The Art of the Ancient East
In the fourth and
third millennia bc, the first civilizations took shape
on the vast swathes of land surrounding the great rivers
of India and China. These civilizations consisted of
highly developed and independent cultures, which, over
the centuries, would produce important works of art and
technological innovations quite distinct from those of
more Western civilizations.
The Indus Valley Cities
The ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro (now in
Pakistan), were the main centres of the urban civilization
that developed along the Indus river, which flows from the
Himalayas through Kashmir and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea.
Formality and rationality governed the development of these
cities in their early stages, the major sites being made up
of individual rectangular areas measuring some 200 x 400
metres (650 x 1,300 feet). Straight thoroughfares ran from
north to south and from east to west, with smaller streets
branching off to the
sides, and a walled acropolis overlooking the cities. Wealth
and power were expressed in the overall structure and
appearance of the city itself rather than in individual
buildings. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence of
the temples, grand palaces, or royal tombs that are so
characteristic of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations.
There were, however, private houses made of baked brick and
wood based on a central courtyard giving access to rooms,
baths, and other areas. Sensible use of the land and a
constant struggle against the implacable force of the
rivers, so vital to life, enabled the civilization of the
Indus valley to develop over a long period (third-second
millennium bc). With the help of an effective
irrigation system, farmers harvested wheat and cotton and
raised livestock. Improved hydraulic techniques made it
possible to create drains, pipes for drinking water, dykes,
and brick wells that were shared by groups of houses. The
quality of life, materially, culturally, and intellectually,
was unusually advanced for its time. There was cultural and
ideological unity, with unified systems of measurement and
writing, and a centralized structure of political
Ceramic sculpture of a small
cart with vases and tools pulled by oxen,
Indus jewellery reveal a high level of craftsmanship
in their working of precious metals and stones.
These small ornaments may be of seemingly little
importance when compared with the wealth of
treasures piled up in Egyptian and Mesopotamian
tombs; however, they possess intrinsic value because
of the sophisticated technology required to produce
them. As well as gold, semiprecious stones, such as
jasper, serpentine, alabaster, and steatite, were
frequently used. A deep interest in artistic
creation is revealed in the manipulation of raw
materials through the use of chemical processes.
Thus, agate was heated to obtain carnelian, and an
elaborate production system was developed in order
to obtain the desired form of stoneware.
Valuable objects such as jewels were undoubtedly
handed down through generations, but they have
rarely been found in funerary furnishings. In fact,
very few personal ornaments have been recovered,
which indicates an attitude towards death that was
quite different from those of other ancient urban
Necklace in gold and semiprecious
stones, from Mohenjo-Daro.
National Museum, New Delhi.
Zoomorphic example of a yu,
a ritual wine vessel, Shang dynasty.
Cernuschi Museum, Paris
Art of the Indus
Evidence of the artistic output of the Indus valley reveals great skill.
Pottery worked on the wheel was of an exceptionally high standard. The rounded
vases were decorated mainly in black on a red background or in polychrome on a
lighter background. Geometrical motifs, rows of parallel lines, and chequered,
circular, and spiral designs were joined with naturalistic subjects; stylized
plants and animal or human figures were often combined to fill available space.
Typical of the Indus culture were seals moulded in steatite. Square in shape and
with a raised surface, their subjects were repetitive in pattern and based
exclusively on the animal kingdom. Elephants, bison, rhinoceros, antelopes,
zebras, and unicorns are the most frequent images. These animals are depicted
standing before particular objects, the functions of which are sometimes
unclear. Above them is a short inscription of four or five signs. The unicorn, a
fantastical creature with an equine body, is always shown opposite a vessel
consisting of a stem, a bowl, and another vertical piece. There are also a few
specimens of bronzes, statuettes, and stone carvings. The latter are best
exemplified by a splendidly expressive votive portrait of a priest from
Mohenjo-daro, with its detailed rendering of the beard, delicate moulding of the
face, and slight incline of the head. The Indus civilization collapsed in the
16th century bc. and the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were abandoned for
rural villages. However, the Harappan style of pottery was to live on.
Fragmentary vase with ibex decoration, from Mohenjo-Daro.
National Museum. Karachi
Seal in steatite with unicorn figure and vessel
Seal in steatite with buffalo and writing
Ancient Chinese Art
Jade funeral garment of Prince Liu Sheng.
Museum of Chinese History, Peking
Although the Neolithic culture of China dates from the seventh millennium bc.
according to ancient written tradition it was not until the 21st century bc that
the Hsia (Xia) founded the first of the Chinese dynasties. While little is known
of the art of the Hsia, art found its most perfect expression in ritual bronzes
under the rule of the Shang dynasty (1700- 1025bc). Designed for the
presentation of offerings and sacred libations, there was a variety of different
vessel types. The decoration consisted of idealized animal forms that may have
had a totemic function: the t'ao-t'ie (mask of the glutton seeking to devour
man), the dragon, the phoenix, birds, and fantastic monsters often stand out in
relief from a background of ornamental motifs, such as meanders, intermingled
triangles and parallel lines, clouds, and spirals. The imprisonment of the
animal effigy or totemic creature in a ritual object may have been to harness
its power and transfer its control to the shaman. The link between political and
religious power, and the exercise of both by a priestly class, meant that the
sovereign was responsible for the rites of worship and
relations with the supernatural. They believed that
earthly order needed to be reflected in heavenly order,
and that control of the world of magic and the harmony
of cosmic forces were essential for good government.
When the Chou (Zhou) 1025-221bc)succeeded the Shang. the
social and political conditions of the state underwent
considerable change, and philosophical and religious
systems, such as Confucianism, appeared. Ait objects of
jade, bone, and ivorv, and anthropomorphic earthenware
statuettes full of vivacity and movement were created to
accompany the dead to the next world. Bronzes gradually
lost their function of transmitting magical and divine
forces, and their decoration became more abstract in
style. The metal surfaces were covered with long
inscriptions, perhaps to celebrate an event exalting a
family or clan or to honour ancestors. A new ornamental
element that comprised interlacing dragons became
widespread in the "Spring and Autumn" period
(c.770-476BC). during which the state took on an
increasingly feudal character, and nobles often rebelled
against the central power. Civil wars led to a crisis in
Chou authority and brought the subsequent restoration of
order in the Ch'in (Qin) dynasty (c.221-206bc). followed
by the Han dynasty (206BC-ad220).
There were notable achievements in science, agriculture,
and craftsmanship, and commerce was revived thanks to
Chinese control of the Silk Route. Small bronzes were
produced in the form of fully rounded figures of
animals. Their physical features are barely sketched but
reveal an acute sense of observation in their lively
poses and expressions. The same characteristics were
evident in many terracotta pieces - statuettes of
animals or people continued the tradition of the small
funerary images that characterized the Chou period.
Among the most notable are the hollow brick slabs of the
tombs featuring relief decoration of hunting scenes. An
exceptional find from one tomb was the funeral garment
of the prince Liu Sheng. made of 2.498 pieces of jade
held together by 1.1kg (2,5 lb) of gold thread. The
corpse was wrapped in the jade, a material that is both
precious and enduring, to ensure that the body and
spirit should be preserved for all eternity.
Terracotta tile with
bulls pulling plough,
Among the most original products of the Indus civilization are the lively and
exuberant terracotta statuettes. The subjects most often represented, on seals
of steatite in particular, include animals such us tigers, buffalo, and oxen,
which are shown either alone or yoked to small carts. Moulded with great
realism, it is possible that these articles may have
been used as toys. Small, everyday scenes - for example,
a bird escaping a snare or a mother suckling her baby —
were also captured with refreshing naturalism. The heads
of female figurines are characterized bv their richly
elaborate and varied hairstyles. Typically wrapped only
in a short skirt, their bodies are adorned with
necklaces. It is believed these figures were intended to
portray the Mother Goddess. Mastery of three-dimensional
modelling and a shrewd observation of anatomy are
features of all Indus sculpture. These skills can be
seen to great effect in the artists' application of
pieces of clay to depict the fine details of the face
terracotta figurines from Mohenjo-daro, mid-third millennium
National Museum, New
Clockwise from left:
small cage with a bird at the door; bull;
female figurine (possibly representing the Mother Goddess):
and toy animal with wheels and sheep's head.
THE INLAID STYLE
Rhinoceros in bronze from the King of Zhongshan's tomb,
late third century bc.
Museum of Chinese History. Peking.
The technique of inlaying gold and silver, as distinct from that of gold-leaf
application, was developed in the Warring States period (475-221BC). Originally
executed by forcing cold strips or gold, silver, or other precious metals (iron
at an early stage) into the body of the object, craftsmen then elaborated this
new technique. They adapted inlaying to the age-old methods of mould-casting by
preparing the cavities where the inlay was to be inserted ahead of casting. In
the case of the winged monster from Pingshan. the silver decoration helps to
emphasize the ferocity and power of the animal figure with its gaping mouth and
sharp claws. A rhinoceros-shaped wine jug from the steppes achieves a synthesis
of the inlaid and animal styles. "I'he body is sprinkled with cloudlike shapes
and spiral patterns, and the inlaid threads of gold and silver wire imitate its
thick bristles; on the back is a small lid, and on the right side of the mouth
is a long, thin copper tube for pouring the wine.
Winged monster in bronze from the King of Zhongshan 's
tomb, fourth century bc.
Museum of Chinese History, Peking
Terracotta soldier in armour.
Museum of Chinese History, Peking
THE TERRACOTTA ARMY
The artistic impulses of the Ch'in era are best revealed
in the terracotta statues of soldiers that were
discovered in 1974 on the site of the mausoleum of Ch'in
Shih-huang-ti (Qin Shihnangdi) at Lintong in Shaanxi
province. The 10.000 warriors, which have individual
faces, represent even- rank in the army and numerous
different racial types. The army is equipped with
complete military outfits: archers, infantrymen,
charioteers, and horsemen cany sharp-bladed weapons of
the finest material. The height of each figure varies
from 1.75 to 1.9" metres (6 to 6,5 feet), and the foot
soldiers are flanked by more than 130 wooden chariots
and 500 horsemen. The various bodily parts of the
figures, produced in series, are of different colours.
The terracotta army represents the power of the great
Ch'in dynasty, whose founder. King Cheng, created the
first centralized and multinational empire. In
celebration of this accomplishment, he adopted the name
Ch'in Shih-huang-ti, the First Emperor. He also
initiated the building of the great monument of Chinese
unity", the Great Wall, which extends 2.000 km (1,240
miles) from the China Sea to the northwest border of the
Terracotta battle horse.
Museum of Chinese History, Peking.