China's art and culture evolved through 5,000 years of history. The first writing system dates back to the Shang Dynasty (circa 18th to 11th centuries B.C.E.), when China was primarily an agricultural society. Subsequent emperors encouraged the development of art and scholarship. The invention of paper around the 3rd century paved the way for a myriad of art forms, including folk arts that mirrored the life of the common man.
Calligraphy and Paintings
The Chinese consider calligraphy as the highest achievement of art and culture. It is an expression of thoughts through a combination of very skilful brush movements, dots, and strokes. In ancient China it was mandatory for scholars to be masters of the art of calligraphy in order to pass their examinations.
Serenity and tranquillity were the dominant themes of Chinese paintings from the earliest times. Artists favoured understated landscapes and scenes of leisure and celebration. Musicians at their instruments and children at play were among the popular subjects.
Materials and Seals
Traditionally, Chinese artists painted with water-based inks and vegetable- and mineral-based pigments, on treated paper or silk, employing brushes like those used in calligraphy. Early narrative paintings included areas of explanatory text. Scholar-painters introduced the practice of calligraphy on the painting surface. The seal or chop of the artist and subsequently of the owner of these works of art added authenticity and interest, establishing the history or time line of the artwork.
Traditional Chinese art formats include hanging scrolls between two and six feet long, hand scrolls, album leaves, hand fans, and standing screens. Paintings on hanging scrolls grew popular from the 10th century. Hand scrolls were smaller and up to about 14 inches in height, though their length varied and was the artist's prerogative. Hand scrolls presented a painting by increments, so that viewers did not view the entire painting at once. Dating from the Sung/Song dynasty (960 to 1179), album leaves held facing pages of poetry and art on a small scale. Hand fans with paintings on their flat surfaces appeared around the Tang dynasty (618 to 907).
Auspicious symbols are central to Chinese art and culture. The Chinese dragon, phoenix, lion, tiger, and unicorn are prominent features in paintings, statuary, and other art forms. Fuk-Luk-Sau, the three-star gods of good fortune, good health, and longevity, and the door gods, are also favoured portrayals. During the lunar new year (usually in January or February), it is customary to affix lucky paper symbols to doors and walls, a practice dating back to the earliest woodblock printing folk traditions of the Tang Dynasty and still a tradition today. The lucky red paper prints usually feature gold Chinese calligraphy characters meaning prosperity, harmony, happiness, and other positive elements.
Mandarin squares were colourful, embroidered fabric symbols worn by designated officials on their robes to indicate their social and military ranks. Only the emperor bestowed the right to wear mandarin squares and issued imperial decrees concerning their protocol. Designs included clouds, flowers, and lucky symbols. Today, authentic mandarin squares are sought-after art collectibles.