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Literature and art


Peking Opera
Peking Opera

During the Cultural Revolution an enormous number of cultural treasures of inestimable value were seriously damaged or destroyed, and the practice of many arts and crafts was prohibited. Since the early 1980s, however, official repudiation of those policies has been complemented by vigorous efforts to renew China’s remarkable cultural traditions. Loosening many of the earlier restrictions has also rejuvenated many art forms previously devoted almost exclusively to propaganda. China’s “Fifth Generation Cinema,” for example, is known for such outstanding film directors as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who have highlighted themes of social and political oppression.

The Shijing (“Classic of Poetry”), an anthology of poetry given definitive form about 500 bc, is one of China’s oldest classics and contains 305 folk songs and ritual psalms. Although the Tang dynasty (ad 618–907) is called the Golden Age of Chinese poetry, having produced the poets Du Fu and Li Bai, poets of renown were present in every dynasty, and the writing of poetry was practiced by most well-educated Chinese for both personal and social reasons.

China’s tradition of historical narrative is also unsurpassed in the world. Twenty-five dynastic histories preserve a unique record from the unverified Xia dynasty (c. 2070–1600 bc) to the Qing (ad 1644–1911/12), and sprawling historical romances have been a mainstay in the reading of the educated since the spread of printing in the 11th and 12th centuries ad.

The May Fourth Movement (1917–21) attacked much of this great literary and cultural tradition, viewing it as a source of China’s weakness. Students and faculty at Peking University abandoned the literary language and created a new popular fiction, written in a more-accessible colloquial language on themes from ordinary life. Literary culture continued to be a subject of intense debate.

Mao Zedong, who composed poetry in both contemporary and traditional styles, dictated that art must serve politics in his talks at Yan’an in 1942. Throughout the following decades, writers received both admiration and ridicule. Indeed, the fate of most important writers was closely linked to the vicissitudes of national politics from the 1950s onward. Only in the mid-1980s did writers again begin to enjoy some official tolerance of “art for art’s sake.”

The oldest art forms in China are music and dance. A 5,000-year-old pottery bowl from Qinghai province is painted with a ring of 15 dancers adorned in headdresses and sashes and stepping in unison. Music played an important role in early Chinese ritual and statecraft. Bronze bells were instruments of investiture and reward. A bronze bell set from a tomb in the ancient state of Zeng in Hubei province, interred about 430 bc, contains 64 bells, each of which produces two distinct, tuned strike notes.

More than 120 instruments were unearthed from the same tomb, including stringed zithers, mouth organs, flutes, drums, and stone chimes. Music and related rituals helped to provide a structure for activities in the courts of rulers at all levels in the feudal hierarchy.

Theatre in China


Theatre, once the most important popular art form in China, remains important for some. However, it has been eclipsed in popularity by television dramas, especially serials. Chinese theatre originated in early religious dances, performed at festivals to exorcise demons, reenact important historical events, or prepare for harvest, hunting, or warfare. Urban storytelling and theatrical genres are well documented from the Song dynasty but are known to have matured during the Yuan dynasty (1206–1368). Yuan dramas—or operas, as they are more accurately called—consisted of virtuoso song and dance organized around plots on historical or contemporary themes. The operas were performed in special theatres, with elegant costumes and decorated stages. From Yuan drama, later forms developed, including contemporary jingxi (Peking opera) and other regional forms, which feature song and dance, elaborate costumes and props, and displays of martial arts and acrobatics. "China" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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