As well as appreciating the arts for their inherent beauty and style, the nature of artistic creativity is also a good indicator of the prevailing social influences of an era, and China is no exception. Thus cave paintings focuses on food, fire, and shelter, while the preponderance of Red Art during the early years of communism at the expense of all other forms mirrors its ideological stance. But China's history is so long, the country is so big, and its range of arts is so extensive that getting a hold on "the arts" in China isn't straightforward. Below we have concentrated on bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy, literature, poetry, and painting, but whole books have been written about other artistic forms such as jade and lacquer-work. Examples of all the art listed below can be seen today across the country, but many of the best pieces are to be found in Beijing's National Museum of China, the Shanghai Museum, and the Shaanxi and Shanxi History Museums.

Bronzes & Ceramics

After cave paintings, the earliest form of artistic expression in China is the decorating of household items and funerary objects. As settled communities began to have more time, and techniques improved through the ages, the objects themselves were elevated to the point where they became the art, and Chinese bronzes and ceramics were admired the world over. Bronzes first emerged in the Shang dynasty (1600-1122 B.C.) and ceramics can be traced back to roughly the same time, but it wasn't until more effective glazing techniques were established in the Han dynasty (221 B.C.-220 A.D.) that they were prized as artistic creations. The stability of the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) afforded the time, effort, and expertise to further refine techniques and it was during this period that the famous tri-color glaze, which can still be seen in emporiums around the country, was established. China's most famous porcelain, though, dates from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), but the cobalt underglaze produced by the imperial kiln at Jingde Zhen used was actually developed in the previous Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).

Calligraphy, Poetry & Prose

The complex Chinese language is inefficient in many ways and requires students to memorize huge numbers of characters before they can competently read and write. However, the tones, rhyming nature, and pictographic representation of the language all lend themselves to the arts. The written Chinese language is wonderfully alluring and, in spite of the 1956 simplification of its characters, calligraphy in the old style remains popular throughout the country, from the streets to store showrooms. Calligraphy traditionally went hand in hand with poetry, and the latter was a favored mode of expression for the educated elite; academics, philosophers, and politicians often quoted poems in speeches and written communiques. Poetry also came to represent the internal struggle of individuals torn by conflicting emotions. Tao Yuanming (365-427 A.D.) exemplified this perfectly, on the one hand yearning for political success and power, on the other, content with the simple life of a farmer who enjoys a drink. During the Tang dynasty, the words of two of China's most prominent poets, Li Bai (701-762 A.D.) and Du Fu (712-770 A.D.), again reflected struggle, but this time not of the individual, but rather the dichotomy between the ill-matched social ideals of Taoism and Confucianism. The arts continued to flourish in the Song dynasty, and Su Dongpo (1037-1101 A.D.), one time governor of Hangzhou, is perhaps the most famous of all Chinese poets, and was also a skilled calligrapher, painter, and politician.

Literature as we know it in the West was initially characterized in China by philosophical works like Confucius's seminal Book of Songs and Lao Zi's Tao Te Ching (The Truth of the Way). In the Han dynasty (221 B.C.-220 A.D.), Sima Qian's surprisingly lively tome, Historical Records, set the tone for future historical works, but reading remained a scholarly pastime for the elites. In the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) writers began harking back to the formative glory years of China, constructing epic tales such as the Journey to the West, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which remain popular to this day. The world's first printed book may have been published in China in 868 A.D., but it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that the vernacular writing style of Lu Xun (1881-1936) and later, Shen Congwen (1903-86), really made books accessible to the masses. However, once the communists emerged victorious, literary freedom was suppressed and little of interest was written, although Mao's Little Red Book offers a fascinating insight into the socialist doctrine that propelled the Red Guards through the Cultural Revolution. Since the death of the Great Helmsman, restrictions have relaxed a little, but anything even remotely sensitive is instantly banned, meaning many of China's best modern authors are little known inside the Middle Kingdom.


Aside from cave paintings and calligraphy, painting in China didn't really develop until the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). Tang paintings were mostly portraits of the imperial family and courtesans and it wasn't until the Song dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) that things got interesting with the development of landscape painting. Mountains were considered the abode of the gods, and this led to paintings that focused exclusively on the natural world, centuries before anything comparable emerged in Europe. Song dynasty artists wanted to convey the endless expanse of the Chinese landscape and to this end they left large blank spaces on the canvas. In the Yuan (1279-1368 A.D.) and Ming dynasties (1368-1644 A.D.), the focus on the natural world continued, but rather than whole landscapes, detailed pictures of plants, flowers, and animals became the subjects of choice. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), increasing foreign influence in China also made its way onto the canvas, but the bold brush strokes and traditional subjects chosen by artists like Xu Peiheng (who had studied in Europe; 1893-1953) illustrated that Chinese artists hadn't completely abandoned their roots. Under Mao, artistic creativity in all shapes and forms was suppressed and many prior works were destroyed, but the big, bold Red Art that was churned out as just another part of the party propaganda machine is now enjoying something of a revival.

Since economic liberalization, contemporary modern art has moved in manifold directions, heavily influenced by suddenly available outside influences, albeit often paying homage to time-old traditions and subjects; Wang Qingsong's photographic parody of the 10th century Night Revels is a prime example. Good places to get a feel for China's modern arts scene are Beijing's Factory 798 in the trendy Dashanzi district, Shanghai's Museum of Contemporary Art, and Guangzhou's Guangdong Museum of Art.

Architecture in China

Architecture has a vast history in China, but the concept of building design wasn't really established until the dynastic period when palaces and temples were seen as signs of an emperor's status. Throughout the dynastic age, ever grander edifices were constructed, while older buildings from past rulers were altered, enlarged, or destroyed at the whim of the emperor. This historical trend, common to many of the world's greatest civilizations, has resulted in the destruction of many of China's grandest buildings, but at the same time, it has left some astounding architectural feats created over centuries. The Cultural Revolution and now rapid modernization have further put paid to much traditional architecture -- Beijing's hutong and Kashgar's soon-to-be-gone old city are just a couple of examples. Fortunately, many imperial architectural treasures such as Beijing's Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven have survived and are protected.

Outside of the realm of imperial architecture, protection from the elements was the fundamental purpose of buildings, and much regional architecture was initially purely functional. The wooden Wind and Rain Bridges of the Dong allowed villagers to stop for a breather on the way back from the fields no matter what the weather, while drum towers served as lookout posts from where the village could be warned of impending attack. In Xinjiang the narrow covered alleys of the old cities weren't just to facilitate modern day travelers getting lost; they also served to confuse would-be attackers, and to keep the blistering sun at bay. Equally the famous Huizhou style houses, developed by wealthy Anhui merchants, first gained their distinctive horse-head gables to prevent the spread of fire between neighboring houses. One of the most incredible styles of Chinese rural architecture belongs to the Hakka in Guangdong and Fujian, who built huge roundhouses capable of housing and protecting up to a thousand people.

Outside influences have also contributed to the history of architecture in China and many are still there to be seen today. Xi'an's Great Mosque is a fascinating combination of traditional Islamic design fused with Chinese architectural features. Foreign influence in China during the latter part of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) was an unwanted distraction that contributed to the downfall of the dynastic age, but the architecture left behind still adds diversity and character to cities around China. Shanghai's Bund is the classic example and looks like it has been transported directly from 1900s Liverpool, but there are still remnants of the colonial era in ports from Qingdao to Guangzhou. The Art Deco period is also well represented in Shanghai and buildings like the Broadway Mansions and the Park Hotel are worth visiting for fans of architecture, even if you don't stay. Foreign influence continued to be felt once the PRC was founded, and grand Soviet-style monoliths like Beijing's Great Hall of the People became the order of the day. Since economic reforms in the 1980s, China has followed Hong Kong's model of reaching for the sky and skyscrapers now dominate many city centers. In the most competitive and richest arenas like Shanghai, the bigger and bolder the design the better, and standing out from the crowd has become increasingly difficult, although the spaceshiplike Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, and most recently the World Financial Center have managed to achieve this. The 2008 Olympics have presented the most recent impetus to impress and the Bird's Nest and Water Cube in Beijing both have to be seen to be believed. Looking to the future, China's buildings will undoubtedly continue to rise upward, but it is hoped that the past and Chinese tradition will also play a part in the architecture of China's tomorrow.

Wind & Water -- To understand Chinese traditional architecture, it is crucial to also have an idea of the prevailing social conditions and mores of the time. Feng shui was, and is, a crucial part of architectural design in China and can operate on a room, house, palace, or even city scale. Feng shui literally translates as wind and water and is intended to allow efficient energy flow without disrupting the cosmos. Some of the most basic feng shui principles are that the north should be protected by a hill (thus Jingshan Park protects the back of the Forbidden City), and there should be water flowing toward the front (to bring prosperity). Small mirrors, which you'll often see above doorways to people's houses, are put there to reflect evil spirits.

Knowing Your Dragons from Your Phoenixes -- As China culture becomes more accessible around the world, there are many symbols that are instantly identifiable with the Middle Kingdom, and traveling around China you'll see them cropping up again and again, but the big question is, what do they mean? A pair of lions standing outside the entrance of a palace, temple, or even a bank represents status and natural order, and if you look carefully you'll see that the female has a cub beneath her paw, while the male has the world at his feet! Dragonand phoenix motifs represent the emperor and empress, respectively. Yellow is the color of the emperor, and red symbolizes luck and prosperity. The number of stone animals on roof eaves indicates how important a temple or palace is. The rotund, laughing Buddha to be seen in the entrance hall to many temples is Maitreya, a Chinese interpretation of the (skinny) Indian god who has come to represent prosperity.

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