Ancient Chinese Picture Study: Han Dynasty

han men

Painting of five Han nobles conversing and wearing elegant clothing. The second figure from the left carries a stylized umbrella. The figures are painted in ink and colours on whitewashed earthenware tiles. The painting was found in a Han tomb that dates between 50 BC and 50 AD

Prior to the Warring States Period of 475-221BC paintings tended to be ornamental rather than representational.  We had seen pottery with patterns or designs rather than pictures; for example spirals, zigzags, dots, or simple animals. It was only during the Warring States Period that artists began to represent the world around them. In imperial times painting and calligraphy in China were thought to be the purest forms of art.  They used a brush pen, made of animal hair, and inks made from naturally occurring minerals.

Artists from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) to the Tang dynasty (618–906) mainly painted the human figure.  Much of their work has been preserved in tombs and can help us learn more about these particular dynasties.  Our chosen painting was a tomb painting of five nobles.  We had done an exercise the day before, reading an ancient Chinese tale set in Han times and had discussed all the things we could learn about the Han people simply from hearing this story.  I decided to take a similar approach with this picture study.

I sat them down and brought up the image on the computer, and asked them to each tell me one thing they noticed.  T11 immediately said primary evidence, C10 said faded colours and L10 said rich people as she remembered from the story the day before that nobles wore long belted gowns.  We briefly discussed why it was faded (natural pigments, aged).  I asked them what the significance was of it being primary evidence, to which L10 answered ‘to teach us about the Han people, first hand’.  Excellent, this told me we were going in the desired direction.  And we continued one at a time noting something, which we all then discussed: the nobles beard, so stylised; their hats; their staff; the trimmings around their gowns; the ‘mufflers around their hands.  We discussed the atmosphere and how peaceful it was; T11 commented that he thought they were speaking respectfully to each other as they were looking into each others eyes.  I asked them about the composition of the painting which lead to much discussion about how the painters had achieved depth and perspective (using size differences in the figures and their position on the tile, with two of them standing further up the tile) and also variety (some turned to side, others have back to us).

I had made up a large tray full of plaster the night before and left it to dry.  The next morning we made up some ink from our Chinese blocks and after sketching three of the figures, the children gave the plaster an all over yellow wash:

Our plaster 'terracotta tile' ready to be painted.
Our plaster ‘terracotta tile’ ready to be painted.

The children then made up all the other colours and took their painting outside.  I was fairly easy-going how they went about it.  They decided to paint one man each separately rather than getting in each others way:

C10 enjoying her Chinese painting out of doors
C10 enjoying her Chinese painting out-of-doors
Our final replication of the original tomb painting.  Not bad T11, L10 and C10!
Our final replication of the original tomb painting. Not bad T11, L10 and C10!

This was not an in-depth study, and in fact only took an hour or so to complete, but was well worth it.

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  1. This looks fantastic!! The kids did an amazing job replicating the tomb painting. Love the attention to detail noticed by your kids in studying the original, and in particular T11’s comment about speaking respectfully to each other because of their eye contact.

  2. Love your art study and the final result. Pass my congrats along to the children for a job well done. I will share it with my g’kids. We are going to have an art study today too. We are off to the city art gallery for their huge exhibition – 100 works by the masters. They have borrowed many works from galleries across the country and from other countries and we will see works by Rodin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, etc. (You have to remember that we are a small city – 6-700,000 – and this is a BIG DEAL for us.)

    Myra, from Winnipeg, where we are having another sunny morning.

  3. I really enjoy the discussion part of the picture study too. Much learning takes place through discussions. The replica tomb painting is really well done too! I’m bookmarking this for the time when we finally get to China in our study. 🙂

  4. Brilliant work you guys!! Wow! I think you can all three pat yourselves on the back for this – I think you captured the detail and nuance of the original beautifully! And of course well done Mom… 😉

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