Six Dynasties China: Art in A Time of Chaos

Mounted Drummer from a tomb dated to the Northern Qi dynasty, second year of Wuping (571), earthenware with pigments, height (total) 28.5 cm, (horse) 26 cm, length 23.1 cm.Unearthed in 2000 from the tomb of Xu Xianxiu at Wangjiafeng village in Taiyuan, Shanxi. Collection of the Shanxi Museum

Willow Weilan Hai, Director, China Institute Gallery, and chief curator of the exhibition commented that recent excavations in China due to an unprecedented building boom have been an amazing gift to the archeological community, adding greatly to our knowledge of ceramics, sculpture, painting, and calligraphy during the Six Dynasties period.

Great chaos led to extraordinary cultural and intellectual achievements by artists who defined the soul of Chinese art for generations with their influence spreading beyond China into Japan and Korea.

Leaving its stately townhouse home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, China Institute, the nation’s oldest and foremost institution devoted solely to Chinese culture, moved from the Upper East Side to lower Manhattan last year. The new home is strikingly elegant in its contemporary simplicity and its 50,000 square foot space now houses the institute’s new 2,000 square foot gallery, library, classrooms, and offices.

The Six Dynasties (220-589)

Willow Weilan Hai and her fellow scholars could not have chosen a better subject for this exhibition, Six Dynasties China (220-589), a sometimes overlooked period in China’s history and culture. It bore strikingly similar characteristics that would be repeated in Japan’s Nambokucho period which dominated almost the entire 14th century: terrible strife and bloodshed, civil and political chaos, but a period of brilliant creativity for the arts – Buddhist sculpture and paintings and, to no one’s surprise, a period that saw the finest swordsmiths in Japanese history.

Following the unification of all of the areas then known as Chinese by Qin Shihuangdi and the following Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD220), civil chaos followed the fall of Han and the once-united nation fractured into constantly warring states – the Six Dynasties period. These bloody domestic wars continued until the state of Sui conquered South China in 589 and ruled a united nation until it was replaced itself in 618, 29 years later, by the Tang dynasty.

Major Exhibition and Study of the Art and Culture

The exhibition is the first major exhibition and study of the art and culture during Six Dynasties China, as well as the complex relationship between the two dominant political centres in the North and South. With approximately 100 works of art on view, the size of the exhibition is perfect to make it rewarding without being draining.

There has been only one other exhibition of  Six Dynasties China – 30 years ago, curated by Annette Juliano, one of the curators of this exhibition and Professor of Asian Art and History, Rutgers University. Art of the Six Dynasties: Centuries of Change and Innovation, in 1976, also presented by the China Institute Gallery, drew from the private and domestic museum’s collection to introduce the artworks of this period.

The difference between these two shows was that the current exhibition concentrates only on the artistic achievements and its principle influence to the later generations through the most recent unearthed artworks, as well comparing the differences between the South and North.

Archaeological Excavations in China Have Increased

Fortunately for modern scholarship, archaeological excavations in China over the last 20 years have revealed remarkable works of arts that have opened up windows of understanding of this nearly 400-odd year period which had not been well-understood before.

The most important discovery of all was the realisation that this period of national chaos was also the parent of artistic traditions that have defined Chinese art and culture ever since. Some of these traditions include the inventions of wheelbarrows, kites, improved kilns and the first use of coal as a fuel. The importance is that this exhibition carries an eye-opening awareness that will continue to influence all future understanding of the period, even after this exhibition has closed and time moves on.

China Was Divided into North and South at the Time

China was roughly divided into North and South during the Six Dynasties period. The North was mainly under the control of the non-Han Chinese from the Mongolian and other alien groups while the South was under the control of the Han Chinese. To fully represent these two parts of China, works of art, many recently excavated and unseen in the West, have been borrowed from Nanjing Museum, Nanjing Municipal Museum, and Shanxi Museum because Nanjing was the capital of the South, and Shanxi, the political centre of the North.

Tomb Goods

With the exceptions of paintings and sculptures, it was not until the Second millennium that works of art were not always consigned, together with the deceased, to the world of the afterlife. Tomb goods were those that had served the deceased in life, together with goods that were made to provide service in the afterlife, such as fired pottery figures of warriors, attendants, dancers, musicians and the like. This was a tradition carried over from Han and continued until the middle of the Ming dynasty when some ceramic figures and household objects, often green-glazed, were made for burials.

During the beginning of the Second millennium, there was a change of attitude concerning what objects would be, or what would not be, buried with their owner. The concept of personal works of art arose and it appears that works of art that were treasured in life became inheritable rather than buried. This was with the exception of tombs of persons of rank, whose personal adornment usually accompanied them into the afterlife.

Because of the early tradition of consigning works of art to the grave, archeological excavations are our sole windows into daily life in the past. Everything we know today, together with existing written records, comes from excavations. From Six Dynasty tombs and mausoleums come the bulk of our knowledge of that period which is why this exhibition is so vital.

Many of these tombs have contained kiln-fired, painted pottery figures and models of attendants, soldiers, musicians, servants, and animals. They also contained pale green-glazed vessels with moulded decoration, several of which are included in the exhibition.

Northern-Qi Example at The Met

One such Northern Qi example, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was a large bulbous vessel decorated with appliqués moulded with faces of foreigners, florets and bands. Only a few decades ago it was on a shelf in an antique shop where no one was quite sure what it was.

That was until Sue Valenstein of The Met’s Asian Art department spotted it for what it was, bought it on the spot, researched and firmly identified it as Northern Qi and then donated it to the Met. It just goes to show how very recently almost nothing was known about the art of this period. Like a true scholar, Sue wore her knowledge like a loose garment.

Even though it is from a datable Sui dynasty tomb (592), there is in the Southern elites respected exhibition a large carved red and green-painted marble panel from a tomb wall depicting the completely vernacular subjects of dancing, drinking wine and hunting, very much a sport of the northern nomads. In contrast, the Southern elites led the life of intellectuals which included drinking, conversing, creating poems, philosophy, etc, such as the mural mentioned below which is also in the exhibition.

Southern-dynasty Imperial Tomb

In 1968, a Southern-dynasty imperial tomb yielded a full wall with a major mural. The Han dynasty existed in the south and it perfected the art of decorating grey pottery bricks with moulded decoration before firing. They could have simple wall pieces or scenes of royal life and of nature.

Last year, curators at the Nanjing Museum began to assemble the many bricks that made up the wall and were delighted by an extraordinary relief of the famous Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, which resembled the second sample of this subject, depicting an ideal intellectual scene respected by the Han Chinese in the South and which the high class liked to accompany them for the afterlife.

Porcelain Figures from the Wu Kingdom

Another excavated entry in the exhibition is a set of Wu Kingdom (222-280) pale green-glazed porcelain or proto-porcelaneous figures. These and similarly glazed vessels in the exhibition all bear that thin, transparent pale olive glazed properly referred to as Yueyao, a glaze type that continued for many centuries. It is sometimes mistakenly thought that Yueyao was the predecessor of Longquan, but this is wrong as the two kilns existed in two different places at two different times and the glazes are totally different with the Longquan glaze being thick, intentionally underfired in a reduced atmosphere, trapping gas bubbles to create the soft light green colour.

Here, one small 3rd-century pottery model of a dog would not normally rate much attention, but for the fact that there is an inscription on its back reading, ‘This dog’s name is Black Dragon’.

First Porcelain Mass Produced During Six Dynasties

It was during the Six Dynasties period that porcelain was first mass produced as tableware, household items, stationery, and tomb objects. This, of all the Chinese inventions is the one that has ever since spread to all levels of society and for every possible use.

The written language, codified and unified under Qin Shihuangdi, was now taught as a discipline in which differing styles of strokes could be used, like modern typefaces on a computer, as an art form and expression of an individual’s creativity.

As a result, the art of calligraphy, rather than the craft of calligraphy, evolved as a distinct art form and with the creation of various concepts, aesthetic approaches and artistic styles, the art of poetry and narratives sprang to life, much beginning with the famed calligrapher Wang Xizhi (303-361) under whose tutelage an artistic oeuvre moved into the permanent realm of high culture.

The Rise of Buddhism During Six Dynasties China

The greatest the effect of this turbulent period was manifested in matters of religion, for the identical reason that religion sprang to the national forefront during Japan’s Nambokucho period: all levels of society felt they were in an Armageddon type existence and were looking for peace and salvation.

Monks began to arrive in China and promote Buddhism, allowing Buddhist art to flourish through the construction of temples, caves, and sculptures. As a result, there was a proliferation of Buddhist sculpture, as well as figurine sculpture of foreigners for the first time in a noticeable quantities.

The Fall of the Han Dynasty in 220

After the fall of the Han in 220, the idea of an orderly state under the precepts of the Confucian system disintegrated under the constant foreign inroads, incursions and reigns in the North, but the introduction of Buddhism at this time and the growing influence of Daoism filled the gap. This was strongly evident in the rise of the Buddhist sculptural tradition in the North, particularly in Northern Qi and Northern Wei.

Sculpture of the Northern Wei

The sculpture of the Northern Wei (386-534/535) was predominantly work carved from the limestone walls of cave temples in Dunhuang and elsewhere, whereas sculpture of the Northern Qi (550-577) was predominantly limestone and freestanding, of which two outstanding examples are included here.

The more elaborate of these is a Guanyin stele excavated in Shanxi in 1954 that depicts the bodhisattva flanked by celestial attendants on a plinth supported by lions and framed by a fan-shaped halo with a stepped aureole. Relatively small at 60 cm, it is proof that monumentality does not have to be based on size.

Discovered at the same Huata Temple site as the stele is a majestic head of a bodhisattva, again small at 31.75 cm, but monumental as well as majestic. The rounded face does not appear fat, but serene and the very simple coif is surrounded by an elaborate floral diadem. Even though the head has been separated from the body, it is, for all sakes and purposes, in brilliant condition, as is the stele.


Art in a Time of Chaos: Masterworks from Six Dynasties China, at the China Institute, New York, from 30 September 2016 to 9 March, 2017. A Catalogue is available.