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 organization.


Ceramic sculpture of a small cart with vases and tools pulled by oxen,
from Mohenjo-daro



Excavations of 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 cultures.

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
National Museum, New Delhi
Seal in steatite with buffalo  and writing
       National Museum, New Delhi

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,
Han dynasty.



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 and body.

Four terracotta figurines from Mohenjo-daro, mid-third millennium bc.
National Museum, New Delhi.
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.




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 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 country.

Terracotta battle horse.
Museum of Chinese History, Peking.


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