Chinese Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations  

China has one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world. The beginnings of Chinese art can be traced to 5000 B.C., when Stone Age people made decorated objects of bone, stone, and pottery.


Earliest Chinese painting was ornamental, not representational. That is, it consisted of patterns or designs, not pictures. Stone Age pottery was painted with spirals, zigzags, dots, and lines. Very rarely was pottery painted with human figures or animals. It was only during the Warring States period (403-221 B.C.) that artists began to represent the world around them.

Figure Painting
Artists from the Han (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) to the Tang (618-906) dynasties mainly painted the human figure. Much of what we know of early Chinese figure painting comes from burial sites, where paintings were preserved on silk banners, lacquered objects, and tomb walls. Many early tomb paintings were meant to protect the dead or help their souls get to paradise. Others illustrated the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius or showed scenes of daily life.

During the Six Dynasties period (220-589), people began to appreciate painting for its own beauty. They also began to write about art. From this time we begin to know about individual artists, such as Gu Kaizhi. Even when these artists illustrated Confucian moral themes (such as the proper behavior of a wife to her husband or of children to their parents), they tried to make their figures graceful.

During the Tang dynasty, figure painting flourished at the royal court. Artists such as Zhou Fang showed the splendor of court life in paintings of emperors, palace ladies, and imperial horses. Figure painting reached the height of elegant realism in the art of the court of the Southern Tang (937-975).

Most of the Tang artists outlined figures with fine black lines and used brilliant color and elaborate detail. However, one Tang artist, the master Wu Daozi, used only black ink. He freely painted brushstrokes to create ink paintings that were so exciting that crowds gathered to watch him work. From his time on, ink paintings were no longer thought to be preliminary sketches or outlines to be filled in with color. Instead they were valued as finished works of art.

Figure painting continues to be an important tradition in Chinese art. However, from the Song dynasty (960-1279) onward, artists increasingly began to paint landscapes.

Many critics consider landscape to be the highest form of Chinese painting. The time from the Five Dynasties period to the Northern Song period (907-1127) is known as the Great Age of Chinese Landscape. In the north, artists such as Jing Hau, Fan Kuan, and Guo Xi painted pictures of towering mountains. They used strong black lines, ink wash, and sharp, dotted brushstrokes to suggest rough stone. In the south, Dong Yuan, Ju Ran, and other artists painted the rolling hills and rivers of their native countryside in peaceful scenes done with softer, rubbed brushwork. These two kinds of scenes and techniques became the classical styles of Chinese landscape painting.

During the Southern Song period (1127-1279), court painters such as Ma Yuan and Xia Gui used strong black brushstrokes to sketch trees and rocks and pale washes to suggest misty space.

Many Chinese artists were attempting to represent three-dimensional objects and to master the illusion of space. But another group of painters pursued very different goals. At the end of the Northern Song period, the famous poet Su Shi and the scholar-officials in his circle became serious amateur painters. They created a new kind of art in which they used their skills in calligraphy (the art of beautiful writing) to make ink paintings. From their time onward, many painters stopped trying to describe their subject's outward appearance. Instead, they strove to freely express their feelings and to capture the inner spirit of their subject.

During the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), painters joined the arts of painting, poetry, and calligraphy by inscribing poems on their paintings. These three arts worked together to express the artist's feelings more completely than any one art could do alone.

Some painters of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) continued the traditions of the Yuan scholar-painters. This group of painters was known as the Wu School. It was led by the artist Shen Zhou. Another group of painters was known as the Zhe School. It revived and transformed the styles of the Song court.

During the early Qing dynasty (1644-1912), painters known as Individualists rebelled against many of the traditional rules of painting. They found ways to express themselves more directly through free brushwork. In the 1700's and 1800's, great commercial cities such as Yangzhou and Shanghai became art centers where wealthy merchant-patrons encouraged artists to produce bold new works.

In the late 1800's and 1900's, Chinese painters were increasingly exposed to the art of Western cultures. Some artists who studied in Europe rejected Chinese painting. Other artists tried to combine the best of both traditions. Perhaps the most beloved modern painter was Qi Baishi. He began life as a poor peasant and became a great master. His most famous works depict flowers and small animals.


Calligraphy is considered the highest form of the visual arts in China. In the Western art of oil painting, artists can paint over their work many times. But the brushstrokes of calligraphy cannot be changed once they are placed on the paper. Thus it is a very direct form of expression. Chinese admirers believe they can understand a calligrapher's feelings, taste, and even personal character by looking at his or her work.

The earliest Chinese writing was scratched into pottery, bone, and shell; inscribed in clay; or cut into stone. Later, people used brushes made from animal hair to write with ink on strips of bamboo, silk, or paper. The earliest writers used rigid instruments such as a knife. Their script had smooth, even lines. But from the Han dynasty on, calligraphers took advantage of the flexible brush tip to produce thickening and thinning lines or flaring strokes. Over time, new kinds of scripts developed that gave the artist more opportunities for expressive movement.

All the different scripts that developed over the centuries remain available to writers. One style of calligraphy may be used for ceremonial or decorative purposes. Another style may be used to express feelings in a flash of inspiration.

Calligraphy and painting are considered to be sister arts. The scholar-painters adapted the brushstrokes and structures of writing for painting. They also judged these paintings according to the standards of calligraphy.

Decorative Arts

The Chinese were masters of bronze, jade, and ceramics. Decorative objects made of these materials are among China's greatest contributions to world art.

Bronze metalwork is the greatest art form of ancient China. The Great Bronze Age of China lasted from the Shang (1523- 1000's B.C.) to the Han dynasty. During the Shang dynasty, bronzes were used for ritual purposes. Bronze shapes and designs became more and more elaborate, especially those produced at the northern city of Anyang, the last Shang capital.

During the Zhou dynasty (1000's-221 B.C.) bronze vessels increasingly were used as symbols of wealth and status. But during the Han dynasty, other kinds of luxury goods began to be more desirable than bronze.

Jade is a hard, beautiful stone that was highly valued by the Chinese. Jade ornaments and sculptures are found at many early burial sites. Because jade is brittle and difficult to work with, the earliest jades are very simply carved. During the Eastern Zhou period (770-221 B.C.) improved tools allowed artists to produced exquisite jades with complicated shapes and curved, complex patterns. Jade working continues to be one of the main handicraft traditions of modern China.

Over many centuries, Chinese potters learned to control the temperatures of their kilns (special ovens for firing pottery), to refine clays, and to perfect glazes. (A glaze is a glassy coat that helps make ceramics waterproof and enhances their appearance.) These techniques enabled them to produce ceramics that were admired worldwide.

The classical age of Chinese ceramics is the Song dynasty, when beautiful wares were produced for the royal court. Among the most valued ceramics are a group glazed in different shades of green. These are known in the West as celadons. The blue and white wares of the Ming dynasty are also widely admired.


Some of the earliest known examples of Chinese sculpture are objects made to be buried with the dead. The most impressive collection of sculptures was found near the tomb of Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China (reigned 221-210 B.C.). Pits near the tomb held some 7,000 life-size terra-cotta pottery sculptures of foot soldiers, charioteers, officers, and horses. The sculptures were intended to protect the emperor after death.

During the Han and Tang dynasties, sculptors made small clay models of dancers, servants, fierce guardians, farmyards, towers, dogs, and horses. All were designed to accompany the dead in the spirit world.

In addition to burial sculptures, huge stone sculptures were placed above ground along the "Spirit Road" leading to the tombs of important people. Among the most outstanding of these sculptures are the stone lions that guard the Liang tombs near Nanjing.

The great tradition of Buddhist sculpture is seen in massive figures cut into the stone of huge cave temples. The first cave temples were made in the A.D. 300's. As Buddhism flourished, many others were carved. Buddhist monasteries and temples were fitted with magnificent sculptures carved in wood and painted. They also contained gilt-bronze figures of the Buddha and his attendants.

Many critics believe the Tang dynasty was the golden age of Buddhist sculpture. Later sculptors continued to follow the traditions of both Buddhist and nonreligious sculpture. During the 1900's, Western realistic styles were used in sculptures honoring important persons and events.

Maggie Bickford
Art Historian

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