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5-08-2015, 22:34

Artistic Treasures

A wide variety of art existed across ancient China.

Ancient Chinese art included forms ranging from elaborate calligraphy to paintings to pottery. This art was both beautiful and practical. Many of these artifacts have been discovered in archaeological sites in China.


The lacquer tree is common in China at high altitudes of 3,000 to 7,500 feet (900 to 2,300 m).

The tree contains a unique resin that was used as a varnish, or a plastic-like coating, as early as the Neolithic period. The resin is gray in color but darkens when it is exposed to air. After the resin was filtered and boiled it became a pale amber color. Vegetable or mineral pigments could change the color. Chinese artisans applied lacquer in thin layers to bamboo, bronze, clay, leather, paper, wooden tablets, silk, and pottery. Once dry, the lacquered objects became heat and water resistant. Some of the lacquer ware objects have survived for many centuries.


Pottery was one of the oldest forms of art in ancient China. Pottery has been found in archaeological sites dating back to Neolithic times. Artisans decorated terra-cotta pottery with designs or paintings of animals. Ancient Chinese craftsmen began using potter’s wheels as early as the 2000s BCE, which made sculpting much faster. During the Tang dynasty potters began using multicolored glazes. The three colors available likely came from metal oxides used in the glazes— iron, which produced a yellow or brown color; copper, which produced a green or brown color; and cobalt, which produced the rare blue color. Lacquer ware became more widely used during the Han dynasty. The common terra-cotta pottery, which had been used since Neolithic times, declined in production, except for everyday items.

In the 200s CE, the Chinese developed porcelain, often called “china” for its country of origin. A very thin, delicate, purified clay was used to make

porcelain. When the purified clay was fired at a higher temperature, it became translucent.


The Bronze Age in China began in approximately 2000 BCE. During this time, the Chinese discovered ways to combine copper and tin to make bronze. The ores were heated over very high heat and poured into clay molds to make the shape desired. After cooling, artisans broke the molds apart.

Chinese craftsmen cast vessels for wine and food. Some of the vessels had legs on the bottom so a flame could be placed under the legs to warm the food. Other vessels for wine were in the shapes of animals. People during the Zhou dynasty used bronze to make boxes for food offerings for their ancestors. They also made ceremonial tools and weapons. These bronze items were meant for ceremonial uses, not as everyday tools. One Shang king’s wife had more than 200 bronze pieces in her tomb.1

Ancient Chinese artisans also worked with jade. This gemstone is usually a green color. It was probably cut out of large slabs of the mineral nephrite found in riverbeds beginning in the 3000s BCE, and it remained an important gemstone throughout ancient Chinese history. Jade carvings have been uncovered at many ancient Chinese archaeological sites. Jade disks, masks, and ceremonial items were carved with intricate designs. Owning bracelets, pendants, and head ornaments made out of jade indicated the wearer was of a high social status. Jade was also commonly included with burial items.


Traditional Chinese paintings often showcase the natural world. They feature landscapes, birds, flowers, or bamboo. The paintings were usually made on silk or paper. Artists used brushes, ink, and watercolor washes.

Such paintings reached their peak during the Song dynasty. Song artist Zhang Zeduan painted on horizontal scrolls. His work often depicted daily life in the city. It showed performers, streets, boats, restaurants, and life along the river.


Music was an important part of life in ancient China. The Chinese character for music could also mean “joy,” “pleasure,” or “entertainment.”

In 1978, 64 bells dating to the 400s BCE were found in an archaeological site near Hubei Province, in eastern China.2 Each bell was marked with its musical note. But they had no clappers on the inside as Western bells had. Instead, the bells were struck on the outside with a mallet. In addition to the bells, stone chimes, bronze drums, string instruments, and bamboo flutes dating from the Zhou dynasty have been excavated.

People during the Han dynasty believed music had great moral power and affected people of all levels. They thought that for all to live in harmony, music should be a part of life.

Drums were important instruments in ancient Chinese music. This bronze, double-faced drum dates from the Shang dynasty.


Similar to other ancient Chinese art, Chinese architecture strived to be in harmony with nature. Houses were often built with wood, tile, plaster, mud, and stone. Thatched or tile roofing was also common on homes. Typically the buildings wrapped around a central courtyard. Some larger buildings were multistory and included watchtowers. Literature from ancient times describes grand palaces. Because most ancient Chinese buildings were built of wood and other materials that did not last, none still stand today. Historians learned about these houses through archaeological digs that uncovered parts of ancient buildings, such as walls, bases for columns, and ceramic tiles. Archaeologists also found models of buildings in tombs.

A few stone pagodas from the 500s and 600s CE still stand. The pagoda originated in India. The Chinese pagoda typically had a tall pointed spire on top. Usually constructed as an act of devotion or good luck, the pagoda could also be used as a watchtower. Pagodas were circular or octagonal.


One of China’s most enduring art forms is its writing. The written language has been in use for at least 3,500 years, making it one of the oldest written languages in continuous use. It is written vertically and read from right to left. Chinese writing does not use an alphabet. Instead, it uses pictographs (picture symbols), ideographs (idea symbols), and phonemic graphs

(sound symbols). Most words in Chinese are a combination of two to three characters, and each character is a combination of several standard strokes. The Chinese language has thousands of characters writers must memorize.

Writing itself was an art form in ancient China. Calligraphy was the art of writing using a brush and ink. The Chinese saw calligraphy as a way to achieve inner harmony and clear the mind. Calligraphers were great artists, but they were also respected as great thinkers of their time. In the Tang dynasty, one needed to be a skilled calligrapher to obtain a government post.


The first Chinese books probably were made of bamboo or silk. Evidence of Chinese writing exists from the Shang dynasty. Fiction began in the 300s BCE and included fables and stories with dialogue. In the 200s BCE, the Qin dynasty standardized more than 3,000 characters in the Chinese language. This made it easier for people from across China to communicate with one another. However, Emperor Qin Shihuangdi burned thousands of books, destroying much of Chinese literature. After the book burning, thousands of books had to be reconstructed. The Han dynasty tried to restore the texts. These writings were likely reconstructed from oral histories or from books hidden during the burning.

Scholar Xu Shen compiled one of the first dictionaries in roughly 100 CE. Xu’s dictionary included more than 9,000 characters, and it was one of the first dictionaries in the world.3 He included the pronunciation of characters and the definitions of the words.


The Chinese language lends itself to the lyrical qualities of rhyming, and poetry particularly flourished during the Tang dynasty. Poetry showed the character and integrity of the poet writing it. Most emperors supported poets, and many were even poets themselves. Three of the most well-known poets were

Wang Wei (701-761 CE), Li Bai (701-762 CE), and Du Fu (712-770 CE). Wang’s poetry usually took the form of a vignette about natural landscapes. Li wrote about the pleasures of life using imagery, painting pictures with his words. Du was known as the Sage of Poetry. He often wrote about landscapes and war.