Chinese Art

Peking Opera

Peking Opera has it s origin in primitive songs and dances of ancient times. The music, singing and costumes are products of its origins. The movements and techniques of the dance styles of Peking Opera today are similar to those of the Tang Dynasty. The Anhui Opera troupes were characterized by their dialects and styles of singing, but when these troupes converged on Beijing , they started a style of musical drama called Kunqu which developed during the Ming Dynasty, along with a more popular variety of play-acting with pieces based on legends, historical events and popular novels. Titles like ¡°Pilgrimage to the West¡± (better known in the west as ¡°The Monkey King¡±) and ¡°A Drunken Beauty¡± are typical. These styles gradually merged by the late 18 th and early 19 th centuries into the Peking Opera we see today.

In the past, Peking Opera was performed mostly on the open-air stage in markets, streets, teahouses or temple courtyards. The orchestra had to play loudly and the performers had to develop a piercing style of singing, which could be heard over the throng. The costumes are a garish collection of sharply contrasting colors because of the fact that the stages were originally only lit by oil lamps.

Classical Peking Opera combines many forms, which was separated in western dramas. It is a harmonious combination of Grand Opera, Ballet, acrobatic display and historic play. It is an exciting panorama including the performing arts of singing, dancing, dialogue and monologue, acrobatic combat and mine. All these arts may be woven into one play, or some may be emphasized. The result is that there are song plays in which the emphasis is on singing, acting plays in which dance is predominant, or combat plays where acrobatic combat is the chief means of expression.

The different emphasis has led the Peking Opera to acquire characteristics different form other performing arts. The musicians usually sit on the stage in plain clothes and play without written scores. The erhu is a two-stringed fiddle, which is tuned to a low register, has a soft tone and generally supports the huqin, another two-stringed fiddle tuned to a high register. The yueqin, a sort of moon-shaped four-stringed guitar, has a soft tone and is used to support erhu. Other instruments are the sheng (reed pipes) and pipa (lute), as well as drums, bells and cymbals. Last but not the least is the time clapper, which virtually directs the band, beats time for the actors and gives them their cues.

There are four main roles in Peking Opera: sheng, dan, jing and chou. The sheng are the leading male actors and they play scholars, officials, generals, etc. They are divided into laosheng who wear beards and represent old men, and the xiaosheng who represent young men. The wusheng are the scholars and the civil servants. The wuheng play soldiers and other fighters, and because of this, they are specially trained in acrobatics.

The dan are the female roles. Formerly, the term meant female impersonator. In feudal China , men and women were forbidden to play on the same stage to maintain strict segregation. The laodan are the elderly, dignified ladies such as mothers, aunts and widows. The qingyi are aristocratic ladies in elegant costumes. The huadan are ladies, maids, usually in brightly colored costumes. The daomadan are the warrior women. The caidan are the female comedians.

The jing are the face-painted roles, and they represent warriors, heroes, statesmen, adventurers and demons. Their counterpart is the fujing, ridiculous figures who are anything but heroic.

The term for clowns in Peking Opera is chou. Their task is the same as that of the western clown¡ªto keep the audience laughing and to improvise equips at the right moments of ease tension in some serious plays.

Apart from the singing and music, the opera also uses acrobatics and mime. Few props are used, so each move, gesture or facial expression is symbolic. Everything the actor does ---entrances, exits, and gestures and movements¡ªis done according to a stylized routine. A whip with silk tassels indicates that an actor is riding a horse; riding a carriage is represented by an attendant holding flags painted with a wheel design on either side of the performer; walking in a circle indicates a long journey. Lifting a foot may mean going through a doorway.

The language is hard to understand, often archaic Chinese, but the costume and make-up are magnificent. The action that really catches the Western eye is a swift battle sequence¡ªthe woman warriors involved are trained acrobats who leap, twirl and somersault into attack.

Nowadays, Peking Opera is still very popular with elderly people. Also noteworthy is the fact that this traditional Chinese art has been somewhat modernized. Anyhow, Peking opera is looked upon as an art of China and draws a lot of attention from both Chinese and people of other countries.

Chinese painting

Though Chinese painting has much in common with western painting from an aesthetic point of view it still possesses its unique national character.

Chinese traditional painting seldom follows the convention of central focus perspective of realistic portrayal, but gives the painter freedom on artistic conception, structural composition and method of expression so as to better express his subjective feelings. Chinese painting has absorbed the best of many forms of art, like poetry, calligraphy, painting, and seal engraving.

In the past, many great artists were also great poets and calligraphers. Take Mr. Qi Baishi, a great master painter, as an example. Mr. Qi was a skillful poet, painter, calligrapher and seal-cutter. Qi, a native of Hunan Province , injected his ink painting with typical Chinese farmers' tastes---simple, pure, and humorous. All this made him an artistic giant of the 20 century.

The Chinese often consider a good painting is like a good poem, and vice versa, hence the expression ¡°painting in poetry and poetry in painting¡±. Chinese painting is a combination in the same picture of the arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal-engraving. They were indispensable elements, which supplement and enrich each other in contributing to the beauty of the whole picture.

Pines, bamboo and plum blossoms are¡± bosom friends in winter¡±. The three plants were meant to embody the qualities of people who were upright and showed rectitude. They became favorite objects for traditional Chinese painter.

Chinese paintings can be divided in to four categories according to its format: murals, screens, scrolls, and albums and fans. In addition, they are frequently mounted against exquisite backgrounds to enhance their aesthetic effect.

In terms of technique, Chinese paintings can be divided into two broad categories: meticulous painting and free sketch painting. The former means drawing with fine, delicate strokes. The latter is characterized by vivid expression and bold outline.

By subject matter, they can be divided into paintings of figures, landscapes, buildings, flowers, birds, animals, insects and fish. The brush techniques so much emphasized in Chinese painting include not only line drawing, but also stylized expressions of shade and texture, the dotting method and the application of color.

Apart from traditional painting, there are other picture types: iron, embroidery, shell, feather, wheat straw, paper ¨Ccutting and so on. Iron pictures, made of iron, are noted for its rough outline and classical elegance. They originated in the Ming Dynasty. Shell pictures are rather imposing and colorful, while feather pictures are noted for their delicate craftsmanship. Vivid and attractive, embroidered pictures are unique in style. The embroidery is done on a piece of paper or silk.

There is another specialty in painting¡ªthe snuffbox. Most snuffboxes are made of high quality transparent and translucent glass. Skilled craftsmen use special brushes to draw miniature pictures on the inner surface of the boxes. It requires unique skills and techniques to draw such pictures. Sometimes it takes a craftsman several days to paint a snuffbox. Some of the designs are traditional . ¡°Hundred Children Playing Games¡± is one such design. There are a hundred lovely children on both sides of a pair of tiny little snuffboxes. Each child is given a different posture and manner.

Chinese paper-cutting is very popular among foreign friends. It's a kind of Chinese folk art. Yangzhou , a city in Jiangsu Province , has the name ¡°the home of Chinese paper-cutting¡±. Stage figures and different kinds of animals and flowers are cut to be true to life. Sometimes, artistic exaggeration is adopted. In central and northern China , paper-cutting is used to decorate windows. It can also serve as a nice decoration on walls and tea tables.

Painting and pictures represent the wisdom and creativeness of the Chinese people. They have often won high admiration of artists throughout the world.


Calligraphy is understood in China as the art of writing a good hand with he brush or the study of the rules and techniques of this art. As such it is peculiar to China and the few countries influence by ancient Chinese culture.

In the history of Chinese art, calligraphy has always been held in equal importance to painting. Great attention in is also paid today to its development by holding exhibition of ancient and contemporary works and by organizing competitions among youngsters and people from various walks of life. Sharing of experience in this field often makes a feature in Sino-Japanese culture exchange.

Chinese calligraphy, like the script itself, began with the hieroglyphs and, over the long ages of evolution, has developed various styles and schools, constituting an important part of the heritage of national culture.

Chinese scripts are generally divided into five categories: the seal character (zhuan), the official or clerical script (li), the regular script (kai), the running hand (xing) and the cursive hand (cao).

To learn to write a nice hand in Chinese calligraphy, assiduous and persevering practice is necessary. This has been borne out by the many great masters China has produced. Wang Xizhi, the great artist, who has been held in high esteem by, calligraphers and scholars throughout history, is said to have blackened in his childhood all the water of a pond in front of his house by washing the writing implements in it after his daily of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) was so industrious in learning calligraphy that he filled may jars with worn-out writing brushes, which he buried in a ¡°tomb of brushes¡±.

Renewed interest in brush-writing has been kindled today among the pupils in China , some of whom already show promises as worthy successors to the ancient masters.

The Four Treasures of the Study

The writing brush, ink stick, paper and inkslab are the traditional implements and materials for writing and painting and have always been named collectively as the ¡°four treasures of the study:¡±.

Each of these items is represented by its ¡°best¡±: the xuan paper, hui ink stick, hu brush and duan inkslab are highly valued in the country and known abroad as well.

Xuan paper¡ªThis paper is mainly used for writing or painting on with a brush. It has a history of over 1,000 years, being a ¡°tribute paper¡± for the court as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907). What we know today as Chinese paintings, for the over whelming part, executed on xuan paper, without which one might say there would be on Chinese painting as it is. Xuan paper is known to some Westerners as ¡°rice paper¡±, which is a misnomer. In fact, it is made from the bark of the wingceltis (pteroceltis tatarinowii) mixed with rice straw. Its home is Jingxian Country , Anhui Province. As the country belonged in ancient times to the prefecture of Xuanzhou and the trading centre of the paper was at Xuancheng, so it has always been called xuan paper.

The making of xuan paper is a painstaking procedure involving 18 processes and nearly 100 operations and lasting over 300 days from the selection of materials to the finished product. The xuan paper is praised as the ¡°king of all papers¡± and is supposed to ¡°last a thousand years¡±. This is because it is white as alabaster, soft and firm, resistant to ageing and worms. It absorbs but does not spread the ink from the brush, which goes over it with a feel neither too smooth nor too rough. For these qualities, the xuan paper is not only used for painting and calligraphy, it is increasingly used nowadays for diplomatic notes, important archives and other documents. In addition, it may also be used for blotting, filtering and moisture-proof purposes.

Hu brush---the writing brush is a functional handicraft article peculiar to China , an instrument still used by its pupils in calligraphy and painting exercise. The first writing brush, according to legend, was made by Meng Tian, a general under the First Emperor of Qin, long time in command of the troops stationed along the Great Wall. Once he happened to see a tuft of sheep's wood stuck on the wall. Taking it down and tying it on a stick, he made the first writing brush. Archaeological finds, however, have given the lie to this story. The hu brush is made of the hair of the goat, here and yellow weasel, all marked by a quality which is at once soft and resilients. Dipped in the black Chinese ink, the hu brush may follow the manoeuvres of the writer's hand to produce a variety of strokes¡ªdark or light, wet and solid or half dry and hollow¡ªfor different effects in the writing or painting. First-grade hu brush must meet four requirements: a sharp tip. Neat hair arrangement, rounded shape and great resilience.

The sticks for the brushes, made from local bamboo of high quality, are often decorated with ivory, horn or redwood; some are mounted at the top with horn or bone for the purposes of inscription.

Hu brushes, renowned as ¡°king of writing brushes¡±, used t be supplied to the imperial court. They were also a necessary item on the desks of men of letters or of means.

Hui ink stick---The Chinese ¡°solid ink¡± or ink stick is used to produce ink, when needed; it an also be a work of art. The way to make Chinese ink is to put a little water on an inkslab and then rub the ink stick on it round and round. When the liquid becomes thick and black enough, it is ready for writing with a brush. Before the ink stick was developed, graphite was used for writing. When the country became more developed, it was felt during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.¡ª 220 A .D.) that graphite could not meet the growing demand. It was then that ink sticks began to be produced with pine and tung soot. The art was perfected during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when high quality ink sticks were made of the soot of pine resin, pork lard and vegetable oil.

The best Chinese ink sticks were first made in Shexian country, Anhui Province , and they are generally called hui sticks because Shexian was named Huizhou in the Song Dynasty. Accomplished Chinese artists and calligraphy have always attached great importance to the selection of ink sticks. During the Qing Dynasty, a first-rate piece could be literally worth its weight in gold.

Duan Inkslab---To write with a brush, one must prepare one's own ink. Chinese ancestors developed the inkslab or inkstone for this purpose. The earliest Chinese inkslabs unearthed so far date from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. -220 A .D.), showing that this utensil for ink-making has been in use in the country for at least 2,000 years. In a nutshell, the inkstone (yan or yantai) is a sort of millstone on which water is turned into ink by the rubbing of an ink stick. It is generally made of stone of a smooth and fine-grained variety. To the fastidious calligrapher, a good inkalab should be made of the stone produced at Duanxi, a suburb east of the city of Zhaoqing , Guangdong Province . Named after the home of the stone, the duan inkslab has a history of over 1,500 years and has always been regarded as a valuable item in the scholar's study.

Duan inkslabs are valued for their fine and smooth surfaces which look as if glossy with moisture. They make ink fairly fast and wet the hair of the writing brush evenly; they are also good for keeping left over ink. A well-chosen piece of stone may also bear fine veins indistinct but pretty to look at.


Seal-cutting is traditionally listed along with painting, calligraphy and poetry as one of the ¡°four arts¡± expected of the accomplished scholar and a unique part of the Chinese cultural heritage. A seal stamp in red is not only the signature on a work of calligraphy or painting but an in dispensable touch to liven it up.

The art dates back about 3,700 years to the Yin Dynasty and has its origin in the cutting of orcle inscriptions on tortoise shells. It flourished in the Qin Dynasty of 22 centuries ago, when people engraved their names on utensils and documents (of bamboo and wood) to show ownership or authorship. Out of this grew the cutting of personal manes on small blacks of horn, jade or wood, namely the seals as we know them today.

As in other countries seals may be used by official departments as well as private individuals. From as early as the Warring State Period (475-221.B.C.) an official seal would be bestowed as token of authorization by the head of a state to a subject whom he appointed to a high office. The seal, in other words, stood for the office and corresponding power. Private seals are likewise used to stamp personal names on various papers for purposes of authentication or as tokens of good faith.

Seals reflect the development of written Chinese. The earliest ones, those of the Qin and Han dynasties, bear the zhuan or curly script, which explains why the art of seal-cutting is still called zhuanke and also why the zhuan script is also known in English as ¡°seal characters¡±. As time went on, the other script styles appeared one after another on Chinese seals, which may now be cut in any style except the cursive at the option of the artist.

Characters on seals may be cut in relief or in intaglio. The materials for seals vary with different types of owners. Average persons normally have wood, stone or horn seals, whereas noted public figures would probably prefer seals made of red-stained Changhua stone, jade, agate, crystal, ivory and other more valuable materials. Monarchs in the old days used gold or the most precious stones to make their imperial or royal seals. Today Chinese government offices at the central level have brass seals as rule, while offices at lower levels wood ones.

Seal cut as works of art should excel in three aspects¡ªcalligraphy, composition and the graver's handwork. The artist must be good at writing various styles of the Chinese script. He should know how to arrange within a limited space a number of characters¡ªsome compact with moan y strokes and others sketchy with very few¡ªto achieve a vigorous or graceful effect. He should also be familiar with the various materials¡ªstone, brass or ivory¡ªso that he may apply the cutting knife with the right exertion, technique and even rhythm. For the initiated to watch a master engraver at work is like seeing a delightful stage performance.

Red-Stained Stone

Jixueshi (literally, chicken-blood stone) is a precious stone found in China and is particularly good for making seals. A piece of this red-stained stone, greatly valued because it is rare, is worth up to 10,000 yuan.

Produced at Yuyan Mountain in Changhua Country , Zhejiang Province, the stone is a mineral intergrowth of cinnabar and pyrophyllite. It derives its name because cinnabar is brilliantly red, like chicken blood. Pyrophyllite, on the other hand, may be in any of a variety of colors¡ªwhite, yellow, grey, green or black¡ªwhich, stained with the red, presents at its best a glittering and translucent splendour never to be matched by human creations. The market value of such a piece of stone is assessed by the amount of red in it, the brilliance of its colors, its translucence and purity.

First discovered during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the stone was carved at the time into art objects used by the nobility as gifts to one another. Down to the Qing Dynasty, the imperial family and the aristocrats chose the best of the stone to make seals, buying it at high prices for their collection. Today it is occasionally available at antiquarian shops and friendship stores.

Traditional Chinese Painting

An important part of the country's cultural heritage, the traditional Chinese painting is distinguished from Western art in that it is executed on xuan paper (or silk) with the Chinese brush, Chinese ink and mineral and vegetable pigments.

To attain proficiency in this branch of art calls for assiduous exercise, a good control of the brush, and knowledge of the qualities of xuan paper and Chinese ink.

Before setting a brush to paper, the painter must conceive a well-composed draft in his mind, drawing on his imagination and store of experience. Once he starts to paint, he will normally have to complete the work at one go, denied the possibility of any alternation of wrong strokes.

Xuan paper, is most suitable for Chinese painting. It is of the right texture to allow the writing brush, wet with Chinese ink and held in a trained hand, to move freely on it, making strokes varying from dark to light, from solid to hollow. There soon turn out to be human figures, plants and flowers, birds, fish and insects, full of interest and life

Many a Chinese painter is at the same time a poet and calligrapher. He will often add a poem in his own hand on the painting, which invariably carriers an impression of his seal. The resulting piece of work is usually an integrated whole of four branches of Chinese art-poetry calligraphy, painting and seal-cutting.

Chinese paintings are divided into two major categories: free hand brushwork (xieyi) and detailed brushwork (gongbi). The former is characterized b simple and bold strokes intended t represent the exaggerated likenesses of the objects, while the latter by fine brushwork and close attention to detail. Employing different techniques, the two schools try to achieve the same end, the creation of beauty.

It is difficult to tell how long the art of painting has existed in China . Pots of 5,000-6,000 years ago were painted in color with patterns of plants, fabrics, and animals, reflecting various aspects of the life of primitive clan communities. These may be considered the beginnings of Chinese painting.

China entered the slave society about 2,000 B.C. Though no paintings of that period have ever come to light, that society witnessed the emergence of a magnificent bronze culture, and bronzes can only be taken as a composite art of painting and sculpture.

In 1949 from a tomb of the Warring State Period (475-221 B.C.) was unearthed a painting on silk of human figures, dragons and phoenixes. The earliest work on silk ever discovered in China , it measures about 30 cm long by 20 cm wide.

From this and other early paintings on silk it may be easily seen that ancients were already familiar with the art of the writing or painting brush, for the strokes show vigour or elegance whichever was desired. Paintings of this period are strongly religious or mythological in themes.

Paintings on paper appeared much later than those on silk for the simple reason that the invention of silk preceded that of paper by a long historical period.

In 1964, when a tomb dating to the Jin Dynasty (265 -420 A .D.) was excavated at Astana in Turpan, Xinjiang, a colored painting on paper was discovered. It shows, on top, the sun, the moon and the Big Dipper and , below, the owner of the tomb sitting cross-legged on a couch and leisurely holding a fan in his hand. A portrayal in vivid lines of the life of a feudal land-owner, measuring 106.5 cm long by 47 cm high, it is the only known painting on paper of such antiquity in China .

Acrobatic Art

Chinese acrobatics has a long history and rich national flavor. It is one of the art forms most popular among the Chinese people.

Acrobatic art has been in existence in China for more than two thousand years. As early as the Warring States Period, there appeared rudiments of acrobatics. By the time of the Han Dynasty, the acrobatic art or Hundred Plays further developed both in content and varieties. In the Tang Dynasty, the most thriving period in the history of Chinese ancient culture, the number of acrobatics greatly increased and their performing skills improved. The famous poet of that time, Bai Juyi wrote poems on acrobatic performances. In the Dunhuang mural painting ¡°Lady Song Going on a Journey¡±. There are images of acrobatic and circus performance.

In the long course of its development, Chinese acrobatic art has formed its own style. Ancient acrobatics stemmed from the people's life and had a close line with their life and labor. Instruments of labor like tridents, wicker rings and articles of daily use, such as tables, chairs, jars, plates and bowls, were used in their performances of ¡° Flying Trident¡±, ¡°Balance in Chairs¡±, ¡°Jar Tricks¡±, ¡°Hoop Diving¡±, ¡°Traditional Style Conjuring¡± and others.

Though having a long history of development and enjoying great popularity among the people, acrobatics in old China was never performed in theatres because it was looked down upon by the feudal class. Before 1949, acrobatics had suffered more than before. Many fine arts were lost because of long years of neglect and also because the acrobatics were wandering from place to place in starvation.
The acrobatic art of New China (since 1949) has not only made great improvement in its contents and skill, but also set up a designing and directing system, aiming at creating graceful stage images, harmonious musical accompaniment and good supporting effects of costumes, props and lighting, so as to bring about a fully-fledged stage art. The present Chinese acrobatics are full of optimism and reflect the industry, resourcefulness, courage and undauntedness of the Chinese people.

In the past 50 or more years, many Chinese acrobatics troupes have toured more than 100 countries and regions in the world and promoted friendship and cultural exchanges.


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