Art Of China: My journey of discovery


As an art historian with a strong interest in all of the different cultures of the world, I have been to some wonderful and fascinating places.

But never anywhere quite as dramatic and surprising as China, where I spent almost three months last year for BBC Four’s Art Of China.

Watch the trail: Nothing quite prepares you for the experience

China's landscapes are spectacular.

As for the painting, the sculpture, the architecture - well I hope anyone who watches Art Of China will agree that it is thrillingly strange, different from anything they've ever seen, and just breathtakingly beautiful in the way it is made.

I'd never been there before, so this was a real journey of discovery for me - and I really hope that comes across in the series that we've made.
The art of China has also been full of surprises for the Chinese themselves, especially in recent years.

So much digging and excavating has taken place, that they have made a huge number of stunning archaeological discoveries, often by chance.

One of the first places I visited was the remote remains of an ancient place called Sanxingdui, in the Sichuan Basin in south western China.

Some builders digging new foundations had uncovered jaw-droppingly bizarre and wonderful three-thousand year old relics: vast human heads made of bronze with ghoulish staring eyes, masks of beaten gold, a great tree made from metal, complete with fruit and birds perched on its branches.

The discovery of treasures of the lost and ancient city Sanxingdui

The civilisation that produced all these wonders had been all but forgotten, but now it's suddenly risen from the dead!

In neighbouring Shaanxi province I visited the most famous example of China's ancient cult of the ancestors, which led them to bury their dead along with their most precious things: the First Emperor, buried with his army of terracotta soldiers.

What most people will be less familiar with are the astounding bronze charioteers also found in his burial site, whose job it was to chauffeur him around the afterlife.

Made from more than 3,000 separate pieces, they're probably the most sophisticated objects ever made from bronze to survive from the ancient world.

Designed to be fully functioning, these bronze chariots could roll along the ground


I'll never forget reaching the great deserts of the Silk Road afterwards, like walking on the surface of the moon.

Here I visited the great Buddhist cave complex at Dunhuang, painted with images of hell and salvation by generations of artists over a thousand years and more.

Later, I travelled south to the Yellow Mountains, where you can stand above the cloud line, amid the peaks, and imagine that you've gone back a thousand years - and that you're actually standing inside the scene of some beautiful Chinese scroll painting.

China's major belief systems, Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, all place nature at their centre


The mountains inspired different generations of Chinese artists in different ways.

To many painters of the Song Dynasty they symbolised the mighty order of nature, but also the necessary pecking order of human society, with the Emperor as the tallest peak, surrounded by the lesser peaks of his courtiers and the foothills standing for the common man.

To the much later painters of the Yuan Dynasty, who were part of a Chinese elite marginalised and exiled by their new Mongol leaders, the mountains were a place of retreat and defeat.

Their scroll paintings of nature, although exquisite, are also infused with a sense of melancholy.

Finally I looked at Communism, mostly by travelling the urban landscape of Beijing, since it was the city on which Mao Zedong most tried to leave his stamp.

Tiananmen Square, which ironically means “Gate of Heavenly Peace Square” was his creation, for example.

When Communism was first on the rise in China it was viewed by many people with great hope – hope that their nation would finally be modernised, and at last catch up with developments in the west.

For me, the most moving work of art to survive from those years is a scroll painting by Xu Beihong, who was one of the leading artists of the time and also a friend of Mao. 

A beautiful depiction of a galloping horse, meant I suspect to symbolise China itself heading towards a bright future.

Galloping Horse is an enduringly famous image, still reproduced throughout China today


The future did not turn out to be quite as bright as Xu Beihong hoped, but still his picture is a deeply touching and poignant document of its time.

I started doing the Art Of... more than 10 years ago now. There have been six series so far (and counting).

If there's a single driving purpose behind the project as a whole, it's been to broaden the horizons of art as usually seen on the telly - to go beyond the usual suspects, if you like, to look past the art of the Italian Renaissance and French Impressionism.

Where next? Suggestions gratefully received...

Andrew Graham-Dixon presents of Art Of China.
Art Of China is on Wednesday, 30 July at 9pm on BBC Four and BBC Four HD. For further programmes times please see the episode guide.

More on Art Of China
BBC Four: Art Of China: Andrew's Best Bits 

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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