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Chinese Art

Chinese Art

Chinese Art @ Oriental-Decor.com

A masterpiece of Chinese art calls out to the viewer so directly that all sense of time and language seem to drop away. Indeed, the art of China is actually the merging of the artist's personality with the oneness of the natural universe. But those who would like to understand Chinese art must face certain obstacles. First, there is the unfamiliar language, made more difficult by a number of different systems of spelling Chinese words in our alphabet. Second, is the bewildering number of Chinese dynasties that span Chinese art history. Third, and perhaps most serious, is the symbolism that is deeply woven throughout the arts of China.

In Chinese art, a dragon is not just a dragon, but rather a symbol of the emperor, a sign of the zodiac or a folk-tale favorite. To a follower of Taoism, the dragon might be viewed as the Tao (universe) itself, while a follower of Ch'an Buddhism might view a painting of a dragon emerging from the clouds as a mystical vision of the Buddha nature. To add to the confusion for an outsider of Chinese art, almost every animal has its own symbolism. And sometimes what seems like a simple work of Chinese artistry, such as the still life, Six Persimmons is actually a religious work of art type almost unbeknownst to Western viewers.

In approaching Chinese art, one must be careful in weighing artistic value. For example, in China, the physical size of a work is not important, whereas in the West it usually is. As another example, Chinese art is often private and contemplative while Western art is public and declamatory. To go on, in the arts of China, the human figure plays a minor role and nudity is virtually unseen, while Western art shows a great deal of nudity and is derived from classical Greek thinking that man is the center of all things.

Still other differences exist between Chinese and Western art, which makes the former difficult to grasp and appreciate by outsiders. Generally, Western art holds the opposite philosophy of the following points:
  • The Chinese are more concerned with individual brushstrokes than the sensuous qualities of objects.
  • Chinese art is show more interest in individual work than the its historical position as a link in a chain of development.
  • The artistry of China has a simultaneous existence and the copy is not despised, as it is in the West.
As we contemplate the richness of Chinese art and its many forms, it will help us to keep the preceding thoughts in mind. In this way we might see past our cultural beliefs and glean a look at the way the Chinese mind views Chinese art. Perhaps then we can finally gain an elevated sense of the exquisite and rich nature of the arts of Chinese culture.

Chinese Painting

Chinese painting has a long history going back several millennia. The earliest Chinese paintings were done on silk, but by the 6th century paper was in popular use. Most early Chinese painting was monochromatic, utilizing black ink in different consistencies; colored inks were also used on occasion. Chinese painters were very ingenious and used various formats for their art.

The hanging scroll painting was one format, of which a scroll of paper was suspended from a rod at each end and was rolled up after viewing. Chinese hand scroll paintings were viewed horizontally and not intended to been seen all at one time - only one section of a time in a story-like fashion. Fans were also used for Chinese paintings, and could be folded or rigid, and sometimes mounted in albums. In the albums, each page could be turned to show another painted Chinese image.

But the most popular part of Chinese art may have been Chinese landscape paintings. Landscape paintings in China offered a perspective entirely different than Western scientific perspective. The objects in Chinese paintings are represented in a flat manner with almost no regard for depth and distance. This is partly due to the immediacy of working in ink versus oils. In the West, a painter could go back and rework part of an image - not so in Chinese landscape painting. Ink paintings just do not allow for such flexibility.

Another difference between Chinese ink paintings and Western art is that the former captures the mood of the painter, rather than the exact representation of the objects or scenes, as in Western art. Chinese artists learned by copying the works of master painters. These copies often include identical reproductions of the master artist's original work, including signature and seal.

Chinese Paintings in the Tang and Song Dynasties

During imperial times in China, painting and calligraphy were viewed as the most noble of arts. Chinese paintings were mostly produced by those who devoted their time to perfecting the techniques essential for great brushwork. Calligraphy painting was also highly esteemed and thought to be the purest form of painting. In ancient times, most Oriental paintings were made on silk, but after the invention of paper in the first century AD, silk was slowly replaced.

As with calligraphy, Chinese paintings were often produced on scrolls and made to hang on walls. These scrolls were greatly valued and a form of scroll painting still exists today. Chinese painters also mounted their paints on Chinese wall fans, which were hung on walls as well. Another form of Oriental painting took place on hand held fans.

The traditional technique of Chinese paintings was to dip a brush in black or colored ink (no oils were used); silk and paper were the most popular materials for the Chinese artist. From the start of the Tang dynasty, the primary subject of the paintings of China was the landscape, also known as shanshui, which means mountain-water painting. The Chinese artists strived not to reproduce an exact replica of the landscape, but rather to evoke an emotion or feeling that represented the balance of nature.

Asian paintings of this era were usually void of much detail and looked similar in appearance. But later on, in the Song dynasty, Chinese landscape paintings of a more subtle variety manifested. Distances in the paintings were blurred, mountain contours faded into the mist and there was an overall impressionistic expression given the other natural props. Today, Chinese painters experiment with many different styles, but the traditional Chinese painting will always be an art form in high demand.

Chinese Lacquer

The Chinese have a long tradition of utilizing lacquer ware as both a decorative and protective surface for furniture and works of art. Chinese lacquer is a product from the sap of a tree called Rhus vernicifera - a variety of sumac. Chinese lacquer made from this tree is almost indestructible, as it repels insects, water, and does not conduct heat. Chinese lacquer adheres best to porous surfaces like softwood. Pine is one example, as the lacquer ware can penetrate the grain deeply, creating a very tight bond.

Besides being used for decoration, Chinese lacquer is also an adhesive. The lacquer the Chinese created can, when applied, minimize surface damage and make an object very durable. In recent years, archaeological finds have confirmed the use of sophisticated lacquer objects in China dating back to 772 BC and the Warring States period (481-221 BC). It was actually during the Warring States period that painted lacquer developed in China, in the southern state of Chu. Painted Chinese lacquer ware vessels, musical instruments and tomb models of animals were general found painted in black or red pigments, and often with swirl patterns.

In later years, such as in the Ming Dynasty (early in the 17th century) many exquisite objects, such as lacquer ware boxes, could be found. Beautiful colors and designs were painted on the boxes by mixing pigments with lacquer. During the 17th century, many craftsmen employed in the imperial workshops lost their positions as the government went out of control. These artisans discovered employment with the merchant and official classes, for whom they created beautiful Chinese lacquer ware works of art.

Chinese Jade Carvings

Chinese carvings actually owe their origin to Mesopotamia (around 3500 BC), when carved stone cylinder seals were used extensively to record ownership of property or establish authorship for documents. Carved from agate, rock crystal, lapis or other materials, the cylinder seal was the forerunner of the signet ring and other Chinese jade carvings, which are commonly found in many Asian cultures. The most common of the stones out of which Chinese carvings are made is jade, with the most valuable being emerald green. Nephrite is a type of jade and was held in great esteem in China dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1766-1045 BC). Ancient burial sites show Chinese carvings in nephrite in the form of amulets, weapons and ritual objects.

As Chinese civilization progressed, so did the number and variety of jade carvings. Ancient jade carvings produced by early Chinese culture are noted for their striking designs and highly polished surfaces. In the Zhou or Han Dynasties, small Chinese carvings of dragons and animals were found in tomb burial sites. From the Han to Song Dynasties, small, carved animals continued to be popular, as did vessels, although the quality of ritual jade carvings began to abate from that of the Zhou and Shang periods. The transition to the Song dynasty was marked by a greater emphasis on Chinese jade carvings for personal decoration and enjoyment. Small jade carvings of animals were represented with great realism, a trend which continued into the Ming Dynasty.

By the 18th century, jade carvings of miniature mountains, animals, vases, containers, and carved fruit and flowers was popular. Many centers of jade production existed at that time in China, both for official use and for purchase by wealthy merchants. By the late 19th century, the quality of Chinese jade carvings declined and many awkward shapes were introduced. Still, fine quality work of jade carvings could be found in some places, such as southern China. Today Chinese carvings in jade continue to be popular, but probably do not rival the exquisite work of earlier times.
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