The Arts



The 12th-century original painting of Along the River During the Qingming Festival, by Zhang Zeduan



 An 18th-century remake of the epic scroll



Along the River During the Qingming Festival (Qīngmíng Shànghé Tú; 清明上河图) is a painting attributed to Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145). The scroll is 25.5 cm (10.0 in) in height and 525 cm (17.2 ft) long. In its length there are 814 humans, 28 boats, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 20 vehicles, 8 sedan chairs, and 170 trees.

It could be said that no set of cultural arts has had such a grip on the world's imagination as that of China. This is hardly surprising, considering China is the curator of one of the richest and longest cultural and artistic legacies the world has ever known. From the mystifying traditional landscape paintings of the middle dynasties to the religious sculptures and figurines of ancient Buddhist and Taoist traditions; from the incredible embroideries of imperial silken clothing to the utterly one-of-a-kind costumes, make-up and belting voices of Chinese opera; from poetry, literature, film and kung fu to the written language itself; the realm of Chinese art is breathtaking to experience and staggering to contemplate. Perhaps nothing could be more of a testament to the world’s enthrallment with Chinese art than the Western word for the country’s beautiful ceramic porcelain, which alludes to the name for the country itself: china.


One of the most standout elements of Chinese artistic tradition has been its resiliency. A marked resistance to change kept the deeply philosophical art of the Middle Kingdom alive and thriving despite countless invasions and destruction at the hands of rampaging foreigners. Ironically, the greatest changes to Chinese aesthetics would come from within, as the conservatism that was at the core of much of Chinese art abated in a rapid and dramatic fashion during the mid to late 20th century. Revolution attempted to sweep everything under the rug, making room for bold new ideas and designs that pervaded every aspect of Chinese existence and affected the heart of traditional aesthetics, ultimately forcing an overnight transition from traditional arts to modern mores. The consequence – for better or worse – is that the Chinese art found today often taps into the traditional while scaling the unconventional and modern, an ideal representation of the blending of old and new that seems to touch every facet of a country just over the cusp of its historic crossroads.

Traditional Arts




Confucius, the father of the philosophies and principals that make up the common Chinese temperament, held fast that the arts and humanities – especially poetry and music – were crucial to the development of the human spirit and improving etiquette and the rites. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that Confucian conservatism is at the core of much of Chinese aesthetic tradition. The ideas of restraint and contemplation were already a part of the Chinese psyche when Confucian tenets deepened them further and put a reserved interest in the role of humans in creating harmony with nature. The brew was stirred by Taoist philosophies, which emphasized inner meditation as well, but further empowered the analysis of humanity’s place within the natural world.


From these philosophical underpinnings grew an aesthetics that sought a more contemplative approach to beauty, emphasizing its expression within the subtle and the obscure instead of the bold and the specific. Taoist musings, such as “that which is there but cannot be seen, that which makes a sound but cannot be heard,” combined with Confucian propriety and the emphasis on tradition, created an aesthetic philosophy with a profound appreciation of those things slight and hidden that are best revealed through reflection and metaphor as opposed to direct explanation or literal representation.


Confucius’ great rival was his contemporary philosopher Mozi, who felt that music, poetry and other arts were extravagant and only appreciable by the wealthy. The communists took Mozi’s bet and raised it by a thousand during their revolutionary fury when they hijacked art for propaganda campaigns, creating a storm of Maoist and Marxist slogans against the red backdrops of iron-jawed workers boldly and defiantly raising hammers. Such art would later be tweaked and reborn in the ironic creations of modern artists. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s encouraged the wanton destruction of much of China’s ageless cultural traditions by promoting the devastation of architecture, by beating poets and writers to the point of suicide, and by wiping out generations-old lineages of martial styles. Aesthetics were reconditioned in the Maoist style, and those that failed their re-educational tests were annihilated.


What has been born from these ashes decades later is a modern art scene emboldened by foreign influences and melancholic at the loss of millennia of heritage, as much of the corrosion nurtured by the Cultural Revolution still struggles to recover. Though there has been a loosening of the grip on artistic ideas since the early ‘90s, modern artists often still find themselves the victims of scaremongering, abrupt and forced closures of their studios, and oppressive tactics of an administration fearful of the powerful voice they may bring to the masses.


Two of the most expressive examples of Chinese traditional aesthetics can be found in classical poetry and traditional painting, both of which often go hand in hand. Though the paintings tended to seek the expression of the ineffable, putting into paint what is unapproachable through words, appreciation of their beauty is highly accessible to anyone. In fact, it is exactly their ability to tap into something that cannot be spoken, that ethereal and mysterious quality of existence that makes them so easily treasured across all cultures and walks of life.


Until the Tang Dynasty most Chinese painters focused on human form, interactions, daily life and principles and morality. As the Tang began to blossom, so too did a new emphasis in traditional painting, shanshui (literally “mountain water”). Such landscape paintings emerged as the most otherworldly subject matter yet, with painters putting more energy into the expression of the spirit of the scenery than a concrete depiction. The genre reached its most awe-inspiring zenith by the Song and Yuan Dynasties, when Buddhist and Taoist themes engulfed the energy of the scenes. Their influences, which created dream-like interpretations of misty mountains, cloudy valleys and hoary trees, set humanity as a spec on the canvas and signified spiritual revelations of humankind as a nuance to something more spectacular, yet elusive to grasp.

Traditional Chinese landscape painting


In contrast to many other styles, traditional Chinese painting did not seek to impress their own emotional state upon the viewer, but instead to allure the viewer into the scene with its powerful expression of the metaphysical and the absolute along with its prevailing instilment of qi (vital energy). Concepts of qi and essence were central to Chinese thought for generations before the births of Confucius or Laozi (founder of Taoism), but became particularly prevalent as the two philosophies developed and became utterly inseparable from traditional painting after being written into Xie He’s 6th century BCE treatise, the Six Principles of Painting. In it, Xie expounds the first principle – capturing the intrinsic essence of a subject and infusing it with qi – to be the chief aim of painting. The “bone method” was the second principle, and it was concerned with the brush stroke, which was supposed to be varied in tone, width and depth, and was considered to ultimately give a representation of the painter’s moral fiber. The third principle expanded on the first, directing artists to capture the subject’s innate qualities by releasing any desire to produce face-value resemblance.


While Xie He’s tenets were important to the early painters who focused on human qualities, they seemed to reach their pinnacle during the landscape era, perhaps even being the school of thought that brought about the shanshui movement.




Chinese ceramics are no stranger to the West. Porcelain (which is technically any type of ceramic that is white and translucent) was created by the Chinese, and it is has been one of the most coveted of Chinese creations by foreign markets since at least the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 CE). Throughout a period of over a dozen millennia, Chinese pottery has grown from a pre-Stone Age practicality to one of the most graceful and defining elements of China’s glorious aesthetic traditions.


The oldest pottery in China – several pieces unearthed in the Xianrendong Cave in Jiangxi Province – has been radiocarbon dated to 20,000 years ago, making them the oldest known pottery on earth as well. It’s debated as to whether they were more likely used for religious purposes or simply to store food (certainly a worthy use for pots). The “just food” theory certainly has a bit of precedence, considering these pots had been created a staggering 10,000 years before the development of agriculture, which means that storage of food would have been crucial to its preservation. It was during the late Neolithic (the Stone Age), however, that the invention of the pottery wheel brought an unprecedented change to the process of molding a pot, bringing ceramics from a utilitarian craft with artistic undertones to an elegant expressive skill that went beyond stuffing grains in a pot.


In fact, some of the most striking pottery in China comes from the Neolithic period. Though these creations came long before porcelain was invented, the skill that Chinese craftsmen had achieved by 5000 – 3200 BCE is absolutely remarkable, showing great design technique and artistic awareness. By 210 BCE the skills of Qin Dynasty ceramicists achieved the monumental when the Terracotta Army was interred in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. The minutia of detail on the soldiers is extraordinary, and not a single one is the same.


Craftsmen continued to perfect their skills and develop techniques; the first pieces of porcelain made their appearance during the Eastern Han Dynasty period (196 – 220 CE). But it was the sophistication of the cultured Tang Dynasty (618 – 906) that reigned in a new era of stylistic maturity. Some of the most spellbinding works of this period include pieces of the famous sancai (three colors) style, coveted for its vibrant green, white and yellow glaze. The Tang was also the era when celadons (porcelain with a specific “celadon” glaze that often creates characteristic cracks) reached new heights of beauty, particularly in the blue- and green-glazed jars that soon fell in demand by courts in Egypt and Persia.


The Mongolian Yuan Dynasty (1279 – 1386) swept in beautiful cobalt blue Persian paint, and from here China’s renowned qinghua, or blue and white porcelain, began its historic development. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) that qinghua neared its apex, spearheading the spread of Chinese porcelain to nearly every corner of the world. Popularity for China’s breathtaking porcelain grew wildly, quickly molding its household name into “China-porcelain,” and eventually just “china.”

Qinghua jar from the Ming Dynasty


Fueled by an international market whose desire for Chinese porcelain grew hungrier and more desperate every day, Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912) craftsmen took their art to incredible new levels, developing further refinements in firing techniques and weaving wondrous levels of intricacy into their paintings. Depictions of landscapes, flowers and famous poets were typical themes on Qing Dynasty vases and tableware, as well as the monochromes (use of different shades of a single color) of imperial yellow and ox-blood vases, along with elaborately decorated tableware.


Kilns were fired up all around China, producing different types of ceramics and porcelain and many styles of which became identified with their region of production and their kiln. One of the most famous kilns was the Tiger Cave Kiln of the Song Dynasty. Set in Hangzhou, it produced ceramics exclusively for the Song imperial court. Similarly, the Jingdezhen kiln in Jiangxi Province fired up its oven exclusively for the imperial household.




Chinese sculpture dates back to at least the Shang (1600 – 1046 BCE) and Western Zhou (1046 – 246 BCE) Dynasties, when wooden or clay sculptures were placed in tombs to safeguard the dead. Human form in these early statues – which were almost always animalistic – was avoided. Eventually figure-making evolved to include more humans, who often came in the form of servants for tombs of wealthier individuals. Fantastic examples of these can be seen in the tombs around Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, where a splattering of imperial tombs are decorated with small figures to accompany them into the afterlife. The greatest example, of course, is the Terracotta Army, which was the first time life-sized figures were placed in a tomb.


As Buddhism made its way into China, sculptures focused their attention on religious themes, eventually producing some of China’s most incredible effigies. The Silk Road also brought influences from distant nations like Greece, Persia and Egypt, emboldening the drive of carvers. Massive sculpting projects were conceived, employing legions of artisans to create giant statues of Sakyamuni or Guanyin. Some standout examples are the stunning 22 m- (72 ft)-tall Guanyin at Puning Temple in Chengde and the 25 m (80 ft) Maitreya in Beijing’s Lama Temple.

22m tall statue of Guanyin at Puning Temple, Chengde

25m tall wooden Maitreya statue in Beijing’s Lama Temple

It was the Tang Dynasty when traditional Chinese sculpture reached its apex; statues from this era are plentiful, sophisticated and truly spellbinding. Great collections are located in temples throughout China, and some spectacular collections can be found in the Shanghai Museum, or the Poly Art Museum and Capital Museum, the latter two of which are in Beijing.



The history of Chinese opera stretches back at least 1,300 years to the Tang Dynasty, when Emperor Xuanzong put together his own personal operatic troupe: the Pear Garden (Lí Yuán; 梨园). This team’s duty was little more than to perform for the emperor himself, and the team is so famous and fundamental to Chinese Opera that modern performers are referred to as Pear Garden Disciples.


The art began to blossom in the Northern Song Dynasty, when traveling companies would perform in open-air markets, temple courtyards or tea houses, and their shrill high-voiced singing is said to have been developed to allow the performers to be heard over the hum of public crowds. Developing from performances of songs, ballads and folklore, opera grew to encompass a loosely related set of dazzling skills, including martial arts, acrobatics and stylized dance. Face painting and the wearing of elaborate masks evolved as well, mimicking a practice begun by soldiers attempting to intimidate their enemies.


Mixed sex performance groups were banned for hundreds of years, leading to a tradition of actors taking on the roles of the opposite sex, and ultimately bringing this practice to the level of a stylized performance technique. One of the most famous Beijing Opera performers of the 20th century (and truly of any century) was Mei Lanfang, known ubiquitously for his perfection of the female role. Mei was eventually immortalized when his feminine performance techniques were adopted into their own school.

Some of the many mask designs of Peking Opera

Peking opera star Mei Lanfang (Oct 22, 1894 - Aug 8, 1961)


These days, Chinese Opera has evolved into nearly as many varieties as there are provinces in China, but Beijing Opera (aka Peking Opera) is surely the most famous of them all. Generally, opera in China continues to incorporate elaborate make up and costuming, eye-popping wushu and acrobatics, and Classical Chinese dialogue and lyrics. Because of the latter characteristic, most Chinese operas are indecipherable to the audience who come to see the brilliant special effects, singing, dancing and acrobatic performances.


Other famous Chinese operatic traditions include Cantonese Opera (Yuè Jù;粤剧), Sichuan Opera (Chuān Jù;川剧), Zhejiang Opera (Yuè Jù;越剧) and Shaanxi Opera (Qín Qiāng ;秦腔).




Chinese traditional architecture is a standout testament to the hardiness of the Middle Kingdom’s traditional aesthetics. The principal characteristics of Chinese indigenous architecture, including upturned eaves, multiple gables, and intricate archways, remained unchanged for some 4,000 years – even in the face of endless invasions – and spread to influence nearly every corner of the Far East, including Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang), Korea, Japan and SE Asia. China’s home-grown structural designs can be boxed into three categories: imperial, religion and common life; but they all share one ubiquitous governing motive: feng shui.


Chinese feng shui – literally meaning “wind water” – is simple in principle, but can be complicated enough in practice that experts are needed to plan the layout of a building. The basic theory seeks to balance the complementary auras of yin and yang energy. Because yang is vitalizing and believed to flow from the south, all buildings are built with their main entrance facing south. Yin energy can be troublesome if allowed to flow into a building, so back doors and walls are set as a barrier to it.


Buildings are also set up to maximize the flow of qi (vital energy) throughout the interior, leading to the long tradition of structures – big and small – being set up with buildings on the peripheral edges of open, and often landscaped courtyards.

Imperial buildings in China (the Forbidden City in Beijing is the quintessential example) enhance their use of feng shui energy with an emphasis on color. Walls of imperial buildings are usually painted in red, while the imperial color of yellow is glazed onto the roof tiles of every imperial building in the country – it’s your fail-safe identification method for noting buildings of former imperial status. The color black, symbolic of water in Chinese elemental beliefs, was often used on the roofs of particularly combustible buildings in imperial compounds, such as libraries.

The rooftops of the remarkable Forbidden City, Beijing


Affixed to the corners of imperial buildings is a procession of mythical beasts led by a servant riding a phoenix, while the emperor rides a dragon at the rear. The number of beasts in the procession is always odd because odd numbers are holy, and they range from three to nine, depending on the importance of the duties performed within that building.


Most imperial buildings have the common motif of dragons (which represented the spirit of the emperor and are usually found as intricate carvings) and vast repetitions of the number nine, which is the holiest of holy numbers and also the sole imperial number.





Chinese religious buildings are generally in the form of temples and monasteries. Most of what you will find are Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian buildings, but Islamic mosques are not uncommon and they provide their own beautiful architectural additions.


Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples and monasteries all follow the feng shui design, with open air courtyards surrounded by halls and living quarters and a southern facing entrance. The exposed nature of the courtyards facilitates the flow of qi, keeps the air from getting stale, and allows incense to be burned without creating a smoky atmosphere. Mosques, on the other hand, do not face south, but instead are positioned to face Mecca.


Buddhist Temples


Buddhist temples like to generally stick to the same layout pattern almost anywhere you go. The first hall is usually the Hall of Heavenly Kings, with the fat laughing Buddha Maitreya guarded on all sides by the angry-looking heavenly kings. In the back of this hall is usually courtyard sporting a drum and bell tower leading to the main hall, either the Great Treasures Hall or the Sakyamuni Hall. Here you can usually find clusters of gilded statues, the Sakyamuni Buddha, and a row of luohans (or arhats; enlightened ones) positioned along the interior walls. Sometimes the rear of the temple will house the thousand-armed statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy.

The Hall of Heavenly Kings at Yuntai Temple (云台寺), Hebei

The thousand-armed statue of Guanyin at the Dazu Rock Carvings, Chongqing


Keep your eye out for pagodas in Buddhist temples as well. They are often the only remaining portion of the original temple, which may have been destroyed and rebuilt some decades earlier, and they usually house sutras and religious relics.


Taoist Temples


Inside Taoist temples you should notice the halls that are built with eight sides. This represents the eight trigrams of the bagua, one of the foundations of Taoist philosophy and divination. The temples always have a yin yang symbol somewhere on the grounds – representing the balancing and complementary forces of the universe – and more often than not this theme can be found hidden in building designs, floor patterns and throughout the nooks and crannies of artwork and statues.


Most Taoist statues honor Laozi (Taoism’s founder) the Jade Emperor, one of the religion’s chief deities, or the Eight Immortals (a troupe of enlightened ones who are often seen with fierce visages and are associated with the martial arts form the Eight Drunken Immortals).

Taoist temple, Zixiao Palace (紫霄宫) at Wudang Mountain (武当山), Hubei


Confucian Temples


One of the most noticeable features of Confucian temples ise their forests of massive stone steles. These steles record the names of those who passed the incredibly arduous civil service examinations, and the temples usually have some steles reciting the Confucian Classics as well. Statues of Confucius can be found throughout the grounds, most notably in the back or main hall, where the sage is seen presiding over collections of musical instruments and bands of reverential students.

Stone steles at the Confucian Temple, Qufu, Shandong




Islam holds a strong presence in Chinese religious beliefs, especially as you head west. Mosques generally seek a combination of Chinese traditional architecture – usually in the form of eaved roofs, decorative archways and, sometimes, pavilions – and sacred Islamic forms. This means that besides facing Mecca instead of south, mosques also feature domed roofs, intricate prayer halls with no furniture inside, and a lack of animal and people themes (which is taboo in Islam).

The grand Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang


Modern Arts


Vernacular Chinese


As the Qing Dynasty was on its way out and two revolutionary forces – the Nationalists and the Communists – competed for control of the country, many Chinese were fueled by new ideas of the importance of the common person. Through the fire of an exciting spirit of a new China, the author Lu Xun broke free of the haughty grip of Classical Chinese and in 1918 wrote Diary of a Madman in vernacular (common) Chinese. It was as revolutionary as it was stunning; in one piece he had dropped the shackles of thousands of years of literary elitism and invited millions of commoners to the reading party. His work singlehandedly changed literature in China, and since the publishing or A Madman’s Diary, all works have been written the way normal people spoke and thought.


Some contemporaries of Lu, greatly influenced by his bold step, were Mao Dun, famous for his 1933 book Midnight, Ba Jin, whose 1931 book Family remained popular with youth up until the 1980s, and Lao She, writer of Rickshaw Boy, an incredibly influential work that became a US bestseller in 1945 and was made into a film in 1982.

Lu Xun (September 25, 1881 – October 19, 1936)

Mao Dun (July 4, 1896 – March 27, 1981)


  Ba Jin (November 25, 1904 – October 17, 2005)

Lao She (February 3, 1899 – August 24, 1966)



As the traditional aesthetics that had governed the Chinese arts for thousands of years went into rapid decline during the rise of the communists, propaganda campaigns aimed at confronting and gilding the plight of the lower classes were commissioned to fill the artistic void. So hijacked was the art scene in China after 1949 that anything unrelated to promoting the party was banned outright. A huge influx of foreign techniques and concepts filled an aesthetic scene that had been homegrown for countless generations, and overnight the Chinese infatuation with mystical and metaphysical topics was pounded into cold hard realism, stating the concrete and ruminating on detail.


Soviet art was imported wholesale, and nothing was left untouched by the hammer and sickle. Traditional Taoist and Buddhist dreamscapes were replaced by blazing red suns, burly peasants and industrial scenes with Maoist quotations. New buildings were designed in monolithic granite and marble faces, cordoned with fences and topped with red stars. Sculpture drew from purported scenes of peasant struggles against landlords, or marches of the People’s Liberation Army. All interpretation of beauty was legislated to be seen through the eyes of Marxism, and anything the government deemed counterrevolutionary was removed.




Littered across quirky shops, touristy streets and the canvases of ironic modern artists today, propaganda art found its first niche when it was forced into the aesthetics of China after the founding of the PRC in 1949. Most propaganda posters focused on scenes of the working class, such as men and women proudly raising tools against backdrops of smoke stacks and machinery. But it also included a plethora of wild imagery, including the crushing of counterrevolutionary activity, the successes of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, Maoist ideals, fat and well-nourished Chinese babies, and the “fairy-land paradises” of China and North Korea.

  The working class must exercise leadership in everything (Gōngrén jiējí bìxū lǐngdǎo yīqiē; 工人阶级必须领导一切) (1970)

A glorious model for workers (Guāngróng de shēngchǎn mófàn; 光荣的生产模范) (1954)

Far less appealing to the educated and well-read Chinese population, propaganda posters made their mark on the illiterate or semi-literate populations, who tended to be peasants, farmers and factory workers (those who made up the vast majority of the population). Their lives at the time were marked by hardship and drabness, making them particularly susceptible to the brightly colored and inspirational themes that tapped into their deep desire for progress and uplift.


Propaganda art reached its peak during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and eventually began to die out during the ‘80s when Deng Xiaoping made his reforms and opened China’s doors to the West. Today, besides the reproductions found in nearly every tourist alley in the country, remnants can be found in old industrial parks, modern art districts and nearly any museum with a political or military theme.


Contemporary Movements




Post-1989 art ruminated on the losses suffered at the events that took place in Tian’anmen Square of that year and became obsessed with feelings of isolation and socioeconomic issues. Consumer culture became a hot topic, as did social change and materialism. Many works, like those of Yue Minjun, became extremely cynical, such as one showing masks feigning joy through horrible pain. After an initial mass exodus of artists to the West, many of them returned a decade later, bringing with them a smattering of new inspiration and ideas from their journeys to places like, Paris, London, Rome and New York City. The government’s grip on expression ever-so-slowly loosened throughout the ‘90s, and though censorship certainly remains, it has loosened the reigns enough to allow a bourgeoning modern and avant-garde art scene in much of modern China.

Execution (1995) by Yue Minjun, sold for US $5.9 million in 2007

Today, the most nascent and modish scenes are blossoming in Shanghai and Beijing’s 798 Art District. Ai Weiwei, perhaps best known in the West for his outspoken dissidence, has been an integral part of 798. His works range from helping to design the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing – which he has distanced himself from and called “a fake smile of bad taste” – to his temporary exhibition of a million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds that graced the floor of the Tate Modern Art Museum in London. Like many outspoken artists, writers or bloggers, Ai’s studios have been repeatedly shut down and harassed under guises of “illegal buildings” (as was said when his Shanghai studio was ruined) or charges of “tax evasion.”

Contemporary Literature

Unless you can read Mandarin, your options for reading contemporary Chinese authors are very limited. It’s too bad as well, since many of them have put together some brilliant social and political commentaries on modern China. English translations are becoming more common though, so keep your eyes peeled.

One sure-fire option is the short story writer Zhu Wen, whose 2007 collection I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China has been published into English and is a fantastically humorous criticism of the get-rich movement in China and its many absurdities. If you like Zhu’s short stories you can consider picking up a copy of Short Stories in Chinese: New Penguin Parallel Text.

Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his fascinating and at times heart-wrenching novel Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, about a kind and wealthy land-owner who is reincarnated as various farm animals upon his death and experiences the development of China since the ‘50s through their eyes.

Mo Yan (17 February 1955-present)

Mo Yan (left) and film director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋). Zhang directed the seminal movie Red Sorghum (红高粱) which was based on Mo’s novel of the same name

With the largest online population in the world, bloggers make a staggering mark in China’s contemporary writing market as well, often under highly-censored and downright dangerous circumstances. One particular standout is Han Han, who burst onto the literary scene with his novel Sanchong Men, or Triple Door, which gave a scathing critique of China’s educational system.




China’s musical history dates back over 8,000 years, proven – in part – by a bone flute discovered in Henan Province in 1986 from the Neolithic Era.


It is said that the ‘initiator of Chinese civilization’ the century-ruling Yellow Emperor oversaw one of his high-ranking subjects, Ling Lun (dubbed the ‘legendary founder of music in ancient China’), who created pipes from bamboo perfectly to match the delicate sounds of birds – including the mythical phoenix.


From these pipes, Ling Lun then established the equivalent of the western solfeggio (do, re, mi, so and la) and The Yellow Emperor ordered bells to be cast in tune with the flutes. 

Statue of Ling Lun in Hongya Park (洪崖公园), Nanchang, Jiangxi


In the reigning dynasties thereafter, musical showmanship and pioneering of fresh sounds and instruments was most actively encouraged within the emperor’s closed circles. Various emperors would employ scouts to source musicians to perform at a whim, though their status was always much lower than that of painters.


The literally hundreds of different Chinese traditional instruments usually fit into one of eight categories known as bayin (八音); these include silk, bamboo, wood, stone, metal, clay, hide and gourd.


Fast forwarding to the early 20th century and during the New Culture Movement momentum gathered for western-influenced music and culture. Genres blending Chinese and western music emerged around this time, specifically the Shanghai-based sounds of Shidaiqu (時代曲 meaning ‘song of the era’) which dominated here until the early ‘50s.


In 1952 the Communist Party banned both pop music production and nightclubs, whereby the ‘industry’ moved to the reasonably safe haven of Hong Kong. The styles gradually evolved into Canto-pop and Mando-pop, before eventually western rock seamed across the borders.


By 1997 Beijing was ready for its first modern music festival: the annual Midi Musical Festival. Playing host to 80,000 plus revelers over a weekend, dancing outdoors across four stages (including the Main Stage, Mini Midi Stage, GuitarChina Stage and the Disco Stage), the event – along with touring dates – attract bands from all over the world.


More recently the Great Wall Music Festival (each May) attracts tens of thousands of partygoers for the country’s biggest electronic music event. Previous headliners have included Fatboy Slim, Paul Oakenfold and David Guetta.

Map of the 2013 Great Wall Music Festival site

Crowds enjoying the 2013 Great Wall Music Festival


Film in China actually goes all the way back to 1905, when the first home-grown Chinese movie, Conquering Jun Mountain, was filmed in Beijing. Apart from Conquering Jun Mountain, which was simply an excerpt from Beijing Opera, the capital of the Chinese film industry was the exotic flare and sophistication of Shanghai, who opened their first cinema in 1908. The industry grew to cover over 140 Shanghai theaters and flourished in the 1930s – peaking with the 1937 comedy about three unemployed university graduates, Crossroads. However, the industry was annihilated by the Japanese invasion/occupation that began the Second Sino-Japanese War and WWII in Asia.


Creative film further declined under the watch of the Communist Party, which hijacked the medium (like all other forms of art and expression after 1950) to glorify the Party and produce great amounts of propaganda. The filmmakers who weren’t already sent running to the West by the Japanese packed up their bags and headed to Hong Kong. As a result, filmmaking in the Mainland came to a full standstill as only eight movies were made between 1966 and 1977.


While the film industry in the Mainland hid behind the red curtains, Hong Kong’s was on its way to international fame. Bruce Lee’s first two hits, The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972), introduced to the world the flair and power of Chinese martial arts, sparking a genre known as wuxia (martial arts action movies). Later, Jackie Chan made had his first starring role in the New Fist of Fury (1976), further increasing the planet’s obsession with Hong Kong-style wuxia.


The craze continued well into the ‘80s and evolved from just kung fu. Triad films, such as John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Chow Yun-fat’s The Killer (1989), helped catapult Hong Kong’s movie industry to the third largest on the planet at the time. This so called Golden Era of Hong Kong film continued into the ‘90s with other classics such as Chungking Express (1994) and Made in Hong Kong (1997). However, as Mainland China rebounded from the grip of communism in the 1990s and began producing more films, Hong Kong’s time in the spotlight faded into the closing credits and stagnated.


After the death of Mao Zedong, the reopening of the Beijing Film Academy precipitated the birth of the esteemed and internationally acclaimed Fifth Generation. The cinematic creations of the Fifth Generation in the 1980s began to move away from the colorless and stern visage of Communist complexion and churned out heart-wrenching – yet beautifully conceived and executed – tragedies that, while they often garnered less interest on the Mainland, blew the socks off of movie goers and critics in the West. Some of their best known and stalwartly appreciated early films of the Fifth Generation directors are Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth, Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum, and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief.

Famous ‘Fifth Generation’ film directors Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Feng Xiaogang


As the 1990s came on Mainland China’s first international film stars came to the world stage. Jiang Wen, first introduced alongside Gong Li in Red Sorghum, have shown themselves to be enduring faces throughout the second blossoming of China’s film industry as Fifth Generation directors matured and continued to pour films like Farewell My Concubine (1993; Chen Kaige) onto the international market. In 1993, Tian Zhuangzhuang earned himself a decade-long exile from the film industry when his tear-jerking story of a Beijing family during the Cultural Revolution enraged censors.

These days, contemporary Chinese film is driven largely by a market – domestic and international – with an insatiable hunger for historical pieces, mostly in the vein of wuxia or heroic war tales. Films like Hero (2002; Zhang Yimou), House of Flying Daggers (2004; Zhang Yimou), and the international coproduction film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000; Ang Lee) further popularized the wuxia movement, while others such as The Warlords (2007; Peter Chan) and John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008/2009) made the war scene popular.


While much of China’s film industry is dominated by sappy love dramas and superficial stories of spoiled socialites, others boldly approach deeper social issues. A standout example is Jia Zhangke and his 2006 film Still Life, an analysis of the Three Gorges’ Dam and its impact on the area’s locals. Such creations not only try the limits of China’s ever-present censors, but touch on the precarious world of Chinese directors, who are constantly walking on thin ice as they attempt to create their art in a land of stifling taboos, prohibitions and the knowledge that roundabout criticism of officials can mean the end of their careers.


Shadow Puppets

Shadow Puppet performance of the Legend of White Snake (白蛇传)


Shadow Puppet performance of the Butterfly Lovers (梁山伯与祝英台)

Ever wondered what people watched for entertainment before the movies were invented? Well one option people in China have had since the first century BC is watching a shadow puppet performance. It’s an ancient form of entertainment which tells stories through the use of two-dimensional puppets held behind a white screen or scrim which is then lit from behind. The effect is the creation of silhouettes on the screen. The puppets have articulated limbs which can be moved to convey expression and motion. Nowadays they are mainly made of fine leather and moved with sticks.


It is said that shadow puppetry originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) following the death of one of Emperor Wu of Han’s most beloved concubines from illness. Distraught by her passing, the emperor ordered his officers and priests to try and bring her back to life. Their solution was to fashion a two-dimensional model of the concubine using different pieces of donkey leather clipped together. With the aid of an oil lamp they made her shadow move whilst imitating her voice and character traits. The emperor was so pleased the practice became a regular occurrence.


It was only in the Song Dynasty that it became a more public form of theatre and there were shadow puppet presentations for larger crowds. Later on, the Mongols helped spread the form as they marauded east, bringing it to Turkey and the Middle East among others. When French missionaries returned from China in 1767 they brought shadow puppetry with them and the novelty of it didn’t take long to catch on. It peaked in popularity in the 19th century cabaret halls and nightclubs of Montmartre.


In earlier times the stories tended to be about Buddhist tales or warring kingdoms. More recently there has been a tendency to perform more traditional myths and fairy tales. The puppets can include translucent coloring and other details to increase the realism and attractiveness of the performance. Some scholars herald the folk art as an early precursor of cinema and animation.


You can find traditional style shadow puppets available in most tourist shops around the country. They make for a nice gift but bear in mind they are quite fragile so, speaking from experience here, don’t expect them to last very long in the hands of young children!

Chinese Paper Cutting

A paper cutting of eight horses in flight

Paper cutting of the double happiness character (双喜) enclosed by a phoenix and a dragon


When you think of a paper cut, you may think ‘ouch’. But paper cutting in China has a very different meaning. It’s an intricate Chinese folk art which can be traced to the 6th century. And its origins stretch even further back - before the invention of paper. Evidence from the Warring States Period (476-221 BC) suggests alternative thin materials such as leaves, silk, and silver foil were previously used to carve decorative patterns from. After paper was invented and had become more prevalent however, it became the most common medium for the art, to the extent that the practice became known as jianzhi (剪紙), meaning literally, ‘cut paper’.


The oldest paper cut on record is a circle found in Xinjiang dating from the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420–589). The practice continued and by the eighth or ninth century started to appear in the western parts of Asia, Turkey in the sixteenth, and subsequently the rest of Europe. Although paper cutting became popular around the world with different countries developing their own distinct approaches and styles, it is only Chinese Paper Cutting which has been listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.


They primarily serve a decorative purpose. Entrances adorned with paper cuts are said to bring good luck and because paper cuts are so frequently used on windows they are often called chuang hua (窗花) which translates as ‘window flower’. The themes most frequently encountered are Chinese Zodiac-related paper cuts or of the Chinese characters fu (福) which means good fortune or xi (囍) which is a ligature meaning double happiness.


If you’re thinking about picking a paper cut up they’re actually incredibly cheap and can make for an attractive (and distinctly Chinese) gift or souvenir. Panda tip: If you take the time to frame or mount them yourself afterwards they can look even more impressive.


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