East Asian Art

Introduction

Table Summary

Summary of East Asian Art
ancient Chinese art sculpture (bronze ceremonial vessels, Terracotta Army), painting (tomb murals)
medieval/modern
Chinese art
painting figure, landscape, bird-and-flower
sculpture statues (notably the Forbidden City statues)
architecture palace architecture (notably the Forbidden City buildings), pagodas, Great Wall
ceramics monochrome Song ceramics, blue-and-white Ming ceramics
Japanese art woodcut
East Asian Buddhist art statues, wall paintings/reliefs

Phases

The region of East Asia encompasses modern China, Mongolia, Japan, and Korea. Given that these nations share much cultural material, they can be referred to collectively as East Asian civilization. The primary source of this shared cultural material is historic China; thus, the foundation of East Asian civilization is Chinese civilization, and the essentials of East Asian art may be conveyed by summarizing the art of historic China (see History of East Asia).

Chinese history can be roughly divided into three periods: ancient (ca. 2000 BC-500 AD), medieval (ca. 500-1500), and modern (ca. 1500-). The ancient period was the formative age of Chinese culture, during which Chinese styles of art and architecture gradually emerged. The body of surviving Chinese art from this period is relatively small, and consists mainly of sculpture.

The formative age was followed by the golden age of Chinese art, which spanned the Tang and Song dynasties (which together cover most of the medieval period). In art history, a "golden age" (or "classical age") is a period of outstanding achievement, whose works come to be regarded as models of excellence. These models become a common point of reference for artists of future ages, who often emulate and develop upon classical styles.

In short, during the golden age (Tang/Song period), mature Chinese sculpture, painting, and architecture all flourished. The art of subsequent dynasties consists primarily of variations and elaborations upon these classic forms.

Main Article

Ancient Chinese Art

The Chinese art of antiquity (ca. 2000 BC-500 AD) has survived mainly in the form of sculpture. Along with many small carvings, two major groups of large sculpture have been recovered.

The first group consists of bronze ceremonial vessels: cast bronze sculptures used during rituals (e.g. food/drink dispensers, incense burners). The second group is the Terracotta Army (the most famous body of Chinese sculpture), a collection of thousands of baked-clay figures discovered in an emperor's tomb. ("Terra cotta" is Italian for "baked earth", i.e. pottery.) The army, whose figures exceed life-size, contains soldiers of every rank and various ethnicities.D41

Ancient Chinese Ceremonial Vessel
Ancient Chinese Bronze Ceremonial Vessel
Ancient Chinese Bronze SculptureAncient Chinese Bronze Ceremonial Vessel
Ancient Chinese Bronze Ceremonial Vessel
Terracotta Army Figures

As the gallery above illustrates, while some Chinese sculptures are fairly realistic, others are heavily stylized. Both approaches would flourish throughout the history of Chinese art.

Great quantities of small Chinese sculptures have also survived (from the ancient period onwards), made from the usual range of materials (e.g. stone, clay, bone, metal). The most famous Chinese sculpture material is jade, used for all manner of ornaments and functional objects.

Chinese Jade Carving
Chinese Jade Carving
Chinese Jade Scabbard Slide
Chinese Jade Seal (with turtle handle)

While sculpture is the chief surviving form of ancient Chinese art, the oldest extant works of Chinese painting date to the late ancient period. These works, found mainly upon the walls of tombs, reveal that the essential style of Chinese painting had developed by this time.

Ancient Chinese Tomb Mural
Ancient Chinese Tomb Mural

Tombs also comprise the main body of surviving ancient Chinese architecture. These buildings, though sometimes remarkably enormous, are of relatively simple stone or brick construction.

The main tradition of monumental Chinese architecture, known as Chinese palace architecture, features wood construction. Consequently, no examples survive from ancient times. Nonetheless, ancient visual art confirms that the essential style of palace architecture had also emerged by the late ancient period.H516

East Asian Buddhist Art

In the late ancient period, Buddhism arrived in China; ever since, Buddhist art has flourished in East Asia, largely in the form of sculptures and murals within rock-cut temples and monasteries. Rock-cut buildings are carved out of solid rock, typically in the face of a cliff. Many Buddhist buildings in East Asia were constructed this way, while many others adopted the wooden palace architecture style.

In South Asia, Buddhist art was executed in the South Asian style of visual art, which features lightly clad, generously curved human bodies. In East Asia, Buddhist art was heavily modified by the East Asian style of visual art, which focuses on lines rather than curved volumes. The result is a stiffer appearance, in which curves are subdued and linear detail (detail that consists of thin, sharply-defined lines) is enhanced. East Asian figures are typically more heavily clothed than their South Asian counterparts, since linear detail is better suited to material than the human body.D173

Buddhist Statues
Buddhist Statues
Buddhist Sculpture
Buddhist Mural
Buddhist Mural

Chinese Painting

While sculpture is often considered the supreme art form of South Asia, painting holds this title in East Asia. Most surviving Chinese painting dates from the medieval period onward. As noted earlier, the Tang/Song age (which covers most of the medieval period) is often considered the golden age of Chinese art. Subsequent artists imitated and expanded upon the victories of this golden age, allowing traditional Chinese art to flourish deep into the modern period.

The most distinctive trait of Chinese visual art is a strong linear focus: features are conveyed primarily with thin, sharply-defined lines. The linear focus of Chinese art is arguably rooted in the culture's reverence for calligraphy.38 The essential task of a Chinese calligrapher is to draw lines (of many precise, distinct types) with a brush dipped in black ink. The works of any Chinese artist with calligraphic skill would quite naturally show the influence of this art form.

Most Chinese paintings were executed on scrolls of paper or silk. A single scroll often contains a series of adjacent paintings, which may be arranged horizontally (such that the paintings are side-by-side) or vertically (such that the paintings are one atop the other). Other forms of Chinese painting include screens, murals, and illumination.11

Chinese painting employs shifting perspective, in which the sizes and positions of objects are freely modified according to aesthetic objectives, rather than being constrained by the mathematical laws of the physical world. One interesting consequence is that a landscape can be portrayed from the multiple viewpoints of a journey; an experience spanning a period of time may thus be captured in a single painting.D176

Chinese artists deliberately avoided precise realism in order to maintain flexibility of expression. Their goal was not to portray the world as it appears, but rather to express the inner truth of things.D175,F111 (Indeed, most of the world's traditional art fits this description, and is consequently unrealistic.)

Chinese painting can be divided into three main types according to subject matter.

The first type is figure painting, in which one or more figures are the main subject. (The vast majority of traditional visual art across the world is primarily concerned with figures.) Chinese figure painting often depicts historical events or scenes from courtly life.

Chinese Figure Painting
Chinese Figure Painting
Chinese Landscape Painting
Chinese Landscape Painting
Bird-and-flower Painting
Bird-and-flower Painting

The second type is landscape painting, a far less common form of traditional art. Outside East Asia, landscape painting only became a major genre in Europe. The main subject of a landscape painting is the natural environment; figures are either absent or of minor prominence.

The third type, bird-and-flower painting, blurs the distinction between figure and landscape painting. A bird-and-flower painting is a close-up natural scene (one might say a "micro-landscape"), in which figures (e.g. birds, insects, fish) share equal prominence with the environment. (Despite the name of the style, birds and/or flowers are not necessarily present.)11

Chinese painting can also be categorized by colour. Polychrome works feature a range of colours, monochrome paintings use only varying concentrations of black ink. The monochrome style is sometimes called ink-and-wash.

Chinese Architecture

The central tradition of monumental Chinese architecture is known as palace architecture, which (despite the name) was used for all sorts of large-scale buildings (e.g. palaces, administrative buildings, temples). Wood was the standard construction material; consequently, only a fraction of Chinese palace architecture has weathered the centuries.12

A Chinese palace style building is essentially a single-story rectangular hall. It can be divided into four layers: a raised foundation, a post-and-beam timber frame, a set of trusses (roof-supporting structures) atop the frame, and a tiled roof. The posts and beams of the wooden frame remain visible, such that they contribute to the aesthetic of the building.12

Since the posts of the timber frame support the roof, the walls of a Chinese hall are not load-bearing. Consequently, while the walls may be constructed from a solid material (e.g. brick, stone), they are often instead composed of light panels, each panel consisting of a wooden frame spanned by paper or bamboo weave. Panel walls can easily be moved, allowing the rooms within a Chinese hall to be rearranged at will; or, by removing panels altogether, the hall can become an open-air structure.12

The most distinctive feature of Chinese palace architecture is the graceful concave roof, which often features multiple tiers of eaves. Throughout the medieval and modern periods, Chinese roofs became gradually taller and more sharply concave (indeed, Chinese art in general became gradually more elaborate throughout the medieval/modern period). The inspiration for the concave roof probably came from Southeast Asia, where traditional dwellings were often covered in woven plant material, which sagged between the walls and a central supportive beam.12

The greatest collection of Chinese palace architecture is the Forbidden City, which served as the core of Chinese government under the Ming and Qing dynasties. (The Ming/Qing period spans roughly from the end of the medieval period to WWI.) A vast complex featuring hundreds of buildings, the Forbidden City lies in the heart of Beijing, which has thrived as China's capital since the Ming dynasty. The largest structure is the Hall of Supreme Harmony, which housed important state functions.G220

Forbidden City
Hall of Supreme Harmony
Hall of Supreme Harmony (detail)

In addition to the standard "palace style", two special types of Chinese architecture may be noted.

One is the pagoda, essentially a tower with multiple tiers of eaves. Chinese Buddhists developed the pagoda design by elongating the Indian stupa and fusing it with palace architecture. Most pagodas serve as Buddhist shrines, though some have been constructed for other purposes.12

The other special type is the Great Wall of China. Composed of earth, stone, and bricks, the "Great Wall" is actually a complex of walls throughout northern China that together stretch thousands of miles. This complex, which experienced phases of construction from late antiquity to the modern period, protected China from the nomadic tribes of the Steppe.

Pagoda
Early Pagoda (which illustrates the transition from stupa to pagoda)
Section of the Great Wall
Map of the Great Wall

Chinese Sculpture

Chinese sculpture varies from fairly realistic works to fantastic stylization (see Realism vs. Stylization). As noted earlier, large ancient Chinese sculpture survives mainly in the form of bronze ceremonial vessels and the figures of the Terracotta Army. From the medieval period onward, a greater abundance and variety of Chinese sculpture survives.

While no group of medieval/modern Chinese sculpture is particularly famous, the statues of the Forbidden City provide a good representative collection. Note that the linear focus of Chinese painting is equally strong in sculpture.

Statue at the Forbidden City
Statue at the Forbidden City
Statue at the Forbidden City

Chinese Ceramics

The world's most celebrated traditional ceramics may be those of China (see Pottery Types). An exceptionally durable form of art, examples have survived from every age of Chinese history, exhibiting a wide range of styles. Only the two most renowned styles are described here.

Song ceramics (i.e. ceramics produced during the Song dynasty), which generally feature simple shapes and a single colour, are considered the classical pinnacle of Chinese ceramics.D177,11 They are matched in renown only by blue-and-white Ming ceramics, the most famous style to flourish under the Ming dynasty.

Song Bowl
Song Jar
Song Ceramic Lion
Ming Plate
Ming Jar

Japanese Art

Broadly speaking, forms of art that thrived in China also flourished in Japan, including architecture (e.g. palaces, temples), painting (e.g. scrolls, murals, screens), and sculpture (e.g. bronze, wood, clay). The styles of these arts in Japan are generally rooted in Chinese models, yet have evolved into uniquely Japanese forms.G82,H542

Japanese Figure Painting
Japanese Bird-and-flower Painting
Japanese Statue
Japanese Ivory Carving
Japanese Architecture
Japanese Architecture

The art of woodcut developed in only two regions of the world: Europe and East Asia. Within the latter region, woodcut flourished primarily in Japan. Woodcut is a form of printing: an image is produced by carving a design into the face of a wooden block, then coating the design with ink and pressing it against a sheet. Japanese woodcuts, produced in either monochrome or (eventually) colour, feature both figure scenes and landscapes.D344

Japanese Woodcut
Japanese Woodcut
Japanese Woodcut
1 - "Sumerian and Babylonian art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
2 - "Egyptian architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
3 - "Persian art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
4 - "Mesopotamian art and architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
5 - "Iranian art and architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
6 - "Islamic art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
7 - "Islamic art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
8 - "South Asian arts", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
9 - "Indian art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
10 - "Indian art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
11 - "Chinese art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
12 - "Chinese architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
13 - "Pre-Columbian art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
14 - "Pre-Columbian art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
15 - "African art and architecture", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
16 - "African art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
17 - "Mosque of Djenné", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
18 - "African art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
19 - "North American Native art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
20 - "Native American art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
21 - "Aboriginal art", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
22 - "Oceanic art and architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
23 - "Oceanic art and architecture", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
24 - "Oceanic art", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
25 - "States of Sub-Saharan Africa, 1000-1500", Encarta (David Northrup). Accessed July 2010.
26 - "Mosque", Encarta. Accessed July 2010.
27 - "Islam", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
28 - "Islamic arts", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
29 - "Taj Mahal", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
30 - "African architecture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
31 - "Mask", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2010.
32 - "Hopewell culture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
33 - "Cahokia Mounds", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
34 - "Pottery", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
35 - "Huari", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
36 - "Western Africa", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
37 - "Quillwork", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.
38 - "Chinese art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed July 2010.