the Lungshan culture and brought the use of bronze vessels to a height in the Shang and Chou dynasties.

Folk Toys

Folk toys capture the customs and beliefs of ancient China. These toys help us to understand the Chinese culture. These toys serve as a means through which Chinese people can express their hopes and desires, as well as their affection towards their children.

Filled with a multitude of meanings, Chinese folk toys bring beauty and art into ordinary lives.


The Ancient Chinese considered writing an important form of art. Calligraphy is a highly stylish form of writing. To produce Chinese characters one needs a brush, paper, ink stick and ink stone.

These are referred to as the “Four Treasures of the Study”. It is essential to learn these tools in order to learn calligraphy.


Poetry too was an important part of art. Du Fu, Li Bai and Su Shi are considered among the best ancient poets, and there are five major kinds of ancient poetic styles called Shi, Ci, Ge, Qu and Fu. During the Tang Dynasty poetry became so important that writing poetry was part of the examinations to become a civil servant and work for the government.


Cloisonne is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects. The term “cloisonné” refers to the technique as well as to the finished product. It comes from the French word “cloison” which means “partition”.

The utensils are usually made of copper or bronze over which thin copper wire is glued or welded to draw decorative designs or themes. Cloisonne came to China in the early fourteenth to the late fifteenth century. The process became very popular with court artisans and the earliest recorded piece is from the Ming Xuande Emperor’s rule in 1426.

The Yunan province was supposed to be the first to produce unique pieces as it was under the Mongol rule. However, early Chinese Cloisonne was so delicate that very few imperial pieces have survived to date. Most of these pieces are now stored with the Palace Museum.


Painting was often inspired by poetry and combined with calligraphy. Many paintings were sceneries that featured mountains, homes, birds, trees, and water.

Traditional painting involves the same techniques as required in calligraphy. Fan Kuan painted one of the finest landscapes known as the Travelers amid Mountains and Streams.

The Ancient Chinese mastered the art of making silk from the cocoons of silkworms. They kept this technique secret for hundreds of years as silk was desired by other nations and enabled China to become rich.

They also dyed silk into intricate and decorative patterns.


Lacquer is a clear coating made from the sap of sumac trees. It was used to add beauty and shine to many pieces of art. It also was used to protect art from getting damaged, especially from bugs.


Fine Chinese porcelain was not only an important art, but also became an important export.

During the Ming Dynasty blue and white vases became highly priced and were sold to the rich people throughout Europe and Asia

Terracotta Army

This is one of the greatest examples of Ancient Chinese art. Terracotta Army was made for the burial of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang.

This was done to protect him after life. Terracotta Army includes sculptures of 8000 soldiers and 520 horses. Each sculpture of soldier has been given a unique face. These sculptures were life sized. The minutest details such as their uniform, weapon and armor have been well reflected.


Chinese opera is recognized as one of the three oldest dramatic art forms in the world. It is a combination of music, art and literature. During the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Taizong established an opera school by the name Liyuan (Pear Garden).

From that time on, performers of Chinese opera were referred to as ‘disciples of the pear garden’. Since the Yuan Dynasty, it has been encouraged by court officials and emperors and has become a traditional art form.

Shadow Puppetry

In this, shadows of the puppets are projected on to the white screen. In China the shadow plays are often folk-tales and legends of the past, many based on Chinese opera themes.

Traditional shadow puppets are flat and made of leather. Areas within the puppet are pressed out with sharp knives. These areas suggest facial features and help define clothing. The puppets are made from separate pieces and joined together with wire or string.

They are controlled by long rods and moved behind a white translucent screen made from paper or cloth. A lamp on the puppeteer’s side of the stage provides the light while the audience on the other side sees the moving shadows.

Other forms of art that took place in Ancient China included lantern making, paper cutting and seal making.

A Short History Of Chinese Art

Donovan Michael Sullivan (Chinese: 蘇立文), 29 October 1916 – 28 September 2013, was a Canadian-born British art historian and collector, and one of the major Western pioneers in the field of modern Chinese art history and criticism.

Sullivan was born in Toronto, Canada, and moved to England at the age of three. He was the youngest of five children of Alan Sullivan (pen name Sinclair Murray), a Canadi Donovan Michael Sullivan (Chinese: 蘇立文), 29 October 1916 – 28 September 2013, was a Canadian-born British art historian and collector, and one of the major Western pioneers in the field of modern Chinese art history and criticism.

Sullivan was born in Toronto, Canada, and moved to England at the age of three. He was the youngest of five children of Alan Sullivan (pen name Sinclair Murray), a Canadian mining engineer turned novelist and his wife Elisabeth (née Hees). Sullivan was a graduate of Rugby School and graduated from the University of Cambridge in architecture in 1939. He was in China from 1940–1946 with the International and Chinese Red Cross followed by teaching and doing museum work in Chengdu, where he met and married Wu Huan (Khoan), a biologist who gave up her career to work with him.

He received a PhD from Harvard University (1952) and a post-doctoral Bollingen Fellowship. He subsequently taught in the University of Singapore, and returned to London in the 1960s to teach at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Then he became Christensen Professor of Chinese art in the Department of Art at Stanford University from 1966 to 1984, before moving to the University of Oxford as a Fellow by Special Election at St Catherine's College, Oxford. He lived in Oxford, England. He was Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford for 1973–74.

Sullivan was a major art collector who owned more than 400 works of art, including paintings by Chinese masters Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian, and Wu Guanzhong. His was one of the world's most significant collections of modern Chinese art. He bequeathed his collection to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which has a gallery dedicated to Sullivan and his wife Khoan. . more

A Brief History of Chinese Art - History

Research on the history of Chinese art has made remarkable progress over the past century in China, the center of this international discipline of studies.

In an essay published in the recent issue of Literature & Art Studies, a bi-monthly Chinese language magazine, Beijing art historian Xue Yongnian gives a detailed survey of the development of research into Chinese art history in the Chinese mainland during the 20th century. Xue, 60, is a professor of Chinese art history from the Central Academy of Fine Arts.

According to Xue, the tradition of Chinese art history studies began as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when the book A Record of Famous Paintings in Past Dynasties was written by Zhang Yanyuan in 847. This was more than 700 years earlier than the first book on Western art history, written by Giogio Vasari.

Zhang initiated a tradition of research that emphasized both facts and opinions.

But, Xue notes, the research lost momentum during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Scholars of the periods emphasized historic documentation rather than perceptive thinking.

In the early 20th century, the situation improved because of the introduction of Western culture, modern education systems, public art museums, art publishing houses, and above all, a "new culture movement" that prevailed in China.

Cai Yuanpei, a famous educator and advocate of the "new culture movement," encouraged art education in society and in universities to build a civilized modern China.

Hoping to invigorate Chinese thinking, scholars enthusiastically introduced Western culture, including Western art history, to China.

In 1912, the term "art history" appeared for the first time in a government document that recommended art history education in teaching colleges nationwide.

Five years later, Jiang Danshu, then a teacher at the No.1 Teachers School of Zhejiang Province, published the first art history textbook that included both Chinese and Western art history.

This book marked a turning point in the research on Chinese art history in the country, Xue wrote.

At least 11 major books on the general history of Chinese art were then published between 1911 and 1949 during the Republic of China period, alongside a much larger number of other publications covering individual artists and trends.

In the past, researchers of Chinese art history were primarily collectors or connoisseurs, who basically recorded artists' biographies and works - especially those of literati artists - rather than carrying out systematic scholarly research.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that specialized art historians knowledgeable about both Western and Chinese art appeared. Some of them began paying attention to the history of non-mainstream cave art and crafts done by ordinary artisans, a change from the dominant interest in mainstream art, like literati painting, that previous art scholars focused on.

As well as examining existing documentation, art scholars increasingly used the latest results of archaeological discoveries in their research. Scholars started to become more concerned with the future development of Chinese art in their academic studies. Methods applied in other branches of studies such as anthropology and sociology were also introduced in Chinese art history studies.

After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, research into Chinese art history entered a new era.

According to Xue, three critical aspects had an impact on the research of Chinese art history in the period from 1949 to 1976.

First, during this period, international exchanges in the art history studies field were very limited.

Second, in line with national policy, the art history studies circle followed the example of the former Soviet Union, translating art history books by scholars there and sending Chinese students to study art history in the nation.

Third, academic research in the field was carried out under a centralized practice, which enhanced research with scholars' help.

Art historians such as Li Yu, Yan Lichuan, Wang Bomin and Wang Xun are prominent examples of this period.

In 1957, Wang Xun co-founded the Central Academy of Fine Arts' art history department, the first of its kind in a Chinese college.

In his Teaching Guide on Chinese Art History , which has now become a popular art history textbook in art schools nationwide, Wang outlined the development of Chinese painting, sculpture, architecture and crafts. He also emphasized the interplay between art and politics, economy, philosophy, religions, and culture.

As well as textbooks about the general history of Chinese art, many books about the history of specific branches of Chinese art were published in the period, including Ah Ying's A Brief History of Chinese New Year Pictures and Wang Bomin's A History of Chinese Printmaking .

Art historians started using art authentication methods in researching Chinese art history, according to Xue.

In the early 1960s, art authentication experts such as Zhang Heng, Xie Zhiliu and Xu Bangda were invited to appraise ancient Chinese paintings and works of calligraphy or give lectures throughout the country. They set up the framework of modern theories on art authentication.

Unfortunately, research into Chinese art history suffered during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). Academic research, where it existed, primarily served political purposes, and was not based on historic fact.

In Xue's view, the more than two decades following the "cultural revolution" were a new period of unprecedented international exchanges and constant breakthroughs in research into Chinese art history.

Factors facilitating this were the increased spiritual freedom, schooling standardization and the reform and the country's opening-up drives.

Today, a number of art schools and universities in China have established art history or art studies departments aimed at training postgraduate students in art history and theory.

Among the most prestigious are the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the Hangzhou-based China National Academy of Fine Arts, the Fine Arts Research Institute of the China Academy of Arts, Tsinghua University and Peking University.

Other organizations such as the Palace Museum, the Shanghai Museum and the Shanghai Calligraphy and Painting Press have also become important centers of research into Chinese art history.

As public and private collections have become easier to access, many well-edited catalogues have been published and have been extremely helpful for art historians.

Among the books are The Complete Collection of Chinese Fine Arts, The Complete Collection of Chinese Calligraphy, and Selected Relics in the Collection of the Palace Museum.

Since the early 80s, international exhibitions and symposiums on Chinese art and relics have been held. Chinese and foreign scholars have joined hands in writing important books on Chinese art history, and foreign students have come to study Chinese art history in China.

Two examples of works published in recent years are the eight-volume A General History of Chinese Art with Wang Bomin as the chief editor and the 12-volume Chinese Art History with Wang Zhaowen as chief editor.

Scholars have also shown interest in the history of non-mainstream literati art, court painting, religious art, ethnic minorities art, regional art, and art by women.

Among such books are A History of Chinese Ethnic Minorities Art by Wang Bomin and A History of Chinese Religious Art by a group of scholars.

Studies into late and modern Chinese art have become popular since the 1980s. A History of Chinese Modern Painting by Zhang Shaoxia and Li Xiaoshan and A History of Chinese Modern Art by Lu Peng and Yi Lin are popular now.

In the 1990s, with the emerging Chinese art market, art authentication again became the center of public interest. Scholars such as Shi Shuqing, Li Xueqin, and Chen Zhongyuan have published many books about this.

Two influential exhibitions that compared fake paintings and calligraphy works with authentic ones were held in 1994 and 1996 at the Palace Museum and the Liaoning Museum, with Liu Jiu'an and Yang Renkai as the curators.

In spite of all the progress, Xue points out that museums and archaeological circles should be more open to art historians so that they have more access to view original art works and relics.

As more and more art history researchers graduate from general universities rather than specialized art schools, they should be more aware of the importance of the practice of art creation instead of just sticking to theories.

Xue also stresses that Chinese art historians should not recklessly follow the methods of their Western counterparts but should explore a new road of their own.

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“This volume represents the equivalent in scholarship of the coming of a new dynasty. These analyses by the best of a new generation of writers will rejuvenate the whole field.”

John Onians, University of East Anglia, UK

“This comprehensive guide to the arts of premodern China, the fresh thinking of leading historians, provides a major new resource for students and scholars at all levels.”

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From the Inside Flap

A Companion to Chinese Art provides a contemporary survey of one of the world&rsquos greatest and richest artistic traditions. Including over two dozen newly-commissioned essays, it examines this region&rsquos art and theory in all of its multifaceted complexity&mdashspanning the theories, genres, and media central to Chinese art throughout its history.

The volume offers a rich insight into China&rsquos social and political institutions, religious practices, and intellectual traditions alongside Chinese art history, theory, and criticism. It brings together an international team of scholars from East and West, whose contributions range from an overview of premodern theory, to those exploring calligraphy, fine painting, sculpture, personal accessories, and more. In addition, the Companion reflects on social and cultural issues, such as the challenges of comparative history, the role of the artist in society, the contested role of gender in art production, different theories of nature that have evolved over time, and articulates the direction in which the field of Chinese art history is moving. In promoting a comparative understanding of China&rsquos long record of cultural production, this volume provides students and scholars of both Asian and non-Asian art history with an exceptional guide to the history of art in China, from its earliest incarnations to the present day.

From the Back Cover

A Companion to Chinese Art provides a contemporary survey of one of the world’s greatest and richest artistic traditions. Including over two dozen newly-commissioned essays, it examines this region’s art and theory in all of its multifaceted complexity―spanning the theories, genres, and media central to Chinese art throughout its history.

The volume offers a rich insight into China’s social and political institutions, religious practices, and intellectual traditions alongside Chinese art history, theory, and criticism. It brings together an international team of scholars from East and West, whose contributions range from an overview of premodern theory, to those exploring calligraphy, fine painting, sculpture, personal accessories, and more. In addition, the Companion reflects on social and cultural issues, such as the challenges of comparative history, the role of the artist in society, the contested role of gender in art production, different theories of nature that have evolved over time, and articulates the direction in which the field of Chinese art history is moving. In promoting a comparative understanding of China’s long record of cultural production, this volume provides students and scholars of both Asian and non-Asian art history with an exceptional guide to the history of art in China, from its earliest incarnations to the present day.

About the Author

Martin J. Powers is Sally Michelson Davidson Professor of Chinese Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan, USA, and former director of the Center for Chinese Studies. His publications Art and Political Expression in Early China (1991) and Pattern and Person: Ornament, Society, and Self in Classical China (2006) have both received the Levenson Prize for the best books in pre-twentieth century Chinese Studies.

Katherine R. Tsiang is Associate Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia in the Department of Art History, University of Chicago, USA, where she coordinates research materials and programs. Her research is concentrated in the fields of Chinese Buddhist art and Chinese medieval art and visual culture. Her work includes using new technology for digital imaging and reconstruction of Chinese Buddhist caves and she is curator and author of the catalog of the exhibition "Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan" (2010).

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The thing about Tai Chi is that although it isn't necessarily the most effective self-defense style, it is practiced by millions throughout the world for meditative and health reasons.

Watch the video: Art of Early China, Korea, and Japan


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