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Arts and Culture, Art and Architecture

major patrons, famous painters, Song dynasty, royal tombs, Chinese Communist Party

Artistic production in China goes back to about 6000 bc. The Chinese consider their unbroken tradition of art one of the central achievements of Chinese culture, and art of various kinds has always been held in high regard. In earliest times, the most important art forms were jade carving and the casting of bronze vessels, often made for burial in royal tombs. For the last 2,000 years, the art form that has enjoyed the greatest prestige has been calligraphy, in which the characters of the Chinese language are written with a brush on silk or paper. The calligrapher Wang Xizhi, who lived during the 4th century, is remembered as one of the greatest early practitioners of this art, although virtually no traces of his work survive.

The second most important art form in China after calligraphy is painting. Most of the earliest surviving Chinese paintings date from the Song dynasty, which is seen as one of the golden eras of the tradition. A number of famous artists and art theorists, such as Su Dongpo (pseudonym of Su Shi), lived during this period, and the important art form of landscape painting developed. Many famous painters are recorded in the extensive literature about art from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. One distinctive feature of this literature is the emphasis it places on amateur artists. Their work often was seen as more valuable than that produced by professionals, who were viewed by the educated elite as artisans with a lower social status. Today the tradition of watercolor painting on silk or paper is practiced widely throughout China.

Sculpture was an important art form in China, especially after the introduction of Buddhism from India in the 1st century. However, most sculpture was produced for religious purposes by anonymous craftsmen, and thus the educated elite did not regard it as highly as they did calligraphy and painting. Chinese artisans have also made major achievements in forms such as jade carving, lacquerwork, textiles, and ceramics. Many art forms, such as silk weaving and porcelain work, were invented in China and only later spread to other parts of the world. China’s villages developed important folk art traditions, which were often very different from the art produced for the wealthy in the cities.

Although many splendid palaces, temples, and other buildings have been created in China over the centuries, architecture traditionally was not seen as an art form, and it was given little attention by the elite.

China’s imperial rulers were major patrons of the arts. Religious organizations and individual wealthy patrons also employed artists. After 1949, many artists became employees of the state, paid to produce work glorifying the People’s Republic and the Chinese Communist Party. Since 1976 artists have gained greater artistic freedom, but there has been a reduction in government financial support, and the art market has assumed greater importance.

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