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The culture of China

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The arts of China

In the period of the Cultural Revolution, a significant number of invaluable cultural artifacts suffered severe damage or were completely lost, and the execution of numerous traditional arts and crafts faced prohibition. Commencing in the early 1980s, however, there has been an official denunciation of these former policies, which has been accompanied by robust initiatives aimed at revitalizing the rich cultural heritage of China. The relaxation of past constraints has also led to the revival of various artistic expressions that were once largely confined to serving propagandistic purposes. A notable example of this cultural renaissance is China’s “Fifth Generation Cinema,” which has gained international acclaim through the works of eminent film directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who have adeptly explored themes encompassing social and political subjugation.


The “Shijing,” or “Classic of Poetry,” solidified its form around 500 BCE and stands as one of the earliest monumental works in Chinese literature, encompassing 305 pieces that include folk songs and ritual hymns. While the Tang dynasty, spanning 618–907 CE, is often heralded as the zenith of Chinese poetic expression, epitomized by the eminent poets Du Fu and Li Bai, it is important to note that each dynasty contributed notable poets to the continuum of Chinese literature. The composition of poetry was a widespread practice among the educated in China, serving both personal expression and societal engagement.

The scope and depth of China’s historical narrative tradition are unparalleled globally. An impressive compilation of twenty-five dynastic histories chronicles an extensive period from the historically ambiguous Xia dynasty (circa 2070–1600 BCE) through to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12 CE). Furthermore, the proliferation of printing technology in the 11th and 12th centuries CE bolstered the popularity of expansive historical novels among the literate classes.

The May Fourth Movement, spanning 1917 to 1921, critically challenged this venerable literary and cultural heritage, indicting it as a contributing factor to China’s perceived frailties. Academics and students from Peking University spearheaded a literary revolution, eschewing the classical literary language in favor of vernacular prose that reflected the realities of everyday life. The role of literary culture persisted as a focal point of fervent discourse. Mao Zedong, himself a poet adept in both modern and traditional forms, proclaimed in his 1942 Yan’an talks that art must be subservient to political ends. Subsequently, throughout the decades, writers oscillated between periods of acclaim and periods of derision, their fortunes often entwined with the tumultuous landscape of national politics, particularly from the 1950s onwards. It was not until the mid-1980s that the literary community began to witness a resurgence of official leniency towards the notion of “art for art’s sake.”

Visual arts

In the cultural traditions of China, both painting and calligraphy have been esteemed as sophisticated arts, typically practiced by the scholarly elite. Historically, a well-rounded education for the Chinese intelligentsia often included proficiency in these artistic forms. While early manifestations of painting can be found in the form of anonymous works adorning the walls of tombs and caves, the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) marks the period from which many extant works originate. By the 6th century CE, individual fine-art painters began to be recognized by name, their legacies preserved through historical documentation and the replication of their artwork.

Predominantly, Chinese painting has focused on landscape imagery, employing black pine-soot ink on exquisite paper or silk mediums, and occasionally enhanced with subtle color washes. The zenith of landscape painting occurred between the Song (960–1279) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties.

Equally revered as a fine art, calligraphy in China is often integrated with paintings, complementing them with elegantly inscribed poetry. This art form embodies the profound appreciation the Chinese hold for their script, with styles ranging from the painstakingly crafted “seal” characters to the more free-spirited “grass” characters. Both calligraphy and painting are celebrated for their embodiment of abstract aesthetic principles, including balance, vitality, energy, and strength, among others.

The evolution of painting styles has been particularly notable since the early 20th century. Prior to 1949, artists such as Qi Baishi (1863–1957) pioneered innovative styles that brought traditional Chinese aesthetics to a global audience. Post-1949, under the influence of socialist realism, artistic subjects shifted towards depictions of industrial and rural life. However, following Mao’s death in 1976, there was a cultural renaissance that saw a resurgence of traditional artistic values.

Sculpture and carving have a history in China dating back to the Zhou dynasty, if not earlier. Archaeological findings, including burial dolls in tombs—believed to be substitutes for human sacrifices—and early jade carvings, often have connections to funerary rites. The introduction and subsequent proliferation of Buddhism in China, particularly during the Han, Six Dynasties (220–589 CE), and Tang periods, significantly influenced the development of sculpture. This era saw the creation of innumerable statues and relief carvings of buddhas and bodhisattvas, which, together with cave paintings, are considered the apex of Chinese religious art. Among the most renowned sites is the Mogao Caves complex near Dunhuang in Gansu province, which was honored as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

Performing arts

Music and dance stand as the most venerable art forms within Chinese culture. Archaeological evidence, such as a 5,000-year-old painted pottery bowl discovered in Qinghai province, depicts a sequence of 15 dancers, each adorned with headdresses and sashes, moving in harmonious synchrony. These art forms were integral to the fabric of ancient Chinese society, serving pivotal roles in rituals and the machinations of governance. For instance, bronze bells were not merely musical instruments but also symbols of authority and recognition. A notable example is a set of 64 bronze bells, dating back to circa 430 BCE from a Zeng state tomb in Hubei province, each capable of emitting two distinct, harmonically tuned notes. This tomb also yielded an astonishing array of over 120 musical instruments, including zithers, mouth organs, flutes, drums, and lithophones, underscoring the sophistication of music in courtly life across various echelons of the feudal hierarchy.

Theatrical arts, once the paramount form of popular entertainment in China, continue to hold significance, albeit overshadowed by the contemporary allure of televised dramas and serials. Chinese theater has its roots in ancient religious dances that were integral to festivals, serving purposes such as demon exorcism, historical reenactment, and preparations for agricultural, hunting, or martial endeavors. The rich tapestry of urban storytelling and theatrical expressions is well-documented from the Song dynasty, with a notable flourishing during the Yuan dynasty (1206–1368). Yuan theatrical productions, more aptly described as operas, were a confluence of expert song and dance woven into narratives based on historical or topical themes. These performances took place in specialized venues, characterized by their ornate costumes and intricately decorated stages. From the legacy of Yuan drama emerged subsequent forms, including the contemporary jingxi (Peking opera) and various regional styles, all of which continue to celebrate the fusion of song and dance, elaborate costuming, and the dramatic flair of martial arts and acrobatics.

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