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Chinese Cultural Studies:
Chinese Arts

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Compiled from Compton's Living Encyclopedia on America Online (August 1995)

THE VISUAL ARTS

Chinese art, like Chinese literature, goes back many centuries. Early themes were developed from religious and supernatural beliefs or from the natural environment and landscape. One of the oldest and most basic forms of Chinese art is calligraphy, the painting of the Chinese characters with a brush. Calligraphy has developed as a pure art form with its own standards of excellence. Building on the tradition of calligraphy, Chinese painting developed a distinctive style that differs greatly from Western painting. It is more efficient in terms of brushstrokes and appears more abstract. Landscapes have always been a popular theme, and sometimes these appear bizarre to the Western eye. To the Chinese painter, they may represent a figurative view painted with a few swift strokes of the artist's brush.

With their stress on simplicity and economy, Chinese calligraphy, painting, and poetry are closely related. In all of them, the artist seeks to express both inner harmony and harmony with the natural surroundings. Chinese poets and painters often have sought inspiration by withdrawing to isolated, mountainous areas, and these landscapes have become conventional themes of Chinese art. Similarly, Chinese architecture has traditionally aimed to convey harmony with society and nature.

The magnificent life-size terra-cotta statues of men and horses, discovered in the early 1970s in the tomb of an emperor who died in 210 BC, provide some indication of the long history of Chinese sculpture. After the introduction of Buddhism into China, Buddhist subjects became dominant themes of the sculptor's art. Perhaps best known (and most copied) in the West, however, are the works of Chinese decorative artists, such as pottery, bronzes, lacquer ware, and exquisitely detailed jade and ivory carvings.

CHINESE SCULPTURE

Reports of the splendor of Asian art were brought to Europe by Marco Polo. By the 18th century Europeans not only possessed original ceramics, enamels, and furniture from the East but were adapting Asian designs and skills in their own products. Chinese Chippendale furniture and chinaware are examples. The art of Japan was brought into prominence in the mid-19th century in Paris by the Goncourt brothers, and it was Auguste Rodin who first gave public recognition to the sculpture of India. In the latter part of the 19th century, when artists were seeking inspiration for a newer, fresher art, these sources, together with those of Africa and Muslim countries, provided them with rich material.

The Chinese were master craftsmen and produced fine sculpture, especially in bronze. Although bronze casting existed a thousand years earlier, it was in the Chou period (1122-221 BC) that China developed the art to its peak.

This is evident in the great ceremonial vessels used by the nobility for ancestor worship. From tombs of the Han Empire (202 BC-AD 220) have come a rich variety of clay figures of people, animals, and household utensils designed to make life comfortable in the next world. Other objects are wrought in bronze, inlaid with silver and gold, and elaborately ornamented with abstract and fanciful designs. Carvings in jade and bas-reliefs on tomb walls also reached a high degree of excellence.

One of the most magnificent archaeological finds of the century was the tomb of Shi Huangdi at Xi'an, China. In March 1974 an underground chamber was found containing an army of more than 6,000 life-size terra-cotta soldiers of the late 3rd century BC. Other nearby chambers contained more than 1,400 ceramic figures of cavalrymen and chariots, all arranged in battle formation.

The prosperous T'ang Dynasty (618-907) developed Buddhist art to its highest level. Stone was a favorite medium for religious sculpture, and iron replaced bronze in the casting of figures. The glazed terra-cotta figures of this period are especially fine.

With the decline of Buddhism in the Sung period (960-1279), Chinese sculpture lost its vigor. Nevertheless, interesting works continued to be produced, such as the Bodhisattvas. In Japan Buddhism and its art followed the Chinese pattern.

This article was contributed by Jack Bookbinder, former Director of Art Education, Philadelphia Public Schools and by Christopher Lyon, Editor, Department of Public Information, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

BUDDHIST ART

Visual art has been a useful instrument in bringing Buddhism to many people. Throughout Asia, drawings, paintings, and sculptures of the Buddha have been used for teaching and veneration.

uddhist art is not just decoration. Images of the Buddha show people what it looks like to have achieved Nirvana, total bliss. He is shown as calm and loving, usually with a soft smile and radiant energy. Some scenes show the Buddha at key moments of his life, for example, sitting under the Bo tree. Others illustrate his teachings. There is a story that tells of the Buddha offering his body as food for a hungry mother tiger and her cubs because he felt that all life was sacred. This scene is a popular visual theme in the cave temples of China and Japan.

ther Buddhist paintings illustrate the sacred writings, as stained glass windows were created to illustrate the Bible in many Christian churches. Since Buddhists believe that anyone can be on the path toward Enlightenment, these visual images of the Buddha along his own path are a helpful addition to the writings that people study. They make the texts more personal and inviting.

uddhist imagery has played a significant role in the development of sacred art and temple architecture throughout Asia. It is through the artistic images and temple remains that scholars have been able to trace the growth and spread of Buddhism. Artistic styles, for example, were carried from one culture to another as Buddhism spread throughout Asia. Many of the Buddhist images of China and Japan had their origin in India many centuries before.

uddhist sacred writings influenced the literature of the countries that accepted Buddhism as a religion. The oldest texts of Buddhism are the Pali Canon, the writings that are held most authentic by the older and more conservative school, the Theravada. These texts concentrate on the Theravada goal of the individual becoming a Buddha. The Mahayana school has for many centuries built on this base, but their writings are more keyed to their own philosophy of serving others.

ike the religion itself and the visual imagery, Buddhist sacred literature began in India and was spread in translation through Asia. Each country made the literature its own and was, in turn, influenced in other areas of cultural development by the teachings of the Buddha.

CHINESE POTTERY AND PORCELAIN

In China the potter's workmanship was lifted above the utilitarian level and became a fine art. The great work of the imperial potters at the peak of their excellence has never been equaled in modern times.

Pottery was made in China long before history was set down in writing. A coarse gray earthenware was made before the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC), and a finer white pottery was made during this era. These vessels resemble in size and shape the Chinese bronze vessels of the same period, and it is likely that the bronzes were first copied from pottery.

It is from the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) that the history of pottery making in China is ordinarily traced. The ancient Chinese had a custom of burying the dead with pottery images of people, animals, and possessions dear to them during life. These images have given modern students a clear insight into the life and customs of these people.

The period of disunity (220-581) is noted for vigorous modeling of figures, particularly of animals. The pottery horses of the T'ang Dynasty (618-907) are among the most celebrated examples of ancient Chinese art. Glaze was probably first used on the earthenware body in the Han Dynasty. By the time of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), pottery of simple design was decorated with monochrome glazes. Celadon, or sea green, is probably the best known of these glazes.

Although crazed, or crackled, glazes appear to have been used before the Sung Dynasty, they are commonly associated with this period. This shrinking and cracking of the glaze, due to too rapid cooling, was probably first an accident of firing. The resulting effects were so attractive that crackled glazes became a studied effect in finer wares.

Porcelain gradually evolved in China, probably during the T'ang Dynasty. It grew out of earthenware by a process of refining materials and manufacturing techniques. This true porcelain, sometimes called hard-paste porcelain, was a combination of kaolin, or China clay, and petuntse, also known as feldspar or China stone. These ingredients were called by the Chinese the body and the bone of the porcelain.

The principal porcelain factory in China was the imperial plant at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. Pottery and porcelain probably were made there long before Jingdezhen became the seat of the imperial potteries under Emperor Chen Tsung about AD 1004. The Jesuit missionary Pere d'Entrecolles later described the city and the art of porcelain making in two letters written in China in 1712 and 1722. These brought to Europe for the first time a detailed account of Chinese porcelain manufacture. He described the great porcelain-making center of Jingdezhen as holding approximately a million people and some 3,000 kilns for ceramics.

The glazes and decorations made at the imperial factory were intended to reproduce natural colors. Some of the best-known glazes are celadon; peach bloom, like the skin of a ripening peach; apple green; sang de boeuf, or oxblood; and clair de lune, a pale gray blue resembling soft moonlight. The decoration called cracked ice is said to have been inspired by the reflection of sunny blue sky in the ice of a stream cracking with the first spring thaw.

The rice-grain decoration was achieved by cutting out the decoration from the porcelain body before glazing. The glaze then filled the cutout portions, which remained transparent after firing. Famille rose (rose or soft pink), famille verte (green), and famille noir (black) are decorations in which these colors are dominant.

The porcelains of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were noted for boldness in form and decoration, with great variations in design. They include the blue and white wares, huge and heavy vessels for the imperial temples, and thin and delicate white eggshell porcelain. Great beauty in polychrome decoration was attained in the later Ch'ing, or Manchu, Dynasty (1644-1911), particularly in the reign of Emperor K'ang-hsi (1661-1722).

Some fine white porcelain was made at Dehua in the province of Fujian in South China from the 1400s to the 1700s. Some of this ware was brought to Europe by early traders, where it was known as blanc de chine. It provided many models for the early European porcelain makers.

During a rebellion in 1853 the imperial factory was burned. The rebels sacked the town, killing some potters and scattering others. The factory was rebuilt in 1864 but never regained its former excellence. With the end of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911, the long history of Chinese porcelain making drew to a close.

SILK - HISTORY

Sericulture dates back to about 2640 BC in ancient China. The Chinese Empress Hsi Ling Shi (venerated as the Goddess of Silk) gave her royal patronage to the silk industry. She invented the loom and applied it to the production of highly prized silk fabrics.

For some 3,000 years the secrets of silk production were closely guarded by the Chinese. It was not until about AD 300 that a secret mission from Japan succeeded in penetrating China. The members of the mission obtained silkworms and brought four Chinese girls back to Japan to teach the Japanese the art of sericulture and the uses of silk.

According to legend, the silk industry spread to India when a Chinese princess was given in marriage to an Indian prince. When she went to India, the princess carried silkworm eggs and mulberry seeds concealed in her headdress. From India the silk industry spread into Persia and Central Asia, then slowly filtered into the Mediterranean countries.

Beginning early in the 2nd century BC, caravans traveled the Silk Road, a 4,000-mile (6,400-kilometer) trade route linking China with the West. The route began in Sian in China and wound its way to the countries along the eastern Mediterranean shores. From there the silk was transported to Rome. The Silk Road did not begin to decline until the 7th century AD, when the sea trade routes from China became fully developed and were safer to travel than the Silk Road. The Silk Road allowed a highly lucrative trade in silk fabrics to develop.

In AD 552 two Persian monks sent to China by the emperor Justinian I succeeded in bringing back to Constantinople a small supply of silkworm eggs concealed in hollow canes. Constantinople became the center of the silk trade and retained that position until the 11th century.

The Renaissance greatly stimulated the cultivation, manufacture, and use of silk. In Flanders, Italy, and France industrial centers developed for weaving highly decorative and luxurious silk fabrics. In 1522 Hernando Cortez brought silkworm eggs and mulberry trees to Mexico from Spain . From the 17th to the 19th century, the silk industry became established in England and was introduced in most of the other countries of the world, though the industry did not flourish everywhere.

Today, silk has been replaced in many applications by synthetic fibers, which can be produced more cheaply and are generally stronger and easier to maintain. Nevertheless, the production of silk is so small compared with the total world fiber production that the development of synthetic fibers has had little effect on the silk industry overall. Particularly in the luxury apparel market, silk still reigns supreme. (See Clothing; Fibers, Man-Made; Fibers, Natural)

This article was contributed by Ian Holme, Senior Lecturer, Department of Textile Industries, University of Leeds, England.

CHINESE FOLK ART -

China and the Indian subcontinent have civilizations that date back thousands of years. Except for intermittent conquests, these cultures were relatively uninterrupted in their development, and industrialization arrived late. It is likely, therefore, that folk art in these regions has a history dating back to ancient times. Because of the great period of time involved, however, it is not always possible to distinguish true folk art from the tribal, or primitive, arts that may have persisted for several centuries. By contrast, folk art in Japan can be dated back only to the 17th century.

Chinese folk art is as extensive as any in the world. Each section of China had its own styles, and the entire output of art was enormous for both family and community use. The art associated with festivals, weddings, and funerals was extravagant even among the poor, and vestiges of it can still be seen in Chinese holiday celebrations.

Paper was invented in China, and much folk art using paper was devoted to making shop signs and festival objects. The design and execution of wood-block prints has already been noted.

The production of furniture provided some of the finest examples of Chinese folk art. Before the introduction of Buddhism from India in about the 1st century AD, the Chinese used little in the way of furniture, normally sitting on the floor cross-legged or on stools. Buddhism introduced a more formal kind of sitting on chairs with back rests, and with chairs came other types of furniture.

Chinese furniture was mainly of two types: plain hardwood pieces and lacquered wood pieces either inlaid with mother-of-pearl or elaborately carved. Both are products of the finest artisanship and have influenced furniture making in the West. The kinds of furniture produced are chairs, beds, stools, tables, wardrobes, chests, and finely painted screens. As time went on, of course, much of this manufacture moved from the province of pure folk art into the hands of artisans who made it their only occupation.