Art and Literature in Ancient China

Chinese literature has a long and prolific continuous history, in part because of the development of printmaking during the Song dynasty.

Before that, manuscripts of the Classics and religious texts (mainly Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist) were manually written by ink brush (previously scratching shells) and distributed.

Academies of scholars sponsored by the empire were formed to comment on these works in both printed and written form. Members of royalty frequently participated in these discussions.

Tens of thousands of ancient written documents are still extant and more, from oracle bones to Qing edicts, are discovered each day, which had been formally ground up for use in Chinese medicine.

For centuries, opportunity for economic and social advancement in China could be provided by high performance on the imperial examinations.

This led to a meritocracy, though in practice this was possible only among those who were not female or too poor to afford test preparation, as doing well still required tutorship. Nevertheless it was a system distinct from the European system of blood nobility.

Imperial examinations required applicants to write essays and demonstrate mastery of the Confucian classics. Those who passed the highest level of the exam became elite scholar-officials known as jinshi, a highly esteemed socio-economic position.

Chinese philosophers, writers, and poets have been, for the most part, highly respected, and played a key role in preserving and promoting the culture of the empire.

Some classical scholars, however, were noted for their daring depictions of lives of the common people, often to the displeasure of authorities.

The Chinese have created numerous musical instruments, such as the zheng, xiao, and erhu, that have spread throughout East and Southeast Asia, and especially areas under its influence.

The sheng is the basis for several Western free-reed instruments. Chinese characters have had many variants and styles throughout the Chinese history, and were "simplified" in the mid-20th century on mainland China.

Calligraphy is a major art-form in China, above that of painting and music. Because of its association with elite scholar-official bosses, it later on became commercialized, where works by famous artists became prized possessions.

The great variation and beauty in the Chinese landscape is often the inspiration for great works of Chinese art. See Chinese painting for more details.

Calligraphy, sushi, and bonsai are all millennia-old art that later spread to Japan and Korea.