Five Famous Chinese Artworks You Should Know
From the 6th Century through today, explore Chinese art history through these iconic works.
Even though Contemporary Chinese Art and internationally admired artists such as Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang have become household names, the huge span and diversity of historical Chinese art can be intimidating to break into. By starting with these five famous works of Chinese art on Artsy, we’ll traverse two thousand years of art history from the Han Dynasty to the present. Contrary to the expectation that you have to be an expert to appreciate Chinese art, these five works can captivate an audience of any background.
1. Painted Banner, Tomb of the Marquess of Dai, Mawangdui. ca. 160 B.C.E.
In the early 1970s, archaeologists digging at an ancient grave site in modern-day Hunan province discovered one of the richest treasure-troves of modern history: the tomb of noblewoman Lady Dai, including the perfectly preserved body of the lady herself. This painted silk funeral banner, which lay on the innermost of her nested coffins, contains what is considered to be the earliest portrait in Chinese history. The map-like composition is divided into three spaces: the underworld, the world of the living, and a heaven-like world of the immortals. At center, Lady Dai stands surrounded by family members and attendants, while below relatives give Lady Dai her funeral feast and offer sacrifices to help her soul find the realm of the immortals. This underworld of the tomb, symbolized by giant serpents, is where her body soul (corporeal soul) dwells while her spirit soul ascends to the realm of the immortals above. The insight the banner provides into how the afterlife was structured in early Chinese beliefs makes it as valuable to history as it is beautiful.
2. Seated Buddha, Cave 20, Yungang, Northern Wei Dynasty, ca. 460 C.E.
In the 6th century CE, Buddhist cave chapels and monumental sculptures carved into cliff faces dotted the landscape from central China to modern-day Afghanistan. In fact, you might notice the similarity between these sculptures at Yungang and the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which were tragically destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. These cave chapels were not only places of worship and destinations for pilgrims, they were also considered sacred spaces apart from the mundane world. Of the more than 200 cave chapels at the Yungang site, few are more striking than the enormous seated Buddha of cave 20, which was once vibrantly painted and enclosed inside a massive cave behind a cliff face that has since collapsed. This peaceful seated Buddha embodies the fusion of Chinese, Indian and Central Asian artistic traditions, melding delicate patterning with volumetric depictions of the human figure. On such a scale, the sculpture would have made visiting worshippers feel as though they were in the presence of the Buddha.
3. Fan Kuan, Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, Northern Song dynasty, Early 11th century
Widely considered one of the great masterpieces of Chinese landscape painting (in Chinese, literally “Mountain and Water Painting”), Fan Kuan’s Travelers influenced countless generations of painters and still impresses viewers to this day with its sublime depiction of nature. The story goes that Fan Kuan took to the depths of the mountains to observe and learn from nature, and thereby transmitted the spirit of the mountains with his brush. Whether true or not, at nearly seven feet tall, the monumental hanging scroll painting lends credibility to the story. The painter used a tripartite division of the composition into near, middle and deep distance and shifted the weight to the deep space at top so that mountains loom over the travelers on a rocky path below, as well as over any viewer standing in front of the painting.
4. Zhang Zeduan, Spring Festival on the River (also called Along the River During Qingming Festival), Northern Song dynasty, Early 12th century
Despite its uncertain attribution to Northern Song Dynasty academy painter Zhang Zeduan and unknown date, this masterful painting has nonetheless become one of the most famous and hotly-debated works in Chinese history. Meant to be viewed by unfurling the lengthy silk handscroll a little at a time, the painting becomes an animated story in which we peer into an idealized city from a birds-eye view. Scroll through the length of the highly-detailed painting from right to left to find a bustling marketplace, sailors, farmers, scholars, monks and people of all classes going about their daily lives. The painting immerses the viewer in an expansive survey of city life from nearly a thousand years ago.
5. Xu Bing, Book from the Sky 天书, ca. 1987-91
The centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum’s acclaimed recent Ink Art exhibition and arguably the most iconic work of Contemporary Chinese Art, Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky consists of a vast room of printed books, scrolls and banners composed entirely of fake Chinese characters. He invented, hand-carved and typeset the apocryphal “classical texts” according to traditional Chinese printing methods, a process which took him and his assistants over three years to complete. The result is a powerful experience of the limitations of language for any viewer: while Chinese speakers find their desire to decode the opaque text constantly frustrated, all viewers are immersed in the almost mystical presence of so much unintelligible language. In early Buddhist and medieval Christian history alike, people believed written text itself held sacred power. With Book from the Sky, Xu Bing recreates this feeling for a contemporary audience, tapping into a human need to find meaning in chaos.