Issue OO11 of 13 January 2001

Chinese Art of Figure Characterization and Representation
vis Chinese Civilization

Sun Zheng
Assoc. Professor Wang Xuezhong's Art Research Institute
Tianjin University, China

Abstract: China, with one of the world's greatest civilizations, is a country well-known for its well-developed art of figure characterization and representation. Limited to the pre-modern period, this paper is a revelation of the track of the development of the art in the country, illustrated by works chosen from the grand Chinese ancient treasure house of arts. While giving the readership an idea of the history of the figure representation art in China, the author tries to show how closely this category of art is related to the civilization level at the various historical stages. In whatever society, primitive, slavery, feudal, or contemporary, the art of figure characterization and representation is preconditioned by the social development. It, therefore, can be said that the history of the art is a reflection of the history of Chinese civilization and culture in general.

China has a long history with oceans of magnificent cultural remains, which provide us a multifaceted insight into its history, including that of arts. Studying the legacy, one cannot help being marveled at the profoundness and breadth of the Chinese art of figure characterization and representation, one of the important forms of arts, as seen in fine colored patterns, clayware, drawings, frescoes, and the like uncovered or unearthed from the relics left from the primitive society down to the last dynasty, the Qing.

As the most complex being ever created by Nature, man has in his veins blood running with emotion, intelligence and creativity. The flesh of one generation after another has receded into history, but not the objects bearing their images. Once brought to light from the depth of ancient caves and tombs, these archeological pieces will dazzle us with their everlasting artistic appeal while telling us stories about the time in which they were created.

The art of figure characterization and representation in China can be traced back to the primitive society 20,000 years ago. It was initiated simultaneously with man's earliest creative labor, when man became conscious of his existence, image and emotion, and therefore, its appearance as such marked a big advance in civilization. Upper Cave Man lived about 20,000 years ago, and the traces and objects that these remote ancients left behind them verify the documentation in ancient books on their simple ways of life, dwelling in mountain caves, and taking birds and animals as food, and animal hides as clothing. Although they can not be said to have boasted an art of figure representation in its real sense, it has proved that during the process of making tools, they did develop a kind of imaginativeness and ability to depict, which heralded the art.

Archaeological findings reveal that as far back as the Paleolithic Period man had begun to adorn himself. Besides stone tools, archaeologists have discovered smooth bone needles, which were pointed at one end with a hole at the other, obviously a tool for sewing. Human beings now had become clever enough to put animal hides together for clothing using tendons as threads, that is to say, they were creating the earliest Chinese fashion known to history. Archaeologists have also discovered decorative articles like stringed animal bones, teeth or shells, small shiny hard stone pellets with a hole bored through each of them. The shapes and colors of these articles indicate that by that time our ancestors had developed an eye for art. An art related to their bodies was coming into being.

The artistic representation and characterization of the human form in its real definition took place 6,000 years ago, during the Neolithic Age in China, when human beings were making the transition from nomadism to socialized settlement. Along with the development of clay firing techniques, clay sculpture or molding, and painting generated. The figure representation of the time was divided into three types: simple clay figurines (see pic.1), relief sculpture, and painted figures. In a famous archaeological site Hongshan, Liaoning province, quite a number of clay statues were uncovered, among which the most impressive were naked pregnant women. The goddess was worshipped at that time but it is interesting that even the goddess was naked. It is easy to infer that during that period women were the dominating sex and human reproduction (or sex) was admired as divine.

With increased knowledge of figure representation, colored paintings began to appear on pottery. Primeval religious ceremonies, often grand, provided an important subject matter. The pattern on a colored terra cotta pot unearthed from Majiayao is very telling (see pic.2), painted on which were a spectacular group dancing and singing in a very bold style. This must be a part of a religious ceremony. Looking at such art works, we must admit that the artistic efforts of the primitive human beings are immortal in a sense. It is simply incredible that rude as they appear, they still find expression in the works of the contemporary artists.

Out of their perplexity over quantities of natural phenomena and such issues as the nature of the world and the origination of the humanity, people made up stories in an attempt to explain what they saw and heard, and fabricated legends about the origin of their clan, associating their ancestry with some plant and animal to eventually lead to totem creation and sanctification. Underlying the creative attempts of the primitive was the Chinese notion of "Heaven and Man in One" and "Human Beings Analogous to Animals", which has been a fundamental of the oriental philosophy throughout Chinese history. The human-faced fish pattern on the terra cotta pot unearthed in Banpo Village, Shanxi province was believed by many scholars to be a prayer for prosperous offspring and good catch from hunting and fishing. However, in recent years, some scholars have thrown a different light on the pattern by saying it is a calendar pattern made by the early man, for it bears very strict adherence to directions and is found on coffins for children. If this argument is correct, this work was an exposition of the artist's understanding of universe.

During the Neolithic Age, human and animal patterns were also carved on jade wares. One excavated in Liangzhuin, Zhejiang province is reported as a rare piece of carving workmanship 5,000 years ago. It bears eight groups of figures, the upper part being humans and the lower part animals. It was undoubtedly a representation of the Chinese conception that human beings and animals were mutually analogous.

A finding made in Xishuipo, Henan province, in 1987 amazed archaeological and artistic circles alike. In a 6,000-year-old tomb, besides the whole skeleton of a man lay the pattern of the dragon on one side and that of the tiger on the other, both made of shells (see pic.3), indicating the status and power of the dead when he was alive. This finding is a vital piece of evidence that Chinese made a fetish of the imaginary animal the dragon from time immemorial. They looked upon it as their Father, while they just claimed to be its descendents. Up to this day Chinese still deem the dragon a holy symbolization of their forefather, a propitious token that may give them strength and courage and hope.

Slavery was current in the Shang (16th-11th century BC) and Zhou (11th-221 BC) dynasties, which were milestones in the development of Chinese arts. With the decline of the primitive society, the brilliance of the colored clayware dimmed, giving way to the bronze art. As the journey from primitivism to civilization incorporated a portion of blood and fire-- this period was an age characterized by the cruel slavery system-- the figures on the bronze wares were entirely deprived of the lively, natural and free style peculiar to the preceding times. Great amounts of unearthed bronze figurines are small in size, often as a constituent of a functional object for daily use. Bearing dull, humble, submissive and indifferent looks, they were slaves for certain. The makers of these slave figurines must have been slaves themselves, who might be condemning the savage regime through these works.

In addition, the figurines tell us the truth that slavery was often accompanied by war. An animal-headed figure with a human body unearthed in Baoji, Shaanxi province, was a decorative object used on a carriage, most probably a military chariot, suggesting a story of the slave driven to war like an animal. A kneeling figurine found in Luoyang, Henan province (see pic.4), which was a part of a bronze carriage, is without doubt a slave, for his honest yet obedient appearance demonstrates his status as well as his character. A tripod unearthed in Shaanxi province has a handle in the shape of a footless slave serving as a gate-man is a trace of war and the suffering it brought to slaves.

Others than human figures of the time give us much to admire, too. The largest bronze ware discovered so far is a quadrangular tank of four feet, which weighs 875 kilograms, 133 centimeters high. It is now kept in China History Museum. Its handles are in the shape of two standing tigers facing each other, over whose wide open mouths is each a human head. Curiously, the human figures are usually seen together with ferocious animals of prey in similar articles. A bronze ware in collection of a Japanese museum, for example, has the sculpted pattern of a tiger flying upon a man. These pieces, very delicate, are superbly crafted, imbued with a forceful and mysterious charm so as to produce a tremendously vivid representation of the real and imaginary life. Before the works of their ancestors of thousands years ago, modern artists are often ashamed that they are really a challenge to their brains as well as their hands. Nowadays few if any could create equally moving works of art or even successfully make imitations of the old weathered bronze wares.

Two large underground treasure houses of the Shang Dynasty art works were found in 1986 in the relics of the capital of an old Shu State in present Sichuan province. These two pits contained numerous gold, silver and bronze articles, among which the most impressive is a suite of bronze masks, cast bronze human head and figures. Among the found bronze figures, the most remarkable, however, is probably a standing statue discovered in Guanghan, Sichuan. It was 262 centimeters in height, a real giant. Its size and fine craftsmanship win admiration from anyone who has the opportunity to see it (see pic.5). Who was represented or symbolized? Opinions are different. Some people hold that it might be a sorcerer or witchery master while the present author is inclined to assume it to be a slave owner, for in contrast the dozens of statues around it were rather tiny. This more likely suggests the rigid hierarchy of the slavery system current in that time, the slave owner being the absolute master while slaves were but zeroes.

Figure representation is often a mirror of the customs and traditions. Quite a number of unearthed jade or stone figurines of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, for example, are in kneeling or sitting posture with legs crossed in the front. This indicate that people then were used to sitting on a mat or simply on the ground during talks or at dinner, for instance. Kneeling followed by kowtow, a ritual to express respect and obedience, was what was called Nine Acts of Prostration in "the Book of Rites" by Confucius. This was a compulsory performance when one saw a superior, a tradition that sustained till the end of the last dynasty in 1911.

By the way, from the primitive times, Chinese prized jade. The aristocracy of all dynasties viewed the smooth and iridescent stone as a sacred and noble material to show their social status, wealth, power and virtue. When the King Wu of the Zhou took the capital of Shang Dynasty (today's Anyang, Henan), he seized over 14,000 pieces of finely carved jade wares. Every year new jade wares are unearthed there. In An-yang, Henan province a famous treasure trove known as the Fuhao tomb has yielded over a thousand exquisite jade pieces, among which many are lively and delicately sculpted jade figurines. The jade articles have contributed much to the study of the figure characterization & representation.

Certain forms of figure might be found elsewhere than China, but the interpretation should be different. A hermaphrodite jade figurine was unearthed from the Fuhao tomb. Its head is adorned with two hairpins. What is particular about it is that its body, covered with tattoo, is composed of a male half and a female half. Such a figure might not be strange to Egypt or Rome. What did it mean to ancient Chinese? In old times, most Chinese people saw the world as a delicate interplay and balance of primal forces, Yin and Yang. Yang, the male principle, was fiery, bright, and overt, while Yin, the female principle, was dark, covert, and mysterious. Everything and every object, small or big, from the universe down to a cell, comprised the two elements. The half male and half female figure obviously points to the Yin-Yang theory. This conception underlay all the different schools of ancient oriental as well as Chinese philosophy, and nowadays we can still find not a few Chinese philosophers holding it as an important methodology in observing and explaining universe. In such sciences as traditional Chinese medicine, which is rapidly propagating in the globe, this theory is their vital basis.

Figure characterization & representation often takes on the form of cliff painting or carving. China is abundant in remains of such works, which were made nearly exclusively by ancient nomad tribes (see pic.6). In light of the stylistic differences these works are classified into the southern and the northern school. The products of the northern school involved chiseling and rubbing, and hence virtually a kind of carving or sculpture, while the southern school, on the contrary, was drawing in nature featured by liberal use of hematite.

Most northern school works took as themes hunting, herding, agricultural activities or battling, showing less rigid approach to images but allowing humor to creep in. Frequently seen in the southern school products are religious ceremonies, which evidently most often took place at the bends of rivers. This is because the producers, ancestors of the Thuang race, usually chose to live by the river counting much on fishing, and hence believed in River Gods. In addition, they made a fetish of some aquatic animals. Picture 7 shows how some ancient Zhuang people performed the frog dance on the bank praying the river god for protection.

During the Spring and Autumn (770-476 BC) and Warring States (475-221 BC) periods, production boomed on the central plains of the country, while war occurred frequently between the contending states. Scores of different philosophical schools arose, among which Confucianism and Taoism stood out as leading competitors. As a result creative writing came into a golden age for the first time in Chinese history; and this, in turn, injected fresh blood into figure representation. Then the figures on the bronze ware were rid of the awesome and eerie looks that were characteristic of the Shang and the Zhou dynasties. A pot unearthed in Chendu, Sichuan, is a fine example of the change. On it are three patterns depicting as many different scenes, fishing and hunting, gathering mulberry leaves and dancing, and battling. All the male figures are muscular and well build, while the female ones are graceful and slim, fully revealing the male strength and feminine elegance. No one has ever had a look of the work but that one is impressive by its unique style of laxity, romanticism and love for life.

Romanticism was a particular characteristic of the culture of Chu, which was a big state during the Warring States period covering the present day Hunan province with its neighboring areas. This tradition found particular expression in the art of figure representation. In Changsha, capital of Hunan province, an archaeological site was excavated in the 1970s, where a large number of milestone findings were made in a tomb named Mawangdui No. 1. Among them was a silk painting depicting the netherworld, the mundane world, and paradise life in heaven with images of ghosts, human beings and supernatural beings. The painting vividly presented comfort in this present life, and expressed hope for greater happiness in the imaginary next world. Two silk paintings unearthed from an ancient tomb in the same area are worth mentioning, too. One is "Dragon, Phoenix and Woman" (see pic.8), and the other is "Riding the Dragon" (see pic.9). In Chinese the phoenix, regarded as female, is always matched with the dragon representing the male. As in the past they were equivalents of most noble persons but also considered divinities, it needed originality to imagine mounting a human man on back of a dragon!

In 221 BC China saw the end of the Warring States period, which was followed by unification of the country after centuries' splitting. The newly founded empire was the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), a very powerful dynasty. Though short-lived, it accomplished a series of remarkable feats, one of which, for instance, was the building of the Great Wall. It was during the Qin that the greatest event in the history of the art of figure characterization and representation occurred. In 1974 a chance finding of a terra cotta figure led to eventual excavation of a tiny fraction of the mausoleum of Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty. The excavated part consisted of pits of terra-cotta warriors and steeds (see pic.10). The warriors were made as the imperial garrison of Qinshihuang Mausoleum. This has been hailed as one of the world's most spectacular archaeological findings in the twentieth century.

The maturity of the modeling techniques exhibited in the terra-cotta figures is so amazing that the works are deemed an addition to the world's seven wonders. Three fabulous features contribute to their impressiveness. The first is grandeur and majesty in scale. So far only three pits have been dug with much more to be excavated. The three pits cover as large a total area as 20,780 square meters and contain as many as 7,000 figures of warriors each 1.8 meters high, the numerous chargers and more than a hundred chariots all of life size. The magnificent sight projects before our eyes the spectacular battle array of the Qin armies, which, as described in literature, boasted chariots by the thousand, horses by the ten thousand, and more than one million infantrymen. No visitors can help admiring the grand scale of the project as it is.

Second, the terra cotta works are featured by realism and perfect truth to life. The warriors were shaped quite like the real human, eyes speaking, hair done up in fashion, armor and weaponry looking real. Every detail was elaborately brought out. It is easy to see that if the paint did not peel off, they would certainly be breathing. Among the thousands of warriors, however, no two look exactly the same. Each warrior differs from others in facial expression. Looking at them, you can tell the age, status, rank, even home place of each warrior if you are learned enough. What perfect and sophisticated modeling techniques were involved when the ancient artisans were producing thousands and thousands of different individual appearances!

The third feature is masterly employment of simplicity and exaggeration in the right measure. Though the modeling of the terra cotta figures is supposed to have been based on real life models, the result is not a photo-realist effect. While great attention was paid to the depiction of the brows, eyes, lips, moustaches and beards of the warriors' faces so that different characters were demonstrated through the fine variation of the facial expression, the textures and decorative features of the uniforms were boldly simplified. The width of shoulders, the waistline, and the chest were exaggerated to achieve the desired effect that each warrior was vigorous and stalwart and valiant.

The Qin was succeeded by the Han (206 BC-220 DC), which was one of the few most powerful and prosperous dynasties in Chinese history. During most of the Han period, people enjoyed peace so that culture developed to an unprecedented culmination. In the last decades works of figure representation of the Han have been found among an assortment of funeral objects unearthed from ancient tombs. These works show that Han artists do not seem to have taken pains with details but paid great attention to capturing and exaggerating the movements of men and women to create most captivating and impressive pictures. The fascination of their works lies in simplicity, straightforwardness, and humor.

Sustained peace and order vested the art of figure representation with the feature that the works were intimately associated with daily life, exhibiting light themes rather than related to war and its consequential chaos. A recently unearthed pottery plate of 67 centimeters long and 47.5 centimeters across has arrested the notice of concerned scholars. Depicted on it is a group of twenty-one figures. In the center of the plate, four acrobats are doing handstands and calisthenic tricks. Around them are some female dancers who are waving their long, loose sleeves while dancing to the accompaniment of musicians playing the yuqin (an ancient stringed musical instrument), bells and drums. This is a true depiction of the leisure life of the noble typical of the time.

In a Han tomb a total of 162 wooden figures were found. They were men, maidservants, sorcerers, musicians, and dancers. The figures of the musicians and dancers are painted while the servants wear traditional Chinese garments in bright colors. Black ink was applied to the brows and eyes of the servants while red ink was used for their lips. These elegant and gentle maids either wear their hair at the back or coiled up over the head, fully demonstrating their femininity. The musicians are playing typical Chinese instruments with eyes down as if fully deep in the music. The dancers all have cream-white faces and necks, slim waists, and long legs. Their skirts sweep the floor.

It was a widely spread custom in the Han that pottery figures, silk works, and jewelry were buried with the dead. Interestingly, among the found figures many are dwarves. They look very amusing, mostly fat with funny facial features. They were based on popular comedians. The findings attest to the account in literature that in the Han dynasty dwarves were not only popular with the common people, but also greatly appreciated by the noblesse.

To sum up, the Han figures present pictures of various respects of a free and easy life, providing us with chances to peep into the reality of this period.

Among others, the appearance of the figures of Buddha in China was credited to the Han. By the period of the Han Dynasty, Buddhism had spread from India eastward via the "Silk Road" and was beginning to exert influence upon the common people in China. Before long both supreme rulers and common folks became devoted believers of Buddhism, which was adopted as the national religion. Temples mushroomed, laying the foundation for wider propagation of the religion. The Han was followed by the Three Kingdom period (220-280 AD), and after a short time of unification, the country was plunged into another split period, called the Southern and Northern Dynasty period (420-550). Carving statues of Buddha in mountain caves became popular in various parts of the country during the late Han period, but it was during these hundreds of years after the Three Kingdoms that the grottoes housing Buddha statues that would become world-famous were built like the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan province, Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi province, and Gongxian Grottoes in Henan.

The best-preserved group of grottoes is Mogao Grottoes located in Dunhuang, Gansu province, where more than 3,000 painted statues of Buddha are housed. Initially Buddha was usually depicted wearing red Kasayas with the right shoulder exposed. His features were quite foreign to the Chinese, face round with eyes protruding a bit, hair curly, lips thin, brows long, nose big, forehead broad, earlobes long, shoulders extended, and chest fat. The figures resembled the heavily built men west to China. As Buddhism cinilized, the figure looked more and more Chinese, much more slender and carrying the typical Chinese facial features. Now the modeling and sculpturing of Buddha figures was free from the crude and unconstrained style typical of the period when Buddhism was first introduced to the country.

Then China entered upon a new period, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The empire was the most prosperous, most open, and most stable one with the largest territory in Chinese history. Its far-reaching impact on the Chinese is seen from the mere fact that nowadays Chinese themselves invariably call China towns dotted across the globe Tang People Streets, and when asked where they come from, they would reply they come from Tang Mountains to refer to China. Booming economy and stable society were immensely conducive to the development of culture and arts. Various forms of literature and art were now pushed to a climax, and therefore, the Tang empire had a lot to boast in these spheres and exerted great influence on the other oriental nations of the time.

Visual arts reached another peak in the country as far as the figure painting and sculpture as concerned. The Tang produced quite a number of eminent painters like Yan Liben, Wu Daozi, Zhuang Xuan and Zhou Fang. These artists deviated from the simplified exaggeration of deities and fairies of their predecessors. Instead, they began to express their feeling, experience and aspirations through a more natural perspective and graceful lines, breathing youth and vigor, zeal and imagination into their paintings of figures. The style of slim, thin, and unrestrained human characters of the preceding times largely gave way to sumptuous, magnanimous and well-developed human forms.

Zhang Xuan's masterpiece Guo Lady on a Spring Outing, serves as a good example of the Tang's painting style. The picture, which vividly depicts the majestic scene of noble ladies going out on a spring excursion in an entourage of nine people and eight horses, the very image of leisure and grace, was based on the real life of the upper class. In the center of the painting was the main character, Guo Lady, who was an elder sister of the emperor's most favorite consort, riding a big red horse with the bridle in one hand as she looks in front of her. She is portrayed as having plump cheeks and styled eyebrows, her hair coiled in a bang dangling at the back of her neck. On her a short light blue blouse well matches with the white kerchief over a reddish skirt patterned with flowers outlined in gold. By her side is her sister Han Lady. Among their attendants behind them is a middle-aged woman who holds a baby girl to her breast, nursing the child with restraint and care. The composition of the picture is simple and concise. The painter gives prominence to the clothing, motion and interrelation of the characters to reveal the carefree and self-indulgent manner of the noble ladies as well as the pomp of the procession of the spring outing. In the picture we can see the peculiarities of the Chinese painting style which has been brought down to this day that can be best summarized in short as sharp contrasts obtained through a combination of graceful line drawing and application of bright colors to solid areas.

The drawings of the Tang may serve as a textbook on fashions of the time and before. A painting entitled Easy Comfort by Sun Wei is a depiction of seven outstanding scholars living a little earlier than the Tang. From the drawing it can be seen that it was in vogue for scholars of the related period of time to wear kerchiefs on the head as a decoration. Apart from kerchiefs, caps of various shapes were also popular. However, the most popular headwear was a small cap, which had evolved from the Han Dynasty kerchiefs. The small cap was made by folding a kerchief into the shape of a dome, which was then covered with a coat of black paint to fix the shape. This style was referred to as the "painted-kerchief-cage-cap" and was used by both men and women over a long time before the Tang.

The Tang Dynasty lasted three hundred years, and the Tang style dress added a resplendent page to the history book of Chinese clothing. Though typically consisting mainly of skirts, blouses and capes, women's attire in the Tang Dynasty was greatly varied. Tang women would tuck the lower hems of their blouses inside their skirts, which were fastened above the waist. They always wore capes over their blouses and skirts. In addition to skirts, blouses and capes, half-sleeve coats known as half-sleeves were in fashion, too. Women in early Tang often wore tight blouses with narrow sleeves and long skirts. In the middle and later period of the dynasty, when plump and well grown women were gradually becoming the standard of beauty, blouses and sleeves were also growing wider and looser.

Tang women were fashion fans and marvelous fashion designers. They wore their hair in a vast variety of styles to become appealing and unconventional, and to mark different social status and personal temperaments. They not only used a variety of ways to coil their hair, but also had a variety of adornments to decorate their buns and bangs. Noble women would use combs, pins, clippers, nets, pearls, jades, gold and silver, and jewelry as hair decoration, whilst women of ordinary families would just use combs and hairpins. Make-ups were among what women prized, too. Apart from the powder and brow paint, there was also forehead yellow flower decoration, dimple paint, cheek paint, and lipstick.

As said above the Tang was a quite open society, its capital Chang-an (present-day Xi-an, Shaanxi province) being the world's largest international metropolis at the time, which was inhabited by people of scores of nationalities from East and West. Different nationalities exerted influence upon one another in ways of life, culture, and arts. The art works of the time, therefore, often present in one picture figures varied in body postures and expressions as well as the styles of clothing. Open-mindedness, prosperity, diversification of life ways, and wealth were vividly exhibited by the variety of customs, especially the dresses on women. Compared with other historical periods, the design and ways of wearing clothes in the Tang were free from the restraint by traditional feudal ethics, which had previously held sway in every respect of life. It is interesting that the loose clothes with broad sleeves of the Han people, the tight clothes with tight sleeves worn by the Huns, and the round-collared garments buttoned up in the middle at front preferred by the people from central China may be seen in one picture to present an agreeable view.

The prosperity of the Tang Dynasty boosted the Buddhist arts into unparalleled boom. At the time it became the concern of the state to build temples and dig Buddha-housing caves, setting a precedent for the scale and variety as well as the delicate and exquisite carving and sculpturing techniques. The craftsmen and artisans were boldly imaginative. The statues of Buddha and Bodhisattva they carved or cast had a thousand and one facial expressions and were in countless body postures. Siddhartha Gautama was always the biggest and looked the most majestic of a group of statues, occupying the central position, while Bodhisattva and the like deities were smaller than him but bigger than Kasyapa and Ananda, who were both disciples of Siddhartha Gautama, too. Smaller still were the statues of Buddha's attendants. The statues in the Fengxian Temple in Longmen Grottoes, Luoyang, which were built out of the state treasury under the direct guidance of the woman emperor Wu Zhao, are referred to as the best Tang Dynasty pieces for their magnificent scale and perfect modeling techniques. In the group, Buddha Vairocana is seated on the top of a lotus-shaped stand with her legs crossed. The statue measures 17.4 meters tall. It is carved with the hair coiled up in a concha-shaped bun, a square forehead, plump cheeks, corners of the lips turned upward in a grin. It looks straight out to meet the gaze of its worshippers. This statue captures both the sedate and winning features of a female and the majestic and ambitious features of a monarch, and hence is believed to be the image of the woman Emperor Wu Zhao. It is noticeable that Buddha Vairocana had been supposed to be male before the Tang, and that it has since been a female in China, for the empress was hailed as the embodiment of Buddha Vairocana. What's more, the statue of Buddha Vairocana also exhibits obvious features of ancient Greek sculpture, for the facial features resemble those of a Westerner. As an example of a mixture of oriental and accidental art, the statue still enjoys the prestige of "Apollo of the Orient" although it is more of a woman.

Murals in grottoes and temples, which housed statues of Buddha, were an inseparable part of Buddhist arts. As every generation had contributed to it, when it came to the Tang, the frescos were crowned with glory and splendor. Take for example the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province, which, as mentioned previously, are the most valuable treasure house of Buddhist arts. Up to this day the murals there still maintain such an artistic and religious appeal that before them everyone could not refrain from being filled with subconscious respect for and mysterious sense of the Buddhist gods and goddesses.

The appealing force of the works derive from three unique aspects. The first is lifelike depiction of individuals. For example, the Meditating Bodhisattva in the painting Purity in the West is shown as sitting on a lotus-shaped stand with the legs crossed. One hand rests on one knee, while the other supports the cheek. As the Bodhisattva is depicted looking forward but seems to be looking into nothing, she presents herself deep in meditation. Besides it there is also a meditating Buddhist monk, who, standing, has his head covered with silk. With his eyes closed, his facial muscles relaxed but brows knitted, he is shown as an old Buddhist follower just on entering upon meditation. It is depiction of individuals in great detail that gives life to the painting of a congregation of characters.

The second fascinating force comes from the superb technique to reveal the interrelations and interactions of the characters so as to fully expose the theme of painting. This technique can be found in a painting of a secular theme entitled Wife of Taiyuan Governor Pays Tribute to Buddha-- in these grottoes there is no lack of pictures of secular themes. In it the mistress is distinguished from her attendants by placing them respectively in commanding and subordinate positions, and by presenting them as different heights (the mistress being disproportionately taller than anyone else). The mistress is plump, dressed in gorgeous garments, looking graceful and respectful, while in contrast, her servants are portrayed whispering to one another in a relaxed mood.

Third, attraction comes from incorporation of the statue(s) and the painting(s) into an interesting organic whole by ingeniously laying the painting(s) as a backdrop to set off the major subject of the statue(s). A cave well preserved to this day is dedicated to a lying Siddhartha Gautama carved in the center. He looks in sound and peaceful ever-lasting sleep. Behind it is a painting known as All Mourning Buddha in Nirvana, where a group of eighty-eight characters are portrayed. These characters included Bodhisattva, arhats, generals, warriors and princes of different nationalities in Chinese, Indian, south Asian and central Asian garments. All are wailing bitterly, some cutting their ears, some scooping out their hearts, some slicing their noses, some splitting their abdomens, some stamping their feet or hitting their chests, to demonstrate their grief and pain at continuing to live after Buddha Siddhartha Gautama had entered his final meditation of Nirvana. The contrast between the painting and the statue leaves a startling impression upon visitors.

During the Tang Dynasty the art of sculpture reached a climax in China, too. In present-day museums, particularly in those of Shaanxi province, there is no lack of exhibits of this nature. They are very impressive for their magnificent-looking and the superb sculpture techniques exhibited in them. A group of sculptures depicting a royal funeral has been universally considered a brilliant example of the Tang art of the kind. When Emperor Li Zhi died in AD 683, many foreign countries and regions dispatched special envoys to the capital of China to attend the funeral service. The envoys were sixty-one in number. To commemorate the occasion, the succeeding woman emperor Wu Zao ordered craftsmen and artisans to carve sixty-one life-size statues of the envoys who had attended the funeral ceremony and installed the statues in the north of Tang Tombs in present-day Shaanxi province. Many of these envoys were chieftains or kings of the neighboring countries. Wearing their native garments, hands held in front as a gesture of obeisance, they stand in an orderly fashion with looks of solemnity and respect, most probably an actual manner that they bore themselves at the funeral. Regrettably, all their heads have mysteriously disappeared, and no one can explain for sure what happened, why or when. Fortunately they can be identified thanks to the inscriptions on their backs. The statues and the inscription have proven of archaeological help and provided valuable historical data to contemporary researchers of the diplomatic relations of the Tang Dynasty.

By the Tang dynasty, a division of labor between the artisan and the sculptor had appeared. While monumental statues were fully developed at that time, more true-to-life figures were also produced thanks to new techniques in clay, wood and glazing products.

Pottery figurines, known as Tang Tricolor Glaze (see pic.11), were the hallmark of excellent figure making techniques of the period. The tricolor glaze is a general term for colored glazed pottery figurines, suggesting that the figurines were mainly tinted in three basic colors of white, yellow, and green, whereas prior to the Tang Dynasty only blue and black had occasionally been used on the glazed figurines.

The pottery figures are of tremendous artistic and technical value, and their historical implication is equally notice-worthy. An exemplary work of the tricolor pottery is a colossal camel carrying an ensemble of three ethnic nationals and two Han Chinese. The layout is strictly symmetrical with four sitting in two rows facing each other. They are enthusiastically playing various musical instruments native to China and its neighboring countries while the fifth, an ethnic national stands in between the humps of the camel, looking straight ahead and singing with his arms lifted and fists clenched. This reveals the historical fact that in the Tang Dynasty international trade was flourishing with frequent international cultural exchange.

The figurines of women call for particular attention. In the early Tang and before, women were represented as slender and slim. In some previous period, slimming extended even to men and was admired to such a ridiculous degree that the monarch should have set it as a criterion for promotion of officials. To secure a position a few men were starved to get slim. The Tang pottery women figurines, however, were mostly plumpy. This corroborates the literature that the age experienced a radical change in aesthetic standards; fleshy women were admired as beauties. In the artistic works women are often seen side by side with men on public occasions, and some women are determined as government officials. Women and men stood equal in social activities and positions for the first and the last time in Chinese history. The Tang dynasty was a quite free society with little if any sex discrimination. In contrast, before and after it Chinese women suffered incredibly much from sex inequality and were bound up by various commandments in relation to them. During the Tang period, China saw its only woman emperor in history, and the phenomenon that women could hold office in the court as men did had not been and would not be seen in Chinese history.

Following the Tang was a series of unstable ephemeral dynasties. During this period one thing worth noticing is the establishment of the first royal art academy, which would promote the development of arts in the coming era. Now the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) came into existence, and following the Song the central part of China, which had always been ruled over by the Han, was occupied by the Mongolians, who conquered the bigger part of Asia and part of Europe and established the vast empire Yuan (1271-1368). As a matter of fact in the late period of the Song the country was split into several contending regimes, all short-lived. Chinese historians call this whole period the Song-Yuan period.

Though figure representation differed from one period of time to another, the subject matters of the art in the past had always centered round the noblesse and officialdom. From the Song Dynasty onwards, industry and commerce developed swiftly in towns and cities, where a class of townspeople took shape. To cater for the needs of these urban residents, folk arts emerged to reflect the social reality from the aesthetic perspective of this expanding class.

In the Song-Yuan period the everyday life of ordinary people both in town and the country became an important subject matter especially in painting and a great amount of the artistic works of the time produce an insightful impression. Su Hanchen, a famous painter of the time vividly depicted children at play in his paintings Toddlers in the Courtyard in Autumn and Acrobatic Children. As the physical features of children were ingeniously captured, heads comparatively big and bodies relevantly small, faces round, eyes round, the children look quite breathing. To bring out the lively zip of play the facial expressions of the children were depicted by thin?even lines and light yet bright shades of color. Trade and commerce was thriving in the Song Dynasty. As a sign of it peddlers often entered into artistic works. They were very popular with the townspeople, for they not only brought them their daily necessities but were typically talkative, preferring to wear outlandish clothes to arrest attention. They were, therefore, much talked about among neighbors. In a picture Portraits of Peddlers, the painter meticulously presented country peddlers who were busy hawking and making deals. Around them were women and children. It is comical that their eyes are all drawn to the peddling, but they wear expressions different from each other.

A painting Pure Brightness Festival at the Riverside (see pic.12) by Zhang Zeduan of the Northern Song Dynasty is a fine example of the Chinese school of secular painting. Covering a silk scroll measuring 5.287 meters long it represents in a realistic way a multitude of people from all walks of life in the Northern Song capital, Bianliang (today's Kaifeng, Henan province) during the twelfth century. In the picture there are about six hundred figures including officials, peasants, physicians, traders, gentry, bailiffs, actors, fortune-tellers, Buddhist monks, Taoist priests, women, children, prostitutes, servants, and what not. The majority of them were laborers, who wore kerchiefs, rain hats and shorts, coats unbuttoned with the sleeves rolled up. Though the same class, they were of various trades, porters, cart drivers, sedan chair bearers, carpenters, blacksmiths, boat trackers, and boatsmen. No figure is bigger than three centimeters high, the smallest one but one centimeter, but all of the characters are depicted true to life with lively expressions, from which you can see their emotions. It is a lively and vigorous sight that so many people are crowded in one single painting, some riding horses or donkeys, some sitting on sedan chairs, some strolling in the fields, some visiting ancestors' tombs, some leaning against the railings to enjoy the panorama of the city, some drinking, some chatting, some bargaining, some reciting ballads, some pushing boats with long poles, some pulling at carts, some loading and unloading carts, some begging alms.

Highlighted in the middle of the enormous picture is an arch bridge, on which a bustling scene containing various human figures is depicted. Beneath the bridge a barge is running, the boatsmen coordinating their efforts to adjust the direction of the boat. Their shouts catching eyes, around the boatsmen a dense yet congenial complexity was thus patterned through the suggestion of the movements, shouting and vision of the people on and under the bridge. To make a sharp contrast, around the stalls at the ends of the bridge and in the bars and teahouses by the river people look indifferent to the sight. It is interesting that peddlers and customers there are chatting quietly. The contrast of noise to quietude further enriches the painting. Numerous as the figures are, each of them is painted in great detail. Take one of the peasants as an example. He is pushing a fully loaded one-wheeled barrow across the bridge, upper body bent with the back arched, feet wide apart to keep balance. It needs but a casual study to catch on to the reason for this posture. He is going up slope and he has to make efforts to counteract the gravity.

Another marveling point about the painting is the painter's talent in arranging and organizing the prodigious number of materials. The picture is a grand, truthful panorama of a megalopolis-- Kaifeng was then a city with more than one million inhabitants-- that the outlooks of the town and its economic prosperity are vividly evoked in painstaking detail. This effect is achieved because every important aspect of the city life did not escape the eyes of the painter, from downtown streets, suburbs, and town walls down to the small signs of the stores and teahouses. What accounts for the success, in sum, is the painter's masterly application of accurate line drawing and the vigor of freehand brush work of Chinese painting techniques.

China is a multi-ethnic country. Around the Song-Yuan period, China underwent a third mixture of nationalities in its history. The Khitan, the Nuchen, and the Mongolian races, who inhabited the northeast and northwest, migrated to central China one after another to establish their own regimes. Many of the figure paintings and sculptures of the time fully exhibit this trend by introducing into paintings different ways of life including outlandish clothing and ornaments.

"Carousal in the Tent" by Hu Gui is an excellent figure painting about the customs and habits of Khitan tribes. On it is a scene of a chieftain of a tribe and his retinue having just returned from a successful hunting excursion. The master is depicted sitting on the carpet with a kerchief over his head, wearing a round-collared robe peculiar to the nomads. While he is drinking lavishly, served by some warriors, he is entertaining himself with watching dance and singing being performed by an actor before him. Four guards stand by, with bows and arrows held in leopard skin bags. The physical features of the Khitan tribesmen are accurately demonstrated, tops of the heads shaved with the peripheral hair knitted into thin plaits. Male Khitan, noble and humble, observed the practice of shaving the top of their head. Only the hair grown to the back of their ears was allowed to grow and knitted into small plaits.

The Mongols were a nomadic race originating in northern China. The clothing and adornments of the Mongol men in the Yuan Dynasty also had unique features. Like other nomadic tribesmen in the north, the Mongolians, too, were fond of knitting their hair into plaits, but the shape of the plaits varied. Like the Khitans, Mongol men would shave the top of their head, and leave the hair grown just above the forehead. The hair grown to the back of their ears would be knitted into dangling buns, which would droop and reach the shoulders. Corrugated hats and plaited coats are frequently found in paintings and sculptures depicting Mongol men. The coats had round collars and tight sleeves, and their long and wide hems were sewn together with plait-like stitch work.

A painting in a mural of the Song Dynasty challenges attention. Entitled Free Music, the painting depicts a performance show, which was a combination of opera, acrobatic show, magic, and jugglery. The orchestra consisted of twelve musicians in robes and blouses tied up by special leather girdles, who were playing various traditional Chinese stringed, wind and percussion instruments. The dancer is moving to the accompaniment of the band, his face expressive, and his posture is graceful and delicate. The dancer and musicians in performance are portrayed true-to-life, totally in anatomic proportion and in great detail with clear lines and bright colors. It is noticeable that in this painting and some other works of similar themes no gentry are found. This reflects a fact that while performance had been the luxury enjoyed solely by the noble before this period, now it was coming down from the palace and great mansions to streets. In the past actors and musicians had been dependent on the aristocrat but during the Song Dynasty and downwards, they acquired the status of free men. In consequence folk actors and musicians emerged in great amounts.

The Mongol-dominating Yuan Dynasty, a rather cruel bloody regimen was at last overthrown. The next dynasty was the Ming (1368-1644), where the Han restored their domination over the country. Because of the racial issue, anything associated with Mongolians such as their language and styles of dressing was strictly ousted and modified traditional customs mainly peculiar to the Han nationality revived. In 1644 the Manchurian, a minority nationality invaded Central China and set up the last dynasty, the Qing, which lasted to 1911. The Manchurian rulers forced the Han, the majority, to adopt their customs including the style of dressing. In spite of vast difference between the two dynasties in a great many ways, the two dynasties are considered one single historical period in regard to arts.

In paintings of the Ming we can see that the black gauze cap was the common headgear, its crown made lower in the front and higher at the back with a wing attached to each side of the cap so as to create a smooth silhouette. The black gauze caps and round-collar robes with serpentine patterns and cotton waistbands became the typical outfit of the Ming emperors and officials (see pic.13). Different ranks of the Ming officials were marked by the difference in color and fabric of the robes, quality of the waistbands, and decorations of the clothing. Women of the Ming Dynasty were dressed in a style similar to that of the Song Dynasty, and they were used to wearing head ribbons, which were known as forehead bands.

The male figure typical of the Qing Dynasty was a man with shaven forehead and a long horse tail dangling at the back. This was quite counter to the customs of the Hans, which constituted the majority of the population. Over the many past centuries they had been loyal followers of the teaching of Confucius that hair was acquired from the parents, who must be shown every respect, and therefore, it should be protected intact by all means. Shaving it, therefore, was a breach of filial respect, which was esteemed the first virtue. The Manchurian practice, therefore, met with strong resistance at the beginning. To impose it on the Hans, the Manchurian rulers issued a cruel order that keeping hair would cost the head and they really executed it. The Hans were thus forced to accept the foreign hair style.

The Qing Dynasty garments, especially the clothes for men, retained the features of Manchurian clothing for a long time, as seen in the representation of figures in paintings and sculptures. The most typical garments and headwear for the emperors and high-ranking officials were the seasonal cool hats and warm hats, and the round-collar robes decorated with patterns of dragons, the cuffs of sleeves looking like the hoofs of horses. Emperors and high-ranking officials would wear strings of beads around their necks, and at grand ceremonies, additional capes. Together with others, the pearl and plume atop the hat marked the social status and wealth of the wearer. Imperial ladies and maids in the palace were fond of wearing cheongsams (a close-fitting dress with high neck and slit skirt) over which they would wear a tight sleeveless wings. Women usually coiled their hair into a long horizontal bun over their heads. What is interesting is their shoes, which were high-heeled. It is funny that the high heel was attached to the middle of the sole of the shoe. The close-fitting dresses and high-heeled shoes made the Qing women look slender and slim.

Since it came into being, figure representation had been closely related with tales written and oral, for it had been often based on the characters, i.e., heroes and heroines, in these stories. The Ming-Qing period turned out to be a golden age for literary creation; oceans of literary works, operas, and dramas with a realistic leaning appeared. The literary form novel writing, which had never enjoyed adequate development in China before, flourished. Because of a mutual promoting action, booming literary creation was accompanied by swift popularization and development of printing techniques. In the milieu books, for the first time in history, became the most important media for figure representation, which was used as illustration, and the technique of woodblock print advanced at a rapid pace. All this laid a solid foundation for the development of figure painting, giving rise to new approaches to artistic expression.

The earliest woodblock print found so far was an illustration on the title page of a Buddhist script published in 868 AD. During the reign of Emperor Zhu Yijun of the Ming Dynasty (1573-1620), prints were taken beyond the desks of scholars and into the households of common folks. Before long almost all books had woodblock prints as illustrations and almost all such prints were ingeniously designed and made. The vividly painted figures added much flavor to famous works such as A Tale of the West-Wing Chamber, the Golden Lotus, the Journey to the West, the Dream of the Red Mansions, and the Outlaws of the Watermargin. One of the most accomplished painter of the time was Chen Hongshou (Chen Laolian), who lived in the late Ming and early Qing. In many of the best-known Chinese novels we can see exquisite illustrations of his making.

Later during the Qing Dynasty, woodblock printing became an art form independent of book illustration. The New Year Painting (picture) was an example. To welcome the New Year in, every family would buy pictures, through which people expressed their hope for happiness and good luck. Pictures might be stuck in the room, and those posted at either side of the door would serve as guardians believed to be able to fend off bad lucks and evil spirits. This tradition could be traced as far back as the Han Dynasty. In the Qing Dynasty the New Year Pictures not only were extended to an unprecedented extent but their subject matters became variegated, including characters in well-known fairy-tales, legends, and historical stories, who might be national heroes, accomplished warriors, pretty ladies, plump babies, etc. To meet the vast demand in the market, in the country arose several centers of mass production of the New Year Pictures. Nowadays it seems that after years of disappearance from the scene, the tradition is coming back in the country.

Some space must be devoted to the influence of the West on the Chinese figure representation. During the reign of Emperor Zhu Yijun of the Ming Dynasty, Italian missionary Matteo Ricci came to China in 1581. His arrival not only promoted the cultural exchange between the East and the West in general, but also introduced to China the European realistic tendency in figure paintings typical of the Renaissance period. A number of open-minded Chinese painters took great interest in the Renaissance art, which was poles apart from traditional Chinese art. As a result in late Ming and early Qing, a brand-new figure painting style appeared in China.

In the 18th and 19th centuries a number of European missionaries came to China for religious purpose, and a few of them, who offered their service at the imperial court, had a mastery of the techniques of the Western painting. They incorporated the decorative style of the Chinese line drawing into their figure painting and produced large numbers of true-to-life portraits of the emperors and their wives and concubines. Guiseppe Castiglione was the most outstanding among such painters. His work Emperor Qianlong Reviews Troops (see pic.14) was an example of the artistic works left by these Westerner painters. In the portrait the emperor was in a majestic suit of armor during the inspection, which was one of the most important occasions for the sovereign. As the stroke and paint bring out every detail about the monarch, his facial feature, the suit of armor, and the horses, for instance, a picture of a great depth and extensive perspective is presented so as to make the work a masterpiece.

The art of figure representation and characterization has been gradually self-perfecting in the course of its development, changing with time, and advancing with time. It is, therefore, an organic part of and dependent upon, and hence in step with civilization. While the author shows the specific evolution track of the art in the country, the readership, he hopes, may have got a glimpse of China's civilization history.

She Zhao-fu: History of the Discovery of Chinese Cliff Painting, Shanghai, Shanghai People's Press, 1991
Shen Cong-wen: A Study of Ancient Chinese Garments and Ornaments, Hong Kong, Commercial Press, 1981
Lu Si-mian: History of the Chinese Nationalities, Beijing, China Encyclopedia Press, 1982
Zhang Dai-nian, et al.: China's Ideological Inclinations, Beijing, China Academy of Social Sciences Press, 1991
Wang Chao-wen: An Introduction to Esthetics, Beijing, the People's Publishing House, 1981
Tan Dan-he: History of China's Ceramics and Pottery, Beijing, Guangfu Publishing House Co. Ltd., 1980
Zeng Yu: Outlined History of China's Sculpture, Beijing, Nantian Publishing House Co. Ltd., 1982
Wu Bing-an: China's Folklore, Liaoning, Liaoning University Press, 1985
Shi Rong-hua: Social Psychology, Shanghai, Shanghai People's Press, 1987
She Fu-wei: History of the Cultural Exchange Between China and the West, Shanghai, Shanghai People's Press, 1985

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