Chinese art materials - British art materials Paper Along with the compass, gunpowder, and printing, paper is considered to be one of ancient China’s “Four Great Inventions”
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Chinese art materials
Along with the compass, gunpowder, and printing, paper is considered to be one of ancient
Chinas Four Great Inventions. According to archaeological evidence, paper was being
made from the first or second century BC. Cai Lun (ca. 50-121 AD), a Chinese court official
during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), is generally regarded as the inventor of the
modern method of papermaking in 105 AD which led to a wider use of the new material for
writing. Paper was not used for documents and religious texts at first, and was only regularly
employed for painting from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Many types of paper were
developed for the different requirements of writing, painting and printing. The use of paper
spread from China through the Islamic world, and entered production in Europe in the early
By the fifth century BC, documents had begun to be written on silk, which had existed in
China since Neolithic times, possibly as early as 6000 BC and definitely by 3000 BC. In July
2007, intricately woven and dyed silk textiles were discovered in a tomb in Jiangxi province
dating from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, roughly 2,500 years ago. Although silk was an
expensive material, a document written on a roll of silk was much easier to handle and store
as it was softer and lighter than other materials such as bamboo strips. It was also used as an
important material for the first surviving paintings and funerary banners in the second century.
With the invention of paper in the first century AD, silk was gradually replaced with the new
cheaper material. However, because of its texture and luster, silk is still considered as one of
the most popular materials in Chinese culture and art, especially Chinese textiles.
The production of bronze vessels, weapons and other objects was already well developed by
the Shang dynasty (c. 1650-1027 BC), while ritual vessels, sets of bells for ritual use and
weapons were being made using sophisticated casting techniques by the Zhou dynasty (ca.
1027-221 BC). Examples of these are the highly ornate pieces excavated from the tomb of the
Marquis Yi of Zeng which include a set of bells with twelve notes to the octave for the
performance of ritual music. Ancient bronze vessels were treasured by collectors in the Song
dynasty (960-1279) and were copied in ceramics and other materials for use in rituals and as
decorative objects. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, copies of
bronze vessels and those made from other materials were popularly used as altar pieces and
Jade was considered a precious material, and objects made from jade were designed for
special rituals and ceremonies rather than for everyday use. Since jade is believed to offer
strength and protection both in life and death, jade burial suits were thought to guard against
evil spirits and jade objects were regarded as symbols of virtue, strength and superiority. In
much earlier periods, the most distinctive jade objects, perhaps produced for specific
purposes relating to the rituals of death, were found in sites of the earlier and more southern
Liangzhu culture (c. 3300-2250 BC). Jade continued to be produced in various forms for use
as ritual objects in court ceremonies and as popular precious items for collectors in later
periods. Jade objects have generally become heavier and more colourful and ornate than the
ancient pieces produced in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
Lacquer has been used as early as the Neolithic period (5000-3000 BC), and the sap is
collected from a tree indigenous to China called rhus verniciflua. Lacquer is applied in layers
as an impermeable coating for objects made of materials such as bamboo and wood, making
them both water and insect resistant. It also provides an ideal surface for decorating objects
with brilliant colours. Pigments, in particular iron oxides, can be added to make the lacquer
red or black, and inlays of silver, gold and mother-of-pearl are also used. In addition, carving
techniques were used to create detailed decorative scenes in deep relief on lacquer objects.
During the Warring States period (475-221 BC) and the Han dynasty (206 BC- 220AD),
lacquer became increasingly popular, and was mostly used to provide painted surfaces for
coffins, cosmetic boxes, musical instruments and food vessels. In later periods various
techniques were developed to make lacquer ware more decorative, and it was increasingly
exported to the West during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
Porcelain stone is a type of high-quality clay, which comes from the abundant volcanic rock
found in deposits in the eastern coastal provinces of China and some parts of Jiangxi province.
The highest-quality deposits are located in Jiangxi province around Jingdezhen and Boyang
Lake. Porcelain stone was used, unmixed, from the tenth century, and primary kaolin was
first added in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), producing a smoother, more synthetic paste.
Underglaze painting was introduced in Jingdezhen around the same period, and indeed one of
the great advantages of adding kaolin was the better base it provided for painted ornaments.
From the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), porcelain styles such
as blue and white, doucai, and enamel decorated porcelain (famille rose and famille verte)
reached the height of perfection and were mass-produced for the Western export market.
Enamel is a coloured glass, or a combination of vitreous glazes, fused on to a metallic surface.
Enamelling is the technique of painting in enamel on metal over a bronze, copper, or
sometimes a silver body, which is then coated with white enamel. The technique originated in
Europe and was introduced to the Chinese court by Jesuit missionaries at the end of the
seventeenth century. The intricate application of enamel can be found in the Chinese enamel
ware called Fa lang what is sometimes referred to as cloisonn in the West. The cloisonn
technique involves the application of different coloured enamels to a metal surface that has
been divided by wires into compartments known as cloisons, producing striking multi-
coloured patterns. These wires were either soldered or glued onto the metal base. The pieces
from the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-1735) are of particularly high quality. By the
Qing dynasty (1644-1911), enamel pieces were much lighter as both the base and wires were
made of copper rather than heavy bronze.