Sample Essay on The Origin and Early Development of Pictorial Art in China

The Origin and Early Development of Pictorial Art in China


This research paper is talking about the Origin and Early Development of Pictorial Art in China and it brings out the written or painted language that played an important role in the lives of the ancient china. It also presents how art has led to civilization and development in humans, not only in the Chinese perspective but also the entire. Many do cherish the Chinese written language and their culture, and it has been under study from many renowned scholars since it claims a rich heritage in the world. In recent times, various studies have been conducted in research of the Chinese art and the research has mainly focused their attention on how important icons have been used to represent imagery which relates to the ancient Chinese doctrinal religion, the social customs and their cultural practices at large. This study also brings out the concept of how people have been able to relate to their environment in a mutual way, through presenting it with pictures in form of art. Pictures do present the complex relationship that exists between the nature and people, making it simpler to understand.

It is believed that most of the principal artifacts in the ancient China begun to exist in the region of around 4500 years ago. It happened to have been inspired by mainly the two greatest legends in the region, Ts’ang Chieh who invented writing and Shih Huang who invented drawing. It’s however believed that these inventions came into being especially because man needed to communicate and that the features of such inventions gradually developed as human progressed. The color is then mentioned 4000 years ago for the time when emperor Shun reigned. It is said that Shun wanted his robes and those of his ministers painted and embroidered with certain different restrictions, for them to look distinguished from the rest. With this developments being explained, sites such as Mogao Caves in Dunhuang have been demonstrated as being used as decorative programs having a greater pictorial storytelling, demonstrating that they are indeed important in part for the religion of the place.

Other studies conducted about the same research have indicated how imagery in the tombs of china and their shrines altogether has been used to demonstrate the social setup requirements and rituals in the region. In his book (Freedberg 14) brings out the lore about how imagery plays an important role in this modern and the then traditional society. He brings out the essence that images have power and indeed the images of ancient china do a lot of emphasis as an aspect of their culture and norms in their traditional setup. For example, the Chinese hand scroll was used as a standard format in the Chinese paintings, having been used originally to demonstrate the details in the unfamiliar stories. Very few historical monographs are in existence today to be able to portray the ancient, but it happens that there are few biographical and calligraphic theoretical writings in form of paintings do exist. In the history of pre-modern China bronze, decorative art, sculpture and architecture were treated as different from painting and art. They were understood to have a totally different meaning from the two. Painting and calligraphy demonstrated a high personal motivational and social status for every individual.

Ancient China Narrative Representation

Images have a power that can simply tell people the painters’ thought, even if they use a different language. Pictures can also tell the story or even record the growth of art, especially in ancient china. Kurt (70) demonstrates single scenes as being used more often to illustrate the larger pictorial cycles in the European and western culture as a whole. Having no full cycles from ancient times of this art to back his theory, he made a postulate for their existence backing it with several objects having a similar decoration to that of the full cycle imagery from ancient scenes. The theory was later accepted by scholars in many parts of the world especially the historians conducting studies about the western culture and art, and this paradigm has been commendably extended to the other arts in various parts of the world. For the Chinese art narrative, it seems to have been more mono-scenic in nature, meaning that a single artifact from the ancient times might have been used to symbolize a very complex scene of history, a mythological narrative or even a more complex biographical representation. Conflated narratives from these settings may actually be very few since they appear to be almost referring to a scene in the plot of an art where main actors make gestures, which signify different events in the setup and even objects appearing different in the story (73).

Pao-Chen (19) argues that the shrines at Wu family illustrate an assassination attempt by Jing Ke on Qin Shihuangdi. But the picture in his book simply demonstrates in one moment that the assassination attempt has failed decisively. In another narrative with a picture, he depicts three events as one at Han tomb (61). Both the narratives depict that the ancient pictorial compositions of the Chinese art evoked greater analysis of edifying stories in the paintings. The artifacts have an inspirational anecdote for the fact that they encouraged and elicit a good moral standing in the current generation. For example, the prince of Lu had his reception hall to his palace as a symbol to demonstrate the goodwill and give the citizens good morals.

Other sources have been found to demonstrate the messages portrayed by the paintings on the walls of buildings for greater people. During the Han reign, the lives of historical figures who had good lives and morally upgraded the society or even those who led evil lives were displayed on large screens (63). They used the screens surfaces to depict the lives of evil and good historical figures in the dynasty. He placed this screen in the palace to show them to the people. Similarly, women from bibliographical anecdotes were portrayed on the screens. These women included the ones renowned for their virtues while also those who were renowned for their vices featured on the screens. Some of the screens from the Han dynasty haven’t survived but the stone tablets from the times, which were incised by the time, do portray a clear picture of the then people and their characters.

These stone tablets are placed at the Wu shrines where the virtues of men and women together with their instructive stories are incised in the stone tablets. A lacquer screen, which was excavated from the tomb of Sima Jinlong found near Datong, also happens to be post-Han rules, happens to be decorated just as the ones from the Han dynasty, as they show a clear picture of the then exemplary men and women (87).

For the viewers to be able to see the purpose of such paintings, they had to come up with a conclusion about the subjects depicted together with recollecting the stories associated with these particular subjects. Some of the paintings intentions were supposed to make people come up with a morally upright conduct but having the paintings alone weren’t enough for they were not self-explanatory. Many of the artifacts happened to be mono scenic and, therefore, didn’t have sufficiently details to be used for bringing out the complete story intended. But all in all, the stories which used to be passed across by these paintings were clearly known by the audience so the characterizing motif and the historical figures depicted by the artifacts could easily be understood by those in the scenic view. Therefore the earlier Chinese writing which indeed associated itself with pictorial images was substantially used to bring out the complete message to the intended audience in full, despite the fact that the paintings were mostly mono scenic in their plotting.

How pictures show Chinese art Categories of Hierarchy

In the late nineteenth century, there emerged a greater new notion of the Chinese art, where different relations of the Chinese art were brought out to that of the European art. Some of the Chinese art by far were being used in a limited manner, which implied that the art was not that popular. Some of the art not used to its fullest include drawing, dancing, singing and writing together with the clothing art. But the art, which involved the using of bronze, pictures, music and textiles, was highly used. In the dynasty Qin, epigraphy was the only part discussed as an art. In the dynasty of Tang, calligraphy, sculpture, and architecture happened to be the norms regarded as the only art. This may have been attributed to the fact that the emperor was regarded to have influence in religion and imperialism.

In china, there exist two forms of evidences, which suggest that there were segmented scenes from the past and a composition of several scenes from the past. This evidence is a kind of visual evidences, which survived time and the documentary records from all over the Han dynasty. Examples of such existing evidence are of that from Dunhuang, which was a mural with many visual artifacts. The artifacts include the lacquer coffin, which was painted and the painted coffin had decorated with stories showing the filial sons. Every section depicted in the illustration happened to be a segment of the whole narrative and the stories plot is laid down one after another in the inscriptions on the coffin (Pao-Chen 91). The story reproduces on the painting showed a story of Guo Ju who used to serve his mother filially and then came to the understanding that his newly born child would make it impossible for him to continue serving his mother filially. He decides to tell his wife to go and bury the child alive, and when they were at it digging a grave to bury the child alive they stumble on a pot of gold in the ground enough for raising the child and also being able to give the filial support to his mother. The whole of this story is visualized as segments on the paintings but they bring out the storyline quite clearly.

Several Dunhuang fifth and sixth centuries were found to contain murals, which depicted the Jakata tales as an illustration of the narratives from India and broader central Asia. These tales were mainly drawn on the basis of the legends, especially the Buddhist showing the good deeds of humans. For example, the attack of Mara is portrayed in the small chamber of a cave number 254, which was made to depict the life of Buddha. In this except, Buddha demonstrates that he was always ready for the enlightenment and this now shows as that the narrative is a conflated one since several stories have been put together to give a single line composition. The painting gives an illustration where the Buddha is portrayed being big and seated in front of the others where the demons have attacked the Maras and they lie on the ground in vanquishing. Many more pictorial representations are also found in the caves and they separate the scenes individually (Pao-Chen 113). Most scholars have been able to explain this sequential arrangement of the story lines as an effect, which was generated from the format of the Chinese hand scroll. The hand scroll was a predominant format used for writing. It is merely a continuous roll of paper or silk of varying length, upon which images were painted and when not being used, remained unrolled.

Another point to be considered is the fact that some of the caves in Dunhuang present a mixture of several cultures in that it contains the central Asia paintings, the Indian and the Chinese paintings in the same tomb. An example is seen in the cave 285 which appear to be purely central Asian and they contrast sharply with those of Chinese paintings found in the cave. This may be explained by the fact that in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, the people who lived at Dunhuang used to be ethnically diverse and they happened to be involved with other diverse religious activities. This is evidently shown by the paintings made from that era (Kurt 118). Therefore no conclusion should be made to exemplify that all these artifacts found from the caves happened to have originated from the Chinese culture, neither is it true that the paintings are only from china, especially like the ones made in the Chinese metropolitan areas. Since these various narratives have been displayed in the context of the paintings, and many found to be of the Buddhist generation, it seems evenly possible to conclude that the accumulation of these artifacts happens to be linked to the Buddhist culture and norms.

Looking at the history of the East Han Dynasty, we learn that the emperor Ming Ti was interested in knowing the facts about the Buddha and sent someone to India to collect the information. Whoever was sent came back with several images about Buddha and the emperor was very much impressed by this feat. The Buddhist influence was, however, something of interest to him in that he regarded it helpful in his research. Several other emperors have been describe to have helped in developing the art of painting in ancient china in that after its development in their reigns, they always used to send for artists to come up with their portraits. Some of these artifacts happen to be difficult to trace as they have been excluded from many reservations but the ones, which are still preserved, have engraved writings, which elicit the evidence that they are indeed part of the ancient Chinese paintings. For example, it’s said that emperor Ma Yuan used to advice his nephews not to draw tigers and instead he used to tell them to go and draw swans to which he believed brought about the fact that he wanted them to avoid turning out to being like dogs.

Another event depicts a general’s daughter as being beautiful with a lot of virtue being married by an emperor and it happened that the king wanted an artist impression of his beautiful wife to be made. In the year 147, A.D. Wu who happened to be a member of a wealthy family built a big mausoleum and adorned it with great artifacts of sculptures from stones, other mythical and historical scenes. It’s believed that this building was in ruins by the 12th century. But some of the artifacts from the ruins have been excavated and are on display. Xinru (12) depicts in his writings that no other artifacts can compare to those from ancient china as the Chinese paintings are displayed with great annals, given the fact that they have a greater mythical scene in every venture of a historical subject. It’s also believed that the good karma in Buddha was collected by the use of this great art of painting so that it could be depicted properly. The Buddha also came up with an idea that painting is done on the temples in southern china, probably to explain a narrative of a certain story from a greater perspective of good morals in the society, whose story needed to be preserved properly by narration. This was probably done by the very narration techniques, which used stone carving as a mode of preservation and painting made to be able to portray the essence of this Chinese art. However, after the introducing a new technique to narrate, the mono scenic mode that was normally used by the Buddhist started to be shunned a little in that the hand scroll inherent strategy was being employed and it happened to be of bigger and greater advantages (19). This was due to the fact that the hand scroll had the capability to come up with a longer sequence of events on one portrait, which captured the sequence properly.

The written text was the one, which greatly used this mode of the sequence capable by the hand scroll, in a period, which the bamboo stick was the most widely used and the wooden strips. Contrastingly, paintings of that time were more interestingly portrayed on the screens or even walls, and not the hand scroll due to the fact that even the documentaries which talk about the history of ancient paintings from china do not talk about the Juan (hand scroll) but more of the Tu (picture) or even Ping Feng (screen) (56). The paintings appeared in the hand scrolls mainly when images or pictures were supposed to accompany a written text or document, especially in the works done by the military.

Xinru (72) says that Easter Han Emperor by the name Mingdi ordered about fifty scrolls to be made for illustrations of court findings by the scholars. This hand scrolls included thematic pictures, which were made of court illustrations and also the eulogies from the histories and classics from courts. This was later employed in so many other scripts, which followed the emperor’s reign. The pictures were often placed next to the hand scroll written texts and used to depict a certain type of message to the citizens of China. Moreover the potential of a hand scroll to represent progressions that occurred in space and time was very limited, therefore, as evidenced by the artifacts which exist, the might have preferred to stick to the initially used stone sculptures for depicting information and passing it onto the nation.

For the hand scroll to be regarded as a necessary alignment in that it could be taken for use as a painting format, artists in the ancient China stopped regarding it as writing surface by all means. This was a necessity for it to be taken into consideration as a painting surface, having a greater extent upon which the elongated pictorial composition could be made onto them with ease. Having said that, the main reason as to why the hand scroll started to be regarded as one of the best painting tools, in that it was being used as a platform to come up with drawings is because the artist decided to remove the restrictions on hand scrolls which meant that it was only used for the written work. Needless to say, they did not have an idea that the hand scroll had a greater potential without limit that is to bring out the pictorial compositions in a more sequential manner without the unnecessary breaks in the painting, hence a better platform to portray the Buddhist paintings for the historical artifacts. This step happened to have been taken in the Han dynasty where the themes of Buddha that he was interested in as much, were the mostly portrayed artifacts.

The artist from the Han Dynasty most often decorated the tombs whenever the need arose and this could have been another case as to why the Chinese artist became ready for the recognition of the hand scroll as a painting platform with the paintings mostly done on the offering shrine of Buddha and the subsequently when the need arose for hunting scenes to be portrayed on a platform, it became difficult to do so on the stone sculptures that were being used at the time. Since this scenes of hunting were required to be captured as an artist impression, for which the emperor need them as a display at his palace, it forced the artist to think outside the box and come up with a better way of bringing out the intended meaning to the emperor and his guests, coming up with a brilliant idea that if they wanted the sequence of events in a hunting scene to be captured properly, they were to use something longer than the stone tablets. That is how they first thought of using the hand scrolls in depicting these paintings in a more sequential manner (Zircher 59).

Xinru (79) emphasizes that the art from China is always encompassed in all dimensions of the global art as it started to develop long time ago. The publication of various forms of art in the recent times has always depicted that the Chinese form of art has transitioned from the ancient form to a more developed recent one. This is evidenced by the fact that the art has transformed from the calligraphic and painting only to a more advanced concept of the Chinese art in form of architecture. The more emphasis on developing the chines ear in the recent times has been seen in the historical studies concerning the Chinese art and the various revelations of the more advanced forms like landscape architecture. Architecture has been viewed no less than painting and sculpture.

The problem with the ancient China was mainly viewed as the impediment created by the different emperors who came into one after another, replacing one dynasty after the other. This was an event, which meant that the shift in regime affected many things, including the palaces where the emperors used to dwell and in turn, a lot of things had to be brought down, including the various artifacts. These events hardly ever brought into consideration the act of preservation for the paintings on the walls, and even the government proceedings of the previous dynasty. The usual practice of the times was to destroy the old capitals and find a new place to come up with another newer palace. Also, the research on the Chinese art has not been developed since there is a lack of abundant data for coming up with the basis (Zircher 60).

Factors Attributed to Growth of Chinese Art

The various factors attributed to the growth and development of the Chinese art is like political, economic and social factors. The art faced different social setups from the previous one making up a significant change. Economics and the social structure if treated under the development could have led to the change in the art since the politics of the times used to vary, given the fact that every dynasty came with a different emperor with their own visions on how to rule (Zircher 69).  The different approaches in an adjudication of the rule of law could have brought about the significant changes evidenced in the various study texts for the Chinese art. The terms of social and political setup in various dynasties came with different expectations as everyone who came into power had their own view of art. They had different perspectives when it came to art, some religions, other politics and even the social gathering of the regime. This meant that if there existed the same social and cultural settings, they probably elicited the same style of art, since their views and perspectives were almost similar (Zircher 72). As a result, the style of art in every setting never stayed the same. However how things used to change in ancient was quite surprisingly accepted by every member of the society. The development of the art in China is also attributed to the fact that there was periodization. The studies carried out on the research of modern Chinese history claims that many trends show periodization as a key factor in the change perceived in the art. This has affected the modern art such as sculpture and the architecture field.

The new Chinese form of art has now encompassed the use of sculpture and architecture, the both of the artifacts, which were not initially regarded by many scholars as among fine arts. Their inclusion into modern Chinese art has made them shift their focus a little bit from the famous artistic painting from famous artists to concentrate on the ceramics, bronze and other decorative studies. Several studies have been done on the Chinese form of art and the dramatic shift in their focus has been evidenced by the images they include in their papers after conducting the research. Xinru (98) succeeded in his publication several by giving several pictures for comparison, bringing out the general difference in the works of the modern Chinese art and the ancient one. He separates the images differently by classifying them as five being from architecture, two from decorative arts, three from sculpture and twelve from painting. The another problem encountered in this preservation of the Chinese art and culture has been the affected by the view from the historians themselves, who have always thought that the image or picture they do have has the same meaning to what they know. They need to take note of the fact that they need to preserve the images in the very manner in which they found them. The images have to be treated with the respect they deserve and the practices carried out by the people from the ancient times to be able to conserve the images be carried on by the newer generation.

He also inscribes the various times from which the images have been obtained in order to give a proper classification of the development in the Chinese art from the times of emperors to modern art. Also evidence in the modern art is the use of terminologies, which are very descriptive from other sciences like biology (Kurt 109). They used the texts to bring out a more unifying means of communication among themselves. This has put the Chinese art to be put into regard as an academic field of excellence. The art contains a proper framework making it be regarded as one of the best original pieces of works in times. Some scholars have even gone to the extent of dividing the Chinese art into different segments so as to study it carefully. This regards the art into four major groups. This also helped the art to develop through the ancient time to the modern art at pointing history, which provided it with the confidence to grow tremendously up to date.

The power of the Chinese art is portrayed by the fact that the change has been looked upon by various studies conducted in the field to emphasize the importance of the Chinese culture to the world. The art has been able to transcend the world in that it has revolutionized the way people used to look at the daily life social gathering, their mode of conduct and the religious manner in which to conduct oneself. The art has brought out a different understanding of the ancient art, being amongst the oldest of all cultural setups ever to exist in the ancient times. The study of this art brings out the transition and blend of the old practices in the nation to a modernized one with different people who have different perspectives of the art as a whole unit of understanding (Zircher 79).

It is believed that the Chinese imagery scene in a linear formatting may have played an important role in written and artistic communication in that the mode of presentation was highly complex. Some of the images portrayed in various scholarly articles have got a linear arrangement data in a sequence, making them very complex to understand. They present data in a mono scenic view therefore the painting cannot be interpreted easily. Furthermore, to epitomize a single element in the Chinese history was viewed as a rare thing, despite the fact that they were a little bit simpler to analyze. A need for illustrating stories with more details arose and those Chinese were very good at doing it. It happens that there are various texts documenting the linearity of usage for art in Buddha and that there are many legends in concern.

Many of them wanted to be able to input these stories associated with karma to the good ones for that matter. For that purpose, the artist form of impression to the greater audience happened to be paintings, which would place an image next to a text or a message from the Buddha. Very few Chinese were literate at that time and the Buddhist wanted this message to be passed across appropriately and bring out the effect so appealing and of a greater potential effect to the illiterate in the society. One of the major challenges faced though happened to be the means of conveying this information to the illiterate group. Instead of the data or information being presented in a matter of sequences and series, the painting used to be done on a single tablet with a common or a single image or diagram on it. This happened to be the challenge in the ancient times from which the people had a rough time getting to know or even understand the message portrayed by the painter. These led to a development of the most informative form of communication to be able to convey the message properly to the audience intended for the message being passed across (Zircher 89).

The use of pictorial image progression, with sequences, came into being and the use of a better platform was invented. Initially, artists employed the use-attached papers and later on, the scroll was invented which happened to be a better platform for coming up with sequential images. This was now deemed easier for communication by the Buddhist to the audience intended, in the illiterate Chinese of that time. Zircher (91) suggests that many scholarly articles, which have been done on conducting a research about the Chinese art and culture have the Chinese presenting data in as sequence before even the Buddhist came into the ancient China. Therefore it seems that it’s the Chinese themselves who indeed invented the scroll.


It goes fairly without saying that a written or painted language plays a very crucial role in the preservation of a heritage at a certain point in life, be it in present times or the ancient times since this leads to civilization and development in humans. With a cherishing of the Chinese written language and their culture, many in the world and especially renowned scholars for that matter all have been able to take a swipe at staking claim to this rich heritage of China. The culture has been preserved so well than any other in the world since the times of ruling dynasties. Several places like Henan province in China have the fame they deserve since it served as a capital for a period of twenty regimes in the ancient times. Surviving examples of these well-known artifacts, including sculptures and even famous painting from well renowned people have all been in mausoleums in the greater nation of China.

The Chinese art epitomizes an art so vast yet so mean in being understood by the audience it attracts, given the fact that most of the scholars who study it always come up with inconclusive suggestions to cap their studies. Some of the Chinese art are among the best-preserved arts of the world, having risen up from a very long time civilized nation, carrying a heritage of vast culture. This makes the Chinese culture the most looked at in the corridors of art, since they have a vast collection of monuments, artifacts, carvings, lacquers, tombs preserved and even the ancient caves for the traditional humans. This makes have the greatest art in all cultural stings, both ancient and the developed ones.



Works Cited

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Kurt, W. Illustrations in Roll and Codex: Studies in Manuscript Illumination, Princeton:

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Pao-chen, C. The Goddess of the Lo River: A Study of Early Chinese Narrative Hand scrolls,

Ph.D. Dissertation. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987. Print.

Xinru, L. Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges A.D. 1-600. Delhi:

Oxford University Press, 1988. Print.

Zircher, E. The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Adaptation of Buddhism in Early

Medieval China, Leiden: E. J. Brill publishers, 1959. Print.