Han-era bronze horse
Chinese art and Asian art in general can not be approached in the same way that Western art is. Asian artists in many cases are motivated by different forces and create art in accordance with different principals than Western artists.

One of the first things that stands out about Chinese art is that there is so much more to it than painting and sculpture. Crafts and calligraphy occupy a place that is of equal if not greater importance than painting and sculpture.

Most Chinese are as ignorant of Western art as Westerners are of Eastern art. Many Chinese are familiar with Michelangelo, Picasso and van Gogh but don't have a clue who Vermeer, Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol areWriting about Chinese art coherently is difficult because there are so many different art forms, so many different historical periods, so many different themes and so many different ethnic groups, influences and regional art forms. Moreover, so much Chinese art has been lost or destroyed, creating big gaps in the historical records. Even experts of Chinese art are learning new stuff all the time.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources on Chinese Art: China --Art History Resources ; Art History Resources on the Web ; Art of China Consortium ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts/ ; Asian ; China Online Museum ; Huntington Archive of Asian ; Qing Art Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei ; Beijing Palace Museum ;Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Sackler Museum in Washington ; China Page Museum list

Jade: Jade ; Chinatown Connection ; British Museum ; International Colored Gem Association ; Ceramics : Pacific Asia Museum ; Guide to Chinese Ceramics ; Tang Horses China Vista ; Jingdezhen ; Painting : China Page ;University of Washington ; Chinese Painting Collection Blog ; China Vista Calligraphy : China Page ; University of Washington ; China Vista Brushes China Vista ; Calligraphy Masters on China Online Museum ; Crafts : Lacquerware ; Papercut ; Paper Cutting ; Kites ; Kites ; Cloisonne China Vista ; Furniture ; Furniture ; Fans

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Jade suit of Liu Sheng, 113 B.C.


Learning and the Arts in China

Asian artists have traditionally learned their crafts from senior family members or masters, whose wisdom is regarded as beyond reproach and whose authority is not questioned. Experimentation, improvisation and innovation are taken as an insult to the master and are not to be undertaken only if the student becomes a master himself. The Socratic approach of learning through questioning is not encouraged. There is a risk of humiliating the master if he doesn't known the answer, plus asking a lot of questions is considered rude.Students are often like apprentices. During the early stages of their the learning process, they are often treating like servants. They spend their time cleaning and serving, doing tasks that have nothing to do with the craft, and are supposed to take every opportunity they can to observe their master at work.

Nature in Chinese Art

Serenity and tranquil beauty have traditionally been valued in Chinese culture and aesthetics. Fei Bo, a Chinese choreographer, told The Times: “Our culture is more about spiritual things, and nature is much more important to us. In our traditional painting the strokes are very simple but they leave a big space for your imagination.”

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In no other cultural tradition has nature played a more important role in the arts than in that of China. Since China's earliest dynastic period, real and imagined creatures of the earth—serpents, bovines, cicadas, and dragons—were endowed with special attributes, as revealed by their depiction on ritual bronze vessels. In the Chinese imagination, mountains were also imbued since ancient times with sacred power as manifestations of nature's vital energy (qi). They not only attracted the rain clouds that watered the farmer's crops, they also concealed medicinal herbs, magical fruits, and alchemical minerals that held the promise of longevity. Mountains pierced by caves and grottoes were viewed as gateways to other realms—"cave heavens" (dongtian) leading to Daoist paradises where aging is arrested and inhabitants live in harmony. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“From the early centuries of the Common Era, men wandered in the mountains not only in quest of immortality but to purify the spirit and find renewal. Daoist and Buddhist holy men gravitated to sacred mountains to build meditation huts and establish temples. They were followed by pilgrims, travelers, and sightseers: poets who celebrated nature's beauty, city dwellers who built country estates to escape the dust and pestilence of crowded urban centers, and, during periods of political turmoil, officials and courtiers who retreated to the mountains as places of refuge.\^/

“Early Chinese philosophical and historical texts contain sophisticated conceptions of the nature of the cosmos. These ideas predate the formal development of the native belief systems of Daoism and Confucianism, and, as part of the foundation of Chinese culture, they were incorporated into the fundamental tenets of these two philosophies. Similarly, these ideas strongly influenced Buddhism when it arrived in China around the first century A.D. Therefore, the ideas about nature described below, as well as their manifestation in Chinese gardens, are consistent with all three belief systems.\^/

“The natural world has long been conceived in Chinese thought as a self-generating, complex arrangement of elements that are continuously changing and interacting. Uniting these disparate elements is the Dao, or the Way. Dao is the dominant principle by which all things exist, but it is not understood as a causal or governing force. Chinese philosophy tends to focus on the relationships between the various elements in nature rather than on what makes or controls them. According to Daoist beliefs, man is a crucial component of the natural world and is advised to follow the flow of nature's rhythms. Daoism also teaches that people should maintain a close relationship with nature for optimal moral and physical health.\^/

“Within this structure, each part of the universe is made up of complementary aspects known as yin and yang. Yin, which can be described as passive, dark, secretive, negative, weak, feminine, and cool, and yang, which is active, bright, revealed, positive, masculine, and hot, constantly interact and shift from one extreme to the other, giving rise to the rhythm of nature and unending change.\^/

“As early as the Han dynasty, mountains figured prominently in the arts. Han incense burners typically resemble mountain peaks, with perforations concealed amid the clefts to emit incense, like grottoes disgorging magical vapors. Han mirrors are often decorated with either a diagram of the cosmos featuring a large central boss that recalls Mount Kunlun, the mythical abode of the Queen Mother of the West and the axis of the cosmos, or an image of the Queen Mother of the West enthroned on a mountain. While they never lost their cosmic symbolism or association with paradises inhabited by numinous beings, mountains gradually became a more familiar part of the scenery in depictions of hunting parks, ritual processions, temples, palaces, and gardens. By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. The prominence of landscape imagery in Chinese art has continued for more than a millennium and still inspires contemporary artists.” \^/

Later when the learning process begins, the student is expected observe and copy his master. Students are supposed to hang on every word the master says and are supposed to do things exactly as the master does.

Chinese Symbols

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Butterfly, symbol of joy

In China, lucky symbols appear on everything from handkerchiefs to tombstones. Many auspicious symbols are homonyms of Chinese characters associated with good fortune, prosperity and longevity. Many inauspicious ones are homonyms of Chinese characters for "death" or "bad luck."

Chinese buy good luck charms with a picture of Mao on one side and an image of a Bodhisattva on the other. Man himself is considered a symbol. Heaven is round, the earth is square and man is regarded as a link between the two because it has a round head and a square body.

Well-known symbols of prosperity and good luck are: 1) jade (protection, health and strength, See Art); 2) eggs (tranquility, fertility and good luck in Hong Kong); 3) a bearded sage (longevity or success on exams); 4) a lady bearing fruit (prosperity); 5) a gourd with spreading tendrils (fertility); 6) plump, lively boys (happiness and many sons); 7) bamboo, plums and pine trees ("three friends of winter").

Imperial symbols included the colors yellow and purple. The Emperor wore yellow robes and lived under roofs made with yellow tiles. Only the Emperor was allowed to wear yellow. No buildings outside those in the Forbidden City were allowed to have yellow-tiled roofs. Purple represented the North Star, the center of the universe according to Chinese cosmology.

The dragon symbolized the Emperor while the phoenix symbolized the Empress. The cranes and turtles associated with the Imperial court represented the desire for a long reign. The numbers nine, associated with male energy, and five, representing harmony were also linked with the Emperor.

The fungus Geroderma ludidum is said to bring life because its Chinese name is a homonym with the Chinese word for good fortune. Elixirs of immortality often included it as one of the key ingredients. Other good luck symbols derived from homonyms: 1) Lanterns (homonym with promotions); 2) bees (homonym with abundance); and 3) fish (homonym with surplus). A clock sometimes is used to denote death because the Chinese character for "clock" resembles the character for "death."

Chinese Animal and Fruit Symbols

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Crane, symbol of joy

The most prominent animal symbols are: 1) cranes (peace, hope, healing, longevity and good luck); 2) turtles (long life, but a tortoise refers to a cuckolded husband and a turtle egg is the Chinese equivalent of a bastard); 3) carps (good luck, they are admired for their strength and determination to swim upstream, traits that parents want their children to have): 4) lions (good fortune and prosperity, stone lion gates guard temples and even shopping malls); 5) deer (wealth and long life); 6) horse (success); 7) sheep (auspicious beginning of a brand-new year); 8) monkey (success);

Fruit symbols: 1) orange (happiness); 2) many-seeded pomegranate (fertility); 3) apple (peace); 4) pear (prosperity); 5) peaches (long life, good health and sex, both Chinese and Arabs regard the fury cleft on one side of the peach as symbol of the female genitalia). Peach trees mean dreams can come true. Beginning in the 2nd century B.C., Taoist kept peach-wood charms to ward off evil. Sometimes handmade noodles are served on birthdays for long life.

One of the best sign of all is a red bat. Red is a lucky color and a bat is considered a fortunate sign because its name in Chinese is a homonym with the Chinese word for "good luck, "plus bats sleep with their head down and their feet up, which shows how relaxed and worry free they are. Chinese and Vietnamese believe that people can achieve the relaxed, worry-free state of bats by eating red bat meat. Five flying bats symbolize the “Five Blessings”: longevity, wealth. health, virtue and a long life span.

Fish are is also important. According to legend many Chinese dragons begin life as fish. They have magical powers to leap over waterfalls. Carp especially are associated with this legend. The saying, “The carp has leaped through the dragon’s gate” is used to describe success in Chinese society. Fish are always served on New Year’s Eve as a symbol of prosperity and wealth.

Chinese Color Symbolism

Colors: 1) red or orange (happiness and celebration), 2) white (purity, death and mourning); 3) yellow and gold (heaven and the emperor, a reference the mythical first Yellow Emperor, sometimes yellow is a mourning color); 4) green (harmony); 5) grey and black (death and misfortune).

Red, gold and green are associated with good luck. Red is the most auspicious color. It is well represented at weddings and holidays and fits nicely into Communist models. Red signifies luck, happiness, health and prosperity. Brides wear something red on their wedding day and red lanterns are hung on New Year's Day and weddings. Chinese have traditionally given out "lucky money" on special occasions in red envelopes. Walls are painted red for good luck but writing in red is bad luck. Sometimes red clothing worn by women ias linked with prostitution.

Green can also be a symbol of cuckoldry. Green hats have traditionally been worn by men whose wives have cheated on them. The New York Times described how one American agricultural expert found this out the hard way when he traveled around China giving out bright green hats and found out that whenever he handed them out the men refused to put them on and the women laughed.

Longevity Symbols in Chinese Art

Joyce Denney of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ The pursuit of longevity has played an unusually notable role in China. Societal respect for the elderly (a generally Confucian value) and the individual's search for longevity or immortality (a loosely Daoist concern) resulted in a preoccupation with long life that was reflected in the visual arts. By the time of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, certain motifs and stories associated with long life had become fundamental themes in paintings, on garments, and in the decorative arts that were appropriate as gifts, dress, and furnishings for occasions such as birthday and retirement celebrations. Among the themes are the character for longevity itself, immortals and certain legendary figures, motifs such as peaches associated with immortals, and, finally, other motifs connected to long life through physical attributes or word play. [Source: Joyce Denney, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“A decorative motif in itself, the character for longevity (shou) can appear in at least 100 variant forms and frequently occurs on hangings, garments, and decorative arts that were appropriate for auspicious occasions such as birthday celebrations. The swastika often appears with the shou character and reinforces its auspicious meaning. An ancient symbol originating in India, the swastika is called wan in Chinese and denotes 10,000 years; the pairing of wan and shou also occurred in the name given to the celebration of the emperor's birthday in the Qing dynasty: wanshoujie, literally, "festival of 10,000-year longevity." \^/

“Considered part of the pantheons of Daoism and Chinese popular religion, immortals were readily adopted as subjects in secular arts. The god of longevity, Shoulao, easily recognized by his prominent cranium, is sometimes accompanied by a deer or rides on the back of a crane. Among his companions are the eight Daoist immortals, legendary figures sometimes represented in the visual arts only by their attributes, such as the crutch and gourd of Li Tieguai. The queen mother of the west (Xiwangmu) figured in stories about the peaches of immortality that grew in her celestial peach orchard. The peaches conferred immortality on anyone who ate them. Xiwangmu freely offered the peaches to gods and to certain deserving mortals, and they were served at banquets she hosted. Sometimes, however, peaches were taken without her permission. For example, the legendary Han-dynasty official Dongfang Suo stole peaches from the orchard and thus illegitimately achieved immortality.\^/

“Other legendary figures were associated with longevity. One scene frequently represented in large-scale works was the eightieth birthday reception for General Guo Ziyi, a heroic figure of the Tang dynasty who was transformed into a popular god of wealth, honor, and happiness. The birthday reception, a celebration of his long and fruitful life, often appeared on works commissioned for birthdays, retirements, or promotions of distinguished individuals.\^/

“The peach, even without the physical presence of Xiwangmu, had a strong link to longevity. The peach is seen in drinking cups, decorative vases, and even scholars' objects such as ink tablets. Works with patterns of blossoming peach branches and trees evoke not only the peach orchard of Xiwangmu but also the story of the peach blossom spring, from a poem by Tao Yuanming (365–427) in which the ordinary but immortal populace of an ethereal village located in a grove of blossoming peach trees lives without being aware of the passage of time or the pressures of the world.\^/

“Motifs were sometimes connected to long life through physical attributes. Long-lived and evergreen, pines were associated with longevity. Cranes were already linked to long life through their role as conveyences of the immortals; in addition, their white feathers could also bring to mind the white hair of the elderly and, when seen in pairs, could obliquely refer to an elderly couple. This association also held true for small birds with white-feathered heads, common in paintings given as birthday gifts to elderly couples. The physical property of length was also associated with long life. The peanut plant was linked to longevity not only because of the perceived healthfulness of the peanut as food but also because of the plant's long root system. Long-tailed birds and long ribbons were also connected with long life.\^/

“Sometimes word play allowed a pattern usually associated with one auspicious wish to express another instead. For example, the butterfly was primarily associated with joy and weddings, but because its name (hudie) is a pun for "age seventy to eighty," it also symbolized longevity. Motifs symbolic of longevity were often combined with patterns associated with other desirable conditions, such as happiness, wealth, and attaining high rank. For example, bats, symbolic of blessings, often occur among longevity motifs (65.210.2). Decorative arts, paintings, and garments with longevity themes provided a generalized sense of auspiciousness, and the motifs were sometimes mixed with other patterns to form pleasing works appropriate for many occasions. \^/

Mongol Symbols in Chinese Art

Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ In the creation of luxury textiles and objects for the Mongol elite, Chinese artists developed a visual language that was an effective means of establishing their rule and consolidating their presence throughout the vast empire. A number of motifs that were part of the existing artistic repertoire were adopted as imperial symbols of power and dominance—the dragon and the phoenix, for example, two mythical beasts that integrated the ideas of cosmic force, earthly strength, superior wisdom, and eternal life. The Mongol versions of the creatures are the highly decorative sinuous dragon with legs, horns, and beard and the large bird with a spectacular feathered tail floating in the air (12.49.4). In Iran, these motifs were often paired and became so popular with the Ilkhanids that they eventually lost their original meaning, becoming part of the common artistic repertoire in the first half of the fourteenth century. [Source:Stefano Carboni and Qamar Adamjee, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“Other motifs of this period that were familiar throughout the Asian continent are the peony, the lotus flower (91.1.559), and the lyrical image of the recumbent deer, or djeiran, gazing at the moon. The flowers, often seen in combination and viewed from both the side and top, provided ideal patterns for textiles and for filling dense backgrounds on all kinds of portable objects. The djeiran became widespread in the decorative arts because of the well-established association of similar quadrupeds with hunting scenes.\^/

“For the semi-nomadic Mongols, portable textiles and clothing were the best means of demonstrating their acquired wealth and power, so it is reasonable to assume that the main mode of transmission of motifs such as the dragon and peony was through luxury textiles. The most prominent clothing accessories were belts of precious metal (gold belt plaques, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art). Many of the textiles illustrated here prove transmission from east to west, yet in some instances, exemplified by the Chinese silk with addorsed griffins (cloth of gold: winged lions and griffins, The Cleveland Museum of Art), the origin of the image is clearly Central or western Asia. The Mongol period is unique in art history because it permitted the cross-fertilization of artistic motifs via the movement of craftsmen and artists throughout a politically unified continent.\^/

Image Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei; University of Washington

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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