A brief history of Chinese art from the Qin and Han dynasties
May 10, 2017
Our head of the art department at premium pawn shop New Bond Street Pawnbrokers, discusses the history of the Qin and Han dynasties, and why they became so influential on art.
Ask a student of Chinese history about the most influential of the country’s famous dynasties, it would likely be a toss-up between Qin and Han. The two dynasties covered four centuries, from 221 BC to 220 AD, a golden age that is often seen as the root of what would become modern-day China. The period is renowned for advances in culture, society, science, engineering, and art. So why do people still talk about the Qin and Han dynasties to this day, and what kind of art did they produce?
In 237 BC, Ying Zheng – the king of the Qin region – gained full control after having ruled under a regency for his reign up until that point. As a child he had been ill-tempered and aggressive, as king he channelled that aggression into constant wars on the surrounding states. War was not alien to the region, with factions constantly at war to either protect their own lands, or expand further. Ying Zheng was interested in the latter and by 221 BC, just 16 years later, he had completed his aim of regional domination. Qin now controlled the states of Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, and Yan, their leaders removed and replaced by Qin loyalists.
Ying Zheng adopted the title of Emperor, and in doing so became the first Emperor of a unified Chinese state. The dynasty would only last for 14 years, with Ying Zheng dying from mercury poison after 11 years, and the empire crumbling after three more years.
Throughout the dynasty, During those 14 years, the Qin completed the Great Wall of China, thus securing the realm from attack. They also improved infrastructure, which in turn improved the economy, allowing the empire to collect more taxes.
On top of this, the empire implemented a universal written and spoken language, as well as a unified legal system, and a single currency. This period of Chinese history was not known for its art thanks to the empire being constantly on a war footing at this point, but that does not diminish its impact on the arts later on. By ensuring that issues of defence, infrastructure, economics, taxation law and order, and language were all solved, the Qin dynasty laid the groundwork for a period of artistic expression.
However, one piece of art from this period is world-famous, the Terracotta Army of Xi’an, which attracts thousands of tourists to the Chinese city every single year.
When the state of Han conquered Qin, they essentially inherited Ying Zheng’s empire. With the immediate threat of invasion effectively removed, the Han could focus on expanding their territory, and on peacetime pursuits, such as the arts. The period is generally associated with sculpture, ceramics, literature, poetry, paintings, metalwork, calligraphy, and architecture, as well as ceremonial weaponry and armour.
Much of our understanding of Han art comes from burial sites; members of the Han elite were often buried with large amounts of fine goods, including art. Ceramics appear to have been especially important in the funeral process, with many of the known Han ceramics discovered in tombs. Much of the art from this period is incredibly ornate, featuring depictions of people, or typical objects of Chinese lore such as a dragon or a phoenix.
Qin and Han dynasty art in the market
Over the past few years, a strong Chinese art market has sharply driven up the prices of Qin and Han items. These items naturally have a market across much of the developed world, but a growing demand for them in China itself is a key driver of prices. Recent economic developments in China have created new wealth in the country that means some Chinese people have enough disposable income to collect these artifacts.
If we review market statistics over the past year Chinese paintings, jade artworks – such as sculptures, furniture, and porcelain have all risen in value substantially, and we should expect the trend to continue for quality items with strong provenance. The results of an unsettled stock market in China last year may have had a temporary effect on prices and the attendance at the Asia Week sales, which were both lower than expected, but make no mistake; the Chinese market is here to stay.
Personally, I am particularly excited about the continual growth of the contemporary Chinese art market. It has been steadily on the up since the mid-00s, and has showed a staggering growth on the worldwide market over the last couple of years.
If this period of Chinese art interests you, and you find yourself in New York City over the next couple of months, you’ll want to visit the Metropolitan Museum on Fifth Avenue for their exhibition of artworks from ancient China. The exhibit, running until mid-July, contains more than 160 pieces of art from the Qin and Han dynasties.
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