Imperial China: 617–1644: The Arts

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Date: 2016
From: UXL World Eras(Vol. 6: Imperial China: 617–1644. )
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Chronology; Topic overview
Length: 13,139 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1210L

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Page 187

The Arts

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Critical Thinking Questions
  1. How did the changes in dynasties affect art and literature?
  2. How did theater and drama change over time?
  3. What different dance styles developed during the imperial period?
  4. How did Chinese art and culture influence the art and culture in other nations?

Overview of the arts

Expanding trade during the Tang (618–907) and Song dynasties (960–1279) increased how much China and its neighboring nations knew about each other's cultures, including the types of art they created. This contact helped the arts of all the nations develop, change, and grow. It also expanded the variety of art forms and styles practiced in these countries and in China. Overall, the imperial period was a rich and productive time in all areas of the arts.

Because they had so many different styles in all the arts, the Chinese often called these styles “schools.” To them, schools did not mean a building for studying, but rather a group of people who thought the same way, studied the same ideas, and created art in a similar manner.

Architecture The Chinese adopted new building techniques in the early imperial period. During this time, many great palaces, temples, pagodas (tall temples with many tiers, or levels), and imperial tombs where royals Page 188  |  Top of Articlewere buried were built. Over time, these the designs of these buildings became more beautiful and more complex. They also became more diverse, as Lamaist (Tibetan Buddhist) temples and Islamic mosques were built in some regions.

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Buddhists who have reached the stage of enlightenment.
Having parts that are not equal or matching; unequal, with parts that are different sizes, shapes, or patterns.
A pair of lines that rhyme and have the same meter.
Multinational music.
ke si:
Tapestry made from fine silks and gold thread that looks like a painting.
The educated class; people who are interested in literature or the arts.
Composed of only one color.
Ordinary language; in literature, it is writing that is not in poetic form.
A poem or a stanza that has four lines.
Having two matching halves; all parts of both sides are the same.
Language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a region.

During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) the Great Wall, which was built along China's northern border to keep enemies out, and the grand capital at Dadu (Beijing) were rebuilt and expanded. Ming houses and furniture were known for their simplicity and grace. Beautiful imperial and private gardens were also created.

Literature The Tang dynasty (1368–1644) produced many great poets, including Li Bai (701–762) and Du Fu (712–770), but other wellknown writers turned from poetry to prose (ordinary language without meter or rhyme). One form of prose was the chuanqi (marvel tale, or strange story); these short stories became the roots of the Chinese novel.

Ci (lyrical poetry) reached its high point during the Song dynasty. Many Chinese poets copied the styles of great Tang poets, a movement led by Su Shi (1037–1101) and Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072). Prior to the Song dynasty only the upper classes wrote poetry, but by the mid-Song period, lower-class poets who traveled from town to town had also become important.

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633 Tang emperor Taizong invents the dance known as pozhenyue (breaking battle array).

637–642 The Tang use foreign melodies in duo-buyue (multinational music).

651–718 Painters Li Sixun and his son Li Zhaodao create the School of Golden and Green Landscape Painting.

717–734 Japanese monk Kibi-no-Mabi spends seventeen years in China. When he returns home, he takes with him the Chinese art of embroidery, the biwa (four-stringed lute), and the game of go (Chinese chess). He is often given credit for developing kana, the Japanese alphabet based on simple Chinese characters.

761 Poet and artist Wang Wei dies. He is known for monochrome (one color) landscape painting in ink.

762 Li Bai, one of the greatest poets in Chinese history, dies.

785 Monk and calligrapher Huai Su dies. He earned the nickname “Crazy Su” because of his cursive script.

847 Zhang Yanyuan writes Records of Famous Paintings of All the Dynasties, the first complete history of Chinese paintings.

c. 1000–1090 Guo Xi's Linquan gaozhi (A Father's Instructions), a classical book on landscape painting, is compiled and edited by his son Guo Si.

1023–1032 Goddess Hall is built in Shanxi Province. Its statues of forty-three female servants are considered some of the best Song-dynasty works.

1056 The Pagoda of Sakyamuni, the oldest standing wooden pagoda in China and one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world, is built in Shanxi Province.

1075 Empress Yide, who wrote some of the bestknown Liao-dynasty poems, dies.

c. 1250–1300 The carved-lacquer technique is invented.

1271 The White Pagoda, the most important example of Lamaist architecture of China and the earliest intact pagoda in China, is built.

1407–1420 The Forbidden City is built in Beijing. In 1421, the Three Great Halls are destroyed by fire.

1473 The Diamond Throne Pagodas are built in Beijing.

c. 1500–1570 A literary revival is launched by the “Former Seven Youths” and the “Four Geniuses of the Middle Wu.”

c. 1600 Influenced by Western painting styles, Zeng Jing reforms traditional Chinese painting technique with his Pochenpai (School of Barbarian Officials).

During the Song and Yuan dynasties, some novels focused on the lives of ordinary people, and others were about the upper class. Yuan poetry changed from the more traditional Song approach and showed a greater variety in style. But in the early Ming period, the government Page 190  |  Top of Articlerepressed writing and the arts. The court emphasized correct form rather than creativity.

By the middle Ming period, political control over the arts decreased, and some writers launched a revival of more expressive poetry. Traditional writers opposed the new style, but other writers embraced it. Despite the conflicts, Chinese dramatic performance reached its peak, and many novels and short stories were written that remain popular in the twenty-first century.

Music By the Tang dynasty several styles of Chinese music had developed. In general the styles fell into two major categories: palace music, enjoyed by the upper classes, and folk music, created by the commoners. About three hundred different musical instruments and many great musicians emerged during this period.

During the Song dynasty public theater developed, marking the rise of popular music. Great musicians used several forms of musical notation and published the first scholarly works on vocal theory. Musicians of the Liao (916–1115) and Jin (1115–1234) dynasties in the North added diversity to Chinese music.

During the Yuan dynasty many new instruments and styles of music appeared. Folk songs became popular among the literati (scholars) during the Ming dynasty, and important musicians emerged, especially players of ancient stringed instruments.

Theater arts The Tang dynasty “genre show” included vocal and instrumental music, storytelling, and skits. Dance had evolved into two types: the graceful, expressive, and slower ranwu (soft dance) and the powerful and explosive jianwu (vigorous dance).

By the Song dynasty, the variety play (drama that included poetry, music, and dance) had developed into northern and southern regional forms. New forms of genre shows that combined skits, storytelling, and music appeared, and large dance troupes emerged. Military men as well as actors and actresses performed acrobatics and shows in the new city amusement areas called “spontaneous markets.”

Recitations of san qu, a folk version of lyrical poetry, enjoyed popularity during the Yuan dynasty. A form of southern drama combined traditional folk song and dance with Song music and lyrical poetry. As theater performances increased during the Yuan dynasty, dance and acrobatics declined.

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This stele depicts a musician from the Tang dynasty. Several types of Chinese music had developed by the time of the Tang dynasty. This stele depicts a musician from the Tang dynasty. Several types of Chinese music had developed by the time of the Tang dynasty. © STELE DEPICTING A MUSICIAN (TERRACOTTA), CHINESE SCHOOL, TANG DYNASTY (618–907)/XI'AN BEILIN MUSEUM, SHANXI PROVINCE, CHINA/© LEEMAGE/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES © STELE DEPICTING A MUSICIAN (TERRACOTTA), CHINESE SCHOOL, TANG DYNASTY (618–907)/XI'AN BEILIN MUSEUM, SHANXI PROVINCE, CHINA/© LEEMAGE/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

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By the Ming dynasty, palace dance performances were mainly limited to ceremonial occasions, but folk dances remained popular with the peasants and were introduced at the court. The genre show became more diverse, but the quality of Ming drama was inferior to that of the Yuan because the Ming government emphasized the use of traditional forms and styles rather than the expression of creativity.

International cultural exchange During the imperial period, all Chinese arts were admired and copied by many neighboring countries, and those nations, in turn, influenced the Chinese. For example, by the seventh century, Chinese music had absorbed elements from many regions outside its borders. Tang dynasty duobuyue (multinational music) used instruments from Persia, India, and Egypt, and the music itself was influenced by India, Central Asia, and Korea. Burma sent a dance troupe to perform at the Tang court, and the Chinese lion dance was performed in Korea and Japan. Many Chinese acrobatic troupes traveled to Central Asia, Korea, and Japan.

These cultural exchanges continued during the Yuan dynasty, when many instruments—such as the huobusi (three-stringed lute) and xinlong-sheng (pipe)—were introduced into China from Central Asia. Musical exchanges among China, Japan, Korea, India, and Thailand were frequent. Christian hymns, introduced into China by Syrian missionaries in the 600s, are the earliest instance of East-West musical exchange, and the hymns influenced Daoist music. Later, Western missionaries brought the piano, as well as Western musical notation, to China.

The shapes and motifs of Tang ceramics reveal strong foreign influences. At the same time fragments of Tang-era pottery have been found in Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt.

Japan and Korea Throughout most of the imperial era, China had an enormous cultural influence on Japan and Korea. The Japanese city of Nara and several Japanese temples are built in the Chinese architectural style and also contain Chinese paintings and art.

Japanese monks studied in China and returned home with Chinese instruments and music. The popular Japanese “Ming and Qing Music” originated from Chinese melodies.

Many Japanese books of history and poetry were written in Chinese or copied Chinese styles. During the Tang dynasty the Japanese monk Page 193  |  Top of ArticleKibi-no-Mabi (693–775) invented simplified Chinese characters for writing Japanese. The fame of Chinese poet Bai Juyi (772–846) reached Korea and Japan, and the paintings of the Song-dynasty artist Fa Chang (c. 1210–1269), whom the Japanese called the “Great Benefactor of Painting,” were exhibited and much admired in Japan.


Chinese architecture of the imperial era was known for its symmetry, or balance. From palaces to ordinary homes, most had a central main building, with identical wings on each side, so each half of the building is evenly matched. The building had a central or main room that was usually balanced by doors that open to the outside.

This symmetry was not usually found in Chinese gardens, however. They were often asymmetrical, or unevenly balanced. Gardens were usually designed as a series of different patterns that flowed together. Although gardens had been a part of Chinese layouts during earlier dynasties, they became more beautiful and elegant during the imperial period.

Architectural styles Architectural styles varied in imperial times, but most buildings and homes kept some similar features from dynasty to dynasty. The architecture of the Tang dynasty (618–907) was elegant, large, and sturdy-looking. Builders used a variety of materials, including earth, stone, brick, iron, wood, and bamboo. People decorated the exteriors of buildings with tiles, glaze, bronze, and paint.

Song (960–1279) buildings were smaller but had high pillars (tall, usually narrow, support structures that run from the floor to ceiling) and steep roofs, making the interiors appear more spacious than those found during the Tang dynasty. The use of wood that looked like stone was common, and fancy decorations and paintings made buildings more colorful.

By the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), brick had become a common building material. The production of glazed tiles for walls reached its height in both quality and quantity. However, Ming officials thought it was important to distinguish between social classes, so they created laws that outlined the types of architecture styles, interior design details, and construction practices each class was able to use. Certain colors, decorations, and features, for example, could only be used by the upper classes.

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A traditional house from the Ming dynasty included rectangular compounds of buildings with thick roofs and walls. A traditional house from the Ming dynasty included rectangular compounds of buildings with thick roofs and walls. © SERGIU TURCANU/ALAMY © SERGIU TURCANU/ALAMY

Homes and gardens Homes and gardens were common examples of architecture during the imperial period. No remaining examples of Tang houses exist, but paintings and books from the era show that these homes were typically arranged with all of the rooms in a long row. The houses of the upper class were often built close together to form rectangles around a central courtyard. Several generations of a family lived together in these compounds, or enclosed group of buildings. Peasants lived in small cottages made of thatch (straw, stems, and other grasslike materials) that were built inside triangle-shaped compounds.

Upper-class Tang families built gardens behind their homes. In the north, these gardens sometimes included pools, fountains, bridges, pavilions (structures with roofs and open sides), and even hills. In southern China, gardens were small but elegant. Homes were often painted in earth tones to make the garden space feel larger.

A rural house during the Song dynasty was typically a simple, onestory dwelling with either a thatched roof or a half-thatched, half-tiled roof. Under the eaves and near the ceiling, windows covered by bamboo let fresh air into the home. Several houses were usually grouped together. Large homes in Song cities were often built in compounds. Galleries or halls connected the various buildings in a compound. The entry to the compound was large enough to allow a horse and wagon to be driven into a central courtyard.

By the Ming period, several house styles had developed throughout China. In the north, people lived in rectangular compounds of buildings with thick roofs and walls. Walled courtyards with thin roofs and walls were more common in the south. In some parts of western China, cave rooms were built on the sides of mountains, whereas in rainy tropical areas, houses were raised to protect them from water damage.

During this time, the creation of gardens had become a form of art. The wealthy hired craftsmen to design gorgeous outdoor spaces for Page 195  |  Top of Articleformal ceremonies. Gardens might be used to hold court (meetings of royalty and their associates), host parties, entertain friends, or serve as gathering spaces for studying. Sometimes religious ceremonies or theater productions were held in the gardens.

Cities Tang cities were usually set up so that their streets crossed to formed square or rectangular blocks, and each block was enclosed by its own wall with gates that closed at nightfall. The Song government destroyed the walls, and rather than having individual market areas, streets were lined with restaurants, stores, and entertainment centers along with market fairs and Buddhist gardens.

During the Ming dynasty, construction increased, and brick arches replaced square wooden doorways for city gates. In Beijing, the emperor built the Forbidden City, a walled-off section of the city that contained his palaces and office buildings in the center of the city, which restricted transportation in the city. People were forbidden to enter the gates without special permission from the emperor.

Capital cities As dynasties changed, so did the capital cities. The Tang had two capital cities—Chang'an and Luoyang. Chang'an, built in 582, was one of the largest cities in the world at that time. The streets formed 108 square or rectangular enclosed blocks, with shops clustered in the east and west. The palaces and offices were located in the north, surrounding the emperor's residence. The layout and size of the capital at Luoyang resembled Chang'an, but the builders carved many caves containing Buddha statues into the limestone cliffs.

Kaifeng, the eastern capital of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1125), included three walled enclosures, each protected by a moat. A defense tower guarded every entrance gate. The palace city, located within the innermost wall, had many halls and a large imperial garden.

In 1264 the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) constructed Dadu (Grand Capital) at present-day Beijing. Completed eight years later, the Yuan capital was a well-designed, large city with sixty administrative sections and many grand palaces. The city had a drainage system built of brick, and the Grand Canal provided water and transportation.

After the Ming dynasty moved its capital from Nanking to Beijing in 1403, all the important buildings were built along an axis (in a straight line). Ming builders followed exact rules to create three halls in the front for court gatherings, three palaces in the back for imperial residences, and Page 196  |  Top of Articlefive gates. The temple for ancestor worship was placed on the left (east) and the ceremonial altar on the right (west).

The Forbidden City One famous example of imperial architecture, design, and city planning is found in the Forbidden City, which was built from 1407 to 1420 by the Ming court. The Forbidden City was a walled-off section of Beijing. The city was divided into outer and inner courts. The outer court was used mainly for administrative and ceremonial purposes. The inner court, with an imperial garden, was designed as living space for the emperor, his wives, and their servants.

Because it was a center of government, the Forbidden City was designed to be safe and secure. To avoid creating hiding places for assassins or other enemies, no trees were planted in the outer court. Access to the city was restricted; people were forbidden to enter the Forbidden City's arched gates without special permission. The ground was covered with fifteen large rock slabs, to prevent enemies from the outside from digging tunnels under the walls.

The Forbidden City also featured five stone bridges that crossed the Inner Golden River to the stone lions and ornamental columns on the Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace. This gate led to three administrative halls as well as smaller government buildings.

Temples Many temples were built in the imperial era. Some groups built temples to honor their ancestors, whom they worshiped. Others were built by Buddhists and others who followed certain religions. Two of the few surviving Tang dynasty temples can be found in Shanxi Province in North China: the Temple of the Southern Chan, built in 782, and the Temple of Buddhist Light, built in 857. Sturdy and impressive, the Temple of Buddhist Light features three arches, or curved structures that are open at the bottom, created where roof beams and pillars meet, making the temple spacious and symmetrical. In contrast, the design of Goddess Hall, a Song ancestral temple built from 1023 to 1032 in Shanxi Province, is delicate and feminine. The temple features a bridge across a square fishpond at its front.

The Temple of Prosperity in Hebei Province, also in North China, is an example of a Song Buddhist temple that has survived through the centuries. The site includes a rectangular courtyard with bell towers on the left and the right sides. The temple's main buildings have two or three stories in order to hold large Buddhist sculptures.

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The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, constructed in 1534, is the best example of a Ming imperial ceremonial temple. At this temple, emperors performed rituals and prayed for good fortune, because they were considered to be the link between people and God. The temple's design symbolizes the connection between earth and the heavens. Squares representing the earth and circles representing heaven are used in many parts of its design. For example, the temple is on a square site with two rounded corners, like a circle, and two angled corners, like a square. Different buildings, rooms, altars where sacrifices were made, and other features are also round or square depending on their purpose and what they symbolize.

The temple includes altars for making sacrifices to heaven and earth, as well as other sites for ritual activities such as fasting and music. With ninety-two buildings and six hunderd rooms, this temple is considered a masterpiece of ancient Chinese architecture.

The best example of a Ming imperial ceremonial temple is the Temple of Heaven built in 1534 andfound in Beijing. The best example of a Ming imperial ceremonial temple is the Temple of Heaven built in 1534 andfound in Beijing. © FOTOHUNTER/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM © FOTOHUNTER/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

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Pagodas Pagodas were tall Buddhist temples with many tiers or levels that decreased in size from the base to the top. The oldest and most important Tang pagoda is Xuanzhangta, built in 669 as a five-story tomb for a monk. With sixteen tiers, the Thousand Xun Pagoda is one of the tallest surviving Tang pagodas.

The Pagoda of Sakyamuni, built in Shanxi Province in 1056, is the oldest wooden pagoda still standing in China and is one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world. It is built in the shape of an octagon and is 221 feet (67 meters) high.

The stone pagoda reached the peak of its development during the Song dynasty. Among all Song sutra towers, the one in Hebei Province is the largest. It is made entirely of stone and stands more than 49 feet (15 meters tall). It has a beautiful shape and features vivid carvings of gods, noblewomen, and dancing girls.

The Ming-era Pagoda of the Flying Rainbow, built from 1515 to1527 in Shanxi Province, is a thirteen-story octagonal building. Its surface is decorated with terracotta gods and animal figures glazed in various colors.

Diamond-shaped pagodas originated in India. The earliest surviving example in China is the Vajrasana (Diamond Throne Pagoda), built in 1473 in Beijing. This cluster of five pagodas sits on a single, tall, diamond-shaped base carved with gods, lions, peacocks, and Lamaist (Tibetan Buddhist) symbols.

Other religious buildings In the late 600s, sutra towers became a part of Buddhist architecture and were built in multistory shapes with beautiful carvings. Sutra towers were similar to pagodas, but they were used to hold sutra texts for worshiping Buddha.

During the Yuan dynasty, the spread of Lamaism led to the construction of several Lamaist pagodas. Temple of Wonderful Response, a 166-foot (51-meter)-tall brick pagoda, built in 1271, was painted with white lime.

In the fifteenth century, the Uighur people built Islamic buildings. These Muslim structures—mosques, religious schools, and tombs—are decorated with colorful tiles, carved plaster, paintings, and elaborate window lattices.


The Chinese interest in art carried over into the production of crafts. During imperial times (618–1644), new technologies and inventions allowed workers to make more beautiful and intricate handicrafts. Many of these products were exported to other countries.

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The Great Wall of China

The Great Wall of China is considered one of the major architectural achievements of the premodern world. The Great Wall of China is considered one of the major architectural achievements of the premodern world. © HUNG CHUNG CHIH/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM © HUNG CHUNG CHIH/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

The Great Wall of China is one of the major architectural achievements of the premodern world. Around the seventh century BCE, the state of Chou in North China began to construct a permanent frontier defense system, and by the third century BCE, various other northern kingdoms had followed the example.

The Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and the Sui (589–618) dynasties improved various sections of wall, but not until the Ming empire (1368–1644) were the many parts connected into one continuous wall. The emperor Hongzhi (reigned 1487–1505) ordered most of the work on the existing Great Wall to stop another Mongol invasion.

The Great Wall is approximately 4,500 miles (7,242 kilometers) long, extending from the mountains of Korea to the Gobi Desert (the distance between Miami, Florida, and the North Pole). It follows the contours of the mountains, some of which are 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) above sea level with ridges that climb at an angle of seventy degrees.

The wall is built of beaten earth, bricks, and stones. Its height varies from 15 to 30 feet (5 to 9 meters), and its width at the base measures anywhere from 15 to 25 feet (5 to 8 meters); the walkway on top of the wall is 13 feet (4 meters) wide. It has thousands of towers and individual forts, and a fortified (well-defended) gate at each strategic pass. During the Ming empire, one million troops were stationed there

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Metal arts By the Tang dynasty (618–907), Chinese metal art—espe-cially engraved gold or silver objects—had become elaborate with elegant and colorful decorations. The backs of smooth bronze mirrors were decorated with gold and silver relief or inlay. Designs included clouds and dragons, flying horses, grapevines, hunting scenes, flowers, and polo players.

The first large-scale metal sculptures were created during the Song dynasty (960–1279). The 79-foot (24-meter)-tall Buddha in the Temple of Lonely Happiness is the largest bronze figure made in imperial China. Its body proportions are balanced, and the lines of its drapery are smooth.

Cloisonné enamel was the greatest product of the Ming period (1368–1644). Cloisonné is made by welding thin brass wires to bronze to form designs, then filling the spaces with colorful enamels and gilded with silver or gold. Also during Ming times, craftsmen made gracefully shaped and richly decorated bronze stoves, called Xuande stoves.

Silk During the Tang dynasty, the quality of silk production increased throughout China. Tang embroidery allowed craftspeople to create a variety of bright designs, and silks were named after their colors, patterns, or weaving techniques, such as quilted brocade or ten-flower silk. New techniques of dyeing, printing, or color drawing on silk were introduced. Most silk designs were imaginative, colorful line drawings of flying horses, double phoenixes, peacocks, dragons, unicorns, flowers, or leaves.

During the Song and Yuan dynasties, silk production and markets increased, as did the quality of materials and designs. Song brocade is known for its many colors, and its designs have creative names, such as “Green Plants and Cloud Goose,” “Green Lion,” or “True Red Blanket Path and Snow Flowers.”

Ke si, tapestry made from fine silks and gold thread, could be woven in different colors and shaded to copy paintings and calligraphic works. So these designs changed to match contemporary painting and calligraphy.

The Mongolian rulers of the Yuan dynasty loved silk and promoted its production. Even more production centers were founded during Page 201  |  Top of ArticleMing times. All the various silk regions developed unique artistic styles. Gu embroidery was especially popular and well known for its strict and balanced stitching, artistic designs, vivid colors, and refined workmanship.

Lacquerware and carving Tang craftspeople began inlaying gold or silver on lacquerware. Usually, ten layers of lacquer (a liquid that dries to form a hard coating) were painted on wooden objects, such as boxes or furniture, and then engraved by the artist to create pictures—landscapes, flowers, plants, birds, animals. Sometimes, different colors were applied after the lacquerware was engraved. Then it was outlined in gold.

Ming carved lacquerware was made in graceful shapes with smooth carving and rich designs. As many as one hundred layers of red lacquer were painted over gold, silver, or wood bases, and then the lacquer was carved. Yellow and black lacquerware were also popular. Craftspeople also inlaid lacquerware with mother-of-pearl.

Carving jade, ivory, and bamboo became highly sophisticated during the Ming era. A Ming craftsman could carve a piece of bamboo to look like an ancient bronze vessel. Because of the expense, only the wealthy could afford carved jade.


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Porcelain Porcelain developed sometime between the 600s and 800s. The kilns of the Yue region produced greenish porcelain known for its hardness and craftsmanship. White Tang porcelain from the kilns of Xing was famous for its strength and elegance. Three lead glazes allowed craftspeople to decorate porcelain and other ceramics in yellows (from amber and brown), green, and blue.

Later many porcelain products appeared in new bright colors with beautiful decorations. Song porcelain in green, white, and black was produced at many centers. The “shrimp green” of Ruyao is among the most famous green porcelains. The Song established the Official Kiln, which produced translucent, smooth porcelain in green and milk white.

Craftspeople at the Dragon Fountain Kiln created relief-carved porcelain glazed with beautiful colors, mostly shades of green. Other popular types included crackle-glazed porcelain and black porcelain with patterns such as Partridge Speckle and Silver Star Spots.

Jingdezhen Kiln became a major porcelain center during the Yuan dynasty, and official as well as nonofficial (or folk) kilns sprang up all over the town. Jingdezhen porcelain was known for its elegant, exquisite shapes and beautiful glazes that came in some fifty-seven colors. Craftsmen there also perfected true-white porcelain and a red porcelain. They also used underglaze and overglaze painting to add more layers of color.

Calligraphy and seal making

The Tang dynasty (618–907) required that its officials practice the art of calligraphy, and the study of calligraphy was one of the six disciplines in higher education. Since that time, calligraphy has been considered a cultural symbol of China as well as a sign of an individual's character and personality.

Tang and Song calligraphers Because Tang emperor Taizong (ruled 626–649) admired the ancient calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303–361), the court calligraphers copied Wang's style of running, or semicursive characters. The calligraphers, though, developed their own techniques, which became the basis for three schools of Tang calligraphy. These styles were kaishu (normal script), lishu (clerical script, with stiff, strong, open strokes), and Yan Zhenqing's (709–785) style, dignified with thin, straight, horizontal strokes and curving, thick vertical and Page 203  |  Top of Articlediagonal strokes. His style was called “The Second Calligraphy of the World.”

Two other calligraphers, Zhang Xu (fl. 600–700) and Huai Su (725–785), earned the nicknames “Lunatic Zhang” and “Crazy Su” because their caoshu (cursive script, grass writing, or rough writing) has been compared to scudding clouds, running water, violent thunderstorms, or lively music and dancing.

Song dynasty calligraphers were praised for their work. Huang Tingjian's (1045–1105) calligraphy was likened to an oar pulling through waves: tight in the middle and radiating outward at the ends of strokes. Mi Fei's (1057–1107) brushwork was described as running like a horse, fast and calm, shifting and powerful, with strong rhythms and clear structural features.

Yuan and Ming calligraphers The calligraphers of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), including the great master Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), copied previous calligraphers rather than creating new styles. Though Zhao never developed an original style of his own, he could imitate other styles with amazing speed. The only creative Yuan-era calligrapher may have been Yang Weizhen (1296–1370), who was also a writer and known as the “Literary Ghost” for his fantastic fairy tales and stories of historical events.

Most Ming dynasty (1368–1644) writers were also conservative and imitated the past. A few Ming calligraphers developed a cursive script caoshu that became more popular than zhuanshu (seal script), from the third century BCE and which had symmetrical and rectangular characters, and lishu (official script), also from the same period, with wide, easyto-read characters.

Seal cutting Engraved seals, stone implements with words carved into them, were used to stamp official papers; this became an art during the Tang dynasty. Emperor Taizong ordered a craftsman to cut the characters for Zhenguan (Emperor's View) into a seal that he stamped onto his favorite paintings and calligraphic works.

The official seals of the Song dynasty still followed the nine-line pattern of earlier times, but the lines became thinner, softer, more numerous, and more complex. Red seals were applied to paintings or calligraphic work to enhance their beauty.

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Instead of cutting seals into metal or ivory, cutters engraved seals into softer and more colorful stones. This allowed artists to design and cut seals themselves. This change helped develop seal art.

Wen Peng (1498–1573) created the School of Wu, the first school of seal art. His seal cutting shows the influence of an ancient style. It is steady, balanced, classic, and graceful. He used several cutting methods to create seals that appeared ancient and simple with thick, heavy lines, stiff turnings of characters, and a variety of structures.

Painting and printmaking

Until the Tang (618–906) dynasty, most artists painted people, but landscapes became popular in the Five Dynasties period (907–960). The Song period (960–1279) was known as the Golden Era of Chinese Painting, because painters expanded their subject matter to include realistic landscapes, flowers, and birds along with figure painting and genre studies (pictures of ordinary life). After the government insistence on the copying of ancient art styles during the early Ming era (1368–1644), artists struggled to regain the creative spirit they had lost.

In general, Chinese artists use dark outlines, limited colors, flat images, and a plain background. Their work is known for its shifting perspective. Whereas Western painters usually locate the viewer in one spot and paint everything as it would appear from that viewpoint, traditional Chinese painters employ multiple points of view in a single work.

Tang painting The growth of the Tang empire exposed artists to other cultures and led to many new artistic developments. Various styles, techniques, and theories of painting all thrived. Figure painting (painting people) reached great heights, and new techniques developed in landscape painting, including monochrome (one color) and gold and bluegreen landscapes.

Many Tang painters made important contributions to art. The most celebrated painter of the early Tang period, Yan Liben (died 673), is known for his portraits of emperors and scholars, and for bringing new life to figure painting. Wu Daozi (c. 688–758), called the “Saint Painter,” painted hundreds of magnificent Buddhist murals and was praised for his realistic style, vivid imagination, and enthusiasm. The inventor of ink-wash painting, Wang Wei (701–761) began Page 205  |  Top of Articlemonochrome landscape painting in ink. He was also a writer, a musician, and scholar of Chan (Zen) Buddhism.

During the late 700s, another new technique, called “splashing ink,” gave painter Zhang Zhao's pictures a sense of haziness and movement. A father and son, known as “Big Li” and “Little Li,” painted with blue and green and outlined objects with gold. Their work was responsible for the School of Golden and Green Landscape Painting, a style of painting that used their techniques. Other developments during this period included the rise of flower and bird painting and the start of genre paintings depicting cows, pastoral scenes, and peasant life.

Tang artists were responsible for many developments in painting, including new techniques in landscapes. Tang artists were responsible for many developments in painting, including new techniques in landscapes. © LANDSCAPE PAINTING/WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES © LANDSCAPE PAINTING/WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

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Five Dynasties landscapes The time from the Five Dynasties to the Northern Song (907–1128) has been called the “Great Age of Chinese Landscape.” During this chaotic period, many painters secluded themselves in the mountains and created landscapes on large screens, using a shifting focus that suggests unlimited space. They painted as if looking at the same scene from the middle distance and from a great height.

Artists carefully selected each detail in their paintings, concentrating on the true essence of the subject. A landscape represented nature as a whole; a stalk of bamboo contained the universe. Painters followed four principles:

  1. The divine: No trace of human effort should appear.
  2. The sublime: A spontaneous flow from the brush resulted from the artist's deeper understanding of the universe and the nature of all things.
  3. The marvelous: The need to express truth even if it was contrary to reality.
  4. The skill: Artistic talent was necessary to piece together fragments of beauty into a masterpiece.

In the 1100s, the “Four Masters of Landscape Painting” of the Northern Song dynasty created two types of landscape techniques that developed into the classical styles of Chinese landscape painting. The two northern artists, Jing Hao (c. 855–915) and Guan Tong (c. 906–960), painted mountains and rivers in ink with bold, vigorous strokes, strong black lines, and sharp dotted brushstrokes. In contrast, the southern painters, Dong Yuan (c. 934–962) and Ju Ran (fl. 950), depicted peaceful hills of the countryside in charming and gentle scenes using softer brushwork.

Song landscapes Landscape painting reached its peak during the Song dynasty. Important books on painting theory were published, and a group from the Southern Song dynasty, the “Four Master Painters”—Ma Yuan (c. 1160–1225), Li Tang (c. 1066–1150), Liu Songnian (1174–1224), and Xia Gui (1180–1230)—changed the painting style of the times by combining landscape and figure painting, using empty spaces, and substituting simplicity for complexity. Their paintings brought the romantic, intimate style of the Literati Painters to landscape painting.

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The Literati Painters were part of the Imperial Painting Academy, which flourished because Emperor Huizong Zhao Ji (1082–1135) included art in the civil-examination system. Although he was an incompetent and extravagant ruler, the emperor was an excellent painter of flowers and birds. He was also a great patron of the arts, seeking out talented, but little-known, painters throughout the empire and buying their art. The upper class followed his example, which helped to support artists and preserved many paintings that otherwise might have been lost or forgotten.

The Literati Painters brought many changes to flower and bird painting, which had become popular and realistic. Soon distinct painting styles developed. Some artists emphasized detail and careful line drawing. Many people felt that the tightly controlled subject matter and style, and the emphasis on precise and faultless drawing, resulted in stiff compositions. Thus the school was sometimes blamed for limiting creativity but also praised for its major contributions to Chinese art. Fa Chang (c. 1210–1269), however, invented an inksplash style that revealed the painter's emotion and perception, using simple compositions and images.

Later, Literati Painting continued to influence Yuan painters of flowers and birds. They developed a solemn and simple style that combined heavy ink and light color. By the Ming dynasty, many Literati Painters had adopted a casual attitude to life. For them, the ink-splash style, which does not require meticulous detail and neat strokes, became a tool that allowed them express themselves in a playful way.

Figure painting and landscapes Throughout the Tang dynasty Buddhism and Daoism had greatly influenced art, but during the Five Dynasties period, painters depicted historical scenes and everyday life. During the early Song dynasty, some artists continued to paint religious art, but other artists broadened their subject matter to include portraits of working people such as peasants, fishermen, and woodcutters.

Realism dominated Song figure painting. Scenes tended to be realistic, exquisite, and vivid, focusing on the personalities of the subjects. But as a result of the government suppression and conflicts during the Yuan and early Ming dynasties, painters lost interest in figure painting. Only the folk painters, who depicted human figures on the walls of tombs or temples, kept figure painting alive during this time.

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Songpaintersfocused on realism such as thispaintingoffarmers at work. Songpaintersfocused on realism such as thispaintingoffarmers at work. © FARMERS AT WORK, NORTHERN SONG DYNASTY, 960–1279 (WALL PAINTING)/MOGAO CAVES, DUNHUANG, GANSU PROVINCE, NW CHINA/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES © FARMERS AT WORK, NORTHERN SONG DYNASTY, 960–1279 (WALL PAINTING)/MOGAO CAVES, DUNHUANG, GANSU PROVINCE, NW CHINA/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

Landscape painting, however, remained popular during the Yuan dynasty. The “Four Masters” of the Yuan dynasty—Ni Zan (1301–1374), Wu Zen (1280–1354), Wang Meng (1301–1385), and Huang Gongwang (1269–1354)—were Daoists or Chan Buddhists who stayed aloof from the world and immersed themselves in nature. Their paintings had a religious significance.

Many scholarly works on painting theory and technique were produced in this period. Writers of these books had many helpful suggestions for artists, including the idea that brush technique should be the same in painting and calligraphy.

Ming suppression and restoration The Ming dynasty tried to restore ancient traditions and insisted that painters use these techniques rather than developing their own styles. The government also reopened the Page 209  |  Top of ArticleImperial Painting Academy. Ming rulers continued to suppress creativity until a group of painters defied the government and developed a new style called the “Zhe School” or the “Northern School.” These artists paid attention to technique, but were not restrained by old conventions.

Over time, the “Wu School” or “Southern School” gradually replaced the Zhe group as the leading school. The Wu School focused on tradition, technique, and use of brush and ink. Their paintings are poetic, elegant, cultured, and much looser in style than those of the Zhe School.

Printmaking Printing art from carved wooden blocks began during the Sui dynasty (589–618). Before this, each painting was created individually, but now the carved blocks could be used over and over to make many copies of a painting. Art reproduction increased rapidly during the Song and Yuan dynasties with the new printing techniques. Woodblock printing reached new heights in quality and quantity during the Ming dynasty. Realistic, detailed prints appeared in many types of publications, including novels, plays, classics, history books, biographies, and scientific documents. The texts of these documents could also be reproduced by wood blocks, so many copies of books were made.

Woodblock prints made in the cities of Beijing and Jianan were plain and rough, and usually placed on the upper half of a page with printed text beneath. Printers in Jinling (Nanjing) enlarged prints to a full page. Their reproductions were quite detailed, with sharp and powerful lines, but the human figures were unsophisticated and simple.

The best wood-block prints were produced by printers in Huizhou (now Huangshan City). These prints accurately depicted human figures and vivid images, and the fine lines were evidence of the excellent carving skills of their creators.


The strong economy of the Tang dynasty (618–907) allowed the Chinese to create large-scale stone carvings and sculptures. These include those at the Mogao Caves and Longmen (Dragon Gate) Cave in northwest China, as well as other temples, caves, and tombs that still exist in modern times.

Tang stone sculpture Unlike Buddhist stone sculptures of earlier eras, Tang Buddhist figures are emotional and look human. For instance, the Page 210  |  Top of Articlelarge Buddha in the Mogao Caves has smiling and wide-spaced eyes, thick lips, and a friendly expression, whereas earlier Buddhas are majestic and solemn. The Mogao Caves are filled with many other graceful sculptures with expressive facial features. Many are actually portraits of male and female members of the Tang nobility.

The most notable sculpture at Longmen is a huge Buddha completed in 675. The folds of his robe are skillfully carved, and the Buddha's face is full and round. Facial expressions vary on the other figures.

Among those figures is the Lushena Buddha, a masterpiece of Chinese stone sculpture. His facial expression is vivid and emotional, dignified and kindly, sincere and wise. His right hand is raised to his chest, symbolizing power and stability. The best-known sculptor of the Tang era is Yang Huizhi, who carved the eighteen arhats (Buddhists who have reached the stage of enlightenment).

A guardian sculpture is found on the path to the tomb of Emperor Li Zhi and his wife, Empress Wu, rulers of the Tang dynasty. A guardian sculpture is found on the path to the tomb of Emperor Li Zhi and his wife, Empress Wu, rulers of the Tang dynasty. © DAVID LYONS/ALAMY © DAVID LYONS/ALAMY

Song and Yuan sculpture By the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties, stone sculptures became more realistic. Stone carvings became simpler. The Song sculptures in the Magao Caves have slimmer bodies and graceful lines than those at Longmen.

Each of the forty-three painted, lifelike statues of female servants in the Goddess Hall (built 1023–1032) at the Jin Temple has a different posture and expression. The forty statues of arhats in the Spirit Rock Temple appear relaxed and realistic. The 52-foot (16-meter) Guanyin (goddess of mercy) in the Temple of Lonely Happiness is the largest existing Song statue. All of these are located in eastern China.

Ming (1368–1644) sculptors were more skillful than earlier artists. They used precious materials, such as brass and gold, and worked in new styles. The style of Ming arhats is freer than the carving of previous statues, but because the government discouraged artists from expressing individual creativity, most Ming sculptures Page 211  |  Top of Articleare mediocre and lack sophistication compared to those from previous dynasties.

Tomb sculpture Sculptures were a major feature of imperial tombs. Most Tang tombs were built into hills. The Zhaoling (Clarity Tomb) of Tang emperor Taizong (ruled 626–649), was constructed between three hills and completed in 637. It includes the well-known sculpture Six Horses of the Clarity Tomb, which shows the emperor's favorite horses. The halfround carving style makes the horses appear vivid, powerful, and realistic.

Pairs of stone sculptures line the path to the Qianling Tomb of Emperor Li Zhi (ruled 649–683) and his wife, Empress Wu (ruled 690–705). The lions, flying horses, phoenixes, human figures, tablets, and sixty foreign kings are three-dimensional and seem to be in motion.

Song (960–1279) imperial tombs were smaller than those of the Tang. A typical merchant's tomb completed in 1099 in the town of Baisha (White Sand) is built of brick and divided into two rooms. The front room (possibly a “living room”) forms a “T” shape with the entry path; the back room (perhaps a “bedroom”) is hexagonal. The murals and carvings in the tomb depict the life of the merchant.

The scale of Ming imperial tombs was similar to that of Tang tombs. The largest Ming tomb in Beijing is the Long Tomb of Emperor Chengzu (ruled 1402–1424), completed in 1424. It, too, is approached by a long path with groups of sculptures arranged symmetrically on either side. These huge, simply carved animal statutes represent various characteristics of the emperor. For example, the elephants represent stability, and the lions illustrate his power.

Pottery and miniature sculpture From as far back as 1000 BCE, the Chinese created pottery by baking or firing kaolin, a special clay. In addition to dishes, vases, and jars, they also sculpted figures of people and animals. Some of these figurines were used in tombs, as the Chinese believed the figurines would serve and protect the dead person in the afterlife.

The pottery figurines made during the Tang dynasty are often humorous, and their colors are bright and beautiful. Most of them depict real life. Song pottery figures do not match those of the Tang in quality or quantity, but they looked more realistic.

Most of the art and literature from the Tang dynasty was produced by people from the upper classes. During the Song dynasty, however, Page 212  |  Top of Articlesocial classes became less important, and commoners also began creating art. Their creations were known as folk art. These folk arts influenced Song pottery, and the figures on the pottery became livelier.

Yuan pottery figures gradually became less realistic and lost the distinct, individual facial features of earlier sculptures. Miniature folk-art figurines of the Ming dynasty were carved from materials such as jade, ivory, wood, bamboo, tree roots, and cores of fruit. Around 1430, the Ming folk artist Xia Baiyan could carve sixteen playing children on a tiny olive pit, each vividly individualized. Other sculptors were known for their bamboo figures.

Theater arts

The theater arts flourished during the imperial period (608–1644). Acrobatics, dancing, and dramas were originally performed for the court. Later these shows became popular entertainment in the marketplaces. The commoners also developed unique forms of folk music, dance, and genre shows.

Acrobatics Acrobatics, which combined many elements of theater, was one of the earliest forms of entertainment, Tang (618–907) performers dazzled audiences with tightrope walking, pole climbing, horseback acrobatics, mock sword fighting, sword swallowing, fire breathing, and juggling. Some acrobats were also magicians or circus performers and used trained monkeys, horses, rhinoceroses, and elephants in their acts.

Song-era (960–1279) acrobats combined music, dance, and magic in their shows. The newly invented gunpowder added dramatic effects to magic shows. Some performers put on circuses that included small trained animals such as fish, turtles, birds, bees, butterflies, crickets, and ants. The Song also invented folk performances known as quyi (genre shows).

Genre shows Genre shows were folk-art performances that combined ballad singing, storytelling, comedy, and clapper talks (a rhythmic story accompanied by bamboo clappers). The Buddhists first used genre shows to attract audiences. The Buddhists discovered that their religious teachings attracted more interest if songs were included, so early shows were called zhuanbian (singing Buddhist texts).

In the Song dynasty (960–1279), genre shows gradually moved to what was called the “spontaneous market,” an urban amusement area Page 213  |  Top of Articlewith stages and entertainment tents. Song genre shows could be secular, military, religious, or historic. Several styles of genre shows developed such as poetic drum and chanting, but most were singing shows accompanied by metal and wooden drums as well as flutes. Some included spoken parts and long stories with complicated plots that later influenced the development of Chinese drama.

By the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), many styles of genre shows had reached their final forms. The qinshu (string talking) show was performed with a yangqin (an instrument similar to a zither with several sets of strings that are struck rather than plucked). In the North, mupi guci (wood-and-skin-drum lyrics) might relate stories about Chinese history.

In the South, blind singers accompanied by a small drum and string instrument performed tanci (singing lyrics). Other performers did yugu daoqing (fish-drum singing) accompanied by the rhythmic beat of a fishshaped bamboo drum and a wooden clapper. “Busy shows” were performed by a single actor, who used his hands and one foot to play gongs and drums while he sang.

This pottery figure shows a female dancer from the Tang court. Although Tang dancers absorbed many elements from foreign cultures, they also invented new dances. This pottery figure shows a female dancer from the Tang court. Although Tang dancers absorbed many elements from foreign cultures, they also invented new dances. © THE ART ARCHIVE/GERALD GODFREY COLLECTION, HONG KONG/WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE/THE PICTURE DESK, INC. © THE ART ARCHIVE/GERALD GODFREY COLLECTION, HONG KONG/WERNER FORMAN ARCHIVE/THE PICTURE DESK, INC.

Dance In addition to genre shows, the commoners also invented unique styles of dance. Song-era folk-dance troupes combined dance, music, martial arts, and acrobatics in shows they performed during holidays. Some of these dances included the spinning dance and the popular flower-drum dance, in which dancers beat a drum while singing and dancing vigorous, complicated steps.

Tang dances were divided into two styles: ranwu (soft dance) and jianwu (vigorous dance). Soft dances were graceful, relaxed, and expressive. Vigorous dances, such as the sword dance, were powerful and explosive with quick, complicated rhythms.

Tang dance absorbed many elements from foreign cultures, including those of India, Rome, Persia (Iran), and other parts of Asia, but palace dancers also invented new dances. For example, the dance Page 214  |  Top of Articlecalled “The Prince of Qin's Breaking Battle Array” had 120 dancers dressed like warriors. In the “Lion Dance of Five Dimensions,” dancers wore fake lion skins and were accompanied by instrumental music and 140 singers.

Yuan (1279–1368) dance performances were influenced by a variety of dance styles. A popular Yuan dance was the daola, in which dancers imitated wind and snow while holding bamboo in their mouths and lamps on their heads. Dramatic performances became the main entertainment during the Ming dynasty; the more formal style of palace dance was saved for ceremonial activities.

Variety plays Theater performances during the Song period were either Northern variety plays or Southern dramas. Variety plays might include comedy and dialogue along with court- or folk-dance dramas. The main play often consisted of a single story in four acts or song sequences and was often preceded by martial arts, dances, and songs to attract an audience.

Southern drama developed from traditional folk songs and folk dances and used music and lyrics. Rather than separate acts, all parts of the play connected smoothly with dances. Only the main character sang in Northern variety plays, whereas Southern dramas generally featured all the characters singing in solos, duets, or the chorus.

Southern drama, with its intriguing plots, humorous dialogue, lovely music, graceful dancing, colorful costumes, and exquisite stage design, offered its audiences an exciting experience. The government eventually banned these folk dramas because they often criticized the rulers.

Marvel tales A dramatic form that reached its peak during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), marvel tales were long stories about unexplained, supernatural events. They featured complicated plots and were divided into scenes. Four anonymous plays, which are considered the greatest marvel tales of this period, all have happy endings in which virtuous women are rewarded. These plays reflected the morals of the Ming era, when men were dominant and woman submissive.

More than one hundred playwrights wrote more than five hundred plays during the Ming dynasty. The greatest of these playwrights was Tang Xianzu (1550–1616). He was best known for a group of plays called “The Four Dreams of Linchuan,” one of which has fifty-five scenes.

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Rival playwright Shen Jing (1553–1610) disliked Tang's dramatic style. Shen complained that Tang paid more attention to his characters' emotions than to correct rhyme. Shen's plays had careful rhyme but lacked imagination and passion. Shen went on to become the leader of the Wujiang School, a group that included many well-known playwrights.


During the imperial period (618–1644), many men studied the Confucian classics, hoping to pass the civil service examinations and become government officials. They were knowledgeable not only about literature, but also about forms of poetry and essay. Some aspiring scholars who failed the exams channeled their talents into poetry and prose. Their writings usually reflected the political climate of the times in which they wrote.

Tang poetry Several groups of Tang (618–907) poets developed a poetic form known as lushi, a “regulated,” eight-line poem written in couplets (pairs of rhyming lines). Each of the eight lines includes five or seven characters. In a couplet, each written character symbol in the odd-numbered line should be antithetical (opposite) to the character in the same position in the even-numbered line, both in tone and meaning. The last characters in each couplet should rhyme in a soft tone. Rules also governed the rhyming of the other characters.

Du Shenyan (c. 645–708) composed one of the best regulated fivecharacter poems of the time, “Sightseeing in Early Spring.” Other poets preferred to express their feelings in a more spontaneous manner and avoided the strict form of lushi.

Four poets of the early Tang became known as the “Four Talents”: Lu Zhaolin (630–680), Luo Bin-wang (c. 640–684), Wang Bo (650–676), and Yang Jiong (650–693). Two of them showed remarkable talent as children. Luo began writing poems at the age of seven, and Yang passed the civil examination for teenagers when he was only ten.

Yet none of them received high positions in the government. This made them critical of the work produced by the palace poets, who they accused of being lifeless and lacking passion. Luo and Yang, who served in the army, wrote about the western frontier and wilderness. The “Four Page 216  |  Top of ArticleTalents” combined poetic forms with a prose style that allowed them to express their emotions.

Chen Ziang (659–700) began a new tide in Chinese literature. Critical of the flowery style of other Tang poets, he revived ancient forms. Some of his poems are still well known by many Chinese.

Other poets also looked to the past for inspiration, making the Tang era the golden age of classical poetry. A collection of many of their works, The Complete Tang Poetry, includes almost fifty thousand poems written by more than 2,200 poets. Some of the most famous are Li Bai (701–762) and Du Fu (712–770).

Song dynasty poet Su Shi wrote about everyday topics, such as bugs and clam-eating instead of the classical poetry written by Tangpoets. Song dynasty poet Su Shi wrote about everyday topics, such as bugs and clam-eating instead of the classical poetry written by Tangpoets. © CHINA: SU SHI (SU DONGPO, JANUARY 8, 1037–AUGUST 24, 1101), SONG DYNASTY POET AND STATESMAN/PICTURES FROM HISTORY/BRIDGEMAN IMAGE © CHINA: SU SHI (SU DONGPO, JANUARY 8, 1037–AUGUST 24, 1101), SONG DYNASTY POET AND STATESMAN/PICTURES FROM HISTORY/BRIDGEMAN IMAGE

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Around 755, Du Fu began the New Music Bureau movement, in which poets hoped to stimulate government reform. Du Fu adopted an old ballad tradition to protest the problems of society and ridicule the government. Other poets, serving as government officials, adopted this style to promote their political ideas. Their poems were natural, smooth, and readable.

Development of lyrics Ci was lyrical poetry used as folk songs. Music imported from Central Asia, combined with that of ancient China, became known as yanyue (feast music). The words to these songs were written in lines of unequal length to fit the rhythms and structure of the music. Li, the last ruler of the Southern Tang dynasty (937–975), wrote several well-known poems, including lyrics for the tunes, such as “Yumeiren” (The Beautiful Lady Yu).

During the early years of the Song dynasty, writers of lyrics followed the Tang style. Poetry-prose writers Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) and Su Shi (1037–1101) moved beyond the usual topics of poetry to write about everyday subjects such as lice, mosquitoes, or clam-eating. Other poets of this movement included Su Shunqin (1008–1048) and Wang Anshi (1021–1086).

Lyrics of the Song period are divided into two groups, one of grace and tenderness, the other of vigor. The first group includes lyrics mostly devoted to love and sorrow at parting. The female writer Li Qingzhao (1081–c. 1141) was the most well-known and talented poet of this school. She began writing as a teenager, and her poems reflected the dramas of her life. The second group includes the works of the “Three Su's”—Su Xun (1009–1106) and his sons Su Shi and Su Che (1039–1112).

Jiangxi and Honest Study One of the “Four Scholars of the Su School,” named for the Su's style, Huang Tingjian (1045–1105) believed in imitating other authors' poems, though changing the poet's original words or meaning. Poets who followed his style belonged to the Jiangxi School of poetry.

Huang's ideas remained popular until Yang Wanli (1127–1206) challenged them and developed the style called Honest Study. Yang's style used natural and humorous language along with a philosophical view of life and nature. He wanted poets to bring back the magic quality of spirituality in poetry. Yang's work had profound influence on later poets.

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Yuan works Few poems survive from the Liao dynasty (916–1115), but the best known are ten works in Huixinyuan (The Court for the Returning Heart), written by Empress Yide (1040–1075). The most important legacy of the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) is the literary criticism and poetry of Yuan Haowen (1190–1257); he compiled an anthology ofworks by 240 Jin poets.

During the Yuan dynasty, poets of the North, such as Yelü Chucai (1190–1244), followed in the Liao and Jin traditions, writing bold, artistically rough works. Poets of the South included calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), whose poems were subtle and beautiful. His wife, Guan Daosheng (1262–1319), a famous painter, was also an accomplished poet.

The prose movement Toward the end of the Tang dynasty, the master essayist Han Yu (768–824) began writing prose for the general public to promote Confucianism over Daoism and Buddhism. (Prose is writing in ordinary language rather than in poetry.) Han also urged writers to replace overused words and ideas with more vivid writing.

Another essayist, Liu Zongyuan (773–819) made an important contribution to the prose movement. He stressed the need for depth of ideas and invented a more literary and lyrical style. His nature essays are beautiful and demonstrated that the subjects of essays did not have to be limited to politics and philosophy.

Fiction writing Most writing during the early imperial era consisted of short pieces, such as poems and marvel tales, which later evolved into longer works and full-length novels. The marvel tales of the Tang dynasty were drawn from accounts of unexplained, supernatural events. These short stories with plot, character development, and psychological analysis marked the beginning of the Chinese novel.

The short and medium-length novels of the Song and the Yuan dynasties were the next stage in the development of fiction. They can be divided into two types: vernacular and classic.

The vernacular novel is closely related to the folk art of storytelling. Portraying the lives of the urban lower class, it was more widely read than the classic novel, which appealed to the upper class. With a few exceptions, the authors of the classics, or noteworthy literary novels, were more concerned with morality and justice than with character development.

Ming suppression In the early Ming era, the Hongwu Emperor (1328–1398) executed anyone who criticized him. Writers were fearful about Page 219  |  Top of Articleexpressing new ideas because the emperor often misinterpreted their intent. Many well-known writers were executed; others committed suicide rather than suppress their creativity. This fear changed the poetic style. Poets supported by the imperial court emphasized ideas over beauty. Their poems supported neo-Confucianism and focused on the lives of the upper class.

By the middle of the Ming era, under new emperors, the government became less strict. Young poets began to express individual feelings and desires. But traditional poets criticized these works and ideas, because they still preferred the old methods.

Ming novels Writers of the Ming era produced many important long novels. These novels related the adventures of a large number of characters in a string of loosely connected events. Novels ranged from historical romances and tales of chivalry to ghost stories and stories that mocked society.

One of the well-known novels from this time is The Journey to the West. Attributed to Wu Chengen (c. 1506–1582), this comic fantasy is based on the seventeen-year-long journey of the Tang monk Xuanzang (596–664) to India to collect Buddhist scriptures. Four disciples with superhuman abilities accompany the monk and protect him from demons and monsters that threaten his life.

Li Zhi and the schools of Gongan and Jingling In his Fenshu (Books to Be Burned), Li Zhi (1527–1602) became the first Chinese scholar to criticize traditional values and the authorities. His most influential literary theory is “the heart of a child,” in which he argues that the best and most genuine essays come from the original, childlike self. Anything that is not genuine should be avoided, and the genuine should not be corrupted by learning and society.

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Five-character Quatrains

The five-character quatrain has been popular since the early years of the Tang dynasty (618–907). Many generations of Chinese have memorized well-known poems in this form. Children can recite many ancient five-character quatrains, often without understanding them. The following poems are among the most popular:

Wang Zhihuan (688–742), “Climbing the Stork Pavilion”
The white sun leaning on the mountain disappears, The Yellow River flows on into the sea; To stretch your gaze a thousand leagues, Climb up still another story.

Meng Haoran (689–740), “Spring Dawn”
Asleep in spring unaware of dawn, And everywhere hear the birds in song. At night the sound of wind and rain, You'll know how much from the flowers gone.

Li Bai (701–762), “Quiet Night Thought”
Before my bed the moonlight glitters Like frost upon the ground. I look up to the mountain moon, Look down and think of home.

Li Shen (772–846), “Sympathy for the Peasants”
When crops are worked at noon, It is sweat that moistens the soil. Who stops to think, before a bowl of food, That every grain comes only through long toil?



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Li Zhi was greatly admired by the founders of the School of Gongan, the Yuan brothers, who also advocated this free expression. The School of Jingling, which included Zhong Xing (1574–1624), also promoted creativity and natural spirit. These two schools and Li Zhi developed the prose style that transformed conventional Chinese literature into modern literature.


Music played an important role in the imperial dynasties (618–1644). The emperor and officials enjoyed palace music, whereas the commoners developed popular folk music. Both styles of music were preserved by historians as well as by music scholars, who created notation systems to write down musical scores.

Tang palace music During the Tang dynasty (618–907), the court included a training center for palace musicians, who then played for the emperor and court events and ceremonies. The government's Temple of Ultimate Normalcy took charge of religious rituals and music. The three types of music—song, dance, and instrumental—were grouped into four categories: palace-feast music, multinational music, grand melody, and Buddhist melody.

Specific types of music in each category were called “melodies.” The early Tang had “nine melodies” inherited from the Sui dynasty (581–618). Then they added one more type, or “melody,” multinational music, which was divided into two parts: sitting players (for the hall) and standing players (for the garden).

The grand melody, or grand palace-feast melody, combined instrumental and vocal music with dance into a large-scale performance with changing rhythms, pace, and dynamics. The Buddhist melody, which was used for rituals and ceremonies, combined elements of traditional Chinese, Buddhist, Daoist, and foreign music. This style faded during the mid-Tang era as interest in Buddhism declined.

Song-era musicians developed several kinds of orchestral music. For example, the Northern Liao dynasty (916–1115) had variety music—instrumental compositions as well as accompaniments for poetic drama, singing, and acrobatics. By the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), orchestral music was divided into string music and wind-and-percussion music, which included drums and gongs.

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Musicians and composers More than one hundred thousand musicians, including foreign musicians, served the Tang court over the centuries. A talented musician, Tang emperor Xuanzong (685–762) composed and conducted music, played several musical instruments, and composed Buddhist melodies.

The Song dynasty produced Jiang Kui (c. 1155–1221), often considered to be the greatest musician in Chinese history. A composer and player of the vertical bamboo flute and the zither, he was also a poet and calligrapher. He collected musical compositions, including his own, into four books.

Song string players were divided into several schools, or styles of music. The School of the Capital preserved many ancient palace songs; its style was bold and vigorous. The School of Jiangxi preferred music with rich and diverse sounds, and its performance style was delicate and beautiful. The style of the School of the “Two Zhes” was refined and civilized.

In the Ming dynasty, the “Eight Unsurpassed Musicians of the Capital” were considered the best players of the lute, strings, flute, and drum. Two important schools—Jiang and Zhe—continued some features of the Two Zhes' style. The influential School of Yushan, founded by Yan Cheng (1547–1625), played in a subtle but profound style.

Music scholars In addition to publishing several music theory books, the Tang also created two forms of music notation. The first used Chinese characters, but was extremely complex until it was later simplified. This system accurately recorded high pitches and changing timbre, but not rhythm. The second combined characters and some signs, but twentyfirst-century experts have not yet deciphered it.

The Song invented at least four methods of musical notation, and Chen Yang (1096–1100), a composer of palace-feast music, compiled a two hundred-volume Chinese encyclopedia of music. Other music scholars wrote books on music history, theory, and notation. Ming-dynasty musician Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1616) used mathematics to identify the “twelve equal temperaments,” which later became known as the standard semitones of the musical scale.

Musical instruments Many musical instruments were created over the centuries. The number of musicians and instruments increased during each dynasty. In the Northern Song dynasty (960–1125), the palace had Page 222  |  Top of Article599 palace musicians who played 351 musical instruments. During the twelfth century, 1,422 woodwind and percussion players were employed as palace musicians.

Tang musicians created out of terracotta play lutes and a pipe. Musicians of the Tang dynasty had about three hundred instruments from which to play. Tang musicians created out of terracotta play lutes and a pipe. Musicians of the Tang dynasty had about three hundred instruments from which to play. © THE ART ACHIVE/MUSÉE GUIMET PARIS/GIANNI DAGLI ORTI/THE PICTURE DESK, INC. © THE ART ACHIVE/MUSÉE GUIMET PARIS/GIANNI DAGLI ORTI/THE PICTURE DESK, INC.

The Tang dynasty had about three hundred instruments, including eighteen wind, fifteen string, and twenty-one percussion instruments. The lute, reed pipe, bamboo flute, Jie drum, and various kinds of bells were the most important.

All of these musical instruments remained in use during the Song dynasty. Many new instruments, some of which no longer exist, appeared. Popular instruments were the horsehead fiddle from Mongolia, a bowed, string instrument with a carved horsehead on the scroll, Page 223  |  Top of Articleand the pipa, a type of lute whose sound was described as pearls dropping on jade.

Genre music Imperial China had many forms of genre music (folk or popular music). The mini melody was sung with various lyrics or played for dancing and theatrical performances. “Storytelling” music came from Buddhist preaching and texts. The “adjutant play” was a skit with vocal accompaniment that greatly influenced the development of Chinese drama.

“Variety music” was played for shows that included skits, wrestling, acrobatics, magic, dancing, and martial arts. The rise of folk music paralleled the development of the “spontaneous market,” an outdoor entertainment center with several dozen stages and entertainment tents, the largest of which could hold several thousand people.

Several forms of music were developed for the genre show, a folk-art performance that included singing. One was loose melody, sentimental music that revealed the personal feelings of the playwrights who wrote it. Folk songs became popular among scholars in the Ming dynasty, who helped to preserve this music by writing it down.

Northern folk music, called Kunshan tune, or Kun melody, was a major and influential style. Blind doctor and famous singer, Wei Liangfu (1522–1573) changed the Kun melody from plain folk tunes into soft, clear, sweet, and relaxing music that the Chinese called “water polished.”

Cultural exchange

The development of trade along the Silk Road and water routes, as well as China's conquest of nearby nations, resulted in the adoption by China of ideas from many different countries. In turn, other nations adopted Chinese ideas, inventions, and art styles. This cultural exchange benefited all the nations.

In the 600s Buddhism arrived from India and exerted an influence on Chinese culture, and during the following century, various other religions arrived in China. The visitors brought new ideas and customs and spread Chinese culture to their own lands.

Japanese cultural exchange Between 630 and 838, Japan sent sixteen groups to China to learn more about the Chinese culture, many with several hundred people—including monks, officials, painters, musicians, Page 224  |  Top of Articledoctors, and students—thus establishing a cultural bridge between the two countries. Many Japanese visitors took Chinese literature and artwork back to Japan. In 1191 the monk Eisai (1141–1215) returned to Japan with tea, which became a popular beverage in his country.

Among the most distinguished Japanese visitors to China was Kibino-Mabi (693–775), who arrived in 717 and spent seventeen years at Chang'an. He went back to Japan with the art of embroidery, the Biwa (a four-stringed lute), and the game of go (Chinese chess). After his return home, he invented kana, Japanese writing using simplified Chinese characters.

Musical influences Chinese multinational music of the Tang period used instruments that developed from those that had been brought to China from Persia, India, and Egypt. Some parts of the music are Indian, Central Asian, Korean, and Uighur. Later, hymns of the Nestorian Christians from Syria influenced Daoist music.

During the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties, a Chinese two-stringed lute evolved from a Muslim three-stringed instrument. Around 1260, European Christian missionaries presented a pipe organ to the emperor, and more were built for palace feasts. The missionaries also introduced the piano and Western musical notation to China. Musical exchanges with Japan, Korea, India, and Thailand were also common.

Chinese music and instruments migrated to Japan. The Japanese government encouraged musicians to study and play the instruments. The popular Japanese “Ming and Qing Music” was based on Chinese melodies imported into Japan during those dynasties (1368–1644; 1644–1912). Although some ancient Chinese musical instruments no longer exist in China, the imperial warehouse in Japan, which stores important cultural artifacts, preserved many of them into the twenty-first century.

Dance and acrobatics The Chinese introduced many acrobatic routines to Central Asia, Korea, and Japan. A Japanese book that has been lost is said to have recorded more than fifty Chinese dance, magic, and acrobatic routines.

Chinese dances incorporated many elements from the West. For example, fulinwu (stroking forest) came from the Byzantine Empire, a large empire that included parts southern Europe, northern Africa, and Page 225  |  Top of Articlethe Middle East. Nanzhao (Yunnan) and Burma sent teams to the Tang court to present their dances, and southwestern China had a dance called piaoguoyue (Burma music). Various lion dances, in which dancers wear lion costumes, were performed in China, Korea, and Japan, and the nations' different styles influenced each other.

The Japanese Kondo (Golden Hall) mimics the architectural style of Tang builders. The Japanese Kondo (Golden Hall) mimics the architectural style of Tang builders. © CULTURAL EYES-AUSGS2/ALAMY © CULTURAL EYES-AUSGS2/ALAMY

Chinese impact on foreign art During the eighth century, Tang arts and architecture flourished in Nara, Japan. The Horyuji Buddhist Temple, built there around 670, was constructed in the Chinese architectural style of that period. Chinese architectural influence can also be seen in the Japanese Kondo (Golden Hall), which copied the solidity, symmetry, and grandeur of Tang style. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are also patterned after Chinese ideas.

Song paintings influenced Japanese artists. By the 1300s, Persian artists had been profoundly influenced by Chinese arts. Persian painters Page 226  |  Top of Articleused the Chinese ink-and-wash style. Later painters in the Near East imitated Chinese paintings of flowers, birds, and animals.

Chinese dragons, phoenixes, and unicorns became popular decorations in Persian paintings, buildings, and rugs. Design elements such as the flying goose, the cloud and storm, curved lines, the keyhole, the heart shape, the apple (symbolizing peace), the peach (symbolizing longevity), and the yin-yang symbol also appeared in Persian artworks.

Outside influences on Chinese art The Chinese, in turn, were influenced by the art and architecture from other countries. Tang master Wu Daozi (c. 688–758) used a shadow technique in his paintings that Chinese painters had learned from Indian artists. The influence of the Persian religion Manichaeanism is evident in a Tang bronze mirror decorated in a lion-and-grape design that was popular before the government suppression of foreign religions in 843 to 845.

Foreign architectural ideas are evident in various Chinese buildings. The Temple of the Healthy Buddha in the capital of Chang'an in central China, for example, was based on the Indian sikhara, or tower of stone. Indian style is also noticeable in the Treasure Pagoda of the Temple of Buddhist Light in eastern China.

Ceramics and textiles The shapes and motifs of Tang ceramics reveal strong foreign influences. Chinese stoneware adapted the shape of the Hellenistic amphora (vessel with two handles on each side near top). The Tang rhytons (drinking vessels shaped like animals or animal heads) were often copies of older Persian shapes, and many Tang burial figures have a Persian appearance.

In return, Chinese designs and technology appeared in many other countries. The shape of the Tang circular bottle is evident in the blueglazed pottery of Persia and Syria. Fragments of white China dishes have been found in Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt.

By the Song dynasty, Chinese porcelain was exported to many countries, including what are now the modern-day countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Italy. Foreign artisans, including the Egyptians, Iranians, Iraqis, and Syrians, all learned to make Chinese-style porcelain. Chinese phoenix designs were copied on Persian ceramics.

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During the Song dynasty Chinese silk textile products were widely exported to such places as Southeast Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. At the same time, among Tang textile products, one called “white brocade of Gaoli” was of Korean origin.

Language and literature The written language of Japan developed from Chinese characters. In 712 the Japanese book Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), a collection of Japanese myths, was written partly in Chinese with some Japanese elements. Many Chinese books were translated into Japanese.

The fame of the renowned Tang-era poet Bai Juyi (772–846) reached Korea and Japan. People in these nations paid large sums of money for copies of his poems. The Japanese emperor Saga (768–842) stored Bai's works in the imperial secretariat (government offices). In Japan, Bai continues to enjoy immense popularity in the twenty-first century. In Kyoto he is honored during the annual Gion Festival, and a shrine dedicated to him is included in the traditional parade.


Activity 1: Design a seal Seals were useful tools in imperial China as well as works of art. Design a seal for yourself. It should include your name or initials, a symbol that represents you (perhaps a favorite hobby or interest), and a symbol for your future occupation (choose whatever you would like to be). As an alternative, pretend you live in imperial China and design the seal to fit your life there.

Activity 2: Chinese poetry Write a five-character quatrain. It can be based on the samples in the chapter, or challenge yourself to do it the Chinese way. Write two lines of a poem. Underneath each line, write another line in which all the nouns and verbs are opposite from the line above it. Or write the poem like a ci, so it can be sung to a popular tune.

Activity 3: Monochrome landscape Monochrome paintings were one of several types of art found in imperial China. Choose only one color and paint or draw a landscape or an object of your choice in the Chinese monochrome style, using several different viewpoints in the same picture (looking down on it, looking straight at it, looking at it from below, turning it different directions).

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3629700090