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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Chinese Carving Art
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.