For millennia, the Middle Kingdom has been a source of inspiration and art. From the beautiful brushstrokes of calligraphy to the ornate bronze works of ritual vessels, some of the most beautiful antiques in the world originated in China.
These antiques are gorgeous works of art – and you can own them yourself.
Before you make your first purchase, you should familiarize yourself with the different types of Chinese antiques. Here are 12 examples of Chinese antiques.
1. Jade Carvings
Jade is a hard stone used for ritual objects, weapons, tools, or ornaments. Its pure green variety is the most well-known, but it can come in other colors like red, black, purple, or yellow.
Tools like rods and sand “carved” jade, shaping it via friction. The process was very labor-intensive. Ancient cultures, such as the Liangzhu, produced many grave goods for a handful of the elite.
Even with modern tools, carving jade is a labor-intensive process that requires special diamond tools.
A famous example of a jade carving is the Qianlong Emperor’s “Ji’entang” seal from 1776. It’s carved from white jade, also known as “mutton fat” jade, which can range from opaque white to yellow-white or cream-colored.
Mirrors were often carved with intricate designs, frequently out of bronze. Written characters were often inscribed in the mirror for good luck. Nature was often included in the designs and mirrors, frequently incorporating birds, insects, or dragons.
Mirrors were usually round. However, during the Song and Yuan dynasties (10th-14th century) more forms became available, and mirrors were often created in octagonal or oblong shapes.
Mirrors became a frequent burial accessory due to their association with the supernatural. A reflection was mysterious. Mirrors could dispel evil spirits.
A bronze mirror from the Qianlong period sold for 125,000 Euros ($140,631 USD) in a 2018 auction.
Most furniture in ancient China came from hongmu, or mahogany, a reddish-brown hardwood. The Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties produced the most popular furniture.
Ming furniture was generally constructed from one large piece of wood and is simpler in design than later pieces. Qing-era furniture was often made of more than one piece of wood and was often more decorative and embellished.
Most furniture was hall furniture. Halls were the largest room in the house and served as the equivalent of a parlor or living room. Since these rooms were the more public of household rooms, the furniture here was often more expensive.
These pieces of furniture are very popular today, with a pair of corner cabinets selling for $1.3 million USD.
It is a reddish-brown ceramic made from coarse, porous clay and is often unglazed.
Arguably the most famous work of terracotta art is the Terracotta Army. The Terracotta Army is a collection of sculptures depicting the army of Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor.
Thousands of figures make up the necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, which is believed to be unfinished. They were built to guard the emperor in the afterlife. The figures vary in height, equipment, and facial features.
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During the Ming dynasty, the artistry of porcelain rose to new heights. Ming porcelain is famous for its blue and white designs that commonly featured dragons or phoenixes. These elaborate items served as gifts for foreign powers.
Porcelain continued in popularity through the Qing dynasty too. Art reflected this change in leadership. One colorful Qing dynasty vase sold for $83 million.
Calligraphy was high art in ancient China. Prior to the invention of paper, calligraphy was written on oracles or animal bones. The plastrons or flat belly portion of a turtle shell was also used.
There are five major styles of Chinese calligraphy: seal, clerical, semi-cursive, and cursive scripts.
Seal script is used for seals but was previously the formal script of the Qin writing system. The clerical script seems to have evolved naturally and separately from the seal script.
The semi-cursive script involves the brush leaving the paper fewer times, allowing characters to run into each other. The cursive script is a fully cursive script where characters frequently flow into each other.
One of the most famous calligraphers was Wang Xizhu. His most popular work is Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion, a preface of a collection of poems.
Traditional painting used the same techniques as calligraphy. A brush was dipped in black ink or pigments. Paper or silk was used as a canvas and the finished work was often mounted on a scroll.
The most expensive Chinese painting ever sold at auction was Ten Views of a Lingbi Stone, which sold for $76 million. It’s a mix of painting and calligraphy.
The work is by Wu Bin, a painter during the Ming dynasty who depicted lingbi, or odd-shaped stones. The “ten views” were the written perspectives of Wu Bin’s friends, who wrote postscripts on the painting.
8. Bronze Work
Chinese bronzes are incredibly durable works, and in the case of ritual vessels, often ornate pieces buried with the dead. Spirals, triangular hooks, and abstract animal designs appear on many bronze pieces.
One popular type of bronze container is the fangyi, or wine vessel. These were often elaborately decorated and came in many different shapes.
One fangyi from the 11th or 12th century Shang dynasty sold for $3.3 million at a 2010 auction.
9. Bamboo Works
Bamboo carving gained popularity during the Ming dynasty. It is a cheap and readily available resource. However, its affordability doesn’t mean beautiful art can’t result from it.
Many bamboo artworks served functional purposes, acting as paperweights, stamps, or incense burners. These carvings were small and intricate, and each one was unique.
Bamboo paintings were also common. Xia Chang’s Bamboo in Wind shows the strength of the bamboo plant and highlights China’s fondness for it.
Aside from terracotta and porcelain, Chinese artists have worked in other ceramics too. China and ceramics go back over ten thousand years.
Ceramicware can be low-temperature fired (950-1200 ℃) and high-temperature fired (1250-1400 ℃) ceramics.
Prior to porcelain becoming popular, earthenware ceramic was popular. Bowls and vases were common products, and many were glazed with yellow, white, and green glazes during the Tang dynasty.
Green glazed ceramics are known as Celadon ceramics, due to their jade green Celadon color. A particularly rare Celadon bowl sold for $38 million U.S. in 2017. The simple, small bowl sold in minutes.
11. Buddhist Imagery
When Buddhism took root in China, it also took root in the hearts of many artists, inspiring sculptures in tombs and paintings in caves.
Buddhist imagery is throughout Chinese works of art and antiques. Representations of Buddha appear on antique Chinese vases, bamboo carvings, and jade carvings.
One of the most famous examples of Buddhist art is the Leshan Giant Buddha, a 233 foot tall stone statue built during the Tang dynasty. The statue was carved out of the cliff face. It’s the largest Buddha statue in the world.
Art with images of the Buddha has traveled around the world, reaching far beyond Asia.
Recently, a Tang dynasty sculpture sold for over $2 million USD. The sculpture depicted a rare form of Avalokiteshvara, a popular Chinese Buddhist deity. The original owner bought it for less than $100 at a garage sale in the U.S.
12. Revolving Vases
Revolving vases have incredible craftsmanship and are often made from different pieces inside and out, top and bottom so that the inside of the body can revolve. The vases would take months to make and had to be up to the high standards of the emperor.
Revolving vases are also known as slip vases.
Earlier this year, a Chinese imperial yangcai ceramic vase was sold in Beijing for a record 265.7 million RMB ($41.6 million US). This sets a new record for the most valuable ceramic vessel.
This piece is a revolving vase produced during the Qianlong reign (1736-1795). It measures 63 cm tall, making it one of the largest vessels of its kind.
This specific vase features a Phoenix scene. The Phoenix soars among the clouds. Below it lies a landscape of vibrant foliage, flowing water, and a stone bridge.
The vase’s inside features multiple scenes of birds, which appear to hide among the outer layer’s foliage. The entire piece gives a perception of depth.
View And Acquire Your Own Chinese Antiques
Since 1972, Weisbrod has acquired the most exquisite early Chinese art for museums and collectors worldwide. Our collection of Chinese antiques includes sculptures, ceramics, bronzes, and other highly sought-after pieces. These rare objects range from the Neolithic Period to the Qing Dynasty.