Years Period China World
c1700-221 BCE Bronze Age
Warring States Period
Shang dynasty;
Chou (Zhou) dynasty
Shang dynasty; 
Chou (Zhou) dynasty
development of writing
bronze casting
Lao Tzu,
Iron Tools
Code of Hammurabi
Olmec in America
Golden Age of Perikles
Rome Begins
c221- 206 BCE Qin  (Chin) dynasty Unification 
Centralized Bureaucracy
standardized money, written language, 
Clay figures, 
Great Wall
Rome Begins
206 BCE-220CE  Han dynasty Jade Suit
Silk Road 
Confucianism made state philosophy
Buddhism Introduced
Rise of Christianity
220 - 579 CE Six Dynasties
North, East and West Wei, 
Nomad Invasions,
Buddhism Grows
Rock Cut Caves
Monumental Buddhas
Birth of Muhammad
Edict of Milan
Hagia Sofia
Separation of Churches
568 - 617 CE Sui Reunification of China
618-907 Tang dynasty Repression of Buddhism
Examination System
In order to understand the designs and traditions concerning Chinese art the first thing a student must realize is that China has the longest continuous culture and tradition on the planet.  This also means that you can actually trace back the ideas and designs n art from as far back as the beginning of Chinese culture.  Therefore we'll start with the Shang Dynasty and its bronzes.  Review the timeline above to get a better sense of the culture and compare it to European cultures of the same time.

Fang Ding 
1180 BCE 
Anyang, China 
Shang Dynasty
Bronze Age
Fu Hao's tomb
Style V

Piece and Mold Technique

Context:  Vessels such as this one were found buried in tombs such as the Tomb of  Fu Hao from the Shang Dynasty.  The use and creation of these vessels continued on into the Zhou Dynasty however, they were not always used in burials.  The function for both vessels would have been to hold or cook food for a sacrifice.  The smoke rising off of the vessel would have been for the spirit of the diseased and then the cooked food would have been eaten by the living.

The creation of such vessels shows a complexity of design as well as technology in terms of bronze casting.

Process:  The artist would make a model of what he wanted the bronze to look like out of clay.  He would then let it dry until it was very hard.  Next, moist clay was placed over the dried model and allowed to harden.  This layer, when dry, was cut away into easily reassemble pieces, and fired.  The model, the first piece made, was then shaved down to serve as the core for the fired mold.  Then everything was reassembled, with bronze spacers holding up the core.  Then the entire thing was covered in clay and a hole was cut, into which the artist could pour the hot, liquid bronze.  Next, the bronze was poured and when it was cooled the cast was broken, revealing the bronze sculpture.

Internet Site of Interest:

Form:  Some of these vessels weighed 200 to 300 pounds.  The ornamentation on them is fairly complex and stylized and uses compound imagery very similar to that of the art from the Kwakiutl and Tlingit cultures.  The relief images on the front are fairly geometricized.  They represent two stylized dragon or monster faces (called t'ao-t'ieh also spelled taotie) which are mirror images of each other. Half of the taotie has been outlined in red, the other design motifs, the leiwen thunder design in turquoise and kui dragon in yellow.

The manner in which it is

Iconography:  The iconography of the vessel itself is that it represents a form of wealth in the guise of conspicuous consumption.  The individual component of the taotie mask is less clear.  The kui dragon is often a symbol of good fortune and of royalty and the leiwen thunder design may relate to animist beliefs.

One of my best students ever, Sue Che comments,

Tao-tie in the ancient Chinese mythology is a monster who eats people. For certain reasons, people like to put its face/figure on the Ding, a cooking vessel such as the one we see here. One theory is that the ancient Chinese might think if they cook food inside the Ding with tao-tie's face symbolized that the monster is full of food so it won't eat people anymore. Even today, a person who likes gourmet food is called 'lao-tao'.


Stem Cup with a Shallow Bowl
High Fired White earthenware (kaolin) 
with carved decorations
Late Shang dynasty (12th C BC)
San Francisco Asian Art Museum
Form:  This small white bowl is made of kaolin which according to Webster's dictionary is "a fine usually white clay that is used in ceramics and refractories, as a filler or extender."  This kind of clay is significant because it marks the beginning of the development of Chinese porcelain.

Although made out of one of the main ingredients in porcelain, this vessel does not share in porcelain's light and glass like consistency.  It is still rather small and heavy.  It was most likely made on a potter's wheel wear as later Chinese porcelains were usually made using a mold method.

The designs on the side of the vessel are fairly complex, geometrically stylized and look somewhat like the (called t'ao-t'ieh also spelled taotie).

Iconography:  The iconography of this vessel probably relates to the iconography and symbology concerning the taotie . One of my best students ever, Sue Che comments,

Tao-tie in the ancient Chinese mythology is a monster who eats people. For certain reasons, people like to put its face/figure on the Ding, a cooking vessel such as the one we see here. One theory is that the ancient Chinese might think if they cook food inside the Ding with tao-tie's face symbolized that the monster is full of food so it won't eat people anymore. Even today, a person who likes gourmet food is called 'lao-tao'.
The taotie might also relate to certain mythologies concerning the dragon image in China.  According to the Brittanica,
Pinyin LONG (Chinese: "dragon"), in Chinese mythology, a type of majestic beast that dwells in rivers, lakes, and oceans and roams the skies. Originally a rain divinity, the Chinese dragon, unlike its malevolent European counterpart (see dragon), is associated with heavenly beneficence and fecundity. Rain rituals as early as the 6th century BC involved a dragon image animated by a procession of dancers; similar dances are still practiced in traditional Chinese communities to secure good fortune.

Ancient Chinese cosmogonists defined four types of dragons: the Celestial Dragon (T'ien Lung), who guards the heavenly dwellings of the gods; the Dragon of Hidden Treasure (Fu Tsang Lung); the Earth Dragon (Ti Lung), who controls the waterways; and the Spiritual Dragon (Shen Lung), who controls the rain and winds. In popular belief, only the latter two were significant; they were transformed into the Dragon Kings (Lung Wang), gods who lived in the four oceans, delivered rain, and protected seafarers.

Generally depicted as a four-legged animal with a scaled, snakelike body, horns, claws, and large, demonic eyes, the lung was considered the king of animals, and his image was appropriated by Chinese emperors as a sacred symbol of imperial power.
 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Here we are going to jump ahead several centuries in time and discuss the development of Chinese porcelain and decorative arts.
Review the timeline above to get a better sense of the culture and compare it to European cultures of the same time.
CE Common Era
Events in China
960-1125 North
1127-1279 South 
Sung Dynasty
  • Movable Type (originally as far back as 868 AD
  • Technological/Agricultural Advances 
  • Growth of Commercialism
  • Urbanization
  • Foot Binding
  • Examination System Reformed
Dark Ages
St. Francis
Yuan Dynasty
Kublai Khan, Emperor of China founds Yuan dynasty; Marco Polo in China; 
Gothic to Renaissance Style; Martini, Giotto; Cimabue; Aztec Empire; Black Death in Europe
Ming Dynasty
Black Death in China kills 30 percent of the population; Forbidden City is rebuilt; Shen Zhou and Dong Qichang; the literati
Chaucer, Ghiberti, Michelangelo; the Reformation the Renaissance and the Baroque; the Enlightenment begins, Movable type printing press
Qing Dynasty
Individualist Painters
Baroque, Rococo, Enlightenment, Revolutions in Americas and France


Ewer with Carved Flower Sprays
Porcelain with molded and 
carved decoration and grayish-green glaze 
Middle-late Northern Song 11th-12th C
San Francisco Asian Art Museum
Form:  This vase is decorated with natural leaf like patterns in a fairly naturalistic and realistic manner although the leaves are a bit stylized and idealized.  The greenish glaze on the vessel is referred to as celadon.  According to the Brittanica,
Chinese, Korean, Siamese, and Japanese stoneware decorated with glazes the color range of which includes greens of various shades, olive, blue, and gray. The colours are the result of a wash of slip (liquefied clay) containing a high proportion of iron that is applied to the body before glazing. The iron interacts with the glaze during the firing and colours it. Celadons were prized in the Eastern world long before their comparatively late introduction to the West. A wide demand led to their export to India, Persia, and Egypt in the T'ang dynasty (618-907) and to most of Asia in the Sung (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. The ware was popular because of its beauty, because of a superstition that a celadon dish would break or change color if poisoned food were put into it, and because, to the Chinese, it resembled jade.

Yüeh ware, first made in the Han dynasty (206 BC-ad 220), is the earliest celadon; the glaze is olive or brownish green. The celadons of the Sung dynasty, which came from the kilns of Lung-ch'üan, were the first to reach Europe in the 14th century. Surviving wares include large dishes, bowls, and large vases. The glaze, superb in quality, is a transparent green color. It is thick and viscous, usually with a well-marked crackle. Decoration is usually incised, but molded ornament is also found. On some pots the molding was left unglazed, so that it burned to a dark reddish brown--an effective contrast to the color of the glaze. Most celadons attributable to the Ming dynasty have incised, under-the-glaze floral and foliate decoration.

Iconography:  The greenish jade like color is the first clue as to this vase's iconography.  Jade is a semiprecious stone but it is an extremely hard stone to work with.  Because of this and its different qualities, it was ascribed with magical powers and even thought to be able to preserve bodies after death.  See the jade suit of Han prince Liu Sheng.
Jade was so prized that Confucius described jade as a metaphor for a superior person: In jade “superior men in ancient times found the likeness of all excellent qualities.  It was soft, smooth, and glossy (when polished) like benevolence; fine, compact, and strong, like intelligence; angular, but not sharp and cutting, like righteousness; and (when struck), like music.  Like loyalty, its flaws did not conceal its beauty nor its beauty its flaws, and like virtue, it was conspicuous in the symbols of rank.”  (Gardner's pg. 496)

The floral and organic designs on the Ewer with Carved Flower Sprays can probably be traced to Taoist and Buddhist appreciation of nature and even possible animist belief systems.  Taoism often deals with a "natural way" of existing and basing one's behaviors and philosophies on the observation of nature.

Shallow Bowl with Fish in a Lotus Pond
Porcelain with Molded Decoration 
and Creamy-white glaze, copper rim-band
Jin (1115-1234)
San Francisco Asian Art Museum

Vase with Floral Scrolls
Porcelain with incised 
decorations and whitish glaze
Yuan (1279-1368)
Jiangxi Province
San Francisco Asian Art Museum
Form: This small bowl and the vase below are adorned with naturalistic fish and organic floral designs.  Here we see the evolution of molded white Chinese porcelain that became a major export item.

Iconography: The iconography of the fish is tied closely to the symbolism of the dragon.  In one of the myths, a fish who is able to jump high enough can become a dragon.


Stem-Cup with Dragon
Porcelain with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration
Late Yuan-early Ming (14th c)
Jianxi Province, China
San Francisco Asian Art Museum
Form:  According to the Brittanica, 
White porcelain decorated with blue painted under the glaze. At least as early as the 9th century, underglaze blue had been used in the Middle East, whence it was introduced to China in the Yüan dynasty (1279-1368). Particularly notable are the blue-and-white wares produced in China during the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch'ing (1644-1911) dynasties. From China, underglaze blue was introduced to Europe.
Context: According to the Brittanica,
Yüan dynasty (1206-1368)
The Yüan, or Mongol, dynasty is often regarded as being no more than transitional between Sung and Ming types. This is not entirely true. Undoubtedly, many Sung types were continued, just as the T'ang types were continued at the beginning of the Sung dynasty, but there are other wares that represent a new departure. The manufacturing centre of Ching-te-chen increased in importance and first manufactured the white translucent porcelain that was to have a revolutionary effect on Chinese wares. The use of painted decoration, begun during the Sung period at Tz'u-chou, also became much more widespread, and the two techniques were combined in a manner that later affected the course of porcelain manufacture throughout the world.

The Ko ku yao lun of 1387 refers to shu fu ware, a type of white porcelain. The base is unglazed. Decoration in relief, painted in slip or engraved, is to be seen on some surviving examples of porcelain. It appears to be a development of the earlier Ting ch'ing. Much more unusual is the appearance of a few specimens of Yüan date that are painted with reduced copper red under the glaze. As mentioned above, the potters of Chün-chou had achieved this color, but only in the glaze.

The use of underglaze blue was introduced from the Middle East, where it had been employed at least as early as the 9th century, specimens thus decorated having been recovered at Samarra'. 

China; produced at the Jingdezhen kilns, 
Jiangxi province; 
Ming dynasty, Yongle reign (1403-1424), 
porcelain with underglaze-blue decoration, 
"heap and pile" 
chrysanthemum, Camellia sassanqua, 
CameIIia japonica, morning glory, 
dianthus, peony gardenia, pomegranate, 
rose mallow an unidentified star-shaped 
flower, and a composite asterlike flower.
Indian Mughal Shah Jahan in the year 
San Francisco Asian Art Museum
Ewer with Applied Spout
Porcelain with underglaze-blue decoration
Ming, Yongle-Xuande Period (1403-35)
Jiangxi Province, China
San Francisco Asian Art Museum
Form:  Both these vessels incorporates the white and blue porcelain underglazing that was discussed in the work above but the forms and flower depicted on it also  have come from Persia and or India and the middle east and the shape of the ewer is actually one that is not used in China.

Context and Iconography:  These works are probably most significant because it is an artifact that demonstrates the trade routes between China and the rest of the world.  Chinese porcelain was so highly prized that Chinese merchants began to use the designs from other parts of the world in order to market their wares.  The plate in particular was specifically meant to be exported to India.

Compare the left Chinese piece of porcelain against a Chinoiserie imitation.  What kinds of things are similar and what are different?

Which one would you rather own and why?

Standing Figure of a Westerner
Grayish Earthenware with red and painted decoration
Eastern Wei (534-550)
Approx. 10" tall
San Francisco Asian Art Museum

Woman in Western Clothes 
Holding a Tropical Bird
Tang Dynasty (618-906)
Approx. 3' tall
San Francisco Asian Art Museum
Form: Both of these sculptures are fairly small, almost doll like figurines of people.  The one on the left is a bit less detailed and refined in terms of the color and the glazing.

The image on the right shows some typical Tang kinds of dripping in the glaze and it is very shiny and the colors are fairly intense.

Iconography:  What makes these two images so notable is that they share in the iconography of exoticism that we see in European Chinoiserie and we will see in the primarily French 19th century style known as Orientalism.  Both of these sculptures represent some aspect of mainstream Chinese culture's interest in exotic foreigners.

The work on the left is a bearded probably Arabic trader from the silk route who would have been considered a colorful and interesting character.

The figure on the right was first thought to be the same kind of individual but curators at the museum did a bit of research and based on images of court woman with exotic birds, figured out that the sculpture depicts a Chinese woman wearing a costume of Arabic clothing.

Inverted Pyriform Vase with Scenes of Li Bai 
(Li Po) Enjoying some Wine
Stoneware with slip and underglaze 
decoration in red and black
13th-15th centuries
Northern China

Drinking Alone

I take my wine jug out among the flowers
to drink alone, without friends.

I raise my cup to entice the moon.
That, and my shadow, makes us three.

But the moon doesn't drink,
and my shadow silently follows.

I will travel with moon and shadow,
happy to the end of spring.

When I sing, the moon dances.
When I dance, my shadow dances, too.

We share life's joys when sober.
Drunk, each goes a separate way.

Constant friends, although we wander,
we'll meet again in the Milky Way.

Li T'ai-po (Li Bai)
tr. Hamil

Form:  According to one of the guides at the San Francisco Asian Art museum, the shape of this vessel is reversed to make it a bit unusual. 

Iconography:  Although this vase was probably made for export it still depicts one of the major literary figures from China, Li Po.  According to the Brittanica,

Li Po
b. 701, Szechwan province, China
d. 762, Tang-t'u, Anhwei province 
Pinyin LI BO, Wade-Giles romanization LI T'AI-PO, Chinese poet who rivaled Tu Fu for the title of China's greatest poet.
Li Po liked to regard himself as belonging to the imperial family, but he actually belonged to a less-exalted family of the same surname. At 19 he left home and lived with a Taoist recluse. After a period of wandering, he married and lived with his wife's family, north of Han-chou. He had already begun to write poetry and showed some of it to various officials, in the vain hope of becoming employed as a secretary. A visit to a friend in northeast China in 734 began another period of wandering, and in 742 he arrived at Ch'ang-an, the capital, no doubt hoping to be given a post at court. No official post was forthcoming, but he was accepted into a group of distinguished court poets. In the autumn of 744 he began his wanderings again.

At this point he met the other towering poet of the period, Tu Fu, then scarcely known, while Li Po's fame was already immense. Tu Fu, it is clear, was completely carried away by the dash and verve of the older man, who was becoming increasingly wrapped up in Taoism and alchemical studies and at about that time was definitely accepted as a Taoist initiate, receiving a diploma of spiritual progress from the hands of a high Taoist dignitary.

In 756 Li Po became unofficial poet laureate to the military expedition of Prince Lin, the emperor's 16th son. The prince was soon accused of intending to set up an independent kingdom and was executed; Li Po was arrested and imprisoned at Chiu-chiang. A high official, reviewing sentences passed in connection with the troubles, looked into Li Po's case, had him released, and made him a staff secretary. In the summer of 758 the charges against Li Po were revived, and he was banished to Yeh-lang. Before he arrived, he benefited by a general amnesty; he returned to eastern China, where he died in a relative's house, though popular legend says that he drowned when, sitting drunk in a boat, he tried to seize the moon's reflection in the water.

Li Po was a romantic in his view of life and in his verse. One of the most famous wine drinkers in China's long tradition of imbibers, Li Po frequently celebrated the joy of drinking. He also wrote of friendship, solitude, the passage of time, and the joys of nature. Popularly referred to as a "banished Immortal," he wrote with brilliance and great freshness of imagination. 

A poem by Li Po that directly relates to his life can be found on the left.

Shang Hai
Zuibai Pond (Pond of Drunken Poet Bai) in the south of Chengzhen Town of Songjiang County, was constructed during the period from 1662-1722(in the reign of Emperor Kangxi of Qing Dynasty). It was originally the place where a famous painter named Dong Qichang of Ming dynasty wrote poems and drank wine. In Qing Dynasty, the owner reconstructed it in memory of the great poet called Bai Juyi of Tang Dynasty and named it "Zui Bai Pond". It is embraced by pavilions and winding corridors and has many historical sites.

Li Po and other poets like him were members of an elite and educated class of people referred to as the literati.  According to Webster's the literati are "the educated class, also, called intelligentsia."  Often those people who are "interested in literature or the arts."

The literati were extremely interested in and based on the classic Confuciun texts.  One book, Master's and Nature suggests that students, "Read ten thousand books and walk ten thousand miles."

The class of literati probably evolved from the Chinese examination system.  This system began during the Tang Dynasty c618-900 CE. This examination system was a way in which educated people could qualify for jobs in the government through a series of increasingly harder tests for each level.  The examination covered a command of classic literature, the ability to use calligraphy as well as express ideas beautifully through essays and poetry.  The main idea behind such a system was that if one was developed in the humanities and understood the basic philosophies then one could be a "just" ruler.

Because so much of the test was devoted to writing beautifully with calligraphy and writing poems, the artistic skills of these educated people were developed and these literati were often the poet painters of the Chinese world.


Oracle Bones
14th to 12th C BCE
Bronze Age

Read about how 
they were used.

According to the Brittanica,
The Chinese painter uses essentially the same materials as the calligrapher--brush, ink, and silk or paper--and the Chinese judge his work by the same criteria, basically the vitality and expressiveness of the brushstroke itself and the harmonious rhythm of the whole composition. Painting in China, therefore, is essentially a linear art. The painters of most periods were concerned less with striving for originality or conveying a sense of reality and three-dimensional mass through such aids as shading and perspective, concentrating instead on transmitting to silk or paper, through the rhythmic movement of the brushstroke, an awareness of the inner life of things.

The aesthetics of line in calligraphy and painting have had a significant influence on the other arts in China. In the motifs that adorn the ritual bronzes, in the flow of the drapery over the surface of Buddhist sculpture, in the decoration of lacquerware, pottery, and cloisonné enamel (wares decorated with enamel of different colours separated by strips of metal), it is the rhythmic movement of the line, following the natural movement of the artist's or craftsman's hand, that to a large extent determines the form and gives to Chinese art as a whole its remarkable harmony and unity of style. 


Dong Qichang 1555-1636 [Tung Chi-Chang]
Poem by Mi Fu in Running Script
Not dated, handscroll (section), ink on paper, 41 x 461 cm

Dong Qichang 1555-1636 [Tung Chi-Chang]
Freehand Copy of Zhang Xus Writing of the Stone Record
 Ink on satin

According to the Brittanica
East Asian calligraphy
In China, Korea, and Japan, calligraphy is a form of pure art. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese calligraphy derive from the written form of the Chinese language. Chinese is not an alphabetical language; each character is composed of a number of differently shaped lines within an imaginary square. The early Chinese written words, like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, were pictorial images, though not so close to the objects they represented as in the ancient Egyptian writing. Rather, they were simplified images, indicating meaning through suggestion or imagination. These simple images were flexible in composition, capable of developing with changing conditions by means of slight variations. 

Chinese calligraphy
The earliest known Chinese logographs are engraved on the shoulder bones of large animals and on tortoise shells. The piece illustrated contains a number of the early ideographs; each seems to have been carefully composed before being engraved on the bone. Although they are not entirely uniform in size, the variations are not great. The figures must have evolved from rough and careless scratches in the still more distant past. This chia-ku-wen, or shell-and-bone script (18th-12th century BC), is the earliest stage of development in Chinese calligraphy.

It was said that Ts'ang Chieh, the legendary inventor of Chinese writing, got his ideas from observing animals' footprints and birds' claw marks on the sand as well as other natural phenomena. He then started to work out simple images from what he conceived as representing different objects... 

Surely, the first images that the inventor drew of these few objects could not have been quite so stylized but must have undergone some modifications to reach the above stage. Each image is composed of a minimum number of lines and yet is easily recognizable. Nouns no doubt came first. Later, new ideographs had to be invented to record actions, feelings, and differences in size, color, taste, and so forth. Something was added to the already existing ideograph to give it a new meaning. The ideograph for deer, for instance, is , not a realistic image but a very much sim plified structure of lines suggesting a deer by its horns, big eye, and small body, which distinguish it from other animals. When two such simple images  are put side by side, the meaning is "pretty," "prettiness," "beautiful," "beauty," etc., which is obvious if one has seen two such elegant creatures walking together. But, if a third image is added above the other two, as , it means "rough," "coarse," and even "haughty." This interesting point is the change in meaning through the arrangement of the images. If the three stags were not standing in an orderly manner, they could become rough and aggressive to anyone approaching them. From the aesthetic point of view, three such images could not be arranged side by side within an imaginary square without cramping one another, and in the end none would look like a deer at all.

After the shell-and-bone script came writing on bronze vessels, known as bronze script. In the early days of divination, when the kings of the Shang dynasty (18th-12th century BC) tried to solve their problems by consulting their ancestors and deities, the latter's answers were engraved on bones and on tortoise shells for perpetual preservation. Later, bronze was used to make cooking utensils and wine vessels for the special ceremonies of ancestral worship, raw or cooked food being offered up in them. So sacred were these ancestor-worshipping ceremonies that the best types of bronze utensil were specially designed and cast for such purposes, and, in addition, inscriptions, from a few words up to several hundred, were incised inside the bronzes. The words of the engravings could not be roughly formed or even just simple images; they had to be well worked out to go with the decorative ornaments outside the bronzes, and in some instances they almost became the chief decorative design in themselves. Though they preserved the general structure of the bone-and-shell script, they were considerably elaborated and beautified. Each bronze or set of them may bear a different type of inscription, not only in the wording but also in the manner of writing. Hundreds of them were created by different artists. The bronze script represents another stage of development in Chinese calligraphy, known as chin-wen ("metal-script"), ku-wen ("ancient-script"), or ta chuan ("large-seal") style of writing.

Before long a unification of all types of the bronze script was enforced when China was united for the first time, in the 3rd century BC. The first emperor of Ch'in, Shih Huang-ti, gave the task of working out the new script to his prime minister, Li Ssu, and no other type was allowed to be used. Here are some common words that can be compared with similar words in bone-and-shell script mentioned above: 

This was the third step forward in the development of Chinese calligraphy, known as hsiao chuan ("small-seal") style.

In the small-seal style of writing, all lines are drawn of even thickness, and more curves and circles are employed. Each word tends to fill up an imaginary square, and a passage written in small-seal style has the appearance of a series of equal squares neatly arranged in columns and rows, each of them balanced and well-spaced.

The uniformity of writing in China was established chiefly for the purpose of meeting the growing demands for documented records. Unfortunately, the small-seal style could not be written speedily and was therefore not entirely suitable. Another stage of development was needed--the fourth stage, which is called li shu, or official style. The Chinese word li here means "a petty official" or "a clerk"; li shu means a style specially devised for the use of clerks. If examined carefully, li shu is found to contain no circles and very few curved lines. Squares and short straight lines, vertical and horizontal, are chiefly used. Because of the speed needed for writing, the brush in the hand tends to move up and down, and an even thickness of line cannot be enforced. As the thickness varied, artist-writers could concentrate more on the artistic shaping of the lines.

Li shu is thought to have been invented by Ch'eng Miao (240-207 BC), who had offended the First Emperor of Ch'in and was serving a 10-year sentence in prison. He spent his time in prison working out this new development, which opened up seemingly endless possibilities for later calligraphers. According to their own artistic insight, they evolved new variations in the shape of lines and in construction. The words in li shu style tend to be square or slightly rectangular horizontally. Though the even thickness of lines is relaxed, the rigidity in the shaping of them is still there; for instance, the vertical lines had to be shorter, and the horizontal ones longer. As this curtailed the freedom of hand for individual artistic taste, another stage of development came into being--the fifth stage, chen shu (k'ai shu), or regular style. There is no record of who invented this style, but it must have been in evolution for a long time, at least since the 1st century AD if not earlier. The Chinese still use this regular style of writing today; in fact, what is known as modern Chinese writing is almost 2,000 years old, and the written words of China have not changed since the first century of the Christian Era.

"Regular style" means "the proper style of Chinese writing" used by all Chinese for government documents, printed books, and public and private dealings in important matters ever since its establishment. Since the regulations for the civil service examination enforced in the T'ang period (AD 618-907), each candidate had to be able to write a good hand in regular style. This Imperial decree deeply influenced all Chinese who wanted to become scholars and enter the civil service. This examination was abolished in 1905, but most Chinese still try to acquire a hand in regular style even to the present day.

In chen shu each line, each square or angle, and even each dot can be shaped according to the will and taste of the calligrapher. Indeed, a Chinese word in regular style presents an almost infinite variety of problems of structure and composition, and, when executed, it presents to the onlooker a design whose abstract beauty can draw the mind away from the literal meaning of the word itself.

The greatest exponents of Chinese calligraphy were Wang Hsi-chih (died 379) and his son Wang Hsien-chih in the 4th century. Few of their original works have survived, but a number of their writings were engraved on stone tablets, and rubbings were made from them. Many great calligraphers imitated their styles, but none ever surpassed them.

Wang Hsi-chih not only provided the greatest example in the regular style of writing but also relaxed the tension somewhat in the arrangement of the strokes in the regular style by giving easy movement to the brush to trail from one word to another. This is called hsing shu, or running style, as if the hand were walking fast while writing. This, in turn, led to the creation of ts'ao shu, or grass style, which takes its name from its appearance--as if the wind had blown over the grass in a manner disorderly yet orderly. The English term cursive writing cannot describe the Chinese grass style, for even a cursive hand can be deciphered without very much difficulty. But Chinese words in grass style are greatly simplified forms of the regular style and can be deciphered only by those who have practiced calligraphy for years. It is not a style for general use but for the calligrapher who wishes to produce a work of abstract art.

Technically speaking, there is no mystery in Chinese calligraphy. The tools for Chinese calligraphy are very few--good ink, ink stone, a good brush, and good paper (some prefer silk). It depends on the skill and imagination of the writer to give interesting shapes to his strokes and to compose beautiful structures from them without any retouching or shading and, most important of all, with well-balanced spaces between the strokes. This balance needs years of practice and training.

The fundamental inspiration of Chinese calligraphy, as of all arts in China, is nature. In regular style each stroke, even each dot, suggests the form of a natural object. As every twig of a living tree is alive, so every tiny stroke of a piece of fine calligraphy has the energy of a living thing. Printing does not admit the slightest variation in the shapes and structures, but strict regularity is not tolerated by Chinese calligraphers, especially those who are masters of the ts'ao shu. A finished piece of fine calligraphy is not a symmetrical arrangement of conventional shape but, rather, something like the coordinated movements of a skillfully composed dance--impulse, momentum, momentary poise, and the interplay of active forces combining to form a balanced whole.

(C.Y./Ed.) Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The Tools used to create calligraphy.

Qing dynasty approx 1700's
Greenish Hetian nephrite

Mountain and Figures in a landscape 
for a brush stand
approx early 1900's
Greenish Hetian nephrite

Early Qing dynasty, late 1700's
Form: This is a brush, brush stand, paperweight and water bowl would have been used by a very wealthy individual.  All are made of jade and of nephrite (any hard stone was often called jade though) and the brush stand is designed to look like clouds.  The paperweight is carved after a mountain and the bowl is meant to look like a pond.  Each object, somewhat retains the original form suggested by the original hunk of jade it would have been carved from.  This is partially done so that the jade is not wasted but also for iconographic reasons.

Iconography:  The conservation of the original form of the stone probably relates back to the esthetic created by Taoism and Buddhism.  In a way, it's kind of like the American cliché of "going with the flow."  It also relates to the Taoist ideas of appreciating nature and its forms.

This can also be seen in the way in which each object emulates a natural form such as a mountain, clouds or a pond.  The mountains and the cloud images almost literally symbolize the lofty pursuits of the scholar.  See how this is echoed in Shen Zhou's Poet on a Mountain Top.



Context: The forms are somewhat idealized and in some ways were meant as "props"  for the poet.  In a way,  the poet could have used these objects to imagine what it would look like to be in the garden or among the mountains.

According to Elizabeth Kindall, a specialist in Chinese art, some poets would paint scenes of mountains and landscapes from an entirely different region of China.  Possibly one they had never even seen before because that was the style demanded of them by the court and times.

Shen Zhou, (Shen Chou) Poet on a Mountain,  c1500
leaf from an album of landscapes: paintings mounted as part of a 
handscroll.  Ink and color on paper. 15.25"x 23.75"

White clouds like a belt encircle the mountain's waist

A stone ledge flying in space and the far thin road.

I lean alone on my bramble staff and gazing contented into space

Wish the sounding torrent would answer to your flute.

Shen Zhou
translated by Richard Edwards

Form: The poem is placed in the upper left hand corner of this image.  Much of the brush work is loose and "informal" as Stokstad puts it. 

Shen Zhou uses a variety of calligraphic marks to indicate texture and contour.  The sides of the rocks are thicker and rougher marks probably made with the side of the brush.  The trees were made with a "loaded" (lots of ink) and a combination of the tip and pressing down on the brush was used to create the thick and thin aspects of the foliage.

Shen Zhou also varied the concentration of the ink and creates a value structure that is not unlike European artists use of atmospheric or aerial perspective.

Iconography:  The poem (translated beneath the image) combines textures of sound and visual texture to compliment the setting of the poet and his poem.  Images of flying and ascencion are enhanced by the whooshing sound of the flute.

In part, the composition of the image that places the small figure at the apex of a diagonal in the upper left hand corner, combined with the ascending and flying imagery of the poem are probably representations of spiritual and intellectual ascension.



Context: According to the Brittanica,
Shen Chou
b. 1427, Su-chou, Kiangsu province, China
d. 1509
Pinyin SHEN ZHOU, also called SHEN SHIH-T'IEN Chinese artist, a leading member of a group of scholar-artists later known as the Wu school (after Wu district), which was considered superior to the "professional" artists of the Che school, in which Tai Chin held an equivalent place.

Shen Chou was born to an honoured and secure family and enjoyed a long life involved in the learned arts of poetry, painting, and calligraphy. His many paintings reveal an active concern with preserving the aesthetic discoveries of bygone ages as well as a similar concern with nature in its many manifestations (especially landscapes). However various in stylistic source and subject matter, Shen Chou's art consistently bears his unique touch of an abiding confidence, restrained calmness, and subtle warmth. The ideal of his life and the accomplishments of his art have earned him reverence by all artists devoted to the ideals of the literati (wen-jen) tradition. Among his pupils was Wen Cheng-ming.

Pinyin WU, group of Chinese painters of the Ming dynasty active in the second half of the 15th and first half of the 16th centuries. They were scholar-artists who, in their "literati painting" (wen-jen-hua []), perpetuated the personally expressive styles and attitudes of former artists such as the Four Masters of the Yüan dynasty in contrast to their contemporaries of the Che school, who perpetuated more conservative styles.

The Wu school was named after Wu county (hsien) in the region of Soochow (Su-chou), in Kiangsu Province, where the painters worked. Among the artists included in the group are Shen Chou and his student Wen Cheng-ming. Generally, their paintings are quite subtle, but that subtlety veils great variety and imagination--with a sure, light brush to define painterly and structural complexity, learned allusions and poetic inscriptions, and very thin, delicate colouring. Their paintings were done more for their own and their peers' intellectual amusement than for a larger public. Some well-known painters, such as T'ang Yin and Ch'in Ying, lived in the area and knew the famous members of the Wu school but cannot easily be grouped with them because of their sometimes differing styles and interests.

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Dong Qichang 1555-1636
[Tung Chi-Chang]
The Qingbian Mountains, 1617
Form: Stokstad provides an excellent discussion of the ideas and form of this work on page 851.

Iconography: The iconography of this work is somewhat based on Taoist thinking.  The landscape was often a metaphor for the spiritual journey.  According to the Brittanica,

Taoism was pressed into service as the basic vocabulary of Chinese aesthetics. Consequently, many secular artists attempted to express their own conceptions of the "natural spontaneity" of Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzu's "spirit of the valley." Here Taoism found still wider imaginative extension, and the efforts of these painters are embodied in those magnificent landscapes that have come to be thought of as most characteristically Chinese. 
Context according to the Brittanica:
Tung Ch'i-ch'ang
b. 1555, Hua-t'ing, Kiangsu province, China
d. 1636
Pinyin DONG QICHANG, Chinese painter, calligrapher, and theoretician who was one of the finest artists of the late Ming period. The most distinguished connoisseur of his day, Tung Ch'i-ch'ang set forward ideas that have continued to be influential on Chinese aesthetic theory. 
Tung Ch'i-ch'ang was born to a poor but scholarly family, and, though he at first failed the government examinations, he passed the chin-shih ("advanced scholar") examination at the age of 34 in 1589 and was appointed to the first of a series of official positions within the Ming government.

Tung Ch'i-ch'ang is perhaps best known for his writings on Chinese painting. Dividing it into "Northern" and "Southern" schools as first suggested by his older contemporary and friend, Mo Shih-lung (d. 1587), he traced the lineage and analyzed the traditions of both branches. He maintained that the Southern school emphasized sudden, intuitive realization of truth, whereas the Northern taught the more gradual acquisition of such insight. Painters associated with the Southern school were then those "literati" (wen-jen), sensitive poets and scholars who were also gentlemen painters, who painted intuitively (like an "amateur") without conscious thought of function or beauty--appealing to a similarly sensitive élite rather than popular taste. In contrast, the "professional" painter of the Northern school worked to create a handsome surface of immediate visual appeal with little suggestion of his own inner nature. At the very centre of the scholarly ideal of the Southern school was the art of calligraphy. It expressed abstractly the real nature of the individual who wielded the brush without interposing any pictorial description.

Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's calligraphy followed the eminent calligraphers Chao Meng-fu and Wen Cheng-ming and ultimately masters of the Chin and T'ang dynasties. Like those two artists, his creative approach was conscientious, disciplined, scholarly, and systematic, seeking out the spirit rather than slavishly reproducing the outward appearance of his models in trying to recapture antiquity.

Tung Ch'i-ch'ang especially favoured the Four Masters of the Yüan dynasty (Huang Kung-wang, Wu Chen, Wang Meng, and Ni Tsan), who had both the selfless personality and personal style indicative of the artist-scholar's highest ideal. His own paintings reveal his debt to them in both style and motif, yet he went considerably beyond them in banishing all immediate attraction from his art and stressing instead stark forms, seemingly anomalous spatial renderings, and clumsy handling of ink and brush. Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's writings appear on his paintings as well as in various compilations of his writings--including the anthologies Hua-yen ("The Eye of Painting"), Hua-chih ("The Meaning of Painting"), and Hua-ch'an-shih sui-pi ("Notes from the Painting-Meditation Studio [of Tung Ch'i-ch'ang]"). 

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


Shitao, Landscape, leaf from an album of landscapes, Qing dynasty,
c1700. ink and color on paper, 9.5x11"

Your book discusses the individualist painters and their goals in China.  Using Shitao's landscape as an example of the individualist style, explain how did the individualist style evolve and what were they trying to do?  How does this work express those ideas and what does it share and how is it different from Shen Zhou's and Dong Qichang works?

b. 1641, Kuei-lin, Kwangsi province, China
d. c. 1720 
Pinyin SHITAO, also called TAO-CHI, Chinese painter and theoretician who was, with Chu Ta, one of the most famous of the Individualist painters in the early Ch'ing period.

Like Chu Ta, Shih-t'ao was of the formerly imperial Ming line and became a Buddhist monk; but unlike Chu Ta he seems to have led a life typical of his class and birth. Although he spent most of his life in Kiangsu and Anhwei, he traveled extensively throughout China, and he knew a wide variety of learned individuals both inside and outside the Manchu court. He thus was very much the traditional Chinese gentleman, with little of the eccentricity that marked his older contemporary Chu Ta. His work, however, is as diverse in both style and interest as his life was; and it merits the term Individualist for the extraordinarily expressive range of the paintings. In distinct contrast to his contemporaries known as the orthodox masters (e.g., Wang Hui), he was far less tied to the imitation or inspiration of old masters; and, while he respected them, he saw ancient styles more as knowledge to be expanded than to be exploited. Shih-t'ao's quite independent spirit is also found within his theoretical writings--such as the "Hua-yü lu" ("Comments on Painting"); he speaks of "a style of no style" and the indicative importance of "the single stroke." 

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Mallet Vase with Ladies
porcelain with underglaze and
Qing period (1662-1722)
Form:  This vase is a perfect example of the culmination of centuries of porcelain glazing techniques as well as painting techniques.  In some areas the artists who created this used underglazes and painted the vase exactly as earlier vessels would have been but in other areas an overglaze was used.

Overglaze is almost a type of enameling the vase.  Sometimes an additional layer f red or brown glazes are applied to the vase and then (I think( they are fired again and this makes the overglaze an opaque almost glass like raised surface.

If you look at the vase closely you will see a variety of different styles used to depict different things.  In some areas, such as the top depicting the bamboo plants in the calligraphic style are almost close in style to painters like Shen Zhou.  However, observe the designs that border both the top and the bottom of this section and you will see some almost Shang looking geometric designs as well as some Indian or Arabic looking designs below the bamboo.

In the main body of the vessel we see two court ladies looking at a scroll.  These ladies are painted in a the outline and color method that we see in much earlier work such as in the Man Riding on a Dragon 3rd C BCE Zhou Dynasty, while in the background we see a landscape almost in the style of Dong Qichang.

Iconography:  This vessel is a kind of mix and match of earlier symbols and styles and was probably both meant to be too "deep."  Some of the symbols are almost stock clichés by this point.  The organic scenes and the mountains are the standard metaphors for ascension and enlightenment and even court ladies are a standard icon of beauty.  Here the young beautiful women look at a scroll and in some ways the artists who designed this pot are linking the beauty and grace of the court lady with the beauty of the antique scroll.

Context: This vase was made during the Qing Dynasty at a time when "foreigners" of Manchu extraction were ruling China.  Under the extremely conservative Manchu rule the Chinese arts became a bit repetitive, overly decorative and stagnant and this could account for the cliché are hackneyed use of decorative forms.

Jar with Farewell Scene
porcelain with polychrome underglaze and 
overglaze decoration Qing (1622-1722)
To Wang Lun

 Li Po takes a boat and is about to depart

When suddenly he hears the sound of footsteps and singing on the shore.

 The water in the Peach Blossom pool is a thousand feet deep

But not as deep as Wang Lun's parting love for me 

By  Li Bai 
Tr. Liu Wu-Chi


Composite animals:     Are animals with different parts of other animals in them.  Ex:  In Disney's Pete's Dragon, the dragon, Elliot, has the head of a camel, the neck of a crocodile, the ears of a cow, and he is both a fish and a mammal.

Confucius (Con-fu-tzu):     (translation means: great thinker and teacher)  Confucius was a chinese philosopher from the Zhou (also spelled Chou) Dynasty.  Confucius described jade as a metaphor for a superior person: In jade “superior
men in ancient times found the likeness of all excellent qualities.  It was soft, smooth, and glossy (when polished) like benevolence; fine, compact, and strong, like intelligence; angular, but not sharp and cutting, like righteousness; and (when struck), like music.  Like loyalty, its flaws did not conceal its beauty nor its beauty its flaws, and like virtue, it was conspicuous in the symbols of rank.”  (Gardner's pg. 496)


ka.o.lin n [F kaolin, fr. Gaoling hill in China] (ca. 1741): a fine usu. white clay that is used in ceramics and refractories, as a filler or extender, and in medicine esp. as an adsorbent in the treatment of diarrhea

according to the Brittanica, is also called China Clay, soft white clay that is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of china and porcelain and is widely used in the making of paper, rubber, paint, and many other products. Kaolin is named after the hill in China (Kao-ling) from which it was mined for centuries. Samples of kaolin were first sent to Europe by a French Jesuit missionary around 1700 as examples of the materials used by the Chinese in the manufacture of porcelain.

In its natural state kaolin is a white, soft powder consisting principally of the mineral kaolinite, which, under the electron microscope, is seen to consist of roughly hexagonal, platy crystals ranging in size from about 0.1 micrometre to 10 micrometres or even larger. These crystals may take vermicular and booklike forms, and occasionally macroscopic forms approaching millimetre size are found. Kaolin as found in nature usually contains varying amounts of other minerals such as muscovite, quartz, feldspar, and anatase. In addition, crude kaolin is frequently stained yellow by iron hydroxide pigments. It is often necessary to bleach the clay chemically to remove the iron pigment and to wash it with water to remove the other minerals in order to prepare kaolin for commercial use.

When kaolin is mixed with water in the range of 20 to 35 percent, it becomes plastic (i.e., it can be molded under pressure), and the shape is retained after the pressure is removed. With larger percentages of water, the kaolin forms a slurry, or watery suspension. The amount of water required to achieve plasticity and viscosity varies with the size of the kaolinite particles and also with certain chemicals that may be present in the kaolin. Kaolin has been mined in France, England, Saxony (Germany), Bohemia (Czech Republic), and in the United States, where the best-known deposits are in the southeastern states.

Approximately 40 percent of the kaolin produced is used in the filling and coating of paper. In filling, the kaolin is mixed with the cellulose fibre and forms an integral part of the paper sheet to give it body, color, opacity, and printability. In coating, the kaolin is plated along with an adhesive on the paper's surface to give gloss, color, high opacity, and greater printability. Kaolin used for coating is prepared so that most of the kaolinite particles are less than two micrometres in diameter.

Kaolin is used extensively in the ceramic industry, where its high fusion temperature and white burning characteristics makes it particularly suitable for the manufacture of whiteware (china), porcelain, and refractories. The absence of any iron, alkalies, or alkaline earths in the molecular structure of kaolinite confers upon it these desirable ceramic properties. In the manufacture of whiteware the kaolin is usually mixed with approximately equal amounts of silica and feldspar and a somewhat smaller amount of a plastic light-burning clay known as ball clay. These components are necessary to obtain the proper properties of plasticity, shrinkage, vitrification, etc., for forming and firing the ware. Kaolin is generally used alone in the manufacture of refractories.

Substantial tonnages of kaolin are used for filling rubber to improve its mechanical strength and resistance to abrasion. For this purpose, the clay used must be extremely pure kaolinite and exceedingly fine grained. Kaolin is also used as an extender and flattening agent in paints. It is frequently used in adhesives for paper to control the penetration into the paper. Kaolin is an important ingredient in ink, organic plastics, some cosmetics, and many other products where its very fine particle size, whiteness, chemical inertness, and absorption properties give it particular value.

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Laozi (Lao-tzu):     Laozi was another philosopher & poet from around the same period.  Developed Taoism (Taoism) (following the way).  He questions the nature of reality.  Laozi woke from a dream of being a butterfly and wondered if the butterfly was dreaming of being him.

Lost wax process:     See page on Roman Art and Architecture.

Monochromatic:     Meaning one color.  It can be varying shades of one color though.

por.ce.lain n [MF porcelaine cowrie shell, porcelain, fr. It porcellana, fr. porcello vulva, lit., little pig, fr. L porcellus, dim. of porcus pig, vulva; fr. the shape of the shell--more at farrow] (ca. 1530): a hard, fine-grained, sonorous, nonporous, and usu. translucent and white ceramic ware that consists essentially of kaolin, quartz, and feldspar and is fired at high temperatures -- adj -- or adj
porcelain enamel n (1883): a fired-on opaque glassy coating on metal (as steel)

According to the Brittanica, porcelain is a,

vitrified pottery with a white, fine-grained body that is usually translucent, as distinguished from earthenware, which is porous, opaque, and coarser. The distinction between porcelain and stoneware, the other class of vitrified pottery material, is less clear. In China, porcelain is defined as pottery that is resonant when struck; in the West, it is a material that is translucent when held to the light. Neither definition is totally satisfactory; some heavily potted porcelains are opaque, while some thinly potted stonewares are somewhat translucent. The word porcelain is derived from porcellana, used by Marco Polo to describe the pottery he saw in China.

Outline and color:     Is outlining something and then coloring it in.  Similar to a coloring book.

Piecework:     Carving entirely through the piece of jade.

Tao-tie (t'ao-t'ieh):     In modern Chinese it means "ogre mask".
according to the Brittanica,

Pinyin TAOTIE awesome monster mask commonly found on Chinese ritual bronze vessels and implements of the Shang (18th-12th century Bc) and early Chou (1111-c. 900 BC) dynasties. It characteristically consists of a zoomorphic mask in full face that simultaneously may be divided through the nose ridge of the centre to form profile views of two one-legged beasts (k'uei dragons) confronting each other. A ground pattern of squared spirals, the "thunder pattern" (lei-wen), often serves as a design filler between and around the larger features of the design.

Typical features of the mask include large, protuberant eyes; stylized depictions of eyebrows, horns, nose crest, ears, and two peripheral legs; and a line of a curled upper lip with exposed fangs and no lower jaw. Since it suggests an ever-devouring "glutton," it was probably this last feature that later (3rd century BC) inspired the name t'ao-t'ieh for the ancient monster motif. The function of the t'ao-t'ieh motif has been variously interpreted; it may be totemic, or protective, or an abstracted, symbolic representation of the forces of nature. After the early Chou period, the t'ao-t'ieh mask motif was supplanted by a monster that was similar but depicted more literally and with diminished power.
Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Zoomorphic:     Is having the form of an animal.  Is being a deity conceived of in animal form or with the attributes of an animal.