History of Sumi-e – Art and Painting in Ancient China

The Art and Painting in China During the Shang Dynasty

Painting in China did not become independent until the 4th century CE, but the history of Chinese art is much older. The Shang Dynasty was the first dynasty in which contemporary written documents were composed, mostly in form of oracle texts on bones or tortoise shells. Besides this development in the field of script, the Shang Dynasty is known for its achievements on the field of bronze casting and pottery. As for bronze casting, the pieces created were weapons and ritual vessels, with characteristic ornaments. The vessels were used to ceremonial purposes and contained either liquids or food for offerings, depending on their shape. The outside of the vessels are often decorated with ornaments such as the taotie-mask, birds, snakes, dragons or zoomorphic creatures. In the field of pottery, Shang Dynasty potters managed to raise the temperature during the firing process, which resulted in now water proof ceramics with a hard body. Designs were carved or pressed, mostly in geometric shapes which cover the complete surface of the vessel. Furthermore, the first glazes appeared – potters of earlier dynasties had only painted their ceramics after firing. The application of a greenish, slightly yellow glaze is another development in Shang ceramic art.

The Art and Painting in China During the Zhou Dynasty

The Zhou Dynasty did not so much change from the preceding Shang Dynasty in terms of pottery, although the use of proto-porcelain – that is, the pre-stage of porcelain – was further spread in this time. Zhou glazes include green and grayish colors which possibly try to imitate the greenish patina of the much more expensive bronzes. In the Zhou Dynasty, bronzes were still produced, although the decorations did not include the same amount of animal patterns as in the Shang Dynasty. Zhou bronzes are gentler in decoration, with more moderate ornaments.

The Zhou Dynasty was the period in Chinese art when red and black lacquer works were developed. This kind of art had already been known in the Shang Dynasty. Lacquer, made out of the juice of the lac tree and applied to a carrier such as bamboo, wood or cloth, was used to decorate devices of daily use, but also for furniture or coffins. The Zhou Dynasty lacquerwares are particularly beautiful due to their bright red and black coloring, made out of cinnabar and iron oxide.

Art and Painting in China During the Warring States Period

The Warring States period was a period which mainly continued the artistic traditions of the Zhou Dynasty, although a few changes took place. Bronze manufacturing, the dominant artistic genre of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, declined and iron work – mostly for warfare purposes – was proliferated. Vessel shapes became more austere. However, the art to add inlays of gold and silver improved greatly, causing metalwork to become beautifully and highly decorated. Moreover, inscriptions on bronze vessels, which had been common in earlier dynasties, became scarce, giving place to ornamental decorations.

The Warring States period can be seen as a time in which lacquer production bloomed. The southern regions in particular developed a rich variety of shapes and techniques, with cultivation and harvest of lac trees being officially supervised. Lacquerwares were extremely expensive luxury goods and therefore reserved for members of the upper classes.

Art and Painting in China During the Qing Dynasty

The Qin Dynasty under Emperor Qin Shihuangdi was despite its shortness a time in which important elements of the political and bureaucratic system of China were created. The standardization of currency, measures and weights helped to simplify and increase trade, a regularization of script enhanced education. Military security was enhanced, culminating in the construction of the Great Wall of China. The art of the Qin Dynasty is mostly connected to the terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, a collection of over 8000 life-sized terracotta sculptures depicting soldiers, horses and chariots. The sculptures are funerary art and part of the Emperor’s mausoleum– they are not only a demonstration to the regent’s power even in afterlife, but also had the purpose to protect the deceased after death. Although the figures were composed out of precast and modeled components, each and every one was individually finished. According to their ranks, the soldiers wear different uniforms and hairstyles or carry different weapons. The incredible achievement of producing such a monumental work and depicting each of the numerous soldiers in a unique way is a testimony the the highly developed state of Chinese craftsmanship as early as the 3rd century BC.