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Confucianism developed around the 6th c. BC. It was centered around the idea of duty and right behavior, a philosophy that recognized and supported the hierarchical nature of Chinese society. Confucianism emphasized a complex bureaucratic and social class system of the Chinese Empire through a systematic moral and social code. One's personal salvation could be achieved by submerging the individual good in the greater good of the family and the State. It also stressed the family, particularly elders and ancestors, as one's tie to the sacred. This emphasis on deference to ancestors and the state is a profoundly conservative factor in Chinese culture, making tradition, and established ways of expressing and structuring ideas almost irresistible.
Confucian visual symbolism drew upon ancient interpretations of plant and animal imagery and mythology. This can be seen, for example, in the stylized animal and plant images seen on the rank badges of civil servants, or on imperial robes.
Taoism, also dating from about the 6th century BC, taught that the individual should surrender himself to the vastness of nature in order to find his true place in the world. By learning to move with rather than against the forces of nature, it would be possible to find one's "way," or Tao. The achievement of balance of natural forces is represented by the Yin-Yang symbol, a preeminent Taoist image. The Tao Te Ching is the primary document of Taoist teachings. The I Ching, or book of Changes, is a collection of moral teachings and commentaries still widely read. It is popularly used as the basis for a system of divination. There have been a number of translations of the I Ching, which has been popular in the West.
The preoccupation with nature, and the submerging of the individual in the whole of the natural flow in the world had a profound effect on the development of painting in China. Chinese landscape painting differs in many ways from Euro-American painting. For example, the small scale of human figures in the landscape tends to emphasize the power of nature, and the smallness of the individual in the natural world. This idea of the submersion of individual will to the whole is shared by both Confucianism and Taoism, and the two philosophies have coexisted comfortably.
Buddhism arrived in China from India in the 6th c. AD. In contrast with the Confucian and Taoist concern with defining virtue with right living in this world, Buddhism offered an inner path to spiritual peace through meditation and study. The Buddhism of India was modified in China by contact with Confucianism and Taoism; a monastic tradition, borrowed from Confucianism, was combined with the Taoist interest in the contemplation of nature. Although Buddhism arose in India and shared some of the Hindu frame of reference, it also differed from Hinduism in that it accepted the reality of suffering in this world rather than suggesting that this world is an illusion. Instead Buddhism offered an individual path to salvation that came to be known as the "Middle Way." The Middle Way avoided both the physical self indulgences of the worldly, and also the extremes of the ascetic disciplines, spiritual or physical, practiced by Hindu mystics. Instead, it offered an eight-fold path, a series of steps to be followed to achieve Nirvana, or liberation of the soul from the wheel of life.
There are two main forms of Buddhism; Theravada (or Hinayana): This form stresses the teachings of the historic Buddha. Monasticism is an important feature; many Buddhists spend at least short periods of their life in a monastic retreat.
The other form, Mahayana, includes a pantheon of Buddhist saints, or Boddhisatvas-- those who have achieved enlightenment but have postponed Nirvana to assist with the suffering of the world. This form is common in Japan, among other places. As it happens, here in Ithaca, New York is the site of the North American Seat of the Namgyal Monastery and Institute, founded at the direction of the Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
Buddhist art, while it shares some features with the art of older religions, tends to stress the teaching and meditation aspects of the faith. Buddha figures, sometimes immense (such as the 44 foot high statue at Sheuxi)and images showing events in the life of Buddha or the saints are most common.
For additional background information on Chinese history, including maps and a timeline, try this link.
The symbols incorporated in writing are much changed over time, and highly abstracted, but the associations of plants, animals, and other objects with ideas is very powerful. In traditional Chinese decorative arts and painting, the choice of plants, birds or animals is never random; each has its appropriate use and meaning. For example:
Dragon-- power and immortality (associated with the emperor)
Phoenix (a mythical bird, reborn out of fire)-- renewal and fertility
Flowers-- Each flower has its seasonal associations, and is usually also a symbol of fertility
In addition, in works of art, words and images are not always separated as they are in Euro-American art. It is not uncommon to mingle poetry and pictorial images. Furthermore, the connoisseur or owner of a painting may add his own commentary to the image, conveying his praise of the work; and often adding the imprint of his personal seal.
Chinese painting developed from a relatively fragmentary set of images on a scroll toward a more coherent, structured composition that took full advantage of the scroll form of most paintings. Before the 12th century there was great interest in realism. This link will take you to photographs of famous Chinese mountain landscapes that are typical landscape subjects for painters.
However, later the Chinese painting style became more stylized, following set conventions or rules of form. The scroll form of books and paintings in China had distinctive effects on the visual images placed on these surfaces. Chinese paintings do not have single point, linear perspective of the kind typical of Euro-American art. Instead, the perspective points shift as the viewer's eye moves through the landscape, unrolling, perhaps, a section of the scroll at a time. The scene may include a lake shore, above which tower mountains; yet both the lake and the mountaintop pavilion will seem to be at eye level. Pathways are created in the composition to lead the viewer from one level to the next.
In architecture as in painting, visual symbols dominate design. Classical Chinese public architecture is timber construction. The curved roof beams and extended beam ends that mark the edges of roofs are a result of the construction method, but these features are also part of a symbolic system. Since it was commonly believed that demons or evil spirits could only travel in straight lines, curves, broken lines, and articulated surfaces were commonly used in architecture. This is true of both religious and domestic architecture. This link will provide you with an image of the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing.
Surface embellishment was also very important in Chinese architecture. Surfaces were carved and painted. The choices of images and colors were established by tradition according to the function and status of the structure and its owner. In imperial structures, for example, the principle colors were usually blue, green and red, with accents of black and white, and occasional use of yellow. Shading was done by shifts through the chromatic scale (hue circle) rather than the use of lighter or darker values of a given hue.
For other images of Chinese arts, try this link.