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Chinese Sculpture and Carvings

Sculpture emerged in China along with the first glimmerings of civilization. Over the millennia of Chinese cultural development, sculptural works with distinct national characteristics have been created, and famous sculptors have added luster to the Chinese people's artistic achievements from epoch to epoch. Artifacts from China date back as early as 10,000 BC and skilled Chinese artisans had been active very early in history, but the bulk of what is displayed as sculpture comes from a few select historical periods.

The first period of interest has been the Western Zhou Dynasty (1050-771 BC), from which come a variety of intricate cast bronze vessels followed later by the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), beginning with the spectacular Terracotta Army assembled for the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the important but short-lived Qin Dynasty that preceded the Han. Tombs excavated from the Han period have revealed many figures found to be vigorous, direct, and appealing 2000 years later.

The period considered to be China's golden age is the Tang Dynasty coincided with what in Europe is sometimes called the Dark Ages. Considered especially desirable and even profound were often monumental Buddhist sculptures beguning in the Sui Dynasty and inspired by the Indian art of the Gupta period. Many of China's Buddhist sculptures are considered the treasure of world art.

Neolithic Jade Carvings

In the Neolithic period (5000-2000 B.C.), priests and military men used jade pieces in the worship of deities and ancestors. The most common ornaments of round pi discs and square ts'ung tubes symbolized the round heaven and the square earth. Jade ornaments in ancient China were used as authority objects and emblems of power. Ancient Chinese believed that their ancestors originated with God and communicated through supernatural beings and symbols, whose images were placed on jade ornaments. Shamans most likely used jade ornaments with divine markings to command mystical forces and communicate with gods and ancestors. Jade was also used in ancient burial ceremonies. In ancient times jade was wedged or cracked from a stone and most likely shaped by artisans using grind stones. Metal tools had not yet been invented. It took a considerable amount of time to shape, polish and engrave the elaborate pieces though to have been created for royalty or nobility.

Circular jades were fairly common in the Neolithic period. Although they were usually discs with a hole in the middle there were pronounced regional differences. Northern jades from the Hongshan culture (4000-3000 B.C) were transparent green in color, thin on the outer and inner edges, and decorated with images of interlocking clouds and linked circular shapes. Northern jades pieces were mainly worn as ornaments. Southern circular jades from the lower-Yangtze Liang-chu culture (3200-2300 B.C.) were mostly green and often dotted with white spots. Used primarily as ritual objects, these circular jades were about 20 centimeters in diameter with a central hole drilled from both sides. Raised edges lined the central hole, while the outer edges were flat and circular. The small arc-curves sometimes seen on the surface are remnants of the cutting and carving process.
Northwestern circular jades from the Lungshan culture (2500-2000 B.C.) and Shensi and Kansu Qichian culture (2000-1600 B.C.) have a surface with straight lines and a central hole drilled from one side with an angled wall and an upper rim larger than the lower rim. Eastern jades from the lower Yellow River Ta-wen-kou culture (4300-2300 B.C.) were mostly small sized objects influenced by northern and southern styles.

Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.) circular jades are generally similar to northwestern circular jades. Later Shang pieces featured raised inner rims and thin outer edges, sets of carved concentric circles and images of curling dragons, fish, tigers and birds. During the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 B.C.) jade pendants were very popular and the level of their craftsmanship was unmatched in any future period.

Shang and Zhou dynasties jade objects were important objects in ceremonies and rituals. In the Western Zhou period (1100-700 B.C.) the type and number of circular jades used in ceremonies represented a person's social status. Circular jades from this period were often cut into symmetrical pieces to form sets of two or three pieces. Circular jades made during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period (722-221 B.C.) were smaller than those from the Shang and early Zhou periods. They contained carved images of curling chih dragons, grain seeds, and cloud patterns. During this period circular jades were commonly worn by people. Materials other than jade, such as agate and glass were used to make jade ornaments.

Ivory Sculpture

Ivory Sculpture, also known Ya Diao in Chinese, is an old art in China dating back to prehistoric times. Generally speaking tooth, tusk, and horn sculpture refers to objects carved out of animal teeth and horns, and in the circle of collectors, it refers specifically to works carved out of ivory and rhinoceros horns. As early as the Paleolithic Age, Shandingdong people living in Zhoukoudian Village carved decorative articles out of ivory and used them as burial articles. Ivory is naturally beautiful, white and soft, and is therefore very exquisite and full of artistic charm; Rhinoceros horn carving is famous for its rarity and great value. Tusk carving was one of traditional Chinese cultural essences and an important part of China's industrial arts. From the ruins of the Yin Dynasty capital of 3,700 years ago knives and rulers made of ivory have been unearthed. The Record of the Warring States, a history written 20 centuries ago tells of Mengchang, an aristocrat of the State of Qi, who left his homeland for a tour abroad. When he arrived in the state of Chu he was presented with an ivory bed. The bed was worth a thousand pieces of gold; the slightest damage would ruin the man who had to compensate for it.

Ivory is tough yet delicate in texture and perfectly fit for carving. These characteristics were recognized by the Chinese early on from ivory carving excavations unearthing round bird sculptures at the Neolithic cultural sites of Hemudu Ruins. In the Song Dynasty concentric ivory ball sets, also called demon's work included multiple layers of rotatable artful, delicate, and elegant carved balls exquisitely carved out of a whole piece of ivory. Emperors in Liao, Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties also regarded ivories as imperial tributes.

The Qing Dynasty witnessed the heyday of ivory sculpting and gradually developed a trend towards small articles. Most of the pieces are treasures for appreciation and ornamentations. They are decorated with scholar stories, flower and bird patterns and auspicious subjects full of high cultural taste. These ivory carvings became the desktop delights for scholar-bureaucrats, officials and aristocrats. The ivory carvings handed down from ancient China have surpassed all others in international artwork market for its delicate artistic carving and the value of the ivories itself.

Tomb Art and Sculpture

In ancient times people believed that the souls of the dead lived after death in another world where they needed all the same things that people need when they were alive. During the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 B.C) the funerary custom included burying the deceased with pottery or wooden burial figures. By the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) it was common for emperors and other noblemen to decorate their tombs with pottery replicas of warriors, concubines, servants, horses, domestic animals, trees, plants, furniture, models of towers, granaries, mortars and pestles, stoves and toilets, and almost everything found in the real world so the deceased would have everything he needed in the next world. Some extraordinarily beautiful sculptures were found in tombs from the state of Chu, which flourished between the 8th and 3rd centuries B.C. in a remote part of China. The Chu produced stylized lacquered deer antlers and a bronze figure with a bird body and serpentine neck. Chu art has brought attention to the fact that non-mainstream and fringe cultures produce art that was a just as beautiful as the art produced by the main Chinese dynasties.

The Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses of Xi'an

The Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses represents an unbeatable achievement in the history of ancient Chinese sculpture and the most significant archeological excavations of the 20th century. The Terra Cotta Warriors are a form of funerary art buried with the First Emperor of Qin (Qin Shi Huang, Shi Huang means the first emperor) in 210-209 BC. Their purpose was to help rule another empire with Shi Huang Di in the afterlife. Consequently, they are also sometimes referred to as Qin's Armies.

According to the historian Sima Qian (145-90 BC) construction of Shi Huang's mausoleum began in 246 BC and involved 700,000 workers. Upon ascending the throne at the age of 13 (in 246 BC), Qin Shi Huang had begun to work for his mausoleum. It took 11 years to finish. Qin Shi Huang specifically stated that no two soldiers were to be made alike, which is most likely why he had construction started at that young age. It is speculated that many buried treasures and sacrificial objects had accompanied the emperor in his after life. When a group of peasants uncovered some pottery while digging for a well nearby the royal tomb in 1974. It caught the attention of archeologists immediately. They came to Xian from throughout the world to study and to extend the digs. They had established beyond doubt that these artifacts were associated with the Qin Dynasty (211-206 BC). It was also said as a legend that the Terracotta Warriors were real soldiers, buried with Emperor Qin so that they could defend him from any dangers in the next life.

Over 8,000 terra cotta soldiers, horses and chariots, all facing east have been unearthed. Basically there were four types of figures: generals, soldiers, archers and military advisers. So far, only seven generals were found. However nobody can explain the absence of a commander-in-chief. All the 8,000 life-size terra cotta soldiers were unique in appearance. You won't find two of them look the same. It is obvious that they were crafted from life models. Each figurine's head appears to be unique in facial features, expressions and hair styles. Even their belt hooks, shoe ties and costume details were finely sculpted. The uniform they wore represented their post and ranking in the army.

The figurines are in various postures including standing infantry and kneeling archers as well as charioteers with horses. Their posture is usually related to the weapon they hold. The colouring of the terra cotta figurines was another major achievement. Despite the 2,000 years of corrosion, the paint fragments on the figurines indicated the terra warriors were originally covered with various bright and brilliant colours.


Terra cotta warriors not only replicated the Qin army in a macro view, they were designed in way to replicate the weapons as well. Each figurine was armed with a real weapon. Over 10,000 bronze weapons of extensive varieties have been unearthed. The weapons held by the terra cotta soldiers include a variety of swords, daggers, battle-axes, halberds, double-bladed spears, bows and arrows, and umerous wood and bamboo weapons. More than 600 terra cotta horses have been excavated from all the three trenches. They were mainly battle steeds and chariot teams. Horses have an average measurement of about two meters in length and 1.72 meters in height, quite close to actual size. The terra cotta horses featured strong limbs, large heads, protruding noses, short necks and wide shoulders. The muscular horses appear ready for action with ears erect and flaring eyes. Some with raised heads and open mouths appeared to be neighing.

Research showed that even with today's technology, it is difficult to reproduce a pottery figure of same quality as the terra cotta warriors unearthed in Xian. Consider these 2,000 years old life-size pottery figures, their construction technology had reached the extreme of human capabilities for the period. Archeologists found that the bronze weapons were coated with a 10-micron layer of rust-proof chromic salt oxide - a technique not developed in Europe and America until recent times. Studies indicated that the terra cotta warriors were fired at high temperature of between 950 and 1,100 degrees Celsius. With hollowed heads, bodies, arms and solid legs, the terra cotta warriors were exceptionally hard.


Jade Suits and Pieces from Han Dynasties

During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), the imperial family held jade in great esteem. While alive they wore jade pendants and ingested jade powder and when they died they were covered and stuffed with jade. Banners and tomb tiles were imprinted the round pi disk, which was believed to assist the deceased reach the next world quicker. In the Han period, jade objects were believed to possess auspicious meaning, their uses and functions multiplied. Circular jades often contained images of twin-bodied animals, mask patterns, grain seeds, rush mat designs, curling chih dragons, and round tipped nipples-decorate buildings. Engraved dragon and phoenix patterns were popular in the Han imperial court.

The greatest expressions of the quest for immortality were the jade suits that appeared around the 2nd century B.C. The jade suit of the 2nd century B.C. Prince Liu Sheng unearthed near Chengdu, Sichuan province was made of 2,498 jade plates sewn together with silk and gold wire. Liu Shen was buried with his consort who was equally well clad in a jade suit. Jade suits were believed to slow decomposition and effectively preserve the body after death. A jade suit unearth in Jiangxi Province was made of roughly 4,000 translucent pieces of jade held together with gold wire.

Buddhist Sculpture

Though Chinese sculpture has no nudes other than figures made for medical training or practice, one place where sculptural portraiture was pursued was in the monasteries. Buddhism arrived in China around the 1st century CE, and introduced new types of art into China, particularly in the area of statuary. Upon receiving this distant religion, strong Chinese traits were incorporated into Buddhist art. The first Buddhist sculpture is found dating from the Three Kingdoms period during the 3rd century, while the sculpture of the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang, Henan Province of the Northern Wei, 5th and 6th century has been widely recognized for its special elegant qualities.

In the 5th to 6th centuries, the Northern Dynasties, developed rather symbolic and abstract modes of representation, with schematic lines. Their style is also said to be solemn and majestic. The lack of corporeality of this art, and its distance from the original Buddhist objective of expressing the pure ideal of enlightenment in an accessible and realistic manner, progressively led to a change towards more naturalism and realism, leading to the expression of Tang Buddhist art.

Following a transition under the Sui Dynasty, Buddhist sculpture of the Tang evolved towards a markedly life-like expression. Because of the dynasty’s openness to foreign influences, and renewed exchanges with Indian culture due to the numerous travels of Chinese Buddhist monks to India, Tang dynasty Buddhist sculpture assumed a rather classical form, inspired by the Indian art of the Gupta period. During that time, the Tang capital of Chang'an, today's Xi'an, became an important center for Buddhism. From there Buddhism spread to Korea, and Japanese embassies of Kentoshi helped it gain a foothold in Japan. However, foreign influences came to be negatively perceived in China towards the end of the Tang dynasty. In the year 845, the Tang emperor Wuzong outlawed all foreign religions, including Christian Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism in order to support the indigenous religion, Taoism. He confiscated Buddhist possessions, and forced the faith to go underground, therefore affecting the development of the religion and its arts in China. Chán Buddhism however, as the origin of Japanese Zen, continued to prosper for some centuries, especially under the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when Chan monasteries were great centers of culture and learning.

The most well known sculptures to come out of China are the images of Buddhas found in caves and sculptures unearthed from tombs. The popularization of Buddhism in China has made the country home to one of the richest collections of Buddhist arts in the world. The Mogao Caves near Dunhuang and the Bingling Temple caves near Yongjing in Gansu province, the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang in Henan province, the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi province, and the Dazu Rock Carvings near Chongqing municipality are among the most important and renowned Buddhist sculptural sites. The Leshan Giant Buddha, carved out of a hillside in the 8th century during the Tang Dynasty and looking down on the confluence of three rivers, is still the largest stone Buddha statue in the world.

Some of the most exquisite Chinese sculpture was discovered at Qingzhou in Shandong in 1996 by workers leveling a sports field at a school. First the stone head of a Buddha was uncovered. Underneath that was a pit where 188 heads and 200 virtually intact torsos, and some monumental steles with Buddhist triads, and clay figures that were once brightly painted, some of them with ash and burnt bones. Also, unsurpassed 6th and 7th century Buddhist sculptures have been unearthed in northern China along the Silk Road in Gansu and Ningxia. This include a big-nosed clay representation of a Buddha disciple, a granite carving of Avalokitesvara, a popular Buddhist deity and a bronze figure of a dancing Sogidian. Many of the work bears influences from Persia and Central Asia. The Sogdians were a Persian culture centered around Samarkan. A relief a Buddha flanked by two bodhisattvas and a life-size bodhisattva feature extraordinary detail and expression and a seated Buddha that was once enthroned represents a classical moment of its art. The perfect proportions project a sense of harmony and the expression of imperious illumination speaks of a powerful , self confident art. A figure in motion is unique in the art of China, with its knees very slightly flexed lifting the light drape adhering to the body.

Chinese Carving Art

With a time-honored history, Chinese carving art has survived and thrived in its long development process. Due to prominent cultural differences, Chinese carving art varies greatly from its counterpart in the West. Objects such as figures, animals, plants or landscapes are delicately carved by artists.
Chinese artists demonstrate their talents and creativity on a range of raw materials from stone, tooth, horn, root, and bamboo to paper. Carvings were originally done on bamboo before artists adopted other materials to carve on. Many of these works have become national gems.

Bamboo Carving - Bamboo, pine and plum, called the three good friends in the cold years, have always been popular among people, including poets, artists and handicraftsmen. The common bamboo gives a sense of transcendent beauty, and collecting bamboo carvings has been the hobby of Chinese people for a long time.

Tibetan Folk Carving - Large in number, exquisite in materials and elegant tastes, Tibetan folk carving has been well known for centuries. The dozens of primordial rock painting s found in scarcely populated valleys are the works of Tibetan ancestors, also known as the first batch of artworks found on this land.

Qingtian Stone Carving - Qingtian stone carving is one of the most famous handicraft works Three Carvings and One Statue of China. It originated in Qingtian of Zhejiang Province, a county reputed as the Hometown of Chinese Stone Carvings. With beautiful modeling and refined craftsmanship, Qingtian stone carvings are loved by many people and reputed as the Embroidery on Stones.

Chinese Seal Carving - 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 indispensable 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 oracle 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.

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.

The quality of the seal is based on three aspects, calligraphy, composition and the graver's handiwork. The artist must be good at writing various styles of the Chinese script and should know how to arrange within a limited space a number of characters to achieve a vigorous or graceful effect. He should also be familiar with the various materials such as stone, brass or ivory so that he may apply the cutting knife with the right exertion, technique and even rhythm.

Characters on seals may be cut in relief or in intaglio. The materials for seals vary with different types of owners. Normally seal are made from wood, stone or horn, whereas noted public figures would probably prefer seals made of red stained Changhua stone, jade, agate, crystal, ivory and other more valuable materials. Monarchs of the past used gold or the most precious stones to make their imperial or royal seals.

According to a Han Dynasty legend, the first seal was given to the Yellow Emperor by a dragon with a diagram on its back (c. 2600 BC). Another legend said that a seal contained in a jade box was bestowed upon Emperor Yao by a phoenix as he was sitting in a boat (c. 2300 BC). In either case, the receipt of the seal signified the conferral of the Mandate of Heaven. He who had the seal possessed the Mandate of Heaven and was given the authority to rule the nation. For example, as the first king of the Shang Dynasty, Tang, overthrew the tyrant of the previous Hsia Dynasty in 1711 BC, he seized the imperial seal and thus established his authority.

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