Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism
The Art of Early China and Korea
This chapter introduces China. This great civilization is the only continuing civilization which has its origins in the ancient world. This chapter introduces the student to the conquest of territory by the Chinese and the acquisition of land. This early period of China laid the foundation for many of the tenets followed by later generations of Chinese. The written language developed early and remained fairly static in its evolution. The development of the religious and philosophical systems of Daoism and Confucianism occurred very early in Chinese history and did impact not only China but also other areas of Asia. China served as a conduit for the dissemination Buddhism throughout West Asia. Art forms and visual aesthetics developed during this early period as well.
Neolithic Period 5000–c.1500 BC
Shang Dynasty c.1500–1050 BC
Zhou Dynasty c.1050–256 BC
Western Zhou c.1050–771 BC
Eastern Zhou 771–256 BC
Spring and Autumn Period 770–476 BC
Warring States Period 475–221 BC
Qin Dynasty 221–206 BC
Han Dynasty 206 BC–AD 220
Western Han 202 BC–AD 9
Xin 9–23 AD
Eastern Han 25–220 AD
Period of Disunity 220–589 AD
Three Kingdoms 221–265 AD
Shu (Han) 221–263 AD
Wei 220–265 AD
Wu 222–280 AD
Southern Dynasties (Six Dynasties) 265–581 AD
Northern Dynasties 386–581 AD
Sui Dynasty 581–618 AD
Tang Dynasty 618–906 AD
Five Dynasties 907–970 AD
Song Dynasty 960–1279 AD
Northern Song 960–1126 AD
Southern Song 1129–1279 AD
Neolithic Period: c. 5000–1500 BC, agriculturally based settlements developed in
the Yellow River basin in Northern China, particularly in the Shanxi and Henan provinces. Shang Dynasty: 1500–1050 BC, metalwork and writing developed during this period, the oracle bone does show the earliest form of script. This period is considered the birth of the first Chinese dynasty of record. The site of Anyang produced evidence of these written records along with objects in the tombs confirming the sophistication of this dynasty. The earliest writing consisted of over 5000 characters inscribed on oracle bones and shells, with later inscriptions on pottery and bronze vessels. The art of bronze (made from a mixture of tin and copper) casting was a developed industry at this time. During the Shang period the powerful rulers constructed huge tombs that they stocked with objects, both ritual and utilitarian, many of which were made of bronze. The intricacy and detail of these bronze cast objects attest to the level of mastery the Shang bronze caster attained. The guang or ceremonial vessel (7–2) shows not only the technical level of achievement, but also the aesthetic vision the Shang artist attempted. The entire body surface is fully involved in the design. A recent find in the Sichuan Province has added another category to the bronze work of the Shang Dynasty. The Standing Figure (7–3) excavated in Pit #2 from the Sanxingdui site reveals the figurative aspect of the Shang bronze caster. This figure, perhaps a totemic figure or a deity, over life-size demonstrates the ability of the bronze worker to create a vision, at once supernatural and human.
1) Zhou Dynasty: 1050–256 BC, Zhou rulers declared that they were descended from godlike ancestors and had the mandate of heaven to rule. They then widened it to create a feudal aristocracy using the concept “Under heaven All One Family”. Thus the period saw the development of a feudal aristocracy, as well as a civil bureaucracy and a growing merchant class. The literati blossomed, and the later part of the period was noted for the work of philosophers Laozi (604? –531? BC) and Zhuangi (370? –301? BC), Confucius (551–479 BC) and Mencius (371? –289? BC). Bronze vessels continued to be made but the early period vessels were indistinguishable from Shang bronzes, the later ones more dynamic in form. A later period bronze hu with interlaced dragons placed as flanges on the sides of the body and neck of the vessel creates a new silhouette. The body of the vessel also has the dragons intertwining their necks in flat relief; the design on the body is involved but does not cover the entire surface with the motif. The motif moves across the surface and our eye can follow the design more easily. Bronze mirrors were popular as well. The mirror showing the interlocked T and running dragon shows the delicacy of the work as well as the power of the design. Three dragons move in a circular pattern around the mirror back forming an elegant design in unison with the cross-T forming the ground on which the dragons circle. Jade had an important symbolic significance for the Chinese, and jade objects were often included in tombs. The colors of jade and nephrite took on the personification of attributes, which the Chinese character wanted to exemplify. These attributes became qualities, which the Zhou court encouraged for example, the jade disk (7–4). The feudal system, which the Zhou Dynasty created, would function more efficiently if the courtiers had the moral code of fortitude and were, in fact, seeking personal perfection through service. The jade in this exquisitely carved Bi (7–4) disk is decorated with the symbolic celestial dragon and does become an exemplar for these characteristics, the dragon circumnavigates the symbol of heaven becoming energized by the movement, yet the progress is calm and careful echoing perfection attained through service. Toward the end of the reign of the Zhou, the period became known as the Warring States. Various alliances fought for supremacy.
The state of Qin was successful in conquering the others and brought order from the political chaos that the 200 years of factionalism caused. Qin Dynasty: 221–206 BC, though short-lived did bring unity to the land. The Qin ruler Shi Huangdi proclaimed himself First Emperor of Qin and set about unifying the country through standardization of such things as writing style, weights, and measures. Under his direction various regional walls were extended and joined together to form the Great Wall, which succeeded in turning back the Huns. He also destroyed books of philosophy, literature, and history that were unrelated to his dynasty. Shi Huangdi created for himself in Shaanxi Province a tomb of such proportions (discovered in 1974 and still being excavated) that it is thought to be a copy of his palace. He lies protected by a virtual army of waiting warriors. The troops are some seven thousand life-size ceramic warriors and horses (7–5). These ceramic figures replaced the humans and animals (sacrifices) who accompanied the Shang rulers into eternity. These life-size painted terracotta warriors are standing ready to march into battle. The excesses of Shi Huangdi ended with his death and the people revolted.
The Han Dynasty 206 BC–AD 220 was established. Their rule marked a return of the aristocracy, and restoration of land to the farmers, and a reduction of taxes as well as expanding contacts with the rest of the known world. The Han sent envoys north to Mongolia south to India west to Japan and east to Mesopotamia, they established the famous Silk Road that was to link the East and West for many centuries to come. Confucianism was established as the official ideology of the country, although Buddhism was introduced from India during the later Han. Poetry and philosophy flourished as did science, which encouraged direct observation of objects and events, as well as practical applications of scientific knowledge. The first seismograph was invented, as was the forerunner of the magnetic compass. (The magnetic compass itself was invented in the eleventh century in China, from where it spread to the West). The invention of paper is credited to this period as well, and the first coherent history of China was written. Images of the everyday world were included in Han tombs, which included ceramic houses, farm buildings, animals, acrobats, and many other figures; relief scenes depicted courtiers (7–7) and peasants, hunting or harvesting. The Han commissioned superb bronzes like the Flying Horse. These decorated and stocked interiors allow a more complete view of the period and the dynamics of the art being produced and collected. For example the silk banner found in the tomb of the Marquise of Dai (7–6) catalogs the three world levels. The banner shows the sky level inhabited by mythical beasts, the earth level detailing the Marquise with her ladies, and the nether level showing perhaps the Marquise’s funeral. This more recent find does give the viewer a glimpse into Chinese court society at this time. Literature during the Han period described the palace murals as sumptuous and richly decorated, perhaps this banner resembles those murals.
The Period of Disunity 220–589 AD followed the Han Dynasty and it is sometimes refereed to as the Three Kingdoms, Southern and Northern Dynasties. The last of the Han period had been splintered by revolution and after its collapse anarchy continued. As the political and social orders collapsed, nomads overran the North. During the third century China was split into the kingdoms of Shu, Wei, and Wu (221–265 AD), and then reunited under a weak regime known as the Jin. Three more centuries of political reshuffling continued, known generally as the Northern and Southern Dynasties (265–581 AD). During this period northern “barbarians” were absorbed and Buddhism flourished. Small bronze Buddha figures appeared (7–8), as well as colossal stone images carved into cave temples like those at Maijishan (4th C. AD), Gansu and Yunkang (5th C. AD), Shanxi. These sites marked the pilgrimage routes the faithful followed. In 581 Wendi, known as the Emperor of Wen, established the Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) and reunited China again. His son mobilized the peasants to create the gigantic Grand Canal, which united Northern and Southern China.
Tang Dynasty: 618–906 ended the Period of Disunity. In 618 the Northerner Li Yuan declared himself first emperor of Tang. He reestablished the civil service and made the literary examinations for entrance even more important. During this period he and his successors allowed the empire to absorb foreign cultures and spread its own as far as Japan and the Caspian Sea. In 630, the Emperor Taizong crushed the nomad Turks and many of the northwestern tribes sent envoys to the emperor seeking his protection. They bestowed on him the title of Heavenly Khan, which marked an important series of military and political alliances. In 668 Tang armies defeated Korea and extended China’s influence into that country, but in 751 Muslim armies defeated the Tang armies at the Talas River, thus ending Chinese influence in Central Asia. During the seventh and eighth centuries the Tang Empire had been the largest empire on earth. Buddhism was at its height in China and the Pure Land School, one of the Paradise sects, fostered the promise of a place in Amida’s Western paradise to those who would but evoke Buddha’s name (7–14). Tang prosperity is reflected in the elegant wall paintings and terra-cotta figurines that were used in tombs. The range of their subject matter was varied. It showed women playing the game of polo recently introduced from Persia to Iranian and Turkish grooms and Semitic traders. These tomb goods indicate the cosmopolitan character of Tang society. The Palace Ladies from the Tomb of Princess Yongtai (7–17), illustrates the elegance of form and line the artist now achieved with simple linear strokes. The artist could also be depicting a court scene, showing the ladies in various poses and postures. Horses were highly prized and were popular subjects for tomb figurines as well as for paintings (7–18). Another work which shows not only the devoutness of the period for Buddhism; but it also reflects on the wealth of the period as well. The Bodhisattva (7–13) depicts the elegant posture that was part of the Indian visual vocabulary (6–12). The Chinese figure in marble presents the figure standing with one leg relaxed and the knee bent, the upper torso swaying gently to the back and slightly left. The figure appears to be moving in gentle steps as if to the sound of music. The figure has a jewelred garland around his neck reiterating the graceful posture and possibly showing Tang jewelry. The Tang artist had a diversified clientele; however, specific references to women artists are still as yet not known. The Tang artist did have commissions from women, but documentation of women as artists still remains undiscovered. Court women were not completely sequstered the emperor encouraged his court artists to depict his favorites and foreigners, by doing this he also encouraged and supported the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the court. This was reported back to those countries, which had sent delegations to the Tang court, and thus the sophistication of the Tang court became widely acclaimed. As with all empires, they come to an end and the gradual disintegration of the Tang Empire was followed by a period of civil war and disunity followed by the short-lived Five Dynasties: 906–960.
Song Dynasty (Northern 960–1126 and Southern 1129–1279): 960–1279 was born in 960 when Zhao Kuangyin usurped the last of the Five Dynasties and established the Song dynasty. His descendents built a centrally controlled army and bureaucracy but had continuing problems with the northern nomads. In 1127 they lost the northern heartland, but retained control of the south until 1279, when they were finally conquered by the Mongol hordes of Kublai Khan. The Song inspired a renaissance in the sciences and the arts, including literature and philosophy. The compass was perfected; gunpowder and porcelain were developed; moveable type was invented; and education spread. Neo Confucianism came to the forefront, as did a new form of Buddhism, Chan, better known by its Japanese name, Zen. The belief in sudden, spontaneous enlightenment influenced the new art forms. As urban centers grew, landscape painting came into its own, influenced by the philosophical and poetic concerns with meditation on nature as a way of understanding man’s relation to the universe, painters sought to capture that essence. Fan Kuan has captured that essential quality of man’s relationship with nature in his Travelers among Mountains and Streams (7–19). The period saw the rule of a succession of emperors who were both intellectual and careful in selecting able counselors to assist in the process of governance. One of the rewards for such service, predicated on the concept of perfection through service established during the Zhou Dynasty, was the counselor could remain seated in the imperial presence. Such rewards served a dual purpose, the emperor gained excellence in advising and also the counselor was visibly rewarded before the court. His peers were witnesses to this honor. This was also a period where the history of the past was carefully studied and honored with imitations of ancient bronzes and jades. The understanding of the past was thought to lead to a rewarding future, all based on the concept of service to the emperor. The synthesis of the past lead to a discovery or re-discovery of the world in which the Song lived, there was now a concerted effort to study and learn about that world. Knowledge, emotion and imagination were now combined into the philosophy of Song China.
2) Laozi, founder of Daoism and Confucius, or Master Kong as he is sometimes called, lived during the sixth century BC. It is thought by some scholars that the 6th century marks Siddhartha’s birth founder of Buddhism in India, and the Greek scientist Pythagoras, who taught that numbers were the essence of all things. All developed important philosophical systems that were to profoundly influence world cultures. Confucius emphasized correct moral and social action and respect for tradition. He believed that cultivated men trained in ethics and aesthetics, were the best hopes for stable government. In the midst of warfare, corruption, and tyranny, he preached a system of morality and statecraft that was designed to bring about order, peace, and justice. Filial piety was an important part of the system in which everyone had an appropriate place and appropriate duties. Confucius’ so-called golden rule stated that you should treat those who are subordinate to you in the way you would like to be treated by your superiors. Confucianism became an accepted pattern for governance by the first century AD with the Han rulers, and remained a dominating force throughout Chinese history. During the Song dynasty, however, it was revised as Neo-Confucianism and it adopted the quiet mediation of Daoists as a means of self-cultivation, along with education and an active participation for working in the world.
Dao (pronounced Dow) means “the way” and denoted the path taken by natural events, and it sought to help human beings put themselves in harmony with the natural order of things, with the alternating cycles of nature, as well as with its spontaneous events. Humanity must give up all conscious striving and remain open to the forces of intuition and creativity. Zhuangzi, one of the most important of the Daoist sages, left writings both mysterious and paradoxical. In one of his most famous passages he recalls dreaming that he was a butterfly, but when he awoke he was not certain which he really was: Zhuangzi dreaming he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuangzi. He has allowed his imagination free reign and he is open to intuition and creativity. By the Han dynasty Daoism had turned from a philosophy into a religion and had adopted a whole host of gods, ghosts, and demons. The Daoists dedicated themselves to trying to achieve eternal life through the practice of meditation, alchemy, diet, and control of breathing.
Both Confucianism and Daoism profoundly affected the development of Chinese art. The Daoist contemplation of nature had a profound effect on landscape painting, particularly during the Song period. Fan Kuan’s Travelers among Mountains and Streams (7–19) echoes the sentiments of the famous Tang poet, Li Po:
I shall play on my chin the air of the restless pine forests
Raising my cup I shall ask the Moon to join me.
The Moon and the Wind will always be my friends.
My fellow creatures here below are but transitory companions.
—Li Po 701–752
The painting of the majestic mountains, gorges and trees totally dwarf the tiny travelers. Confucianism too influenced artistic production through the requirement that civil servants be
trained in the arts, and many were amateur artists. Su Dongpo (1036–1101), one of China’s greatest poets, was a celebrated painter and statesman connected with the Song court. The following excerpt gives a sense of his writing with its sensitivity to nature:
The breeze was almost imperceptible, the surface of the water calm. . . the moon rose over the eastern hills and began her lingering journey among the constellations. The light fell like dew upon the sparkling river, which seemed to become one with the sky. We let our boat drift as it would, sailing over the vast expanse, and felt that we were sailing in empty space and riding on the wind... We were light as if we had forsaken the world, and free of all support like one who has become immortal and soars through space...
—Su Dongpo (1036–1101)
Song paintings, like Bare Willows and Distant Mountains by Ma Yuan (7–24) with its water its trees, and its tiny bridge, expresses the same sense of never-ending that Su Dongpo describes.
3) Our word for fine ceramics, china, denotes the fame and importance of Chinese ceramics. Fine ceramic production has a long history in China. During the Neolithic period the Yangshao were especially good at producing earthenware. Distinctive red and brown painted pottery found in the village of Majiayao, Gansu created large earthenware funerary jars that were painted with dynamic spirals and geometric designs (7–1). The Longshan culture made paper-thin wheel-made black pottery. A few large jars made of a hard white pottery and carved with geometric decorations have been recovered from Shang tombs.
By the end of the Zhou period ceramic figures took the place of human victims who were interned with their lord to provide service in the afterlife. During the Qin a veritable ceramic army of an estimated 7000 life-sized figures (7–5) was buried in the mausoleum of Shi Huangdi. The figures were first cast and then finished by hand, and each seems to be a portrait of a real person. They were arranged, along with horses and chariots, in military formations within underground trenches. These arrangements also give scholars a sense of Chinese battle tactics and military strategies. The central chamber of the mausoleum has not yet been completely excavated.
During the Han period the practice of placing ceramic figures in the tomb continued. The Han Chinese believed in the existence of a dual soul, one part of which went to heaven at death while the other part remained in the tomb. Lively ceramic figures, along with money and food, were placed in the tomb to satisfy the needs of the soul. Many of the earthenware figures were covered with a soft lead-silicate glaze, often tinted green or brown, while others were left unglazed, often primed with a white slip for painting in unfired pigments. Han tomb figures show a variety, as do figures done for Tang tombs: peddlers, dancers, acrobats, elegant horses, and other animals, many finished with the tri-color glaze typical (7–18) of much Tang ceramics. Fierce ceramic guardians were often included to guard the deceased from evil demons.
In south China a gray-green glaze known as celadon was developed that was used on extremely elegant shapes made of stoneware, a type of ceramic that is much harder than earthenware. Early Tang potters introduced a new type of hard but delicately translucent white porcelainous ware that verges on true porcelain (which did not appear until the ninth century). Porcelain, an extremely hard and brilliant white material, owes its vitrification and translucency to the combination at high temperatures of white kaolin clay and feldspar, which was also used in the brilliant glazes.
Many of the shapes are based on metal designs, and probably were intended to replace the expensive bronze vessels that had been buried with the deceased during earlier periods such as the Shang and Zhou. Many of these pots were incised with delicate floral scrolls and leaves, a practice that continued under the Song.
Many consider the Song period to represent the height of Chinese ceramic production. Both shapes and glazes were more varied than during the Tang period, and the court supported the industry. As in painting, restrained monochrome effects that harmonized with nature were preferred, and they often used images of foliage, water, and sky. Delicate incised decoration was also used. Song potters showed exceptional skill in regulating the kiln temperature and atmosphere and were able to control the effects they produced. Distinctive kilns were established, such as Jiancicun that specialized in certain types of ware, Dingzhou, produced in the Dingzhou region of Hebei province of Northern China. This ware was a specialized delicate porcelain, most of which had smooth ivory-tinted glaze. A different type also developed in Northern China, it utilized delicately carved or incised black slip over a white ground ((7–26). It has that classical purity of form and glaze, which is the hallmark of Song ceramics.
4) Korea: The nature of the location of Korea has allowed it to be invaded from the east, China, and the west, Japan. However, the unique position of Korea has also allowed it to be the disseminator of ideas and art forms. The people have developed their own uniquely individual art styles, incorporating motifs from China and adapting them to fit their own aesthetic needs and beliefs. As early as 5000 BC Korea had pottery making cultures and started their own bronze works in about 600 BC. The Koreans have served as a conduit of ideas channeled from China to Japan and they, in turn, have sent distinctly Korean motifs to Japan as well. There has always been an interchange between China and Korea and not always hostile and aggressive, the Han Dynasty used the commercially vibrant colony, Lolang, as a center for trade and communication. Many of the Korean art forms have a distinct heritage from China; but they have always been adapted to fit the native lexicon of form and function as well as philosophical vision and aesthetic canon.
Three Kingdoms: c. 57 BC– AD 688 these are the native kingdoms which ruled different geographic areas of the peninsula. The Koguryo, the Paekche and Silla Kingdoms were independent of Chinese domination. In the Silla Kingdom, tomb excavations have found artifacts in gold, jade and bronze. In Tomb 98, a crown in gold and jade (7–27) was discovered that illustrates the ability of the Korean metalsmith. The crown almost 11 inches in height demonstrates cohesion of the native tradition. It has been suggested that the uprights, which form the crown, are references to the Korean shaman belief system, it is thought the uprights are antlers symbolizing life and supernatural power. Under the Paekche, Buddhism was introduced to Korea in AD 372 and subsequently to Japan. The Silla requested assistance from China and succeeded in uniting Korea by conquering the Koguryo and Paekche Kingdoms and establishing themselves as the Great Silla. This was the golden age of Korean art and government.
Great Silla Dynasty: 638–935 AD was a period of great development both in the arts and in government. Buddhism had made an impact on the Koreans as seen in the Buddha Sakyamuni (7–28). This religion replaced the native, shamanistic religion and was readily accepted by the indigenous populations. Buddhism while different in spirit, did not directly conflict with either Confucianism or Daoism. What it did was to offer to the masses the idea of hope. The artistic vocabulary developed into a warm, loving figure as seen in Figure 7–28, yet is rich in a symbolic vocabulary. The gesture of touching the earth makes it, the earth, witness to the enlightenment attained by the Buddha. That same spirit of love and warmth is seen in Standing Buddha from the Great Silla eighth century. The symbolic vocabulary or iconography is carefully maintained in Korea, acknowledging its isolation and ready acceptance of Buddhism. The Buddha sits in majestic calmness, serene and contemplative and does show a heritage from Indian iconography (6–13 and 6–15) which neither distance nor time truly impeded. The Indian Buddhas date from the 2nd to 3rd centuries AD and the 5th century AD, while the Buddha Sakyamuni was sculpted during the Great Silla in the 8th century AD. The Buddha while adhering to the essence of the Indian figures has incorporated Tang mass and roundness into the figure but maintaining a distinctly Korean identity. Confucianism was introduced and this philosophy reshaped the social and political structures of Korea.
Koryo Dynasty: 935–1261 AD replaced the Great Silla without conflict. During this era Confucianism continued to be a factor of formative influence both in society and politics. Buddha Amitabha is gentle and loving, surrounded by Bodhisattvas who likewise offer hope and loving kindness to the worshipper. The formality and gentle presentation show the adaptation of Tang and Koryo motifs blended to become uniquely Korean. It was during this period (1231) that the Mongols after invading and conquering China conducted their thirty-year war with Korea and finally subjugated them in 1261. Korea had held out for 30 years but had to finally submit to an alliance. Korean potters developed a rich tradition in celadon ware. They experimented with stoneware and were able to produce some truly remarkable work (7–29). Korean celadons were so extraordinary that the Song described them to be “among the ten wonders of the world”. These beautiful vessels achieve the harmony and excellence of their Chinese counterparts. Koryo potters used distinctive shapes and combined with their innovative celadon glazes created elegant vessels that bore witness to the uniqueness of this culture. The elegant maebyong vase shows the technique and the mastery of incising the surface of the clay and then filling in the color, the cranes stand and fly gracefully fly across the surface. The bamboo flows across the body of the vase while a small bird sits among the bamboo. The Koryo masters were able to create uniquely shaped vessels such as a ewer with an inverted lotus lid. The Korean potters were rivals of the Chinese; their work was highly sought not only in China but also throughout Asia.