The culture of ancient China is, with no doubt, one of the oldest cultures the world has witnessed. In fact, ancient Chinese arts itself had flourished as early as the Neolithic period dated back to as old as 10000 BC. It began with the simple creation of pottery to the exclusive silk innovation which is known until today. Their remnants of arts have left the modern world a great legacy of their tale from antiquity and the artifacts discovered by the archeologists play a big role for us to understand the trend, culture and philosophy evolving throughout the antiquity of China. Thus, read on to know the 11 major ancient Chinese artifacts.
Starting from one of the finest Chinese artifact found in 1956, Goujian is a mesmerizing proof of the great Chinese weapon crafting. This bronze sword is discovered by the archeologists in the Hubei Province, located near the former capital of Chu state where they also unearthed 50 ancient tombs and 2000 other artifacts. The sword was found beside one of the corpses, neatly sheathed and untouched by the time. With 21,9 inch long and 4,6 inch wide, this arts of the antiquity was in its prime condition as the archeologist took the sword of its sheath. The edge has remained sharp and able to cut as if it’s never buried in a damp tomb for almost 2000 years. After a thorough analysis, the scientist revealed that the sword was made with a smart combination of sulfur and sulfide cuprum, giving this mighty sword the quality to defy rust and time.
Goujian is a type of Jian swords, characterized by the straight form and double-edged sharpness, which commonly pictured in ancient Chinese mythology. It’s one of the antic sword types and widely known as “The Gentleman Weapons”. Accordingly, this artifact isn’t only a major part of ancient artifacts but also one of the major weapons with the spear, sabre, and staff in ancient history. The name of Goujian itself is given from the first holder of this sword which is inscribed on the sword body, Goujian, the King of Yue. Goujian sword is deemed as a state treasure in modern China and regarded to match the legendary Excalibur of King Arthur.
The art of pottery or ceramics in China dated back to the Neolithic period when everything is still simple and plain. It’s the oldest artwork for the ancient Chinese which makes it as well the oldest artifacts for Chinese civilization. During the Neolithic period, people in ancient China lived by doing plant and animal farming. To improve their living, they then created the first pottery from the mix of clay and water. The pottery was originally used to help them with their daily activity since it’s useful to store their harvest and save water. In addition, the pottery was useful to cook their food. However, the function of pottery gradually changed as the lifestyle in ancient Chinese evolved. It’s no longer only a pot in the kitchen but it became valuable art stuff.
According to the archeology evidence, the art of pottery dated around 18000 BCE which is quite ahead than other antiquities. Pottery art was a popular art in Chinese culture and for that fame, the technique and creation of pottery developed from dynasty to dynasty; pottery art in Chinese has gone through a long journey. The first time painting technique on ceramics developed was in Yangshao culture. Gradually, in Shang Dynasty the pottery also evolved from clay to bronze and become a symbol of royalty. A few of examples of ancient Chinese artifacts regarding the pottery art is the tricolor glazed pottery from Tang Dynasty and the purple clay pottery from Song Dynasty.
Jade is a valuable and exquisite part of ancient China culture as well the major artifact from Chinese antiquity. This metamorphic stone which naturally shaded red, green, yellow, or white was more than a beautiful stone used as ornamental purposes for them. It is documented in the Book of Rites that there are believed to be eleven virtues embedded in jade: intelligence, benevolence, prosperity, justice, credibly, loyalty, morality, integrity, beauty, earth, and heaven. Thus, it’s seen as a scarce symbol for the Chinese. The vivid and vibrant color of polished jade is seen extraordinary for the Chinese and from the four colors; Green jade is most favored. In ancient Chinese, the power of jade found in its mysterious and bewitching hue, bearing mystical essence that turned this beauty stone as a popular ornament of sacrificial vessels and often buried to accompany the dead.
The earliest jade art began in Zhejiang Province around 700 – 5000 BCE in the Neolithic period which makes Jade culture as the next oldest culture in ancient Chinese history. In the Huangshan culture, it’s discovered that Jade was an essential material for religious ritual. The widespread of jade was also found near the Yellow River, depicting the Longshan culture. As the pottery is a major artifact of ancient Chinese for its long history, Jade has it for a similar reason. The history of Jade from the Neolithic Period, through the Zhou Dynasty until today is a great one and it saves many tales of Chinese culture with it. Few of the famous evidence of Jade art are Yue axes and Cong cylinders while one of the most fascinating artifacts of jade is the jade suit of Liu Sheng, made of 22.498 pieces of jade woven together with gold threads.
While ancient Chinese is rich in arts, the peak of their arts happened during the Han Dynasty which is said to be the golden age of Chinese arts. The improvement and development occurred during the Han dynasty was vast and strong; it’s a big wave for arts especially the visual art like painting. The Han dynasty also brought forward what is known as tomb art from the ancient Chinese today which is truly a majestic time. Thus, art artifacts from Han time are significant as it allows the glimpse of blooming creativity in ancient Chinese.
Bronze sculpture especially had a great jump in the Han Dynasty. One of the prominent artifacts for that is found in Kansu region with the tombs dated back around 200 BCE, a bronze horse. As bronze sculpture is a major development in the Han Dynasty, numerous bronze statues depicting social figures are commonly found as archeology evidence of the Han dynasty. Another significant improvement in that time is the motif and pattern which appears to be more stylish and detailed as seen in the pottery art created in Han Dynasty.
The next major ancient Chinese artifacts come from the hand of the great artist Gu Kaizhi. He’s a famous painter and author of many books and paintings. His painting is exclusively preserved until today on copies of silk hand-scroll, taking his artistic painting through the century. This man originated from Jiangsu province was well-known for his ability in portrait painting and the astonishing embroidery in it. Kaizhi was a prominent figure of the ancient arts as his techniques transformed the style of traditional Chinese painting. In addition, as he was famous for his painting and an aspiring artist to his peers, he was as gifted in his career as a writer. Many Chinese scholars were inspired by the words he wrote.
Hence, his creation was labeled to be a major artifact of ancient Chinese as he was the one to swipe the Chinese arts universe with his creation. The surviving paintings of Gu were mostly made on silk and polychrome portraying the beauty of many figures, particularly woman. One of his artwork is entitled Nymph of the Luo River.
The teaching of Buddhism is one of the long-running beliefs descended by the ancient Chinese to their modern line. Buddhism started to grow in ancient Chinese during the Han dynasty and this teaching hit not only the way people perceived life but also the way people creating the arts. After the Han Dynasty, the teaching of Buddhism spread stronger and the first document related to Buddhism teaching was made. As it can be seen today Buddhism grew to every part of Chinese culture specifically on architecture. Hence, Buddhist architecture is a focal point of Chinese civilization which crowns it the position to be a major ancient Chinese artifact.
The style of Buddhist architecture changed over three generation which is first in the Han Dynasty, continued in Northern and Southern Dynasty, and lastly in the Tang Dynasty. In the beginning, the temple still had the touch of Indian culture, yet over the time, the ancient Chinese found their style characterized with the pavilion resembling pagoda. The Buddhism sites that remain from the antiquity now bring many tourists into amazement. Few of the famous sites are Longmen Grottoes and Maiji Caves.
Jiangtai Blue or Cloisonné was one of the most prominent arts of ancient Chinese cultures. It’s actually a technique to beautify metalware such as bronze with the use of enamel. This making art was first discovered in the Yuan Dynasty as documented in the oldest record bearing the tale of cloisonné making. However, the spread of cloisonné wasn’t as popular as it was in the Ming Dynasty. During the Ming Dynasty, the art of cloisonné was favored by many artists since it gave their creation attractive color and design, as well gained them a great reputation of. The name Jiangtai Blue itself is an honor given to the Emperor that reign during that period and the typical blue color which used for the enamel.
While there are varieties of painting style, the ancient Chinese put landscape painting as the highest style of painting. This style of painting is popular and regarded to be on the top hierarchy when it came to painting. Thus, this makes a landscape painting a prominent artifact of ancient Chinese. The characteristic of landscape painting laid on nature as its term in Chinese was associated with “mountains and water”. It’s also strengthened by the literature preserved about the elegant style; landscape painting style is philosophically linked to the teaching of Taoism in which the focus is about the harmony with nature.
While the Han Dynasty is famous for the title of the ‘Golden Age of Chinese Art’, the Northern Song period is widely known to be the ‘Great age of Landscape Painting’. Many landscape painters such as Ju Ran and Dong Yuan emerged around this period with works capturing the face of their homeland.
Literature in ancient China is another important part of ancient Chinese and in accordance, literature artifact was as important as the documentation of the culture and life in the antiquity. From many forms of literature, Poetry was highly favored by the Chinese. It’s a medium for many people to express their deep emotion regarding social or private issues. The discovered poetry of ancient Chinese artifact is various in style and varied in theme with classical poetry usually consisted of three main elements: shi, ci, and qu. Poetry was favored because its mysterious and beautiful depiction of the things happened in the ancient Chinese life.
In the Han Dynasty, the style of poetry shifted to a folk style which gave more description and story, giving the readers freedom to use more of their imagination to re-picture the tale in the poem. This style is called Yuefu and one of the common themes used in Yuefu is Chinese mythology. The style of poetry developed over the time and during the Six Dynasties, the style of poetry gradually changes to the style we know today.
Unfortunately, the rich of Chinese poetry didn’t leave many records to be seen by the modern world due to a cruel event happened in Chinese history caused by Qin Shihuang. Nonetheless, there are still some major ancient Chinese artifacts of poetry that survive until today. The midnight songs poetry of the four seasons and the Orchid Pavilion Gathering are the example of the Chinese poetry passed to this day.
One of the major artifacts from ancient Chinese is music which has been a big part of the culture and used for many purposes in the ancient Chinese culture. Religious ceremony, announcement, and entertainment are the few main purposes of music for them. It’s strongly believed that the music in ancient Chinese was brought from Africa. It was simple music created by the rhythm of clapping hand and accompanied with hand bone pipes and drums.
The first ancient Chinese artifact regarding their musical culture is found in Zhou dynasty. It’s a musical instrument known as bamboo pipes that had the sound resembling the sing of morning birds. The legend had it that a man named Ling Lung is believed as the maker as well the founder of ancient Chinese music. However, aside from the myth, the important evidence of music in ancient Chinese is found in the oldest written music known as the Solitary Orchid. This written music is an attribute to the teaching of Confucian. During the Qin dynasty, the first imperial Music performance was allowed. After that, it grew larger in the reign of Han Wu Di in which music is implemented in his court and military. It was the greatest achievement that the ancient Chinese can reach in supporting their musical culture. Later on, Chinese music was influenced greatly by their neighborhood country mostly from central Asia.
Another archeology evidence of Chinese music and a major artifact for it is an 8,6 inch flute made of bird bones and red-crowned cranes discovered in 1999 and aged around 9000-year-old. It’s the oldest music instrument playable that the world ever knows.
The most prominent artifact from ancient China is no other than its most famed invention, silk. Invented about 6000 years ago, it’s an exclusive commodity and valued highly by the Chinese and their trading partners for its limited production. Thus said, silk supported Chinese especially in their trade which took them to the well-known Silk Road. It was also used in a wide variety of activities; clothing, fishing, writing, and painting are a few of the many applications of silk throughout ancient Chinese life.
The reputation of silk was just very spectacular that it’s also used as a form of currency in many aspects. For trading, they used silk; for paying tax, they used silk; for paying the army, they used silk; for the ancient Chinese, silk was equally high as gold. The most dominant role of silk in regard of currency can be seen in the history around the reign of Liao emperor in which Northern Song gave tribute to the kingdom using silk to show their loyalty to the emperor as it was a symbol of greatness and prosperity.
Silk can be found in various forms of artifact since it was a widespread culture in China. One of the silk arts can be found in the excavation of the Mawangdui Han Tomb, showing the modern world of the wonderful skill of the silk artist from ancient Chinese.
Ancient Chinese artifacts are various in its forms since Chinese arts itself has gone through a lot of development and improvement. There are still many artifacts than what the list gives, yet these 11 ancient Chinese artifacts are major to the history of China. From that archaeology evidence, it’s possible for the modern world to know and see the wondrous side of ancient Chinese. Hence, it’s important for us to appreciate it by giving a moment to learn and understand what the ancient Chinese had left for the future.