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Literature & Art of Golden Age China

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  • 0:01 China's Golden Age
  • 1:40 Art
  • 3:15 Literature
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

China underwent a great period of change during the time of the Tang and Song dynasties, and while innovations such as paper money and the cultivation of tea were important, art and literature also experienced high points.

China's Golden Age

From the establishment of the Sui dynasty in 589 until the fall of the Song in 1271, the Chinese underwent a period of considerable intellectual and cultural expansion. In fact, the term 'Golden Age' has been applied to the periods of both the Tang and Song dynasties as particularly indicative of the cultural output of this time. China was stable, unified, and wealthy. The Tang capital of Chang'an was the grandest city in the world, and the later Song capital of Kaifang was equally impressive on the banks of the newly-built Grand Canal, linking southern rice farmers with northern rice eaters.

It wasn't only in politics that China excelled during this period, nor was rice the only foodstuff making its mark on all of China. Merchants traded throughout the Middle Kingdom using a relatively new innovation of the Song, paper money, which had many advantages over coins. Also new was one of their most important commodities, tea. The beverage had been first introduced from Southeast Asia, but was now one of the most important crops in China. Needless to say, those merchants needed something to spend their paper money on, and luckily for them, the arts provided the opportunity for rich merchants to serve as patrons to some of the greatest creative minds China had to offer.

Art

Chinese art reached a zenith during this Golden Age, and this is perhaps best seen in the introduction of one of the most stereotypical of Chinese art forms, porcelain, a very fine form of pottery. Porcelain's composition was perfected during this period, and soon became one of the most common exports from China, all of it glazed with impressively detailed precision. Speaking of glazing, one of the most common finds from the Golden Age of Chinese art are glazed ceramic objects. While produced en masse, these objects still showed the incredible workmanship of even mediocre ceramicists.

However, the most impressive art to come from this period are the numerous paintings, many of which still fetch a handsome price. Chinese painters embraced the power of the landscape as a motif in their works and often minimized the role of individuals. Indeed, in those works, where both people and landscapes are present, humans are shown as small, often hard to see, and even their greatest structures are shown to be placed in harmony with nature, rather than trying to force nature to be in harmony with humanity. The techniques used to paint these scenes, most notably watercolors, also lends itself to the harmony with nature, as lines blur between elements of the work to help create a cohesive whole.

Literature

While the art of the Chinese Golden Age may only be enjoyed by a handful of well-heeled collectors and art historians, the literature of this period has had an everlasting impact on Chinese culture up to the current day. Chinese poetry of this period was especially enlightened and covered all manners of topics. Among the most well-remembered poets are Li Bo, Du Fu, and Su Shi.

Li Bo wrote about great issues of romance and alcohol, and aptly enough, is rumored to have drowned after drunkenly falling into a river while trying to touch the moon's reflection. Du Fu and Su Shi met less ironic demises, but their work is still worth mention: Du Fu for his imagery regarding the life of an imperial bureaucrat, and Su Shi for the sheer amount of imagery that he was able to put in a few well-chosen words.

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