For centuries China has been known as the strongest and most powerful region in East Asia. Not only in terms of its military might but also as a source of culture, technology, trade, and of course art.
China is a land where the divine and the mortal coexisted during its history. The strong belief in God/Gods has inspired a rich and abundant culture that is now more than 5,000 years old, making it the oldest in the world.
As the story goes, Chinese culture begins with the Yellow Emperor around 3000 B.C., he was a cultivator of the Dao (or the Way) and was recognized and respected for his great power and wisdom.
The Yellow Emperor, also known by his name; Huangdi, taught his subjects to live according to the heavenly Way, and many legends were born in those times that tell how various deities transmitted to humans the essential elements of the culture. For example, Cangjie created the Chinese characters, Shennong transmitted the knowledge of agriculture and Suiren revealed the uses of fire.
In turn, China’s three major religions, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, have traversed all aspects of the 5,000 years of civilization.
The Daoist teachings, considered the fundamental pillar of Chinese culture, were reflected in the book Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) by the sage Lao Zi, more than 2,500 years ago. These writings expound on the mysterious Way of the universe, called Dao.
Confucianism, which is not strictly a religion, has established the moral code of the different governments, family values, conduct, and individual thought.
Buddhism, on the other hand, came to China from ancient India in 67 A.D. Its focus on personal salvation and meditation had a profound effect on the entire Chinese culture.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), all three religions reached their peak, at a time that is generally considered the splendor of Chinese civilization.
The celestial values imparted by these three religions have left their mark on traditional Chinese culture, which has infinite artistic expression in the fields of writing, painting, sculpture, music, and dance, which we will analyze below.
The purpose of art in Chinese culture
Based on the principles established by Confucianism, the idea of perfectionism in all daily chores, including artistic expressions, was established in society.
Under this premise, art became a tool for the entire population as a means to manifest the philosophical approach to life that they valued.
One of the particularities of the art of Chinese culture, unlike other ancient civilizations, is that, for the most part, Chinese artists were not professionals, but gentlemen amateurs, and some ladies as well, who in parallel to their usual professions created works of excellent level.
Naturally, there were also many professional artists who left an incredible legacy, generally employed by the imperial court or wealthy people to decorate the walls and interiors of their beautiful buildings and tombs.
Calligraphy in China, besides having been the main means used to transmit cultural, philosophical, and ideological values, was not only a method of writing. For centuries the ancient Chinese perfected calligraphic techniques until they became a true art that aimed to demonstrate superlative control and skill with the brush and ink.
Calligraphy was established as a major Chinese art form during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), and nearly two millennia later, all educated men were still expected to be proficient in it.
Many women, or at least certain court figures, also became known as accomplished calligraphers, such as the renowned Lady Wei (272-349 AD), who is said to have imparted the knowledge to the great master writer and official Wang Xizhi.
The art of calligraphy eventually became a complex set of techniques that included different brush thicknesses, and subtle angles, requiring a fluid connection between characters, all precisely arranged in imaginary spaces on the page, to create an aesthetically pleasing whole.
Of course, great attention was also paid to the content of the calligraphy, i.e. the message it was intended to convey. Thus poetry and painting were great complements to calligraphy and vice versa.
Many paintings contain in their interior beautiful descriptions of what is depicted, the title of the work, or information about the place and time they are trying to reflect.
It is also very common in Chinese art for the original paintings to be decorated or intervened with calligraphy afterward. Often pieces of silk were used with descriptions or poems related to the painting, or even seals and names were added to the canvas itself.
The aesthetics of the lines in calligraphy and painting have significantly influenced the other arts in China. These ornaments can be seen in the well-known ritual bronzes, in the clothing of Buddhist sculptures, and in the decoration of lacquer, ceramics, and architecture.
Traditional Chinese art painting is another of the great legacies left by the ancient Chinese to humanity. The techniques used and passed down through generations, managed to impress the whole world, with works of art ranging from 200 B.C. to the early twentieth century.
The most recognized Chinese painting is usually done on paper or silk, using a variety of brushes, inks, and dyes. Subjects vary and include portraits, landscapes, flowers, birds, animals, and insects.
Like calligraphy, traditional Chinese painting is done with a brush dipped in black ink or colored pigments. The finished work is usually mounted on scrolls that are hung on walls, and they have also developed many works by painting on walls, porcelain, lacquerware, screens, and other everyday items such as fans and books.
The history of Chinese painting can be compared to a symphony. Styles and traditions in painting have been blending together to this day as if they were a single piece of music. Painters of all ages have formed this “orchestra,” composing and interpreting many movements and variations within this tradition.
One of the main branches of painting is portraiture, which consists mainly of painting the faces of historical figures in certain instructive scenes of their lives showing the benefits of moral behavior.
During the Tang Dynasty, when traditional Chinese art reached its peak, techniques in landscape painting and depictions of the natural world, such as trees, rivers, animals, and so on, were greatly deepened.
Detailed paintings of a single animal, flower, or bird were especially popular from the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) onwards, from there certain animals became symbols of certain ideas and began to appear frequently in paintings. For example, a pair of mandarin ducks denoted a happy marriage, a deer represented money and a fish, fertility, and abundance.
Similarly, plants, flowers, and trees had their own meanings. Bamboo grows straight and true as a good scholar should, pine and cypress represent endurance, peach trees long life, and each season had its own flower: peony, lotus, chrysanthemum, and prunus.
Sculpture does not escape the great branches of traditional Chinese art. Although due to the atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution by the communist dictator Mao Tse Tung, sculptures were the elements most affected by the destruction. Fortunately, there are still some monumental examples that attest to the excellence of the works of some sculptors.
One of the most outstanding examples of traditional Chinese sculpture is undoubtedly the renowned Terracotta Army.
The history of the Terracotta Army dates back more than 2,200 years. Its construction began in 246 B.C. The Terracotta Army was designed to protect the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.).
More than 720,000 workers labored for approximately 40 years to complete one of the largest works of art in world history. Seven thousand sculptures of warriors belonging to the “terracotta army” were placed. It is worth noting that each of the sculptures has a unique design, especially with regard to the face and hair, you will not find one the same as another.
The impressive army, in addition to implying a sample of the artistic excellence that was birthed in ancient China, had (or has) a function that exceeds the earthly, the purpose of such a work is to protect (spiritually) the tomb of Emperor Qin.
The mausoleum of Emperor Qin is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in history, but it remains an eternal mystery because no one has ever seen the inside of this great tomb.
Chinese dance is one of the most fascinating artistic expressions in existence. In principle, the enormous variety of genres and styles that exist, ranging from folk dances to performances adapted to opera and ballet, stands out.
The various ethnic groups that have coexisted in ancient China have collaborated, each with their own particularities, in the creation of dances that, given the spirit of sacrifice and constant search for aesthetics and perfection, today have great worldwide recognition.
Some current Chinese dances, such as the dance with long sleeves, have been recorded from very early periods, dating back at least to the Zhou dynasty. The most important dances of the early period were ritual and ceremonial music and dance called yayue, and these dances were performed at the imperial court until the Qing dynasty, but survive today only as performances at Confucian ceremonies.
The perfection of traditional Chinese dance is based on three main aspects:
The first of these is “the form”: it refers to the externally expressed techniques and methods, which include hundreds of highly complex movements and postures. The vast majority of these postures require perfect coordination of every part of the body. For example, the movement and rotation of the torso, the direction of the gaze, and the placement of the fingers, among others, require great precision and coordination acquired innately and after much training.
The second distinctive aspect is “poise”: which could also be defined as the particular inner spirit, which is shaped by the combination of something that could be explained as the cultural DNA or ethnic flavor that throbs in the bones of the Chinese people, along with the heritage of 5,000 years of civilization.
The bearing emphasizes inner spirit, breath, intention, personal aura, and deep emotional expression. In essence, the spirit guides the form, so that the form is filled with spirit.
The third is what is described as the “technical skill” of the artist: in classical Chinese dance, a series of extremely difficult techniques are implemented, such as jumps, leaps, spins, and body figures, which require superlative dexterity. These techniques in turn enhance poise and form.
Each of these techniques of leaps spins, and somersaults, together with the exquisiteness of poise and form, give classical Chinese dance a unique expressiveness, capable of transcending ethnic, cultural, and even linguistic barriers and presenting its essence to the whole world.
Dance’s unfailing companion is music, which also makes its distinctive mark on traditional Chinese art, including a wide variety of genres inherited from generation to generation.
The term “music” (Yue) in ancient China can also refer to dance since music and dance were considered an integral part of a whole, and even its meaning can also extend to poetry, as well as other art forms and rituals.
In parallel, the word “dance” also referred to music, and each dance would have had an associated piece of music.
Archaeological evidence indicates that musical culture developed in China from a very early period. Bone flutes dating back 9,000 years, and clay musical instruments called Xun from around 7,000 years ago were found. Over the centuries Chinese music became increasingly complex as new instruments and musical figures and rhythms were added.
Music, like most Chinese artistic expressions, had a special connection with the divine. For Confucius, a correct form of music is important for the cultivation and refinement of the individual, and he considered formal music to be morally constructive and symbolic of good and stable government.
Some rather popular styles of music have been considered deviant by the Confucian school and regarded as corrupt compositions.
During the Qin dynasty, the so-called Imperial Music Bureau was created and expanded greatly under the Han emperor Wudi (140-87 BC). The Bureau was charged with overseeing court music and military music, and determining which music would be officially recognized.
In later dynasties, the development of Chinese music was also influenced by Central Asian musical traditions, which also introduced elements of Indian music.
From the 1600s onwards, European music was also present in China, which arrived through the Jesuits and was generally welcomed by the locals, who introduced it, creating interesting fusions that continue to this day.
Art during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.)
In general terms, the Tang dynasty is considered the moment of maximum splendor of the traditional Chinese culture, particularly art, which reached during those years its maximum apogee and worldwide recognition.
During the Tang years, art moved away from the feudal-type culture so characteristic of the previous northern dynasties, promoting a Confucian style and incorporating to a greater extent the religious legacies of Taoism and Buddhism which, by profoundly influencing society, were also reflected in art.
Most of the Chinese artists, poets, and linguists recognized in the world today emerged during the Tang dynasty years.
Fiction and stories also prevailed during Tang China, one of the most famous is “The Biography of Yingying” by Yuan Zhen (779-831), which was widely circulated in his own time and during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) becoming the basis for plays in Chinese opera.
Post-war Chinese art (1949-1976) and the Cultural Revolution
The Cultural Revolution was one of Chinese Communist dictator Mao Zedong’s biggest and bloodiest political campaigns. It mobilized crowds of fanatical young men known as the Red Guards, who terrorized and killed millions of people while destroying China’s traditional culture and heritage in just a decade.
During this period, Mao’s portrait and propaganda posters of the revolution were everywhere. Anything remotely suspected to be out of place was destroyed and the person behind it was prosecuted.
More than a revolution it can be said that it was a true cultural genocide, in just a few years it was possible to destroy a large part of a millenary tradition, burning documents, buildings, and historical relics that are not recoverable, including secrets and artistic techniques developed and transmitted from generation to generation since the beginning of the Chinese civilization.
The result of Mao’s policies was so aberrant that CCP members themselves began to criticize the measures and after his death, the new leaders repaired some of the injustices committed during the campaign and publicly admitted the mistakes made.
What was lost is irretrievable, although certain sectors allowed part of the great cultural artistic legacy to remain standing and to be enjoyed to this day by the rest of humanity.