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China, Arts and Culture

Diamond Sutra, principal founder, Song dynasty, Cultural Revolution, printing books

China’s artistic and cultural achievements over the past 3,000 years are a source of great pride for the Chinese people. Central to the country’s cultural identity is its written language, which has been the vehicle for many of those achievements. The earliest known printed text is a Buddhist religious book, the Jingangjing (Diamond Sutra), which dates from 868 ad. The spread of printing had a great effect on the development of Chinese culture, as it enabled the distribution of new ideas. It also enabled government control of ideas, and beginning during the Song dynasty (960-1279) imperial governments took close interest in approving and printing books. The rulers of China’s dynasties emphasized their role as protectors of the country’s cultural tradition, supporting visual artists and writers and creating elaborate palace and temple complexes to demonstrate their fitness to rule. China’s heritage was also available to those residents who were not literate in the Chinese language, often through the medium of drama, which brought stories from Chinese history and literature into even remote towns and villages.

In the 20th century China underwent a number of revolutionary political changes that led many Chinese to challenge the value of their country’s cultural heritage. Communist leader Mao Zedong, who was a principal founder of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, laid down for all the arts the duty of subordinating self-expression to the needs of class struggle and the building of socialism. This reached an extreme in the political campaign known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Since the mid-1970s and the introduction into China of a market economy, the arts have operated in a context of much greater freedom, which has benefited some forms of art more than others. China’s distinctive cultural heritage is now threatened as much by forces of global competition as it is by government interference.

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