Art Of China: My journey of discovery

Wednesday 30 July 2014, 08:00

Andrew Graham-Dixon Andrew Graham-Dixon Presenter

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.

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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.

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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.

Ancient bronze chariot and four bronze horses 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.

View at the top of the Yellow Mountains, China 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.

Xu Beihong, Chinese ink painting of a galloping horse 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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I always enjoyed Art of ... programme. I suggest your next programme to be Art of Hungary (Magyar) if you haven't already done so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    This series is a rare gem the BBC occasionally produces. I resent paying a TV license since there is so much crap on TV & radio I no longer watch the main terrestial channels. I do occasionally now subscribe to pay as you go channels such as NowTV and I would pay to watch this series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I worked in China for a year, quite a few years ago now, and I have to say what a treat it was to watch ‘Art of China’. I was glued to the TV, and will clearly have to go back because there was so much that I didn’t see first time around.

    My own memories include having to look twice as I saw people walking down the street backwards (good for balance), or seeing groups of people doing tai chi in the park, alongside the traffic noise and general city rush. I also remember speeding ‘east-north’ not ‘north-east’ in a taxi and understanding for the first time why Mongolia could be referred to as ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’; it makes sense once you realise that China is the Middle Kingdom.

    Life could be very challenging; one experience with which I identified was having to know the precise question to ask, in order to get the information you need. There is one scene visiting a burial site, and it only emerges later that the artefacts there are reproductions; if you want to see the real ones, you have to visit the museum!

    I also identified with attempting to write calligraphy whilst surrounded by students and schoolchildren who were doing their best not to laugh – it was important to remain stoical. I started to appreciate calligraphy more once I realised that you need to know the structure and stroke order of the characters, and also that writing calligraphy is a discipline, a bit like tai chi, so probably something which takes years to master.

    Living and working in China could be challenging, but also very rewarding. I didn’t appreciate this fully until I took a course in Chinese. Although the course was predominantly about language, there were some references to Chinese culture. One comment which seemed to make things fall into place for me was about the contrast between Western and Chinese approaches to the resolution of chaos. In Western culture, resolution lies in the idea of ‘order’, so a structured, methodical approach. Contrast this with China, where chaos is said to be resolved through ‘harmony’; this is somehow a richer, more human answer, and one which is not necessarily a stark opposite to the original dilemma. This distinction helped me to make more sense of some of my experiences.

    Returning to the programme, it was great to see the Terracotta Warriors and it must have been fantastic to walk amongst them, face to face, rather than seeing them only from the top of a pit, looking down. I didn’t know anything about the ancient city at Sanxingdui and the programme seemed to capture both the mystery of the figures and the excitement that they have only been discovered recently. The programme talked about the importance of honouring ancestors; I had seen bamboo wreaths decorated with paper flowers before, but hadn’t realised there was such an array of other possibilities on offer, such as miniature cars and laptops.

    Another theme which made me smile was that you do have to work for your art appreciation at times, whether jolting along the Silk Route or climbing to the caves at Dunhuang. My similar experience was the gruelling climb to the top of Tai Shan in Shandong Province – I’m pleased that I went but it wasn’t necessarily plain sailing! Some of the paintings in the Dunhuang caves reminded me of those at Ajanta in India, so something else which helped me to piece a few of my travels together.

    All in all, I thought the programme was a real journey of discovery, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I came across this on iPlayer and was so pleased to discover the programme. The subject is fascinating, and like the other commentator, I too worked in China for 6-months and found it an invaluable experience. This programme is stimulating, well presented, loved the photography and editing, really well done! Such a revelation to be allowed to see the subject and not have wobbly cam and crash zoom editing distract from the journey. I am so envious of the presenter (who is a natural) for the experience and to be allowed access to priceless items, what a privilege. Can't wait for the next episode, this is up there with wild China another memorable programme. Well done to all, excellent!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Thank- you Andrew for a wonderful programme, which I watched with increasing pleasure.
    I agree with the previous comment comment about the quality of television these days, my heart sinks when I see the endless 'adverts' for Tumble, so it is good to know that part of my licence fee goes to produce something so worthwhile as Art of China . Thank-you again.


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