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Ancient Chinese Art

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  • 0:03 History of Chinese Art
  • 1:17 Pottery & Ceramics
  • 2:34 Metal & Stone Work
  • 4:28 Calligraphy
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Did you know that early Chinese artists worked in many mediums, from metal and pottery to finely-carved jade? In this lesson, we'll explore different methods and examples of ancient Chinese art.

History of Chinese Art

China has a long heritage of artistic practice, and ancient Chinese artists worked in many materials. They possessed a high degree of technical understanding and pioneered methods like casting bronze, a metal made of copper and tin. They also developed new ways to fire ceramics and add glazes. Most early Chinese art tended to reflect class structure as it evolved in China over the centuries, and much of it was related to funerary practices.

But before we explore the art more closely, let's cover the time period for ancient Chinese art. Basically, it's art made beginning during the Neolithic Period (10,000 to 2000 BC), when people shifted away from a nomadic lifestyle and settled into communities with an agricultural focus, growing crops and raising livestock. It continued through the Shang Dynasty (circa 1600 to 1050 BC) and Zhou Dynasty (1050 to 221 BC), which together are often referred to as China's Bronze Age. For Chinese art, the definition of ancient generally goes through the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC) and ends at the start of the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD).

Pottery & Ceramics

Some of the oldest Chinese works of art are pottery, and examples have been found dating back to 18,000 BC. The Yangshao culture in northern China (ca. 6000 BC) was known for its red-painted pottery, made by layering coils of clay one on top of the other and then smoothing their surface with a paddle. After firing the pottery in a kiln, or a special high-temperature oven, the artist decorated its upper half with swirling geometric lines. Later, artists during the Shang Dynasty developed high-temperature fired stoneware and created early pottery glazes that produced a dark brown tinge, both of which made the pottery more durable and waterproof.

Perhaps the most spectacular example of pottery from ancient China is the Terracotta Army, a large group of figural sculptures made of unglazed fired clay. Commissioned by a Qin Dynasty emperor for his mausoleum, the army includes almost life-sized figures of 8,000 warriors in military gear, as well as chariots, horses, archers, officials, and musicians. For each unique figure, the parts were molded, fired, and then assembled. This monumental achievement took a whole system of artists decades to make and it's still being excavated.

Metal & Stone Work

Chinese artists also carved stone objects. Archaeologists have found examples dating back to the Neolithic period. They worked in jade, the name for a range of translucent greenish to whitish stone that was usually nephrite or jadeite. In the ancient Chinese world, jade was more valuable than gold and believed to represent wisdom, bravery, and purity. It was also extremely difficult to carve, too hard for tools made of metal or stone. Jade had to be painstakingly worked using an abrasive sand, often made into a paste, and then ground, drilled, or worked with a soft tool. Popular figures included the dragon and the phoenix, two mythical creatures seen as divine in ancient China. Another piece often carved from jade was a cong, an open cylinder-shaped object decorated with a surface of rectangular blocks, possibly used in funerary rituals. Some tombs have been found with many of these congs.

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