Ancient Han Dynasty Art

Regarded as the Golden Age of China, the Han Dynasty spanned about four centuries; however, since it was interrupted by the Xin Dynasty (9 AD – 23 A) it is typically discussed as the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 9 AD) and the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD – 220 AD). As a period of economic growth, the Han Dynasty (encompassing Easter and Western Han Dynasties) also witnessed a period of artistic flowering. Today Chinese characters are termed ‘Han’ characters in honor of this rich era of Chinese history.

Literature flourished during the Han period, particularly poetry. The Han era is also celebrated for its ceramics. A good portion of the dynasty’s ceramics production was reserved for funerary purposes; much of what archeologists have been able to uncover has come from grave sites. Many Chinese tombs that date to this era are world famous for their art works. Clay figurines were also installed in graves for help in the afterlife; these figures often represented servants or animals. The Han Dynasty is also known for its lacquerware. Lacquered objects and paintings often featured scenes from daily life including people, of course, and animals.

When exploring Han art, one often finds various sized earthen statues adorned with pigment. In fact, a shade known as ‘Han purple’ is believed to be one of the earliest human-made pigments for use in art. Bronze statues and objects were also created during the Han period and feature some extraordinary metalwork; horses were a popular motif for Han artisans. Some of the key materials Han artists used include bronze, glazed and unglazed ceramics, jade, paint, stone, and wood. Painting and sculpture were widely practiced and the dynasty benefited considerably from known technology like high-heat kilns and well-developed glazes.

Many Han objects might be described as simplistic–a bronze vessel, for example, might boast only a rudimentary shape. However, some items like earthenware vessels contained ornate shapes and decoration; often these might be painted with phoenix and dragons and other popular Chinese motifs of the era. Simple pots might feature handles of human figures performing acrobats and statues might depict human faces in poses of laughter.

Han funerary art was quite well-developed and is often compared to Egyptian tomb art. Tombs typically would be made from brick and ornately adorned depending on the stature of the deceased. Many tombs had multiple rooms that contained items the deceased might require in the afterlife as well as objects of art. Historians believe that Han architecture was also quite advanced as evidenced by uncovered items like ornate stone pillars; however, as most structures were created with wood, few have survived to present times. Taken together, this period is revered for its art and artistic developments.