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The Neolithic Age

About 10,000 years ago on fertile central plains, the heartland of northern China, the Neolithic Revolution took place. Millet and barley were cultivated; pigs, dogs and silkworms domesticated; stone implements ground; semi-subterranean houses built; red potteries made.

Painted pottery   The first chapter of Chinese painting is written in painted pottery. Early neolithic earthenwares were made by clay-strip building method. After rolling ceramic paste into a strip, the potter wound it from base in a circular fashion. He repeated this procedure until he formed a greenware that was allowed to dry and fired at a low temperature. This type of red pottery was followed by the earliest well-defined painted pottery called Yangshao. Yangshao potters trimmed moulding surface by tapping it with a bat, and then coated it with a thin layer of fine clay to receive a crude paint brush. Yangshao pottery consists chiefly of wide and deep bowls and pots, often with loop-handles set low on the body, and their generous contours are beautifully enhanced by the decoration of plants, insects, birds, frogs and fishes in black and red. Indispensable, ubiquitous, satisfying the needs and tastes of the highest and the lowest, lending their forms and decoration to the bronze-founders in later times, these painted vessels formed the backbone of early Chinese art.

The first batch of painted potteries were found at Yangshao in Henan in 1921. The report on Carbon 14 date established for Yangshao is 4115 BC +-100 years. More discoveries followed, densely scattered over the terraces of the middle and lower reaches of Yellow River. The typical type of Yangshao is Banpo in Shanxi, an extensive site of 45 semi-subterranean buildings, 6 kilns and 250 tombs. Reflecting primitive man's attempts to understand the terrifying and mysterious natural forces that ruled his world, the decorations of Banpo are chiefly stylized fertility symbols - fishes, frogs and insects. Another type of painted pottery was found at Majiayao in Gansu in 1923. Majiayao pottery has not been matched in quality and beauty by any neolithic wares discovered since. Some vessels are adorned with geometric forms, consisting of parallel bands in concentric squares, crosses or lozenges; others make use of the stylized figures of men, frogs, fishes and birds. Both Yangshao and Majiayao culture were discovered by Swedish geologist J. Gunnar Andersson.

bowl, 32 x 12 cm.


Xia Dynasty c. 2000 - c. 1675 BC

Xia, the first dynasty of China, hence the country's literary name, is only a legend. What likely linked to it is a late Neolithic culture found near Longshan in Shandong where burnished black pottery, more or less directly superseded the painted pottery of Yangshao Culture, was made by wheel with cord and basket marks.

The Bronze Age   Chinese people learned how to use bronze around 2000 BC. According to traditional Chinese texts when the legendary founder of the Xia king Yu divided the empire, he ordered nine tripods to be cast in bronze brought as tribute from each of the nine vassal states. These tripods were credited with magical powers. From dynasty to dynasty they were handed down as the palladia of an empire, but at the end of the Zhou they were lost. While the texts remain a tradition, a 1959 excavation at Erlitou in Henan yielded the earliest batch of bronzes. Unlike ancient Sumerians who first used bronze for tools and weapons of war, Erlitou bronzes are clearly food and wine containers, the different varieties probably being intended for particular foods and wines. It is not certain whether these are Shang vessels or not, but both Xia legends and later examples suggest their religious roles in a patriarchal clan society. Erlitou culture spanned for less than 300 years, during which bronzes gradually replaced the ceramics previously buried in tombs. Almost all these bronze shape were based on neolithic ceramics, and only a small minority bear decorations, ranging from simple relief disks to incised lozenges.


Shang Dynasty c. 1675 - c. 1066 BC

While Xia dynasty is still a matter of legend, the remains of an ancient city discovered in 1928 at Anyang in northern Henan, 90 miles north of Yellow River, confirmed the existence of the Shang dynasty. Among astounding amount of bronzes and glazed potteries were many thousands of inscribed oxen shoulder bones and turtle shells, once used for divination. These fragmentary official records, together with other finds from the excavations, tell us much about an advanced if barbaric civilization. Shang was a highly organized society with ruling classes and specialized industries. When the king and other royal members died, their wives, slaves, horses and dogs were killed and buried with them. The houses were build by pounded earth. Trade reached far to west and south for precious jade and copper mineral. (To this day the Chinese still refer to tradespeople as Shang people.) Warfare with neighboring states was frequent, perhaps over merchant disputes. Flood caused five changes of the capital site; after 10 generations Shang king moved to Anyang for a new seat, which was the last change.

Bronze   The artistic efforts of the Shang were motivated by religious fervor. Shang people believed that ancestral spirits would help them by interceding on their behalf with the gods. Whenever a matter came up for concern - the likelihood of rain, the chance for a successful harvest, the prospect of queen's pregnancy, or the fortune of taking military action - they submitted it to ancestors for insurance by a sacrificial rite. Both Shang oracle inscriptions and later records tell us that bronze vessels were used in these rites to offer food and wine to the ancestors. It was at Anyang that the bronze art is fully mature. In the tombs of Shang nobility hundreds of sacrificial vessels were found, some bearing inscriptions, and all highly developed in style and quality that ranks as one of the great artistic triumphs of early civilization. There are at least thirty main types of Shang ritual vessels; because wine played major part in ritual observance, drinking and serving vessels were among the most elegant objects created. These vessels - wine holders, plates, bowls, pots and cauldrons - range in size from a few inches in height to a gigantic quadruped, which weights 1,929 pounds, made by a Shang king in memory of his mother.

Quadruped, 110 x 79 x 133 cm.

Taotie   The most striking element in Shang bronze decorations was taotie, literally voracious eater. Other Shang bronze decoration elements - notably the tiger, water-buffalo, elephant, hare, deer, owl, fish, cicada, and possibly the silkworm - were based on neolithic art, but taotie whose origin represented a difficult problem - it did not appear previously nor recorded in oracle inscription. The earliest taotie designs consisted simply of eyes in simple thread relief lines. To the Anyang period the design progressed into dense band with the eye patterns adjacent to it. This formidable mask, which often appears to be split open on either side of a flange and laid out flat on the belly of the vessel, is the dominating element in Shang bronze decorations. It has the features of a creature: eyes, mouth, claws and tail, but they do not seem to belong to any specific one. Only to the Song period, when scholars tried to sort out ancient objects, this design was named taotie.

As Shang bronze vessels were deemed sacred for their role in ancestral worship, taotie mask found on these food or wine containers could not have been a pure decoration. Could it be the Shang totem, the bird? In traditional texts a prehistoric woman became pregnant after eating a bird egg; the new-born was Kui, the first generation of Shang clan. In oracle inscription Kui is the one who had the most exceptional power and his name is always decorated with a bird image. Holding within the myth, when Shang people viewed such a bird symbol they saw not only a pleasing seemingly abstract decoration but also a supernatural power with which the communication between the living and the dead could be made. Rather than to realistically portray or hold as it would be a mirror up to nature, the Shang bronze-founder abstracted ferocious features of other animals and combined them into this single form.


Taotie
c. 1600 - c. 1100 BC
ink rubbing on rice paper

Chinese painting

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