China Arts and Architecture Part I

By | January 12, 2022

The Neolithic cultures

Already from the late Neolithic (4000-2000 BC) that expressive language was formed which became peculiar to Chinese figurative production. The various cultures are characterized by ceramic production, village structure, jade and then other materials (bronze, silk, lacquer). Through a slow process of unitary cultural recognition we witness the evolution of a taste and specific methods of aesthetic approach which, at least for the social class that holds the sacred and temporal power, is resolved in the rituality and interpretation of the symbolic sign. In the panorama of late Neolithic stratified societies there is a marked ornamental trend in which the line and the communicative use of the image are configured as basic elements for the appreciation and understanding of the artefact. The evolution of the decorations and forms of the red-impasto pottery of the Yangshao culture (from the provinces of western Henan, central Shaanxi, southern Shanxi, Gansu, Hebei etc., 5000-3000 BC) is of great importance. From the orderly and constructive scan of the Miaodigou phase (Henan, 4th millennium BC) with motifs of circles, spirals and arched lines – but there are also zoomorphic figurative motifs already attested in the Banpo site (Shaanxi, 5th-4th millennium) – the emphasis given to movement and the sinuosity of forms was achieved in the Majiayao phase (Gansu, beginning of the 3rd millennium), even though lathe processing was not yet used. The latter component is fundamental for the understanding of the refined black and white pottery of the late Dawenkou period (Shandong,

According to ALLUNITCONVERTERS.COM, the final Neolithic phase (circa 3300-2000 BC) documents a real Jade Age, immediately preceding the Bronze Age (circa 2000-1000 BC), with thousands of ritual objects and ornaments from the tombs of the ruling classes. Important grave goods characterize the Hongshan (Liaoning and Inner Mongolia, about 3500-2500 BC) and Liangzhu (Zhejiang and Jiangsu, about 3300-2200 BC) cultures. In the first, ornaments worked in abstract ‘cloud’ shapes and pendants with serpent-like creatures prevail, in the second there are emblems of authority and ritual objects: axes, circular discs smoothed and perforated in the center (bi) and parallelepipeds of variable height, circular inside with externally carved decorations (cong).

Shang period

From about 2000 BC, through the production of the famous bronzes, very high technical and expressive skills are revealed. The objects for the most part performed a ritual function, to cook, preserve and offer food and drink; already the finds recovered in the burials of the urban site of Erlitou (Henan, 1700-1500 BC), corresponding, in all probability, to the Xia dynasty (traditional dates 2205-1766 BC), show a valuable level of quality.

The results achieved in the Shang period (16th-11th century BC) were exceptional in terms of technical mastery, typological variety and use of modeling, when the casting took place mainly in composite terracotta matrices; from the pieces coming from Erligang Zhengzhou (Henan, 15th -14th century), to those of Panlongcheng (Hubei, about 1500-1400 BC), up to the products of the last capital of the dynasty, Anyang (Henan, 13th -11th century Century), a repertoire of figurative themes, ornamental solutions and classes of objects of absolute beauty unfolds. The short inscriptions present in the bronzes, the articulated composition of the palatial structures highlighted by the excavations, together with the discovery of the ‘oracular bones’ (shoulder blades of cattle and turtle carapaces), engraved with pictograms and used for the divination practice of scapulomancy, testify to the complexity of the social structure of the dynasty of Shang king-priests, who already practiced the ancestral cult of ancestors, recognizing Shang Di as the Supreme Ancestor. In the vast Shang figurative repertoire, a dominant image in all types of bronze products is that of the theriomorphic mask of the taotie, a mythical being with an apotropaic function; but the creativity of this period is also attested by the numerous carved jades, with zoomorphic and human figures, always found in Anyang. Notable testimonies also come from southern China; the most important findings were made in 1986 in Sanxingdui (Sichuan, about 1200-1000 BC), from where large masks with anthropomorphic faces in bronze come from, perhaps of divinities to be hoisted on wooden supports;

Zhou period

The quality of the bronzes maintained very high levels even with the Western Zhou (1045-771 BC) who, after deposing the Shang, established the capital near today’s Xi’an (Shaanxi). Long inscriptions appear in the bronzes, which assumed the role of honorific gifts rather than an essential instrument of the rite; some types disappeared, such as those related to libations with alcoholic beverages fermented from cereals, whose abuse, according to the Zhou, would have resulted in the revocation of the celestial mandate (tianming) granted to the Shang. Similarly we are witnessing the slow disappearance of the taotie, while we observe a more controlled use of ornamentation in the surfaces.

China Arts and Architecture 1