Image of Tomb Guardian
Selections from the Collection

With more than four thousand years of recorded history, China is the world’s oldest continuous civilization. The largest country in Asia, China stretches from the continent’s eastern seaboard to the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakstan in the west. Within China's modern boundaries exists a wide range of geographic areas and climate zones ranging from mountainous terrain, coastal lowlands, desert conditions, and grassland plains. This ecological diversity, along with the wide variety of indigenous peoples within its borders, is reflected in the many different regional artistic and cultural traditions in China. Trade, by way of the Silk Road, sea, or other routes, also led to interaction in art and culture between China and civilizations in Central and South Asia, the west, and with its neighbors to the north and in the eastern seas.

Before the historical period, Neolithic cultures (8th–3rd millennia B.C.) produced fine ceramics and jades. Chinese recorded history began with the Shang and Zhou dynasties (ca. 16th–3rd centuries B.C.) with the appearance of a well–developed writing system in oracle bone records and inscriptions cast in ritual bronze vessels. The imperial era was launched with the unification of China during the Qin and Han dynasties (late 3rd century B.C.–A.D. early 3rd century). The writing system and measurement units became standardized, and a rich variety of tomb artifacts in ceramic, lacquer, bronze, stone, and other materials were produced, along with carved or stamped pictorial images, painting, and calligraphy. It was during this period that Buddhism was transmitted from India, and came to rival native beliefs in Confucianism and Daoism. Cultural interaction with the western regions is also evident in art and culture from the Period of Disunity (3rd–6th centuries) up to modern times. Confrontation with the nations of Europe, the Americas, and Japan led to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912—the end of the imperial era. After World War II the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, leading to the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when Western influences along with traditional Chinese artistic styles and ideals were renounced. In the years following the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese artists have struggled with the need to respond to, reconnect with, or divorce themselves from China's past traditions.

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