Ancient Chinese civilization is one of the richest in cultural heritage in the world that based its development on an extensive system of philosophical and religious ideas. Han dynasty that lasted from 206 BC to 220 AD is one of the eras in the history of ancient China characterized by the inception and broad application of Taoism as a philosophical doctrine. The art of this period demonstrates the core values of the people living in China in ancient times. Since the philosophy of Tao became the basis for the religious beliefs of ancient Chinese people, the basic concepts of the unity of all opposites and harmony as a way to perfection. In this paper, the geographical and cultural characteristics of ancient China will be discussed with the following investigation of the influence of Taoism on culture during the Han dynasty. It is argued that the theme of the harmonious life of a human in a natural environment as the key idea of Taoism resembles in different forms of ancient Chinese art.
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The forming of the ancient Chinese civilization started more than four thousand years ago. The territory it occupied was located between the Yellow River and Yangzi (Major & Cook, 2016). The landscapes of the territory consisted of high mountains in the west, and plain soil in the central part, with the seashore on the east. The first populations inhabiting the south-east of Asia were engaged in agriculture since the mild climate was favorable for such activity. The people of ancient China grew grain crops and raised stock. Probably, such an isolated location that was parted by the mountains contributed to the uniqueness of the cultural heritage of this civilization.
With the emergence of the first civilizations, the Chinese people organized cities and developed a system of beliefs, which were resembled in their cultural practices. It is relevant to mention that contemporary humanity owes many inventions to the ancient civilization of China, one of which is paper. Literature, calligraphy, paintings, sculptures, architecture, and many other manifestations of artistic activities advanced in China during the Han dynasty. The emergence of literature gave the beginning to the leading philosophic and religious thought of the time, Taoism (Helle, 2017). This doctrine encouraged ancient Chinese people to participate in creative practices. Thus, there are numerous artifacts and art objects that have passed the time and now may illustrate the vision of the ancient.
The Theme Defining Ancient China During the Han Dynasty
The theme of harmony between humans and nature as a manifestation of Taoist philosophy emerges as a core of numerous art and architecture objects of the Han dynasty. Taoism was introduced by Lao-tze, who lived during the sixth century BC (Helle, 2017). The teaching cultivated a framework of beliefs focused on the ability of body and spirit not to die but to live everlastingly. To succeed at that, humans had to maintain the health of the body by adhering to specific rules of behavior and thought. Consequently, health is viewed as a fundamental element of human life. As Helle (2017) states, “the personal body is considered to be integrated into the “body” of the cosmos and designed to participate in the life of the universe” (p. 76). Thus, by harmonizing their lives with nature as a manifestation of the universe, people might obtain everlasting life. This idea of the unification with nature and harmonious arrangement of life affected many kinds of art.
Manifestations of the Theme in Art
Architecture as a combination of art and technology reflects not only the social realities of the time but also the philosophical views of the people. The spirit prevalent in the buildings of the early Han dynasty is characterized by the longing for harmonious layout and rational use of natural materials. One of the great examples of how the idea of harmony embodies in culture is architectural objects. According to Yang (2018), Chinese palaces dated back to the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) are assembled in chord with the central ideas of Taoism. Symmetrical designs symbolize harmony and the square forms of the buildings manifest the unity of the four sides of the world.
One of the examples of architectural sites that illustrate the embodiment of the theme is Jianzhang Palace “in the western suburbs of Chang’an” (Yang, 2018, p. 976). This building rises high and contains several floors layered one above another, thus symbolizing the interdependence of everything in the world. An important element of the palace is its garden and the pool which are designed in a very meticulous way with the philosophical use of space. The perfection of form was regarded as the manifestation of harmony with Tao. This idea is vividly demonstrated in the architecture but is not limited to it.
An ancient Chinese ink tablet in the form of a turtle created by an unknown artist during the Han dynasty is an example of symmetric stone carving. The author of this memorable piece of art is unknown. As seen in Appendix 1, the object realistically represents a turtle with a very detailed ornament of eight trigrams, which are associated with the beliefs of Taoism. Such geometric arrangements “helped explain the cosmological principles of transformation” and designate the importance of symmetry in the world of nature (“Ink tablet in the form of a turtle,” n. d.). The very idea of assembling a piece of earthenware in the form of an animal underlines the unity of natural and human forms of life in the daily activities of the ancient.
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Moreover, the organization of the trigrams in this object symbolizes the parts of the ancient divination text that gave the theoretical basis to Taoism. The text is entitled “The Book of Changes” and covers the concept of the spiritual transformation of a human throughout life. In accordance with the claimed theme of harmony between a human and nature, such transformation is regarded as a way toward the everlasting life available for those complying with the rituals and rules of Tao.
Paintings constitute another form of creative practice that embodies the highlights of the Taoist religion and philosophy. Indeed, the ancient Chinese people cultivated the art of painting as a visual portrayal of their vision of life and values in it. All in all, the Han dynasty is characterized by a range of paintings that were present on the walls of palaces, temples, and other buildings. The painters illustrated the themes, symbols, and characters specific to the Taoist thought, which included nature, landscapes, portraits, didactic and ethical motifs, and other elements (“Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220),” 2019). An example that is dated by 168 BC is a painting of an unknown author that was found in a tomb at Mawangdui (“Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220),” 2019. It shows the scenes of the underworld, the life of the buried person, and the elements of a funeral. Using bright colors and sophisticated application techniques, the author intertwines the elements of nature and the human world, the cosmic motifs with the realistic scenes. Thus, the idea of harmonious life with Tao that is resembled in the unity of mankind and nature is evident.
Summarizing the discussion, it is important to state that ancient Chinese cultural practices evolved in chord with the fundamental philosophical and religious ideas prevalent in the territory. The period of the Han dynasty was marked by the emergence of Taoism as the leading religious doctrine of civilization. Therefore, it is only natural that the theme of harmony between mankind and nature as a manifestation of perfection was addressed in many kinds of art.
As the analysis provided in the paper shows, the paintings found in a tomb dated by the Han dynasty, as well as earthenware objects dated the same period, resemble the motifs of symmetry and harmony. In an attempt to obtain everlasting life without dying, the ancient Chinese civilization preserved the beliefs and rituals introduced by Lao-tze. They prioritized their healthy life as a manifestation of unity with nature, which is the element of the universe. Preserving this idea in creative practices helped them broadly include Taoism in everyday life. Thus, the ancient civilization under discussion vastly employed the philosophical perception of the forces in life and interpreted them into art pieces proclaiming the importance of living in harmony with Tao.
Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). (2019). Web.
Helle, H. J. (2017). Daoism: China’s native religion. In H. J. Helle, China: Promise or Threat?: A Comparison of Cultures (pp. 71-81). Boston, MA: Brill.
Ink tablet in the form of a turtle. (n. d.). Web.
Major, J. S., & Cook, C. A. (2016). Ancient China: A history. New York, NY: Routledge.
Yang, C. (2018). Cultivating sentiment and soul and poetically living: The creation thought and aesthetic features of ancient Chinese garden architecture. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, 283, 976-978.