Chinese Art

Herbert Read, the English aesthetician, pronounced: "In the rich fullness of world art, no country surpasses China, and in artistic accomplishments, no country is greater than China."

Certainly many technological advances originated in China, and these allowed the rise of cultural artifacts such as ceramics, bronzes and painting.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell hinted at the reason for this. "The excellent state of Chinese culture is the strongest single school in world civilization, and the longest in history."

 

Neolithic Age

Indeed, fossils show that humans have been in China for half a million years, and food production with plant and animal domestication arose early. The remains of crop and domestic animals such as pigs, dogs and chickens, as well as pottery and polished stone tools appear in Neolithic sites around 7500 BC. 
Painted earthenware, with abstract designs, is associated with the Yang-shao Neolithic culture in the loess region of the Huang Ho.

Another Neolithic culture, which sometimes overlaps the Yang-shao but is most characteristic in Shantung, is known as Lung-shan. Lung-shan pottery comes in a great variety of shapes, including the tripod kuei jug, with its cylindrical neck and upward spout. Lung-shan wares also include a black pottery made of fine clay, which shows the use for the first time of the potter's wheel, which allowed the walls of vessels to be cut to thickness of between 1 and 3 mm.
By 2,500 BC, traditionally known as the time of the Yellow Emperor, there were utensils made of bronze. 
After stone utensils were superceded by metal, the culture seemed reluctant to discard the material, and continued using stone in rituals and for carving objects of veneration. Since they were not intended for practical use, the materials and designs tended towards the aesthetic, and jade, an extraordinarily hard stone, was also difficult to carve, was the most beautiful stone.

 

Xia-dynasty.

Although China entered the early Bronze Age during the Yellow Emperor's reign, the true Bronze Age is associated with the first three dynasties, which arose in the North.
The Xia, once thought to be mythological is acknowledged to have arisen around 2,000 BC, was when writing developed. A Xia site also revealed half a silkworm cocoon as proof of the early development of silk in China.

 

Shang-dynasty.

Bronze production dominated the Shang, from the 16th century BC to the last quarter of the 1027 BC. The Shang also also produced oracle bones, the earliest written record in Chinese history. A story in the Book of History says that a Shang Emperor dreamt about a man who would be a good minister. He had a portrait of the man drawn and used as a guide to locating him (Fu Yue). This anecdote indicates that the Chinese had figure painting in the second millennium BC. On the ceramics front, fairly high-fired leadless glazes first made an appearance on Shang pottery.

 

Zhou-dynasty.

The Zhou Dynasty, encompassing the Western Zhou, the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States, saw cast-iron produced for the first time in the world. Lacquer was also used on many of the imperial utensils. 
The Zhou state was more feudal in organization, and after 700 BC, the feudal lords became more powerful, and the emperor's rule gave way to a confederation of states that experienced skirmishes for supremacy, known as the Spring and Autumn Period.
All out war occurred during the age of the Warring States. It was during this period that the Grand Canal, the most important inland waterway from north to south, was constructed. It would eventually link Hangzhou to Beijing, and stretch about 1,800km.

 

Qin-dynasty.

In 221 BC, China was unified politically under Qin Shi Huang, who also unified the writing script. From time to time in the country's history following this, there would be periods of disunity, but the country was always reunified. No doubt this political and cultural unity imposed by Qin was what Russell was referring to in as the strongest single school in world culture. 
The civilization of the Three Dynasties has been described as the source of civilization of China's later history.

 

Han-dynasty.

The Qin was followed by the Han Dynasty, which saw the invention of paper, which was less expensive than silk and less bulky than bamboo strips that had been used to make books prior to then. During the Han era, bronze ritual vessels stopped being important, but the metal retained its popularity in the production of bronze mirrors. Pottery figurines as funerary objects were popular, with entire farmhouses reproduced in earthenware. 
The Han Dynasty preceded the Three Kingdoms, the Chin, the Sui, and then the Tang Dynasty.

 

Tang-dynasty.

The Tang, which lasted from 618 to 906 AD, was an age of outstanding cultural and political achievement, and is still regarded as the most glorious period of Chinese history. The country's influence extended to Korea, Indo-China and Tibet, and its capital, Changan, boasted 2 million inhabitants. It was not only one of the most populous cities on earth, but very cosmopolitan as well, with Greek and Arab traders, Persians and Indians, besides Central Asians.
Buddhism became important, and sparked the development of sculptures and statuary. Li Po and Tu Fu, who were inspired by Taoism, brought poetry to new highs. Painting was also popular, though few masterpieces from the period survive.
It is in the development of ceramics particularly that the Tang era was significant. Potters made figurines that were vigorously realistic, of horses, court ladies, and foreigners. Earthenware was decorated in the tri-colour lead glazes with which the Tang are most popularly associated. Designs include ewers adopted from the metal ones in the Near East, and two-handled amphora inspired from the Greek. Stoneware, usually with an olive green or dark brown glaze, was also produced, as well as white porcelain.

 

The Song dynasty

The Song Dynasty followed this golden age, with rulers that embraced humanistic principles, and preferred buying peace with the northern tribes rather than pursuing war. As lovers of the arts, they led China into a golden age of painting, which embodied Song genius. Scholars produced poetry, but it was the potters who are most celebrated today. These craftsmen produced mainly stoneware and porcelain, and the famous Song monochromes show how they attained a perfection of form that has not been rivaled since. The five great wares of Song are ge, jun, guan, ding and ju. Besides these, the period is also celebrated for its ying ching (or Qingbai) ware, a translucent white ware with a blue-tinged glaze, and for the two types of green celadon ware-the more finely-potted northern celadons (Yaozhou) with olive green glaze, and lung chuan ware, which are apple green and more robust.


The Yuan dynasty

The Mongols overran China in 1280, setting up the Yuan Dynasty under Kublai Khan, and establishing Beijing (called Khanbalic) as their capital. The dynasty only lasted 90 years, but during this time, Chinese potters first made blue and white porcelain, using cobalt to get the desired blue. This development has also been called the "last great innovation" in Chinese pottery, as the cobalt was applied to the body of the pot, before it was glazed. This underglaze decoration would never rub off unless the glaze itself was first scraped off.

 

The Ming Dynasty

Chinese rule was restored with the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 1368. It was the ambition of the Ming to recapture the glories of Tang, and they had a bright start, when they used shipping to widen trade to Southeast Asia, as well as Africa. However, their values of preserving tradition took a toll on innovation. The voyages ceased, shipyards were dismantled, and scientific inquiry dwindled. 

The arts and literature fared better, with novels and drama peaking, and a tremendous number of paintings were made. Ming artists painted well in all the old styles, including Buddhist and Taoist painting. The Ming also made cloisonné and multi-coated lacquer.

Blue and white porcelain is probably the most famous of Ming ceramics. The Yuan potters may have invented the porcelain, but the blue often came out looking dark grey. The Ming craftsmen managed to bring out rich blues and while the bodies of the pots themselves lacked the elegance of form of the Song and Yuan, the potters compensated by ornate decorations. While export ware was coarser, the best bowls, plates, jars and vases have pure white bodies and bright blue designs. The top quality blue and whites from the reign of Hsuan te (1426-35) have beautiful designs of flowers, leaves, fruit, insects and animals, or even depicted historical or legendary scenes. During the reign of Cheng hua (1467-87), a great range of new colours were introduced: yellow, aubergine purple, turquoise, black, white, red and brown, with gold leaf applied occasionally. Such wares are referred to as five coloured (wu cai), although any number of hues could be used.

 

The Last Imperial Dynasty

Poor administration and revolts weakened the Ming, and they were replaced by the nomadic Manchu tribes, who set up the Qing Dynasty in 1644. The Manchus adopted Chinese culture, and several of their emperors were patrons of the arts, among them Kangxi (1662-1722) and Qianlong (1736-95). While the period was not as creative as the Tang or the Song, and no technical innovations to speak of, painting remained strong, and the potters achieved a high level of technical mastery. Fine control of kiln temperatures and of firing techniques allowed them to make pieces with brilliant colours, although their sense of form did not match their technical virtuosity. During Kangxi's reign, the sole European import into Chinese ceramic making arrived as famille rose, the rose pink overglaze enamel.