Early China summary



Early China summary


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Early China summary


Early China 


5000 BCE – 1279CE


The land of “Qin”, the middle kingdom, the domain at the center of the world, dates at least back to 8000 BCE, with a thriving Neolithic civilization in place by 5000 BCE. Inner China is defined by the land fed by the three great rivers, the Yellow, the Yangzi, and the Xi, with two distinct North/South climate zones created by the swath cut by the Ainling Mountains through the heart of Qin. The earliest settlement at Jiangzhai has been discovered to have existed at about 4,000 BCE, with community buildings, over 100 houses, a cemetery and a kiln. The early settlers of China cultivated rice and millet, later importing Near Eastern grains. A unique pottery culture existed in the Neolithic period, with unique decorative and aesthetic forms.


Neolithic Period


5000 – 2000 BCE


Neolithic Cong, jade, Tomb 12, Fanshan, Zhejiang. Before 3000 BCE. Found buried near the head of the deceased, congs, cylindrical tubes inside rectangular blocks, remain mysterious images, part animal, part human faces that peer out at us through layers of time. Whether depicting the faces of deities, ancestors, or spirits, the intensity of their geometric gazes have an undeniable, enigmatic spiritual or magical presence.


Bronze Age

1700 – 221 BCE


Sacral Vessel, bronze, Shang Dynasty, 1500BCE. Chinese history records three Bronze Age cultures, the Xia, the Shang, and the Zhou. One important object solidly in the Shang era, this vessel meant to hold sacrificial materials for ritual, possesses both rich ornamentation and dense symbology, which is still under debate. An animal eats, or protects a human being, perhaps an early manifestation of the complementary Yin and Yang signs. Also referred to as a t’ao-t’ieh, “glutton”, it may refer to cycles of life and nature, and the labyrinth of nature, suggested through auspicious spirals, serpent, and thunder forms.


(Guang), bronze, 12th and 11th century BCE, Shang dynasty. Such vessels were used in sacrifices to ancestors, holding wine, water, grain, meat, etc. Although highly decorated in richly rhythmic motifs, the form of a symbolic animal perfectly reflects its practical purpose as a libation carrier.


Standing Figure, bronze, 12th & 11th century BCE, Shang Dynasty. The discovery of this larger than life sized figure completely reconfigured scholars’ understanding of the Shang period. Totally unlike anything discovered to date from ancient China, this elongated, geometrically stylized figure from Sanxingdui province revealed that the region held its own, independent and prosperous kingdom. Wide-eyed, erect, and useful (he once held something), the sculpture cuts a dramatic and vital figure; it seems to contrast the dominant style of the period in the way it eschews obsessive surface decoration.


Bi Disk with Dragons, nephrite, 9th-3rd century BCE, Zhou dynasty. The donut-shaped Bi disk is a common burial object. It is a powerful symbolic image, although the exact meaning remains obscure. Usually carved from jade, it hints at the perfection of the circle of “heaven.” The intricate and voluptuous dragons serve as intermediaries between heaven and earth, earth and sky, and are always a symbol of good fortune, symbolizing especially the spirit of the rain blessing the earth.


Qin Dynasty

221 - 206 BCE


Terracotta Army of the first emperor of Qin, Shaanxi. 210 BCE. The State of Qin engaged in military conquests that established it as the first central ruling dynasty of China finally in 221 BCE. Early on the great Qin emperor Shihuangdi began outfitting his mausoleum with terra cotta soldiers, to preserve his power in the next life. The uniformity of the figures in the burial mound underlines defining characteristics of the Qin; ruthless bureaucratic efficiency, organization, and uniformity.


Han Dynasty


206 BCE – 220 CE


Victorious over the Qin, the rulers of the Han dynasty stabilized China’s borders, and laid the foundations of the “Silk Road”, the trade route linking China and Rome. The Han was a time of peace and plenty, with secure borders and governance. The religious life of Chinese became more philosophical than spiritual, with Daoism and Confucianism emerging as successful ethical, emotional, and psychological strategies for finding fulfillment in life.


Painted Banner, tomb of the wife of the Marquis of Dai, Hunan, 160BCE. This artifact represents the flowering of the Mythocentric Age of China, when the universe was viewed as a continuum of existence between the spirit and material worlds. In the upper register of the “T” heaven is envisioned, with the Sun, the Moon, and the Serpent-tailed ancestor. Serpents intertwine through a jade Bi, symbolizing the division between earth, where the deceased and her attendants make an offering, and the strange netherworld.


Daoism and Confucianism


During the Han, the two major philosophies of China began to supplant Religion proper. Born during the difficult times of the Zhou, these contrasting modes of thought both emphasize harmony of the individual with larger forces. The teachings of the Dao (attributed first to Lao-tze, probably 604-531BCE), or way, involves intuitive connection with nature and the universe, following a path of “non-striving”, to find a powerful union with the universe through a simple yet aware was of life. Unconcerned with material success, the Dao encourages a meditative immersion of the individual ego with the wholeness of existence, of getting one’s self out of the way of ultimate accomplishment.  The teachings of Confucius, who was practically born a scholar in 551 BCE, emphasize sublimation of the interests of the individual into those of society and the state. A good follower of Confucianism should embody the concept of Ren, of compassion and empathy towards one’s fellow man. Such a person could be properly considered a Junzi, or gentleman, who expresses his ultimate qualities of Ren through his scrupulous manner, or Li. Well known for his maxim that harmony in the state begins with harmony in the home, Confucius prescribed societal behavior that exemplified responsibility from the top down as well as the bottom up.


Incense Burner from the tomb of Prince Liu Sheng, 113 BCE. This sensuous bronze object depicts the legend of the immortals of the Eastern Sea, practitioners of the Dao who perfected the right combination of diet, exercise, and “non-striving”, finding everlasting life on a perfected earth. The swirling organic forms suggest a fluidity of thought and action, united in a stable yet dynamic circular form.


Rubbing from relief from the Wu family shrine, stone, 141 CE. This orderly description of filial duty being paid to the Han emperor Wu exemplifies Confucian ideals; respect for social order, hierarchy, and honorable deportment.


Six Dynasties

220 - 579 CE


After the fall of the Han in 220, a long period of instability ensued, with warring factions and kingdoms vying for control of the Middle Kingdom. The difficult period was overseen by six volatile dynasties, with power vacillating between the South and the North. During this time Daoism enjoyed a resurgence, with the elite withdrawing from the violent world into a dream of nature, poetry, and calligraphy. Buddhism, the only philosophy to deeply address the tensions of the era, moved in from India first in the North, making its way south until it found eminence and the state religion under the emperor Liang Wudi, 502-549CE.


Seated Buddha ,cave 20, Shanxi, Northern Wei dynasty, 460 CE. An artifact of the flood of Buddhist created projects to spring up along the Silk road, which included temples, monasteries, and shrines, this 45 foot statue, carved from the live rock, rests within one of many caves to hold sacred images of the Buddha. The serenity of this Buddha takes a more geometric, intellectual, and overwhelming tone than his precedents in India, confidently and alertly surveying the distant universe.


Sui (589-617CE) and Tang (618-907CE) dynasties


China returned to a centralized government with the ascent of the founder of the Sui dynasty. Helping to pave the way for this new unity, Mahayana Buddhism brought a sense of egalitarianism and joy to the popular religious mind. After the fall Of the Sui the Tang quickly picked up where they left off, where the transcendentalism of Buddhism and the pragmatic virtues of the Dao and Confucius merged to create perhaps the most cosmopolitan progressive era of Chinese history.


Altar to Amitabha Buddha, Sui dynasty, 593 CE. The first ruler of the Sui dynasty, a northern general, espoused a new form of Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, which was rising in popularity in the Middle Kingdom, and helped to form an umbrella under which China could be united again. The Amitabha Buddha and his attendants comes down from nirvana in this devotional piece to save all humanity, all those who call his name. Cheerful and poised in front of his halo of flames, he is like the benevolent rising sun.


Camel Carrying a Group of Musicians, Shanxi, Tang dynasty, mid 8th century. The fall of the Sui was following by the great Tang dynasty, one of the most prominent of all China’s dynasties; to many Chinese, the word “Tang” is synonymous with China. Highly cosmopolitan, tolerant, and progressive, the Tang saw great achievements in the arts and sciences. This ceramic piece celebrates the mix of cultures that populated the Silk road.


The Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha, mural, Cave 217, Gansu. Tang dynasty, 750 CE.Dunhang was a major rest stop on the Silk Road, which flowered with over 500 caves, filled with relief carving, painting, and sculpture. This rendition of the Amitabha shows him at the center of a large throng, a sort of Pan-Chinese festival, with elaborate architecture pulling the dynamic crowd together.


Nanchan Temple, Shanxi, Tang dynasty, 782 CE. A typical specimen of both religious and royal architecture, this temple demonstrates powerful yet subtle stability in its three-bay construction, and its use of the Chinese “dragon tail”, upward sweep of the gable ends of the roof. The lilting forms were thought to “catch” good luck.


Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Ci’en temple, Xi’an, Shanxi, Tang dynasty, 645CE.  This Chinese version of the Indian Stupa was built for the monk Xuanzang after his great pilgrimage to India. The originally seven storied spire evoked both Han traditional watchtowers and the idea of ascending into Heaven.


Song dynasty 960-1279


After falling briefly into chaos following the collapse of the Tang, China was unified again under the Song dynasty at Beijing, near the Yellow River. The invasion of Manchurian tribes forced the history of the period into the early, Northern Song (based in Bianliang under Huizong), and the later, Southern Song (based in Lin’an under Gaozong). Art was more refined and introspective, lacking the militaristic influence of the Tang.


A new, meditative form of Confucianism took root, which emphasized awareness of the

metaphysical aspects of nature. Neo-Confucianism posited the existence of an underlying reality, or idea, li, underlying all material reality, qi. The process of enlightenment involved becoming attuned to the Oneness of all li. Landscape painting became a particularly eloquent expression of the interaction and hallowed presence of all li in all qi, and the overwhelming yet personal beauty of the oneness of nature.


Fogueng Si Pagoda, 919 CE, Northern Song dynasty. The Pagoda form, so intimately associated with China, became more and more elaborate, evolving from an embellished stupa into a complex, multi-storied temple, with each level of the structure housing sacred objects, Buddha on top of Buddha.


Fan Kuan, Travelers among Mountains and Streams, Northern Song Dynasty, early 11th century. This large, ink on hanging scroll painting, a major work by the first great Song master, gently illustrates the grandeur of the li of nature, with our presence a small part of it. The gently graduated image embraces both great distance from and great intimacy with the very specific yet transcendent forms of nature as experienced by the “travelers”.


Xu Daoning, Fishing in a Mountain Stream, Northern Song, mid-11th century. Another format for ink on silk painting of the Northern Song, this 7-foot long handscroll draws the viewer through a dream like journey in an evocative yet precise environment. The painted handscroll used as a sort of cinematic device is unique to Asian art.


Huizong, Auspicious Cranes, color on silk, 1112 CE, Northern Song Dynasty. The emperor Huizong was much more interested in art, poetry, and expressive culture than affairs of state, and is considered to have been much more successful at the former. Although his state went essentially bankrupt as a result of his artistic patronage, the products of his patronage are stunning. An accomplished painter and calligrapher himself, pieces such as this handscroll demonstrate a delicate sense of balance between nature and culture, order and chaos. The image commemorates the appearance of 20 white cranes at the palace gates in Bianliang during a festival, an occurrence considered to be highly auspicious, a blessing on the emperor’s rule.


Meiping Vase, 12th century, Northern Song Dynasty. The ceramics of the Song are rightly celebrated; artists inherited the powerful, bold forms of earlier Shang and Zhou works, but adding elegance, delicacy, and fluidity to the vessel shapes and their decoration. This high-shouldered, Meiping, vase is richly decorated through a sgrafitto technique of cutting through black slip to reveal patterns in the light clay body.


Xia Gui Twelve Views from a Thatched Hut, Southern Song, early 13th century. After the fall of the Northern Court, painting took a decidedly poetic turn, as evidenced by this ethereal masterwork by one of the members of the new Academy of Painters. Xia Gui forsook the official, refined, colorful style of rendering decorative motifs such as birds and flowers for the simple, elegant evocation of barely glimpsed landscape. This style allows the viewer to occupy more of the space of the picture with the imagination, removing some of the distance more exactly painted environments produced.


Liang Kai, 6th century Patriarch chipping bamboo, ink on paper, 13th century, southern Song Dynasty. Many people, influenced by the artist-scholar movement, pursed personal enlightenment through meditation and art under the umbrella of Chan Buddhism. Liang Kai, originally attached to the court, left its strictures in later life, pursuing and painting Chan ideals. In Chan, the performance of even (and perhaps especially) the most mundane of acts can be moments of purest enlightenment and release. The patriarch’s rustic appearance suggests his disinterest in superficial, worldly problems. The artist uses simple but deftly placed and executed brushtrokes to present the subject, celebrating the philosophical ideals of the Chan in the very fabric of the work of art.


Guanyin, polychromed wood, 11th-12th century. Although the relatively secular aesthetic of the literati painters garnered the greatest respect with the cognoscenti, Pure Land Buddhism remained popular. One of the most popular religious images of more emotionally expressive sects of Buddhism, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, took form in Song China as Guanyin. Supremely relaxed, courtly, and approachable, the image of this divine helper constructed with joined-wood carving floats in the celestial ocean while letting his gaze fall naturally over the lower, physical world.


Guan Ware Vase, Southern Song dynasty, 13th century. The same audience which cultivated its taste towards the simple, elegant, and suggestive painting style of Xia Gui was also disposed towards the same aesthetic in ceramics. Southern song ceramic ware used fluid, continuous line and subtle color, as well as consciously contrived natural effects such as crackling, to allow the artifice to be transparent, and let the viewer move into the work without the interference of the artist’s poetics drawing attention to themselves.




The northeast peninsula of Korea gave birth to a unique culture; it’s interaction with China and Japan created its singular character. Cultural artifacts date from at least as early as 6000BCE, with Bronze technology arriving from Manchuria in about 1000CE. In about 100BCE, during the Han Dynasty, Chinese outposts were established in Korea. By the middle of the century native kingdoms overtook Chinese rule, and established a prosperous and individual culture, especially under the Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla dynasties. (three Kingdoms period).


Crown, from tomb 98 at Anagnamdong, 5th-6th century CE, Silla Kingdom, Korea. The great Silla kingdom gave rise to some of the most impressive and rich art objects of ancient Korea. This crown, found in a Silla tomb in Kumsong, gives us a glimpse into the sophistication of Silla artisans. This crown-form may symbolize life and supernatural power through the superimposed images of tree and antler, adorned with gold and jade.


Shakyamuni, cave Temple, Sokkuram751-774CE, Silla Kingdom, Korea. The silla Kingdom’s power became incorporated with the help of Imperial Chinese power in 668, creating the “Unified Silla Kingdom.” The brilliance and prosperity of the age rivals the roughly contemporary Tang dynasty. The Silla rulers embraced Buddhism in a big way, and buttressed both their physical and spiritual treasures with grand temples. One surviving monument in a cave temple at Sokkuram holds many Buddhist images, especially this 11 foot image of the meditating Buddha. Made of granite carved and carried into the cave, rather than carved from the live rock, this haunting image is both serene and attentive, with a powerful physique seeming to underlie the soft contours of the yogic flesh.


Maebong Vase, celadon ware, 918-1000 CE, Koryu Period, Korea. The Confucian-influenced Koryo dynasty slowly supplanted the Buddhist Silla dynasty by 935, and would be dominant for the next three centuries. Some of the most famous pieces of art from this period are the delicate Celadon-ware ceramic works. Translucent iron-pigmented blazes are fired in an oxygen-poor kiln, producing pale green, gray, blue, or brownish olive colors. Decorations scribed into the surface of the glaze let images subtly emerge, float, and melt into the surface of the clay. This shape, known as Maebong, is unique in the way its shoulders seem to yearn upwards into the heavens, much like the cranes flying across its curves.




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