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Han Dynasty Jade Dragon

Han Dynasty Jade Dragon


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Jade Carving in China (c.4900 BCE onwards) Characteristics, Types and History


Jade Hair Ornament
with Flower Design
Jin/Song Dynasty (1115-1234)
Shanghai Museum.

DECORATIVE ART IN CHINA
For other disciplines, see:
Chinese Lacquerware ( 4500 BCE on)

CHRONOLOGY OF VISUAL ART
For dates of early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later chronology,
see: History of Art Timeline.

What is Jade? Characteristics and Composition

In Chinese art, "jade" (known by the Chinese character "yu") is an ornamental stone used in a wide variety of jewellery art, figure carving and other types of sculpture - in statue-form and relief sculpture. Jade carving has been an important material in goldsmithing since the age of prehistoric art, and still accounts for most of China's hardstone carving. One important reason why carved-jade objects were (and are) so highly prized, is because the Chinese believe that jade represents purity, beauty, longevity, even immortality. In addition, jade carvers valued the stone for its glitter, translucent colours and shades. (For more about the cultural principles of ancient China, please see: Characteristics of Traditional Chinese Art.) Since the time of the Majiabang, Liangzhu and Hongshan cultures (4700-2900 BCE), most jade carvings have been made from either nephrite or jadeite, although until the late 18th century Chinese jade objects were almost always carved out of nephrite. Jadeite has a similar hardness to quartz, while nephrite is a little softer, but since both varieties are as hard as steel, they cannot be cut or carved with metal tools. Indeed, the traditional method of carving jade was to wear it away with carborundum sand and a soft tool: a technique since replaced by rotary tools with diamond bits. Historically, due to its rarity and technical difficulties of manufacture, the wearing and use of jade was restricted to tribal leaders, then Emperors and noblemen, and was most commonly used in the carving of ritual vessels, ceremonial utensils and other totemic objects, representing status and power. See also: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE onwards).

Chinese Meaning of "Yu"

The Chinese character "yu" is always translated into English as "jade". However, this translation masks an important difference between Chinese and Western culture, since in Chinese or Korean art the meaning of jade is considerably wider than the Western meaning. A more correct translation of "yu" might be "hard ornamental stone", since Chinese craftsmen usually employ the term "yu" to cover several related jadelike stones, including bowenite (a form of serpentine), as well as jadeite and nephrite. Although jade is popularly thought of in the West as a greenish material, in China, it has always been white jade that has traditionally been more highly prized than green.

Since the era of ancient art, traditional Chinese jade carvings were made from nephrite, a crystalline calcium magnesium silicate, which in its pure natural state is creamy white, although the presence of iron impurities may turn it green, yellow, brown, grey, or even black. Measuring between 6.0 and 6.5 Mohs in hardness, Nephrite is slightly softer than jadeite, with a greasy lustre, and was sourced chiefly from Yarkand and Hotan in the Xinjiang autonomous region of northwestern China.

Since about 1800, Chinese jade carvers have also used jadeite, another (harder) type of jade, imported from northern Myanmar (Burma). A granular sodium-aluminum silicate, measuring between 6.0 and 7.0 Mohs in hardness, jadeite (also known as "feicui") is a translucent stone, typically brilliant green in colour, that often has a glassy appearance. Rarer colours include pink, lavender, orange or brown.

Other Chinese Jade Stones

China was, and is, one of the world's top sources of jade stones. The most popular varities include: Hetian jade, Dushan jade, Xiuyan jade and turquoise. Lesser stones include agate, malachite, aventurine, and mixian county jade.

Hetian Jade
Arguably the finest jade in China, Hetian is mined in Hetian County, Xinjiang. Semi-transparent, and consisting almost entirely of tremolite, Hetian jade comes in creamy-white, lamb-fat white, and grey-white jade, as well as turquoise, black, yellow and other colours.

Dushan Jade
Also called Nanyang jade because it is mainly processed in Nayang City, Henan Province. Composed mostly of anorthite and zoisite, Dushan jade is used mostly for decoration and has a greasy, vitreous shine. The main colours include white jade, green, green-white, purple, yellow and black, and lotus red. Dushan Jade objects were discovered in the imperial tombs of the Shangs.

Xiuyan Jade
A semi-transparent green jade, composed of both tremolite and actinolite in varying degrees, it comes from Xiuyan city in Liaoning Province, in northeastern China. Xiuyan jade comes in blue-green, yellow-green, and light white colours, and has a softer texture than other types of jade, with a waxy lustre after polishing. It is used for large-scale jade carvings and items of furniture.

Turquoise
Mined since the Shangs, when it was used to overlay bronze - but also imported from Ancient Persia - turquoise is one of the oldest jade stones, and comes in blue and green colours of various hues. Turquoise was used mostly for statues and other forms of sculpture, such as figures of Buddha. Today, turquoise - especially the brilliant blue varieties - is found mainly in Zhushan of the Shiyan Prefecture, in Hubei province.

Another example of traditional Chinese craftwork is "zhezhi" - better known in the West as Origami paper folding, the name given to its sister version from Japan - was invented (reportedly) around 1,000 CE.

Types of Jade Carvings

Initially, jade carvings were limited to Neolithic and Bronze Age tools, including axes, arrowheads, chisels, and the like.

The ancient Chinese considered the sky to be round and the earth to be square, so they made round and square shaped objects out of jade, in order to offer sacrifices to heaven and earth. Popular animal shapes included the dragon and phoenix - both divine animals revered in ancient China. Jade was also used for tomb objects carved to honour ancestors, exorcise evil, and protect against disasters, while personal jade items were worn in order to purify one's soul.

Later, Jade became a favourite material of the Chinese scholar class, especially for personal objects, like holders for calligraphy brushes, and even mouthpieces for opium pipes, due to the popular notion that they would bestow longevity on the smoker.

Other categories of jade objects included: (1) Ritualistic objects, such as the bi, the cong, the huang, the hu, the gui and the zhang. (2) Ceremonial weaponry - jade daggers and swords - and associated fittings. (3) Personal items of jewellery or adornment, including rings, pendants, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, hairpins, clasps, buckles, belt decorations, and so on. (4) Domestic items for decorating houses. (5) Small figurative carvings of animals, and people.

History of Chinese Jade

The history of art in China reflects the huge significance attached to the jade stone, which is considerably greater than the West's love of diamonds and gold. Ever since the era of Xia culture (1700-1600 BCE), the most precious objects crafted for the Emperor and his court were made of jade.

For important dates in the evolution of jade sculpture in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

The earliest examples of jade discovered in the area of the middle and lower Yangtze River have been dated to the era of Neolithic art, in particular the Majiabang culture (c.4000-2000 BCE) as well as the later Songze and Qingliangang cultures of northeastern China. (See: Chinese Neolithic Art.) Particularly sophisticated jade items have been found in Liangzhu culture settlements (c.2500 BCE) in southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang provinces (c.3400� BCE). Believed to be largely ceremonial objects, they include the earliest known examples of the "cong" - cylindrical tubes encased in rectangular blocks, symbolizing yin [square, earth, female] and yang [circular, heaven, male] and associated with Neolithic shamanism - as well as the "bi", the flat, perforated disk which was later adopted as the symbol of heaven. Archeologists have also found numerous ceremonial gui and zhang blades, adze heads, axes and knives, plus a wide variety of ornamental circular and arc-shaped jade pendants, bracelets and necklaces, together with a number of masks.

Shang Dynasty (c.1600� BCE)

During the era of Shang dynasty art, notably at Anyang, a new range of jade objects began to be carved, such as ceremonial weapons and their fittings, as well as ritual jades (the cong, the bi), personal jewellery, and dress ornaments. In addition, a range of small figurative sculpture appeared, such as birds and animals carved in the round, including the earliest examples of "mingqi" - jade figures representing individual servants which were buried in the tombs of wealthy aristocrats, in order to serve the deceased.

Zhou Dynasty (1050-221 BCE)

During the era of Zhou Dynasty art, production of jade cong, bi and other ritual forms was maintained, while a new series of sceptres was produced to denote the differing ranks of the nobility, and to act as ceremonial batons. Also, jade plugs and plaques were used to seal the seven orifices of the deceased's body before burial. To begin with, Zhou jade craftsmen imitated the designs of their Shang predecessors, but during the middle period of the dynasty, they started to introduce less-systematic designs, featuring zoomorphic motifs which later gave way to more abstract patterns. Other developments included the use of iron tools and harder abrasives, which gave carvers more sculptural options. More intricate jade relief sculpture appeared, including designs for ornamental scabbard and dress fittings and plaques, some of which were made from incredibly thin sheets of jade.

Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)

By the time of Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE) and its successor - Han Dynasty art - jade objects were becoming increasingly embellished with animal and other decorative designs, while Zhou carvers became highly skilled in the creation of detailed relief work on items like belt-hooks, clasps and plaques that were part of the typical aristocrat's wardrobe.

The most extraordinary jade artworks of the Han Dynasty were the "jade suits" made for deceased nobles to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife. These amazing ensembles, include those for Prince Liu Shen and his wife Princess Dou Wan, made from over 2,000 jade plaques sewn together with as much as almost threequarters of a kilo of gold thread. Another jade suit, fashioned from more than 4,000 plaques, was discovered in the royal tomb of Zhao Mo.

Other jade carvers borrowed motifs from Chinese painting and from bronze sacrificial vessels, as a means of showcasing their technical flair. See: Tang Dynasty art (618-906).

For a long time thereafter, jade remained the exclusive preserve of the royal imperial families, and since the time of Song Dynasty art (960-1279), jade carving has been seen as a major art form, reaching its peak during the era of Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644), when another world renowned artform - blue and white Chinese porcelain - was also achieving its apogee.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Until the era of Qing Dynasty art, Chinese jade objects were made of nephrite (or bowenite), known as white jade, or Khotan. Then, around 1800, merchants began importing a vivid green variety of jadeite from Burma, known as Feicui, or Kingfisher Feathers Jade. This new stone quickly became the favourite of the Manchu court, although scholars and old-style aristocrats maintained a preference for the milky white jades made from nephrite. During the Qing period the production of jade utensils came to a peak, featuring items like jade cups, bowls, drinking vessels, and bottles, used mainly by royal and noble families.

For more about traditional arts and crafts in China, see the following:

• For more about hardstone carving in China, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.


Terracotta cavalrymen and horses

The rulers of the Han Dynasty followed in the footsteps of the Qin kings and showed a strong belief in gods, spirits and the afterlife. Discoveries so far suggest that, like the First Emperor of China, they had armies of terracotta warriors and horses to protect them, as well as servants, entertainers and animals. These cavalrymen and horses are two of more than 500 figures buried near the tomb of a general at Yangjiawan. Originally, the cavalrymen held the reins in one hand and a weapon in the other, and details of the saddles, harnesses and bridles were painted on the figures with bright colours.

Silk Road: Transcontinental Trade and Cultural Influence

The Silk Road trade route was first established during the Han period and its starting point in Xi ’ an is what led the city to be regarded as one of China ’ s four great ancient capitals . This 6,400-kilometer-long (4,000-mile) caravan tract linked China with Rome. Valuable silks were exported westward while wools, gold, and silver went east. And according to Britannia it wasn't just tangible goods that were were funneled along the Silk Road, but also ideas and concepts. It was via this transcontinental route that China received Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism from India.

The road crossed the Chinese landscapes via the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs mountain range, traversed Afghanistan and went on to the Levant were silks were shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Historians believe that very few people would have traveled the full extent of the route. The Silk Road operated more like a relay-race, whereby goods were handled in a staggered progression by a series of middlemen, transport specialists and trading agents.

14th century depiction of a camel caravan on the Silk Road. ( Public domain )


Ritual Bell Set

Bell set, unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period (206 BCE&ndash9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Bells: bronze stands: lacquer and silver. Nanjing Museum, Photograph © Nanjing Museum.

Music was a mainstay of courtly celebrations, and a bell set like this one would have been part of an ancient musical ensemble. Consisting of 19 individual bells, this bronze bell set includes special frames adorned with mythical creatures, patterned designs of twin dragons and bi disks with holes. These disks, made of silver, have fine engravings of floating clouds with birds and beasts. The entire ensemble is supported by two bronze stands in the shape of squatting camels.

From left to right, the bells increase in size and get deeper in pitch. Each bell produces two distinct tones, depending on whether it&rsquos hit at the center or side. This bell set would have been played by at least two performers, one for each rack.


When many people think of Chinese art the allure and mystique of Jade often springs to mind first. Just hearing the word Jade conjures images of Asia and more specifically China.

Going back thousands of years this harder than steel stone has been mined, carved, shaped and polished in virtually every shape imaginable. From weapons and axes to mythical animal forms, musical chimes, incense burners, suits of armor, hat nobs, hairpins, bowls, boxes, pendants, death veils, vases and hundreds more to numerous to list.

Jade historically has been held in such high esteem it was for centuries believed to have mythical and magical property's, consequently evolving into a primary material of choice for religious ceremony's and burials. The use would determine it's form and shape and even color to accompany the deceased into the after world.

Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD) Feline Carving in Jade
Carving jade is really a misnomer as its not actually carved they way other stones, Ivory or wood are. Jade is actually ground and rubbed with abrasives, a laborious process which eventually transforms the stone into the desired shape. During the Neolithic Period (10,000-2,000BC) using Red sand, sandstone, bamboo and wooden implements were about all that were used. Wood and Bamboo was used to hold the abrasive while it would be tirelessly worked on the stone to shape it and smooth it out. Drills made from bamboo working the abrasive could in time create holes, channels and grooves resulting in the manufacture of "Bi" disks and "Cong vases", plaques and mythical beasts. In the earliest periods most of the carving was largely comprised of small amulets, ritual objects and other simple implements.

Warring States (403BC -221BC) Period Jade Plaque
Over the centuries into the Shang Dynasty (1600 -1029BC) with the invention of bronze and then steel, better tools became available for working this incredibly tough rock into the desired forms. Interestingly even when Bronze became available, initially bamboo remained more popular due to it's plentiful supply and bronze's relatively higher cost. More complex forms evolved on an ever increasing scale over time and the objects became larger as better tools became available utilizing metals.

Fine Spinach Green Jade Incense Burner,
Qianlong Period (1736-1795)
With the invention of a foot powered treadle lathe circular saws with mounted steel and bronze worked well in turning the pieces with more precision than ever before possible, leaving the worker's hands free to manipulative the carving. By the 4th C. BC Eastern Zhou /Warring States Period the craft had become very sophisticated including undercut examples, loose link chains and reticulated forms.

Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD) Jade Suit,
Gold Threads backed with Red Silk
During the Han Dynasty (206 BC- 220 AD) the importance of jade to Chinese culture was no where made more obvious than by the discovery of Jade suites made for the burial of members of the Imperial house during a 20th C. excavation of some tombs. The suits were sewn together using either gold, silver of copper threads/wires and backed with red silk. Since the initial discovery 18 Han tombs have been found containing such amazing creations.

As China's constantly changing political landscape moved through the centuries ever changing regional governments, wars and turmoil created new or changed views towards art which created constant change. Buddhism's influence, evolution in fashion, burial rituals, scholar's objects all melded together over time creating a vast broad expanse of desirable forms were produced to meet demand of the powerful among the heads of Government, religious intellectuals and wealthy merchants. Eventually, these influences would trickle down to greater and lesser degrees among the working classes.

Imperial Qianlong (1736-1795) Carved Jade Fish
Throughout it all Jade, the hardest and one of the most beautiful of all stones remained a staple material for inclusion in all kinds of art. Initially Nephrite was the most common type and later Jadeite found it's way onto the carvers table. The two type are both referred to as jade, though they are structurally very different but share similar hardness qualities. Jadeite is slightly harder on the Mohs Scale by around half a point of 6.5 to 7, Nephrite Mohs scale hardness is in the 6 to 6.5 range.




Imperial Qianlong (1736-1795) Jade Book
Nephrite ranges in color from the two most well known a deep dark green and a slightly off white often referred to a "Mutton Fat" in between you can find many ranges and tones of yellows, browns, blue, amber, white, a dry white appearing type known as "Chicken Bone", grey, pale Celadon, russet, red and many more. Very often combinations of these colors can be found in single carvings, which further tests the skills who can successfully seek ways to incorporate these colors into the piece.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) jade carving returned to more traditional antecedents reflecting the work done during the Han and Song periods. Jade carving during the Yuan (1271-1368) period, like many traditional Chinese arts, fell to the wayside during China's years under the Mongols. The revival of traditional art including splendidly executed small mythical creatures, calcified jades resembling Neolithic examples and religious ritual pieces came back into favor among the Imperial court as well as scholars and the literati classes.

Slide Show Of Imperial Jades of the Qing Dynasty (1736-1795)

By the Qianlong (1735-1795) period in China Jade carving had reached a level of elegance and detail never imagined before. China had become an economic powerhouse in world trade, the wealth of this Emperor exceeded the entire wealth of every nation in the west combined.

Fine Qianlong (1736-1795) Period Celadon Jade Mythical Beast
The Qianlong Emperor was a true patron of the arts and encouraged almost unbridled creativity among artists. He was also a collector on an epic scale who delighted in seeing new ideas in ceramics, glass, enameling and jade and painting. Thousands of tribute pieces were made for him during his reign filling the Imperial Palace, the Yuan Ming Yuan and pretty much anyplace else he hung his hat. Its been said the Imperial Jade collection under Qianlong exceeded 35,000 examples.

Today the variety of Jades in all of their forms represent the cumulative work of thousands of years. Enjoy them.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions regarding your Asian art. After 35 years its what we do every day. 978 283 3524


Shang to Han dynasty

From 2000 BC to AD 581, came and went six different dynastic periods in Chinese history: the Xia, the Shang, the Zhou, the Qin, the Han, and the Six Dynasties period. During this long history spanning about 2500 years, the royal houses ascended to rule one after another, and over the time their cultures assimilated with each other. By the Han dynasty, ethnically and culturally they had come to integrate into an almost indivisible one, ushering in a new era of unification. During this process, the earlier superstitious belief in the “spiritual nature” of beautiful jade was gradually moralized under the influence of humanism and Confucianism as society advanced.

Back in the remote times, people believed that the Supreme God (called tian, Heaven, in the Zhou dynasty) sent divine creatures to endow life upon the ancestors of clans. Wearing jade carvings joined the vital force of beautiful jade with the magical power of divine creatures, enabling dialogues between deities and humans. In addition, jade manifested the innate qualities, i.e. “virtues”, of the wearer. Originally “virtue” was a neutral and amoral concept. By the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 BC-221 BC), however, the original aspects of jade ornaments had been long forgotten. Confucians took a more rational view at the qualities of beautiful jade and associated them with the fine “virtues” of a junzi figure: benevolence, rectitude, wisdom, courage, and integrity. Junzi, initially meaning “rulers”, also transformed in the Eastern Zhou dynasty into “gentleman-intellectuals of high virtues”.

Over the long span of time, the pairing of Gui-and-Bi jades by the Zhou people became the core of Chinese jade ritual. The Han royal house came from Pei County in the Jiangnan region where the ancient Yue custom of “Jade Burial” originated the practice reached its acme during the dynasty. Foreign elements such as bixie (warding off evils) amulets and horn cups, reaching China, also adopted jade carving as the medium to exhibit their beauty and took up additional mystic aura that was distinctively Chinese.


Han Dynasty Art (206 BCE - 220 CE) History, Types and Characteristics

For details of ancient Chinese cultures, see these resources:

For more about early
crafts in Asia, see:
Asian Art (38,000 BCE on)

The dynamic Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) witnessed a significant revival in Chinese art, compared to the preceding era of Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE). Chinese pottery (notably ceramic figurines), jade carving (notably jade suits), silk weaving and Chinese painting (on paper) were three areas of particular achievement. It is believed, for instance, that the earliest examples of Chinese porcelain was produced in the province of Zhejiang during the late Eastern Han (100-200 CE). Founded by Emperor Gaozu, the Han Dynasty divides into two periods: the Western Han (206 BCE – 9 CE), with its capital at Changan (second only to Rome as the largest city in the ancient world), in present-day Shaanxi Province and the Eastern Han (25𤫌 CE) whose capital was further east at Luoyang (the headquarters of the ancient Zhou Dynasty), in present-day Henan Province. A progressive period of Chinese history, the Han Dynasty was responsible for numerous technological and scientific achievements, including water clocks, sundials, astronomical instruments, and the development of paper. Ideologically, it was greatly influenced by the ethics and philosophy of Confucianism, although traces of Legalism and Daoism from the earlier Zhou Dynasty remained. Under Emperor Wudi (141㫮 BCE), China regained control of lands first conquered by Emperor Qin Shihuang, including parts of southern China and northern Vietnam. In addition, the subdugation of parts of central Asia in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan gave Han emperors control of important trade routes to Europe, and thus outlets for its silks and gold. By 166 CE, a direct link to Rome had been established, resulting in imports of ivory and tortoiseshell.

For more about the principles of visual arts in ancient China, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.

The Han Dynasty presided over a golden age of Chinese culture, which embraced visual art as well as poetry, literature and music. In the case of both fine art and decorative art, a major stimulus was the revival of tomb art, which developed significantly during both the Western and Eastern Han eras. During the Western Han, for instance, deceased individuals were interred along with objects and works of art which they had used while they were alive. By the era of the Eastern Han, however, tombs tended to contain artifacts which were made exclusively for burial purposes. Such artifacts included miniature items of ceramic art - typically watchtowers and other examples of urban architecture - along with miniature models of farms, pigsties, and farmyard animals.

Han artists and master craftsmen also decorated the brick walls that lined underground tombs with mural paintings and a range of carved relief sculpture, whose aim was to assist the deceased in their travels through the afterlife. The engraving or stamping of decorative motifs into tile and brick surfaces was also widely practiced.

For more about the historical context of Han Dynasty arts and crafts, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

Han tombs and graves also contained a wide variety of figurative terracotta sculpture, known as ming-chi or yong. This was because, in the afterlife, the Chinese wanted to surround themselves with representations of people who had given them particular pleasure during their life. Thus human figurines were included so as to perform various functions for the deceased, such as dancing and playing music. A popular example of this type of ceramic statuette was a female dancer with long, silk sleeves. Typically, these figurines were painted or coated with a lead glaze.

Many other different types of art can be found in Han tombs, including decorative works like red-and-black Chinese lacquerware - including lacquered coffins. Silk weaving was also well advanced, and - as seen in tomb banners and costumes - Han silk weavers were famous not just for their plain silk, but also their silk gauze, damask and brocade, and embroidery. A more unusual artform consisted of bi or pi discs, small thin items made from jade or metal, each with a central hole. These discs, which were usually placed near the body of the deceased person, were supposed to guide the person's spirit to heaven via the Pole Star, represented by the hole in the centre. Derived from Chinese Neolithic art, these discs were also incorporated into larger artifacts, such as furniture handles or mirror stands.

Other products of Han metalwork and jewellery art included tomb ornaments and personal items fashioned from opal, amber, quartz, gold, and silver. Ivory carving was another prized skill: one that was kept well supplied by imports of elephant tusks and rhinoceros horn.

Jade carving and craftsmanship during the Han period was the product of centuries of goldsmithing and jade cutting. In China, ever since ancient times, jade was believed to contain cosmic energy and possess mystical, life-giving qualities. During the Han era, the mineral became increasingly revered not only as a mystical, beautiful stone but also as a precious stone that embodied purity and virtue. Jade carving was complex and time-consuming, and jade objects were both rare and costly. Moreover, only certain people were permitted to wear jade jewellery: only the king wore the gui jades known as zhen, while only the nobility were allowed to wear the lesser jade tones known as huan, xin, gong, gu and pu.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of jade art of the Han Dynasty were the custom-made jade suits designed to enclose the bodies of wealthy deceased aristocrats and protect them against evil spirits in the afterlife. Archeologists have unearthed a number of these remarkable jade ensembles, including those for Prince Liu Shen and his wife Princess Dou Wan, found in separate tombs at Mancheng in Hebei. Each suit was fashioned from over 2,000 jade plaques sewn together with as much as 24 ounces (700g) of gold thread, and each suited body was surrounded by up to 10,000 objets d'art. Another even more luxurious jade suit, made from more than 4,000 plaques, was discovered in the royal tomb of Zhao Mo, the king of Nanyue, near present-day Guangzhou. The tomb was filled with precious items including ritual bronze vessels, musical instruments, and incised elephant ivory, along with a pile of jewellery consisting of jade beads, necklaces and pendants.

Sculpture and Painting

During the Han Dynasty, bronze sculpture reached new heights of complexity and sophistication, as in the beautiful bronze horses found in second century CE tombs at Kansu in the far north-west of China. Miniature bronze statues of men and women were also produced, as well as decorated mirrors, lamps and gilded bronzeware.

The invention of paper about 100 CE triggered an upsurge of interest in calligraphy and its sister medium of fine art painting, as paper enhanced their ability to convey narrative as well as spiritual emotion. (It also led - it is said - to the invention of Origami paper-folding [known as "zhezhi" in China] during the Han era.) Han painting and drawing was also done on silk, lacquer or stone and tile, and in general reveals a lively style executed with a characteristic lightness of touch.

Note: For the influence of Han culture on the arts and crafts of Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards). For other ancient cultures from central and eastern Asia, see: Japanese Art and India, Painting & Sculpture.

Later Chinese Dynasties

Later Chinese arts and crafts are usually divided as follows:

• For more about the arts and culture of ancient China, see: Homepage.


The Suspension Bridge

An undated photograph of a Chinese built suspension bridge, with boats docked at a pier in foreground, in the Szechwan Province, China.

According to Robert Temple’s highly-regarded history of Chinese inventions, The Genius of China, the Han Dynasty saw the development of the suspension bridge, a flat roadway suspended from cables, which probably evolved from simple rope bridges developed to span small gorges. But by 90 A.D., Han engineers were building more sophisticated structures with wooden planks.


Architecture of the Han Dynasty

Remains of Han Dynasty architecture include ruins of brick and rammed earth walls, rammed earth platforms, and funerary stone pillar gates.

Learning Objectives

Describe the building materials, layout, and architectural characteristics of Han palace halls, towers, tombs, and other abodes

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Surviving architecture from the Han Dynasty includes ruins of brick and rammed earth walls (including above- ground city walls and underground tomb walls), rammed earth platforms for terraced altars and halls, funerary stone or brick pillar -gates, and scattered ceramic roof tiles. Timber was the chief building material in Han architecture, used for grand palace halls, multi-story towers, multi-story residential halls, and humble abodes.
  • Walls of frontier towns and forts in Inner Mongolia were typically constructed with stamped clay bricks instead of rammed earth. Thatched or tiled roofs were supported by wooden pillars, since the addition of brick, rammed earth, or mud walls did not actually support the roof. Stone and plaster were also used for domestic architecture.
  • Valuable clues about Han architecture can be found in burial artwork of ceramic models, paintings, and carved or stamped bricks discovered in tombs and other sites.

Key Terms

  • pillar: A large post, often used as supporting architecture.
  • crenellations: The battlements of a castle or other building.
  • dougong: A unique structural element of interlocking wooden brackets, one of the most important elements in traditional Chinese architecture.
  • rammed earth: A construction material made by compressing dirt.

Surviving architecture from the Han Dynasty includes ruins of brick and rammed earth walls (including above-ground city walls and underground tomb walls), rammed earth platforms for terraced altars and halls, funerary stone or brick pillar-gates, and scattered ceramic roof tiles that once adorned timber halls. Sections of the Han-era rammed earth Great Wall still exist in Gansu province, along with the frontier ruins of thirty beacon towers and two fortified castles with crenellations .

Building Materials

Timber was the chief building material in Han Dynasty architecture, used for grand palace halls, multi-story towers, multi-story residential halls, and humble abodes. However, due to the rapid decay of wood over time and its susceptibility to fire, the oldest wooden buildings found in China (which include several temple halls of Mount Wutai) date no earlier than the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE).

Walls of frontier towns and forts in Inner Mongolia were typically constructed with stamped clay bricks instead of rammed earth. Thatched or tiled roofs were supported by wooden pillars, since the addition of brick, rammed earth, or mud walls did not support the roof. Stone and plaster were used for domestic architecture. Tiled eaves projecting outward were built to distance falling rainwater from the walls they were supported by dougong brackets that were sometimes elaborately decorated. Molded designs usually decorated the ends of roof tiles, as seen in artistic models of buildings and in surviving tile pieces.

The Gaoyi Que, a stone-carved pillar-gate (que): A stone-carved pillar-gate, or que (闕), 6 m (20 ft) in total height, located at the tomb of Gao Yi in Ya’an, Sichuan province, was built during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE). Notice the stone-carved decorations of roof tile eaves, despite the fact that Han Dynasty stone que (part of the walled structures around tomb entrances) lacked wooden or ceramic components (but often imitated wooden buildings with ceramic roof tiles).

Styles of Architecture

Tombs and Houses

Valuable clues about Han architecture can be found in an artwork of ceramic models, paintings, and carved or stamped bricks discovered in tombs and other sites. Han tombs were laid out like underground houses, comparable to the scenes of courtyard houses found on tomb bricks and in three-dimensional models. Han homes had a courtyard area (some had multiple courtyards), with slightly elevated halls connected by stairways. Multi-story buildings included the main colonnaded residence halls built around the courtyards as well as watchtowers. The halls were built with intersecting crossbeams and rafters usually carved with decorations stairways and walls were plastered over to produce a smooth surface and then painted.

Tower Architecture

There are Han-era literary references to tall towers in the capital cities. They often served as watchtowers, astronomical observatories, and religious establishments meant to attract the favor of immortals . It is unknown whether miniature ceramic models of residential towers and watchtowers found in Han Dynasty tombs are faithful representations of such timber towers nevertheless, they reveal vital clues about lost timber architecture.

Only a handful of ceramic models of multi-story towers exist from the pre-Han and Western Han eras, though hundreds of existing models were made during the Eastern Han period. Model towers could be fired as one piece in the kiln or assembled from several different ceramic pieces. Each model is unique, yet they share common features such as a walled courtyard at the bottom, a balcony with balustrades and windows for every floor, and roof tiles capping and concealing the ceiling rafters. There were also door knockers, human figures peering out of the windows or standing on the balconies, and model pets such as dogs in the courtyard. Perhaps the most direct evidence to suggest that miniature ceramic towers represent of real-life Han timber towers are the tile patterns. Artistic patterns found on the circular tiles that cap the eave-ends on the miniature models are exact matches of patterns found on roof tiles excavated at sites such as the royal palaces in Chang’an and Luoyang.

Other Types of Buildings

Other ceramic models from the Han burial sites reveal a variety of building types. These include multi-story storehouses such as granaries, courtyard houses with multi-story halls, kiosks, walled gate towers, mills, factories and workshops, animal pens, outhouses, and water wells. Even models of single-story farmhouses show great detail, including tiled roofs and courtyards. Models of granaries and storehouses had tiled rooftops, dougong brackets, windows, and stilt supports raising them above ground level. Han models of water wells sometimes feature tiny tiled roofs supported by beams that house the rope pulley used for lifting a bucket.


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