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Western Zhou Dynasty c. 1066 - 771 BC

Zhou, a state in west, gradually grew strong enough to challenge the Shang. The Zhou claimed itself the descendant of the Xia, thus the legitimate heir to the throne, and took the Shang the usurper. The two armies clashed around 1066 BC; the Shang lost the battle and its king took his own life. The Zhou lasted for eight hundred years, the longest rule in China's history. The concept of central kingdom, or China, came into being during early Zhou; however, the idea is more cultural then geographical. Even though its later centuries were clouded by incessant civil wars in which the royal house was crushed and finally engulfed, this dynasty gave to China her most characteristic and enduring institutions more than any other one.

When the Shang was overthrown, the capital at Anyang was abandoned, but the earliest Zhou ritual vessels, probably made by the Shang craftsmen, continued Shang tradition with little change. The significant differences is in the inscriptions, which are no longer a simple record of ownership but become valuable historical documents, often setting out in some detail of the circumstances in which that vessel was bestowed. After a generation bronze vessels began to be increasingly modified by the taste of the Zhou invaders from the west. The Zhou craftsmen did not perpetuate the qualities, such as restrained shapes, that the Shang evidently admired; their works are often boldly formed, with rounded bodies contrasting with angled footrings and sculptural handles. Zhou people were not big wine drinkers, so in less than a century some type of wine vessels which had been in use for centuries disappeared, along with such ubiquitous Shang taotie masks. Meanwhile some food vessels, such as dou, were adapted from existing vessels, and a new form of food container gui was employed.

Having been found scattered across the vast domain of the empire, Zhou ritual vessels produce a greater varieties of decorative motif. Some elements appeared before, such as birds, tortoises, cicadas and silkworms; others were new, such as coiled dragons and elephants which were almost certainly derived from the west and the south. These zoomorphic forms remained solemn, mysterious and abstract, but by the end of Western Zhou they gradually grew into a realistic elaboration and were eventually replaced by a new vocabulary of serpentine cloud and wave designs. One of the factors that often interferes with Westerner's attempt to understand Chinese art is that the meaning of Chinese iconography is often different to that of the West. Such is the case with the dragon, which was to the Zhou people the totem inherited from the Xia, a patron beast expressing the power of magic and religion.


Dragon emblazonry, c 1000 BC. ink rubbing on rice paper

Eastern Zhou Dynasty 770 - 256 BC

The first phase of Zhou history ended in 771 BC when the western barbarians attacked, taking Zhou capital by storm, killing its king, forcing the Zhou to find a new location in the east for capital. Weakened by this event, the Zhou before long became a mere shadow of its former self, kept artificially alive by the powerful states that surrounded it solely in order to maintain the prestige of the royal house. The following centuries were filled with wars among the vassals, when the stronger dukedoms became sovereign states by absorbing weaker neighbors. After 52 principalities being wiped out, China became the arena of seven powerful states by 403 BC - Qin, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qi. This period was named Spring and Autumn after a contemporary chronicle. The Qin gradually became a super-lordship and ruthlessly attacked other states. In 256 BC it took the Zhou and by 221 BC it defeated all its contenders, unifying China under its own name. This period was named Warring States after a chronicle compiled during the Han.

The local lords always commissioned large numbers of conspicuous bronzes to assert their own authority. In this dramatic revision of the ritual vessel repertoire, all the shapes and much of the decoration were radically altered. Among many newly developed vessels were basins, mirrors, swords and three-legged food holder dui. Catering the secular taste of the feudal rulers, these bronzes were made light and exquisite, sometimes with gold or gem inlay, and their decorations become more and more delicate and realistic. Indeed, as the ritual designs such as dragon lost their original symbolic power they too became ornaments. At the same time, a wealthy landlord class emerged, with whom the bronze-worker's art was diverted, so to speak, from Communion plate to family plate. This is why some of the finest of the bronzes of the Eastern Zhou should be the bells, a musical instrument that made in sets with a loop for suspension from a wooden frame. Gone is the wonderfully integrated quality of the early bronzes, in which so perfect a fusion of form and decoration was a achieved.

The Chu culture.   While what might be called the 'orthodox' school was developing in the Qin, a quite different style of art was maturing south in the lush valleys of Yangtze River and its tributaries land, the stale of Chu. Until Qin rose menacing, Chu had been secure, where copper coin with written characters were cast; iron tools and weapons coming into use; embroider made; stringed musical instruments invented; Taoism flourished and Qu Yuan, the first Chinese poet, poured out a flood of passionate verses. So vigorous, indeed, was Chu culture that even after Qin sacked Chu capital in 223 BC, it survived to become a significant element of Chinese civilization during the Han dynasty, giving China more cultural characteristics than its conqueror.

Whether the Chu actually did develop pictorial art at an earlier stage than their northern neighbors is still an open question, but it is the Chu tombs of Waring State period that have yielded the earliest surviving paintings on silk. Swiftly sketched with deft strokes and washed with colors, one of the paintings shows a woman in a full-skirted dress tied with a sash at the waist, standing in a prayer profile attended by a strutting phoenix, which is the most praised creature by Chu people, and a sinuous dragon whose reptilian origin is vividly suggested. In a popular interpretation the woman is the tomb owner; the bird and dragon imparadise her spirit. The forms perfected and the vocabulary and syntax developed in these paintings were to remain the characteristic modes of artistic expression throughout later history.


Woman, phoenix and dragon, 23 x 31 cm. ink and color on silk

Much of the most beautiful painting, however, appears on the lacquerwork for which Chu was famous. More convenient than bronzes, these lacquer-wares - furniture, appliances and musical instruments, were made for daily use and in due course placed in their owner's tomb. Common vessels were lacquered over a core of wood or woven bamboo, but the finest were built up of alternate layers of linen and lacquer with incredible lightness and delicacy. The decorative designs are as romantic as Chu poems - a human figure may be with wings and the swirling volutes may transform themselves into tigers, dragons, or phoenixes, the most frequently encountered Chu motif.

Schools of philosophy.   As political chaos was often accompanied by intellectual ferment and great achievement in the arts, by the later years of Spring and Autumn an unprecedented intellectual activity began to explode. This was the age of the Hundred Schools of philosophy, when each of them had its own solution of the political chaos and was ready to offer their counsel to any ruler who would listen to them. Most outstanding to emerge was Confucius, 551 - 479 BC, who tried to solve the trouble of his day by emphasizing the rituals and rules of conduct of Western Zhou, which he looked upon as a Golden Age. For next 2,500 years, the Confucian doctrines of filial piety, moral righteousness and hierarchical relationships were the guiding principles of life and government in China. Another influential school is Taoism, formed by Lao Zi and his followers. Against the social commitment of Confucius, he taught that discipline and control only distort or repress one's natural instinct to flow with the stream of existence. “The way to do is to be,” he said, so he withdrew himself from the society. It was, in fact, through Taoism, with its intuitive awareness of things that cannot be measured, that the Chinese painters were to rise to the highest imaginative flights.


Chinese painting

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