Chinese Art: Culture and Context

Sculpture Court Ambulatory
Through June 2, 2002

Xie Shichen (Chinese, 1488-ca.1567) - Lin Bu Gazing at a Reflection of the Moon (detail), hanging scroll

Many images and objects that are displayed in American museums today under the general rubric of Chinese art were originally made for much more specific contexts and functions. This installation explores six different contexts for which works of art were traditionally created in China: tombs, temples, the imperial court, a scholar's studio, a merchant's residence, and the modern art movement. All of the works included in this display belong to the Allen Memorial Art Museum's permanent collection or are here on extended loan.


Since before the dawn of recorded history, providing for the spirits of the deceased in the afterlife has been a major concern of Chinese culture. Traditionally, when a person died it was customary to bury the body with an assortment of material belongings that he or she could use in the next world. Prior to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.- 220 C.E.), most of the belongings included in Chinese burials were actual objects that the deceased had owned. After the Han dynasty, it became more common to bury the dead with symbolic representations of their possessions. Although Chinese tomb furnishings are often finely crafted and beautiful to look at, it should be remembered that the primary impulse behind these objects was not aesthetic. Rather, they were intended to fulfill an important spiritual function, and once these objects were committed to the tomb they were intended to remain there forever.


Religion was a major source of inspiration and patronage for the arts in premodern China. Historically, there were three main religions in China: Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Of these three, Buddhism had the greatest impact on the development of the arts. In order to glorify their faith and strengthen the beliefs of their members, Buddhist temples and monasteries were often richly decorated with paintings and sculptures depicting a wide variety of religious figures and stories. In their original contexts, many Buddhist works of art functioned as devotional icons that were revered as much for their spiritual power as for their aesthetic beauty.


From the time the first dynasty was founded in 221 B.C.E. to the time the last dynasty collapsed in 1911 C.E., the various imperial courts of China consistently ranked among that country's most important patrons of the arts. With hundreds of official buildings to furnish and thousands of personnel to equip, these courts consumed enormous quantities of material goods. To satisfy their needs, most dynastic courts operated their own factories and workshops, which supplied them with a diverse range of both functional and ceremonial objects. Typically, artwork produced for the court was characterized by costly materials, fine craftsmanship, and a grandiose style that was intended to convey the power and majesty of the imperial state.


For nearly a thousand years between the tenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese society was dominated by a class of wealthy scholar-bureaucrats whose tastes profoundly impacted the development of later Chinese art. Steeped in the Confucian values of moderation and respect for tradition, these scholar-officials generally favored subtly decorated objects that required a high degree of cultural expertise to appreciate. By thus embracing art that was deliberately austere and difficult to understand, the scholar-officials set themselves apart from other social groups and achieved a level of exclusivity that greatly helped them to maintain their status and power over many generations.


The tremendous wealth of China's sizable merchant class made it a powerful social and cultural force during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). In contrast to the rather restrained tastes of the scholar-official class, many merchants preferred a more luxurious and flamboyant aesthetic. Their grand mansions were frequently filled with objects whose expensive materials, elaborate workmanship, and novel forms testified publicly to the affluence and status of their owners. Although in its most extreme forms such overt opulence could be garish and vulgar, more often it produced a delightfully rich and sophisticated living environment.


The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 occasioned a major cultural crisis in China. Forced to rethink many traditional beliefs and practices, a number of artists joined forces to create a self-consciously modern art movement that they hoped would help revitalize their country. Over the years there have been multiple and sometimes conflicting opinions within this movement about exactly what constitutes "modern" art. As a result, twentieth-century Chinese art encompasses a broad range of works, from fairly conservative images that employ traditional Chinese materials and techniques and address largely aesthetic issues, to more avant-garde images that use diverse media and emphasize overtly social and political concerns.

Charles Mason
Curator of Asian Art

For further reading:
Clunas, Craig. Art in China. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Ebrey, Patricia. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Rawson, Jessica. The British Museum Book of Chinese Art. London: The British Museum, 1992.