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Chinese Architecture


Chinese Art and Architecture, art and architecture of China from the Neolithic (New Stone Age)
culture to the 20th century, representing the most significant achievement of the world’s
longest continuous civilization. The principle that underlies all aspects of Chinese culture—
harmonious balance—is exemplified in its art. Chinese art is a careful balance of traditions and
innovations, of both native and foreign ideas, and of religious and secular images.

China has a traditional reverence toward ancestors; the stable and hierarchical life of the
Chinese extended family is proverbial. It is reflected in the formality of the Chinese house, built
in rectangular form, preferably at the northern end of a walled courtyard entered from the
south, with auxiliary elements disposed in a symmetrical fashion on either side of the north-
south axis. This pattern was the point of departure for more lavish programs for mansions,
monasteries, palaces, and, eventually, whole cities


China’s emperors were the earliest and most frequent patrons of the arts. Most artists and
architects were government employees, working by royal order. In contrast, amateur artists,
often retired or exiled officials, were free from the restraints of court control; their work
reflects an important individualism that often differs from the imperial styles. The rise or
decline of a particular royal household would affect profoundly the course of Chinese art.
Although widely diverse in their cultural inclinations, all dynastic rulers shared an interest in
preserving tradition. Chinese kings, especially those establishing a new dynasty, were anxious
to gain legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. A common way to secure support was to
continue the artistic achievements of past dynasties. New influences, often entering China
from India or the Middle East, were also sanctioned by the court, but any innovative ideas in
art, religion, or philosophy were carefully woven into the preexisting fabric of Chinese life.

The art of China’s earliest dynastic periods, often called the Bronze Age, from the Shang to the
Han dynasty, focused on the cult of the dead. Concerned with securing immortality and safe
passage to the afterlife, kings and their officers constructed and decorated lavish tombs. The
Chinese favored underground burials, and many tombs remain intact. Intricately fashioned
bronze vessels, weapons, carved jades, and ceramic objects were placed near the coffin to
provide comfort and protection in the next world. The walls of the burial chamber were often
decorated with carved or painted ornamental scenes depicting popular legends or activities of
daily life. Archaeological fieldwork, which has increased dramatically in China since 1950, has
unearthed a wealth of ancient material.
Foreign travel and political turmoil affected the character of Chinese art in the centuries
following the collapse of the Han dynasty in AD 220. Buddhism, introduced in the 4th century
AD, brought new styles of architecture, sculpture, and painting from India. In addition, the
Buddhist doctrine stressing the human spirit’s ability to transcend death caused a decline in
opulent burial customs. By the time China was unified under the Tang (T’ang) dynasty in the
7th century, the subject matter of art had become more cosmopolitan and worldly. Secular
architecture reached unprecedented grandeur; landscape painting and portraiture flourished;
and technological advances in ceramics led to the development of fine porcelain during the
Tang dynasty.

The dynasties following the Tang refined and expanded on its achievements. Landscape
painting became an important expression of both art and philosophy, particularly among the
wenren (wen-jen)—amateur painters working outside the court. At court, paintings of the
favored subjects—birds and flowers, animals and children—were produced in vast numbers for
the royal collections. Calligraphy, the art of writing characters, was elevated to a position of
great significance. In addition to the pictorial arts, China’s most enduring art form, ceramics,
reached new heights of technological and aesthetic brilliance. Royalty and wealthy subjects
decorated their homes with an array of objects such as carved lacquers, woven tapestries,
ivories, jades, and precious metals. Architecture, from the Song (Sung) dynasty on, also
increased in sophistication. Many of the structures built during the Ming and Qing (Ch’ing)
periods still stand in Beijing.

Throughout China’s history its artists were highly trained in specific skills and, with the
exception of the amateur artists, were attached to large, well-organized workshops. Knowledge
of materials and techniques was passed from generation to generation within families.
Although the tools used by Chinese artists were relatively simple, such as a bamboo brush or a
wooden beater, the construction of their looms, kilns, and foundries reveals an understanding
of complex production procedures. The fast-turning potter’s wheel in the Neolithic period and
the remarkable results of bronze casting in the Shang dynasty are testimony to the high
technical skill of these early Chinese artists.


(1570?-1045? BC). The Shang civilization grew directly from the achievements of the Neolithic
cultural period (about 4000-2000 BC), an important epoch in early Chinese history. During the
Neolithic period, the beginnings of agriculture and the domestication of animals led to the
establishment of villages. With this new pattern of life came the earliest burial practices,
including the interment of objects from daily life, thus preserving artifacts. Neolithic tombs
have yielded a rich variety of ceramics, the most notable being large, painted jars that were
probably burial urns, as well as footed vessels of polished black clay. The latter, which were
turned on a potter’s wheel, were associated with a ritual ceremony. Jade and stone tools have
also been discovered, and it is likely that the Neolithic Chinese had some knowledge of
metallurgy, although definite proof has yet to be found.

The Shang people originated as a clan of Neolithic villagers in the central Chinese province of
Henan (Honan). Their dynastic rule is usually divided into two periods, one before and one
after the establishment of the royal capital at Anyang in the 13th century BC. A number of
Shang cities were established in the pre-Anyang period, but most artifacts of the period,
including ceramics, jades, and bronze vessels, have been discovered in graves. The artifacts
are of particular significance because they prove the existence of rituals requiring special
containers for food and wine. These ceremonies stimulated a desire for vessels of ever more
elaborate decoration, and, to meet the demand, the technology of metallurgy advanced

The Anyang period marks the final two and one-half centuries of Shang rule. The
archaeological work carried out near this ancient capital has increased knowledge of Shang art
and culture. It is clear from inscriptions found on animal bones (called oracle bones) and
bronze vessels that the rulers were deeply concerned with ensuring their immortality. They
practiced a complex system of ancestor worship that included offerings of foods and liquids at
their temples. The vessels were a vital part of the ceremony and suggest that the Shang
people had several cult images. Often the entire surface of a ritual bronze was decorated with
monsters and birds and occasionally with a human figure.

Shang kings also constructed elaborate tombs. Convinced they could carry material
possessions to the next life, members of the royal household were buried with much of their
personal wealth. In 1975, Chinese archaeologists discovered the Anyang tomb of a Shang
king’s favored wife. An inventory of the objects revealed more than 400 bronze vessels and
weapons as well as 600 pieces of jade and stone. The high artistic quality of these objects—
among them, carefully carved jade figures and bronzes in the shape of animals and birds—
gives further evidence of the advanced character of China’s earliest dynastic art.


(1045?-256 BC). The Shang kings were unable to control the increasing strength of a
neighboring tribe, called the Zhou (Chou), who lived on their western border. In about 1045 BC

the Zhou attacked Anyang and established their dynastic seat there. At first, much of the
conquered Shang culture was retained. Indeed, bronzes and jades from the Xi’an (Sian) period,
also called the Western Zhou period, resemble those of the preceding dynasty. As the system
of ancestor worship began to disintegrate, vessels once used in the temples became valuable
trophies given by the king to powerful subjects. Vessels were cast to commemorate victories in
war or the granting of land. These bronzes usually carried long inscriptions explaining the
event being commemorated and are now valuable records of early Chinese history.
Forced to flee from other tribal attackers, the Zhou moved their capital from Xi’an to Luoyang,
another city in Henan, in 771 BC, marking the beginning of the Eastern Zhou period. The
geographical break with the Shang past was reflected in Eastern Zhou art. Bronzes became
more secular and were often given as wedding gifts for household decoration. Images of
totemic animals and monsters gave way to colorful, abstract ornament, often inlaid on the
surface in gold or semiprecious stones. Bronze bells and mirrors were also popular during this

Late Eastern Zhou art displays the diversity and skill in techniques that characterize the rest of
the history of Chinese art. Paintings on silk, the earliest examples of this medium, have been
discovered in Eastern Zhou tombs. Wood sculpture, lacquerwork, and glazed ceramics also
indicate new developments and styles.


(221 BC-AD 589). Although brief, the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty (221-206 BC) played an important part
in Chinese history. The political breakdown of the late Eastern Zhou empire ended with a
consolidation of power under emperor Qin Shihuangdi (Ch’in Shih-huang-ti). It is from this
ruler’s household that the name China is derived. When this powerful ruler died, he was
entombed in a massive burial mound in the northwestern province of Shanxi (Shansi). This
royal grave came to light only recently, revealing more than 6000 terra-cotta human figures
and horses intended to protect the emperor’s crypt. The figures were carefully fashioned to
resemble one of his real infantries, with well-outfitted officers, charioteers, and archers, as well
as youthful foot soldiers. Now faded with the passage of time, the army was originally painted
in a wide variety of bright colors. Although human sacrifice, a practice associated with Shang
burials, had long been abandoned, the desire to have protection on the journey after death
remained an important element in burial practice.

The second Qin ruler was unable to retain his father’s strength and yielded control to the Han
household in 206 BC. China remained under Han rule for more than 400 years (206 BC-AD 220), a
period of vital significance in the history of Chinese art.

A Painting

Painting, which had begun in the late Zhou dynasty, flourished during the Han. Tombs were
still the primary focus for artists and architects, and the most popular subjects of paintings
were the afterlife and legends of ancient heroes. In these paintings is evident the attempt, not
found in earlier Chinese art, to depict space and distance. During the Han period the first
landscape elements appear in painting; at this early stage, however, they are restricted to
small trees or mountains. Historical texts from this era indicate that large portraits of the
emperors adorned the palace and that murals were often painted in the royal residences.
Unfortunately, all traces of this artwork have been lost.
B Tombs and Tomb Artifacts

As with painting, only the architecture of the tomb survives. Stories of magnificent imperial
palaces are found in Han histories, but the palaces themselves have long since been
destroyed. The elaborate construction of burial sites gives a strong indication of the
sophisticated architectural technology that must have existed. Intricate systems of vaulting
and columnar support replaced the timber and packed-earth structures of the previous
dynasties. The Han people richly furnished the interiors of their graves with a wide variety of
miniature objects, usually fashioned as replicas of actual possessions, animals, or buildings.
Called ming ji yi (ming-chi’i) (“spirit goods”), these items were used as substitutes for valuable
possessions. Ming ji yi were usually produced in ceramic and were glazed or colorfully painted.
A typical grave contained miniatures of home, a barnyard, favorite pets and servants, and an
assortment of objects from daily life.

Although the popularity of ming ji yi decreased the quality of artifacts found in graves, some
examples of extravagance in the Han rival the great Shang burials. The underground tomb
chambers of Prince Liu Sheng and his wife Dou Wan (Tou Wan) (died about 120 BC), discovered
in Hebei (Hopeh) Province in 1968, held a rich array of lacquers, silks, pottery, and bronze
vessels, some gilded and some inlaid with gold. Both bodies were clothed in so-called jade
suits, body coverings fashioned of small, rectangular pieces of jade sewn together with gold
thread. Each outfit contains more than 2000 individual pieces of the precious stone, long
believed to symbolize eternal life. Chinese archaeologists estimate that each suit took more
than ten years to complete.

The wealth of the Han court could not prevent the eventual overthrow of the dynasty in AD 220.
The next four centuries, during which rival clans attempted to control portions of the empire, is
referred to as the Six Dynasties (AD 220-589). During this period Chinese art was influenced by
new ideas, including important religious developments. The native belief systems,
Confucianism and Daoism (Taoism), fostered different subject matter and styles in the arts.
Scenes of filial piety were the most popular expression of the Confucian ideal; the freer,
nature-loving Daoists favored landscapes and folk legends.

C Buddhist Art

The most profound effect of religion on the art of the Six Dynasties was Buddhism, which came
from neighboring India. The first examples of Buddhist art were the small statues carried to
China by Indian Buddhists. By the 4th century an influx of styles and subjects created a new
category of Buddhist art and architecture within the Chinese tradition. In western China, the
monastery at Dunhuang (Tunhwang) still preserves important wall paintings based on sacred
stories. Monumental sculpture, a contribution from northern India, gained popularity and led to
the creation of massive stone carvings of Buddhist deities in the mountains of Henan and
Shaanxi (Shensi) provinces. Wooden pagodas, an architectural form based both on the Indian
stupa and the Han-dynasty tower, was a significant structural contribution of this period. By
the 6th century, Buddhism had permeated nearly every facet of Chinese cultural life.

D Painting

Although Buddhist art dominated much of the Six Dynasties’ achievements, secular traditions
were also changing. Gu Kaizhi (Ku K’ai-chih), considered the father of landscape painting,
worked during this period. Three paintings are attributed to his hand, although probably only
copies remain. They include two versions of the Fairy of the Lo River story (Freer Gallery of Art,
Washington, D.C., and Palace Museum, Beijing) and the scroll entitled Admonitions of the
Instructress to the Ladies of the Court (British Museum, London). The figures and landscape
elements in his work have a formal, almost stiff quality, but they also possess a delicacy and
an ethereal character that continue throughout the long landscape tradition of Chinese art.

E Ceramics

Northern China, the primary center of Buddhist influence, is often the focus of studies of Six
Dynasties art and culture. In southern China, however, advances were also made, especially in
the area of ceramics. The first recognizable ware type, a green-glazed stoneware called Yueh-
yao, or “Yueh ware,” was manufactured in the kilns of Zhejiang (Chekiang) Province. This
highly durable ceramic, often fashioned into bowls and jars, was eventually exported as far as
the Philippines and Egypt.


(618-907). The Tang period, a time of immense cultural achievement, has been called China’s
Golden Age. The country was consolidated, first by the short-lived Sui dynasty (589-618) and,
more securely, by the young monarch Tang Taizong (T’ai-tsung) in 618. A stable government
and the resulting economic prosperity brought about a flourishing of all the arts, including
painting, ceramics, metalwork, music, and poetry. Buddhists suffered periods of persecution in
the Tang era, but the effect of their religion on China’s art remained. Tang stone pagodas have
survived, as have paintings from the caves at Dunhuang. Monumental stone sculpture,
revealing an increasing tendency toward full, sensual figures, continued to be made in the
northern provinces. This interest in volume characterizes Tang sculpture, religious and secular,
in both stone and ceramic. Few small Buddhist images can be dated from these centuries
because most were melted down for coinage during periods of anti-Buddhist activity.

A Painting

Although Buddhist painting continued to be important in the Tang period, the secular
landscape tradition dominated the pictorial arts. Three painters’ names survive, along with
probable copies of their work. Wang Wei, a reclusive landowner, preferred snowscapes, such
as a copy formerly in the Qing household collection and now presumably lost. A model for later
amateur painters, Wang Wei’s work displays an intimacy and quiet melancholy that found
favor among later artists. In contrast to the style of Wang Wei is the style of a father and son,
Li Sixun (Ssu-hsun) and Li Zhaodao (Chao-tao), who were active from about 670 to 735. A
Song-period copy in their style, Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu (National Palace Museum, Taipei,
T’aiwan), documents the exile of a Tang monarch. It is done in bright greens and blues like
many Tang landscape paintings. The monumental quality of the Taipei painting—with its
outcropped rocky ledges and heavily foliated trees—presents an impressive panorama. This
style differed considerably from the simpler compositions of such painters as Wang Wei.

Portrait painting, which began in the Han era, was refined in the Tang period. Emperors
customarily commissioned portraits of themselves and of past rulers for the imperial collection.
One example, portraying 13 rulers from the Han to Sui dynasty, was executed by Yan Liben
(Yen Li-pen), the foremost Tang portraitist (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts).
Burial chambers were also decorated with the painted likenesses of the deceased and family

B Decorative Arts

Rich innovation characterized the decorative arts in the Tang centuries. Important influences
from the Middle East, brought by traders and artisans from many nations, stimulated new
styles in metalwork and ceramics. Travelers’ flasks and variously shaped dishes in silver and
gold echo traditions from Central Asia. Colorfully glazed earthenware, especially ewers and
rhytons (drinking vessels) closely resembling Persian silverwork, drew from metal prototypes.
The pottery of this period is important. During the Tang era, a technique was developed in
southern China to allow the firing of a fine-grained, white substance known today as porcelain.
This ceramic is derived from a combination of white clay and ground feldspar. Mixed together
and turned on a wheel into the desired form, the piece is fired at an extremely high kiln
temperature, often exceeding 1200° C (about 2200° F). Although the full potential of porcelain
was not realized until later, its origins in the Tang mark an important milestone.


(960-1279). China’s geographical area was severely reduced by invasions of neighboring

peoples in the years following the collapse of Tang rule. The Song emperors were not as
powerful as their Han or Tang predecessors. They strove to maintain a tenuous peace with
their often hostile neighbors, and the arts of this period show an introspection and refinement
cultivated in response to harsh political realities. The Song emperors were among China’s most
culturally enlightened rulers; indeed, many were accomplished artists in their own right.
A Painting

Painting, with its many different schools and styles, is often cited as the greatest achievement
of Song art. A royal painting academy was established, and many fine artists were patronized
by the court. Bird and flower themes were always popular with the royal family, as were
portraits of favorite pets and children. Many Song paintings of these subjects became the
standards by which later works were judged. Copied again and again through the centuries,
the courtly floral and portrait styles of Song painting have been continued by many present-
day Chinese painters.

The Song period is best known, however, for landscape painting. In the Northern Song period
(960-1126), painters often favored a monumental style, creating awesome vistas. Such artists
as Li Cheng (Ch’eng) (lived 10th century) and Fan Kuan (K’uan) (lived early 11th century)
exemplify this style, with paintings of massive rocky cliffs punctuated by an occasional
waterfall or a group of small figures. The brushwork in these paintings is often complex, with
strokes repeated one over the other to create the illusion of texture. Also, at this time, the first
wenren hua (wen-jen hua), or literati painting, appeared. The literati were amateurs who often
disagreed with the styles fashionable at the royal academy and who produced their own
distinctive landscapes. The Northern Song practitioners of wenren hua preferred less grandiose
subjects than did the official painters, often selecting a single tree or a rock with bamboo. This
preference for simple subjects remained a characteristic of literati painting.

The Song royal family was forced to flee southward in the 12th century and reestablished itself
at the city of Hangzhou (Hangchow). During this portion of the dynasty, called the Southern
Song (1127-1279), the emperors’ painting academy produced a style of landscape known as
the Ma-Xia school (Ma-Hsia school). The name is derived from its two greatest artists, Ma Yuan
and Xia Gui (Hsia Kuei). Drawing on the expansiveness found in the Northern Song tradition,
they created views with less brushwork. Mists became an important device to suggest
landmass and to give the painting a light, ethereal quality. Ma Yuan was often called “one-
corner Ma,” as he would restrict much of his painting to a single corner of the work, leaving the
rest blank. This technique enhanced the sensation of open space and suggested infinity,
qualities much prized in the Ma-Xia tradition.

In sharp contrast to the serenity of the work of Ma Yuan and Xia Gui stands the brush painting
of the Zen monks. Followers of this branch of the Buddhist faith, also known as Chan (Ch’an)
Buddhism, believed in the spontaneity of artistic creation, often producing paintings in a few
frenzied minutes. The style, characterized by free and often loosely defined brushwork, was
dismissed by the official academy painters as the work of “crazy drunkards.” The
independence of the Zen painting school became an important model in later centuries when
more artists became disillusioned with the purely academic styles.

B Ceramics
Ceramics of the Northern and Southern Song periods provide a parallel to landscape painting
in their variety and accomplishments. The finest products of the northern kilns are called
classic wares; these include Ting ware, named for a production site in Hebei Province and
characterized by a milky white glaze and delicately carved or impressed designs. A common
motif features lotus blossoms, which were originally a Buddhist symbol but were often used for
decoration in Song secular art. The vividly colored Jun (Chün) ware, with splashes of red or
purple painted on a blue glazed surface, was popular at court and was often used for bowls
and flowerpots. Celadon, a green-glazed stoneware of high quality, was also a classic ware of
both northern and southern kilns. In the north, where the color tends to be grayish-green,
celadons are most frequently found in the shape of vases or incense burners. In addition to
these royal favorites, a group of popular stoneware, called Cizhou (Tz’u-chou), was
manufactured in Henan Province for local use. The Cizhou potters used a wide variety of
decorative techniques, including glazing, painting, incising, and enameling. The shapes vary,
but pillows, vases, and miniature objects—probably toys—are the most abundant.

Southern China contributed its own royal wares, most notably the white porcelains discovered
in the Tang area. Certain fine ceramics were made expressly for imperial use and inscribed
with the character guan (kuan), meaning “official.” The Song celadons of South China have a
subtle bluish-green glaze that was thought to produce a feeling of serenity in those who
contemplated it. The Buddhist monks in Fujian (Fukien) Province preferred their tea in glossy,
black-glazed bowls, such as Jian (Chien) ware. The decoration of Jian ware was done by placing
a leaf or paper-cut decoration on the interior before firing. In the kiln, the material
disintegrated, leaving a dark imprint. When filled with tea, the motifs on the bottom become
more noticeable. Tea bowls of the Jian type were prized by the Japanese monks who studied in
the Chinese Zen monasteries; Japan now houses many fine collections of this Song ware.

C Sculpture

Sculpture during the Song period continued to embody the full forms of the Tang dynasty. The
most notable achievements were made in Buddhist figures, where clay and wood often
replaced stone. Clay, with its inherent plasticity, allowed for a softer rendition of the body and
often produced strikingly lifelike results.

D Architecture
Tiger Hill Pagoda, China
The pagoda, a type of tower common in East Asia, functions as a Buddhist temple or memorial. It usually
displays upward-curving roofs between its stories. The Tiger Hill Pagoda in Suzhou, China, pictured here,
dates from the 10th century and stands 47.5 m (155.8 ft) high. Repaired most recently in 1981, the
building has caught fire three times and tilts to the northwest.
Woodfin Camp and Associates, Inc./Mike Yamashita
Microsoft ® Encarta ® Reference Library 2005. © 1993-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All
rights reserved.

The Song tendency toward refinement is also found in the architectural remains of the period.
Song styles often became elongated and thin, producing a distinctive Song spire. Curved roofs,
a characteristic long associated with Chinese architecture, reached their zenith in the Song
period. Crossbeams were developed to provide the necessary support for the heavy roofs.
Inside, a sensation of open space and light was achieved with a system of delicate wooden
vaults and bracketing. Pagodas continued to be the major type of religious structure. First
constructed of masonry during the Song period, especially in northern China, pagodas were
often decorated with complex latticework. Although the Song architect preferred height to
breadth, evidence exists that large, low buildings were also built. Such structures often had
courtyards, balconies, and large main halls, all features that would become increasingly
popular in the Yuan and Ming periods.

VIII Architecture of YUAN DYNASTY

(1279-1368). The Mongol invasion of Song China altered Chinese art, particularly painting and
architecture. Although the foreign rulers displayed an interest in perpetuating classical Chinese
culture, most artists felt uneasy at court and retired. Painting and calligraphy then became the
domain of these ex-officials. Wenren hua (wen-jen hua), the art of aristocratic amateurs in the
Song dynasty, represented in the Yuan (Yüan) period and thereafter the most accomplished
school of artists; they continued to be known as the literati. The painters who remained at the
academy were considered conservative, often imitative, by the literati. Beginning in the Yuan
period, most official artists were required to produce work based on Song bird and flower
studies or landscapes of the Ma-Xia school. All innovation came from outside the academic
tradition, which never again reached the attainments of the Southern Song dynasty.

In architecture, the Mongols again made substantial contributions. It is now thought that the
original structures of Beijing, the Mongol capital, may have been grander in scale than the
Ming structures that replaced them. The Mongol aesthetic in architecture emphasized mass, in
sharp contrast to the previous Song buildings. Great halls dominated Yuan construction and
were often built one around the other so that great banquets, royal audiences, and the general
business of state could all be held simultaneously. The grand city plan used by the architects
of Mongol Beijing was retained and adapted by the Ming and Qing dynasties and remains a
reminder of the Yuan imperial capital.


(1368-1644). Mongol rule ended with the establishment of a native Chinese dynasty, known as
the Ming. The court immediately established the royal painting academy, which attracted
mostly the bird and flower painters and the landscape artists of the Ma-Xia school. The most
significant work, however, continued to originate among the literati. The leading group of Ming
wenren, called the Wu school, produced a number of important artists, the most notable being
Shen Zhou (Chou) and Wen Zhengming (Cheng-ming). Both were cultured gentlemen and
worked at painting and calligraphy. They incorporated the work of the four famous Yuan
masters into their own individual styles. Shen Zhou’s brushstrokes possess a crispness of line
that give a distinct clarity to his paintings. His themes were often drawn from events in daily
life, such as a moon-gazing party on a small terrace (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Wen
Zhengming often chose subjects of great simplicity, such as a single tree or rock. His work
evokes a sense of strength based in isolation that may have reflected his own disenchantment
with official life.

Art had been a subject of literature and criticism since the Han period, but in the Ming dynasty
criticism and the study of art reached their peaks in the person of Dong Qichang (Tung Ch’i-
ch’ang), a painter, critic, collector, and scholar. Dong’s writings on the history of Chinese
painting remain important. Perhaps his most famous work identifies specific northern and
southern schools of painting. Dong contended that the southern school—the literati painters—
which stressed individualism and the cultural, contemplative life, could trace its origins back to
Wang Wei in the Tang dynasty. The northern school, on the other hand, dating from the Li
family of the 7th and 8th centuries, included later generations of official painters. Examples of
the latter group include the great Northern Song monumentalists Li Cheng (Ch’eng) and Fan
Guan (K’uan), as well as the artists of the Ma-Xia tradition. This school, according to Dong’s
theory, was characterized by a lack of innovation, an adherence to court dictates, and a slavish
imitation of the past. Although contemporary scholars of Chinese art consider Dong’s
argument overly simplistic, Dong nevertheless was the first to write about the clear division
between the professional court painter and the wenren.

X Architecture of QING DYNASTY

(1644-1911). The later years of the Ming dynasty were marked by much internal political
dissent. This situation was observed by the neighboring Manchu nation, which seized control
amid rebellious turmoil in 1644. Anxious to assimilate the traditions of previous dynasties, the
Qing rulers embraced all aspects of Chinese culture.

As in nearly all the imperial art forms, architecture continued many Ming traditions. The
Mongols had rejected the delicate styles of the Song and initiated lower and more massive
structures. Ming architects adopted this tendency, creating many large, rectangular buildings.
Ming temples often retained certain details from the Song, such as colorfully painted wooden
figures affixed to the interior. The Qing emperors, in turn, favored an almost monotonous,
expansive interior, devoid of many finer details. Palaces were the particular hallmark of Qing
construction. Numerous examples survive in Beijing. The most common Qing royal structure is
characterized by massiveness softened by a strict symmetry. Color plays an important role in
these buildings, with their golden roofs, red-painted trim, and white marble stairways. Palatial
variations also exist, such as the Yuan-ming-yuan (18th century), a summer residence based
on the style of Versailles.


Strong nationalist feelings provoked waves of political unrest that finally, in 1911, caused the
downfall of the Qing dynasty. With the founding of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen
came a pressure to modernize the “middle kingdom” and accept many Western ideas. Art was
hardly immune to these concerns. Many painters chose to study abroad, first traveling to Japan
and eventually going to Europe, notably Paris. Returning to China, they brought a number of
innovations, including bold colors, European brushwork, perspective, and tendencies toward
abstraction. The decorative arts under the republic absorbed less outside influence, and most
of the styles remained traditional, as practiced both at home and abroad.

The founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 introduced another important change in
Chinese art and culture. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong (Tse-tung), painting and the
decorative arts were infused with political content. The actual styles of painting often draw on
the advances of the post-Qing schools, but the subject matter includes themes extolling
socialist reconstruction. Many traditional folk arts, never recognized during the dynastic
periods, were elevated to a place of significance. Weaving, basketry, jewelry making, and
wood-block printing were added to ceramics, lacquer, and jade carving as fine crafts became
important both for native use and for export. Since the death of Mao in 1976, Chinese art has
tended to become less political at all levels, a movement that could enable its future
development to be judged better within the context of its historical tradition.

See also Architecture; Calligraphy; Indian Art and Architecture; Jade; Jade Carving; Japanese
Art and Architecture; Korean Art and Architecture; Lacquerwork; Metalwork; Pagoda; Painting;
Pottery; Sculpture; Temple; Tomb.

China's Famous Temple of Heaven

The breathtaking Temple of Heaven (Qinian Dian), about 5 kilometers (about 3 miles) south of the
Forbidden City in Beijing, is China's most famous shrine. The monument encompasses a group of
ceremonial buildings inside a walled park. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the most important and
most recognized of the group. An architectural wonder built in the 15th century, the temple was
constructed entirely of wood but without nails.
Photo Researchers, Inc./Lawrence Migdale
Altar of Heaven
The Altar of Heaven is part of the Temple of Heaven, or Tian Tan, built during the Ming dynasty in Beijing,
China. It is located in the outer city section of Beijing in Tian Tan Park. The 15th-century structure, with its
red walls and gold detailing, is typical of the architecture of the Ming dynasty.
Japan Airlines/Public Relations
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Guangzhou's Flower Pagoda
In the city of Guangzhou (also known as Yangcheng or Canton), the Flower, or Liurong, Pagoda is a striking
landmark. Chinese pagodas are associated with Buddhist temples, and each element of the pagoda's
design has religious meaning. This 12-story octagon stands next to the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees,
founded in AD 479 during China's Southern dynasty.
Photo Researchers, Inc./Noboru Komine
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The Forbidden City

The old section includes a square inner city on the north constructed between 1409 and 1420,
and a rectangular outer city to the south built between 1521 and 1566. Once encircled by a
wall about 24 km (15 mi) long and about 15 m (50 ft) high, the inner city has at its core the
Forbidden City. Between 1421 and 1912, this was the walled palace and inner compound of
China’s imperial family and was so named because ordinary citizens were not allowed inside. It
was the most sacred space in traditional, imperial China. The complex, now housing the Palace
Museum (founded in 1925), was opened to the public in 1949. Beyond the Forbidden City was
the Imperial City, which contained government offices, temples, gardens, palaces, and parks.
Outside the Imperial City were upper-class homes, markets, and more temples. The adjacent
outer city, once encircled by a wall about 23 km (14 mi) long, shared the northern part of its
wall with the inner city. The outer city contained important temple areas and residential space
for the commoners.

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Frontline: The Gate of Heavenly Peace
The Forbidden City [China Vista]
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In accordance with traditional Chinese town planning, Beijing was designed along a north-
south central axis; this line represented the imperial authority and it ran through many key
government offices, buildings, imperial residences, and main gates. After the Communist
revolution in 1949, most walls of the old city were demolished and replaced with
thoroughfares. However, several of the old gates have been preserved. During the 1950s
Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace, also known as Tian’an Men), located along the city’s
north-south axis south of the Forbidden City, was rebuilt and its square to the south was
enlarged to hold crowds for parades. Major installations were added in and around Tiananmen
Square, including the Great Hall of the People, built in 1959, where the national legislature
meets. Several blocks east of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square is Wangfujing Avenue,
the city’s most famous shopping district.

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The Forbidden City, Beijing

The Forbidden City, in the center of Beijing, housed the emperors of imperial China from the early 15th
century until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. The roofs of all buildings in the city were glazed in
yellow, a color reserved solely for the emperor, and no one except the emperor and court officials was
allowed inside.
Forbidden City
In the middle of Beijing, the capital of China, a compound of 800 buildings makes up the Forbidden City,
built starting in the early 15th century. From 1420 until 1911 the city served as the home for two dynasties
of Chinese emperors, the Ming and the Qing. Most of the buildings standing today date from the late 18th
or early 19th centuries.

The city of Beijing took form over a very long time, under various rulers. Two contiguous rectangles, the
Inner City and the newer Outer City, each embrace several square kilometers. The Inner City contains the
Imperial City, which in turn contains the Forbidden City, which sheltered the imperial court and the
imperial family. The entire development adheres to symmetry along a strong north-south avenue—the
apotheosis, on a grand urban scale, of the Chinese house.

Stone, brick, tile, and timber are available in both China and Japan. The most characteristic architectural
forms in both countries are based on timber framing. In China, the wooden post carried on its top an
openwork timber structure, a kind of inverted pyramid formed of layers of horizontal beams connected and
supported by brackets and short posts to support the rafters and beams of a steep and heavy tile roof. The
eaves extended well beyond column lines on cantilevers. The resulting archetype is rectangular in plan,
usually one story high, with a prominent roof.
Inside the Forbidden City
The Forbidden City, a walled complex in northern Beijing, China, was the home of many Ming and Qing
emperors. The Forbidden City was so named because only members of the imperial household could enter
it. Now open to the public, the buildings in the complex serve as museums.

Forbidden City Processional

This photograph shows a close-up of the main processional in the Forbidden City, in Beijing, China. The
Forbidden City was the residence of China’s emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
The Image Bank/Andrea Pistolesi
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Summer Palace, Beijing, China
The Summer Palace, part of which is seen in the foreground, served as the summer residence of China’s
imperial family. Constructed as a single building in the 1100s, the palace expanded over the centuries into
a larger complex of buildings, pavilions, paths, and gardens. Located in Beijing, the palace overlooks
Kunming Lake.
China Pictorial

Beijing's Tiananmen Square

The largest public plaza in the world, Tiananmen Square sits in the heart of the historic city of Beijing
(formerly known as Peking). It is a gathering place for parades, speeches, fireworks displays, and
organized demonstrations. It was here in 1949 that Mao Zedong (also known as Mao Tse-tung) announced
the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and named Beijing as its capital. In 1989 hundreds of
thousands of Chinese demonstrated for freedom and democracy at Tiananmen Square. The military
stopped the demonstration by force, killing hundreds of supporters and injuring another 10,000.
Photo Researchers, Inc./Noboru Komine
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Shanghai Teahouse
Built in 1784, the Huxinting teahouse sits in the middle of an ornamental lake in Nanshi, the oldest section
of Shanghai. A zigzag bridge, said to keep evil spirits away, leads to Yu Yuan, an elaborate garden built in
the 16th century for Pan Yunduan, a landlord and official of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The Image Bank/P. and G. Bowater
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Cathedral Ruins, Macao
The heavily decorated stone facade is all that remains of São Paulo Cathedral, in Macao. The cathedral,
built by Portuguese colonists beginning in 1602, was gutted by fire in 1835.
Corbis/Alison Wright
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Xi’an or Sian, city in northern China, capital of Shaanxi (Shen-hsi) Province, the cultural and
industrial center of the historic and agriculturally rich Wei River valley. Manufactures include
cotton textiles, electrical equipment, machinery, and fertilizers. Xi’an Jiaotong University
(1896) is here. Landmarks of special interest are the tomb of China's first emperor, Qin
Shihuangdi (Ch’in Shih-huang-ti), archaeological excavations of which began in 1977; Shaanxi
Provincial Museum, repository of some of the region's rich archaeological discoveries; the Big
and Little Goose Pagodas, remnants of a once-famous 7th-century Buddhist retreat; the Great
Mosque, which has served the city's large Muslim population since the 8th century; and a city
wall dating from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Nearby landmarks include the partly explored
tombs of the Tang (T’ang) emperors (618-907); four tumuli (burial mounds), said to be tombs
of the Zhou (Chou) (1045?-256 BC) kings; Xi’an Hot Springs; and Banpo, a neolithic village

Xi’an, one of China's oldest cities, was the capital of the Zhou, Qin (Ch’in) (221-206 BC), and
Western (earlier) Han (206 BC-AD 8) dynasties. It was again the capital under the Sui (589-618)
emperors, and, known as Chang’an (also Ch’ang-an), was the capital and prosperous eastern
terminus of Central Asian trade routes under the Tang emperors. Abandoned as the capital
after the fall of the Tang, it began a long period of decline that lasted until Ming times. In 1936
the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped here; he was held captive until
he agreed to join the Communists in a united front against the Japanese. Rapid
industrialization of the city began in the 1950s. Population (1999 estimate) 2,718,000.

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Great Wall (China)


Great Wall (China), popular name for a semi-legendary wall built to protect China’s northern
border in the 3rd century BC, and for impressive stone and earthen fortifications built along a
different northern border in the 15th and 16th centuries AD, long after the ancient structure
had mostly disappeared. Ruins of the later wall are found today along former border areas
from Bo Hai (a gulf of the Yellow Sea) in the east to Gansu Province in the west. The Great Wall
is visited often near Beijing, at a site called Ju-yong-guan, and at its eastern and western

Great Wall stretches across northern China. It consists of a series of walls built by the Ming dynasty in the
15th and 16th centuries to protect China against invasions from the north. The strongest walls were built
near Beijing, the Ming capital. Sections of the Great Wall, including this part near Beijing, have been
restored, mainly for purposes of tourism.

Wolfgang Kaehler
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The Great Wall is probably China's best-known monument and one of its most popular tourist
destinations. In 1987 it was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Great Wall is not a single,
continuous structure. Rather, it consists of a network of walls and towers that leaves the
frontier open in places. Estimates of the total length of the monument vary, depending on
which sections are included and how they are measured. The Great Wall is about 2,400 km
(about 1,500 mi) long, according to conservative estimates. Other estimates cite a length of
6,400 km (4,000 mi), or even longer. Some long-standing myths about the wall have been
dispelled in recent decades. The existing wall is not several thousand years old, nor is it, as
has been widely asserted, visible with the naked eye from outer space. (Astronauts have
confirmed this. However, some of the wall is discernible in special radar images taken by

Wall building—around houses and settlements and along political frontiers—began in China
more than 3000 years ago. Using the hang-tu method, pounded layers of earth were
alternated with stones and twigs inside wooden frames to produce durable earthen walls.
During the Warring States period (403-221 BC), before China was unified, feudal states fought
for control of the area constituting most of modern-day China. The states of Qi, Yen, and Zhao
were among those that built earthen ramparts along their frontiers.

The most famous early wall construction is attributed to the king of the Qin dynasty, who
conquered the other states and unified China in 221 BC. Taking the title of Shihuangdi, or First
Emperor, Qin Shihuangdi ordered his military commander Meng Tian to subdue the nomads of
the north and fortify China’s vast frontier. Historians still debate the form these fortifications
took, but records mention the chang cheng (long wall) of Shihuangdi. No reliable historical
accounts indicate the length of the Qin fortifications or the exact route they followed.


Few traces exist today of the ancient wall of Shihuangdi. Today’s Great Wall, which follows a
different route from that of Shihuangdi’s fortifications, consists of a series of walls built by
China’s Ming dynasty beginning in the late 15th century AD. The Ming, having suffered a
military defeat by the Mongols, had refused to continue to trade with them. The Mongol tribes
of the northern steppe had long depended on China for grain, metal, and other goods, and
China’s refusal led to further conflict between the Ming and the Mongols, which the Ming
proved unable to win. The Ming rulers could not decide whether to negotiate with the Mongols
or attempt to conquer them. As a compromise, they decided to keep the Mongols out by
constructing walls along China’s northern border. Ultimately, the walls proved ineffective, as
the Mongols were easily able to pass around or break through them during raids. For this and
other reasons, sections of the walls periodically required repair.
View from the Great Wall
The walls comprising the Great Wall of China follow the mountainous contours of China’s northern frontier,
stretching from the gulf of Bo Hai in the east to Gansu Province in the west. In some stretches, the walls’
builders placed watchtowers at regular intervals. Along the top of the walls, the builders created space for
soldiers to march.

Although the first Ming walls were built of earth in the traditional manner, by the 16th century
the work had become much more elaborate and was done in stone by professional builders
paid in silver. Bit by bit, in response to Mongol challenges, the Ming heavily fortified the region
around the capital at Beijing. Other areas were protected with shorter walls or forts, or had no
defenses at all.

Wall building and repair continued until the Ming dynasty fell to the Qing dynasty in 1644. By
this time, the walls formed an incomplete and uneven network. The eastern end was at
Qinhuangdao, in Hebei Province on the gulf of Bo Hai, while the western extreme was near
Jiayuguan in Gansu Province. The walls spanned mountainous terrain, conforming to the
territory’s numerous peaks and valleys. They included inner walls and outer walls, and some
stretches had watchtowers placed at regular intervals so that alarm signals could be passed
between them in case of attack. Along the top of the walls was space for soldiers to march. At
their most impressive, around Beijing, the walls measured at least 7.6 m (25 ft) in height and
up to 9 m (30 ft) in width, tapering from the base to the top. These dimensions varied greatly
at other points.


Neither the Qin wall nor the Ming fortifications were called the “Great Wall of China” by their
Chinese contemporaries. That label, and the myths that have come with it, appear to have
originated in the West. Europeans who visited China in the 17th and 18th centuries confused
the Ming fortifications with the Qin wall or walls mentioned in dynastic histories. They also
assumed incorrectly that impressive masonry walls like those surrounding Beijing at the time
also extended far to the west. As a result, a description developed in the West of a vast wall
that had secured peace for the civilized Chinese for thousands of years by excluding the
nomads. This idea captured the imagination of Westerners, and by the late 19th century a visit
to the "Great Wall of China" had become a staple of the Western tourist’s itinerary.

In the 20th century the Chinese also began to adopt the idea of the Great Wall, despite the
evidence presented by their own historical records. Revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, who was
instrumental in establishing the Republic of China in 1912, wrote about the wall in glowing
terms consistent with the Western myth. Although some Chinese scholars pointed out Sun’s
errors, they never succeeded in halting the myth’s progress. Patriotic fervor during World War
II (1939-1945) popularized the myth of the Great Wall, and some renovation was done to the
Ming fortifications in the early 1950s. The tide changed, however, under Communist leader
Mao Zedong, who came to power in 1949. In 1966 Mao launched the political campaign known
as the Cultural Revolution, during which he appealed to the Chinese people to destroy
anything associated with traditional culture. Unappreciated for its historic value, the
magnificent wall surrounding Beijing was torn down for quarrying during this period. Other wall
ruins were also destroyed.

With the end of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao in 1976, the political climate
changed in China, evidenced in part by a rise in nationalism. In the years that followed, the
myth of the Great Wall was officially propagated throughout the country. In the 1980s the Ming
walls began to undergo extensive renovation at their most visited locations. In the 1990s,
however, historians in both China and the West began to reestablish the actual history of
Chinese wall building and to explore the development of the folklore surrounding the Ming
Portion of the Great Wall
In the 15th and 16th centuries the Ming dynasty built elaborate earth-and-stone fortifications along China’s
northern border. Although the Great Wall followed the contours of the land, it actually provided poor
defense against Mongol challengers, who were able to pass around or break through the walls during raids.
Corbis/Keren Su
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Qin Shihuangdi or Ch'in Shih-huang-ti (259-210 BC), first emperor of China (221-210 BC) and
founder of the Qin (Ch'in) dynasty (221-206 BC), which gave its name to China. Although the
dynasty fell apart four years after Qin Shihuangdi’s death, many aspects of its system of
government endured in imperial China for more than 2,000 years.

The future emperor was born Qin Zheng in Qin, a state in northern China. At age 13, he
succeeded his father, Qin Zichu, king of Zhuang Xiang, as ruler of the Qin state and took the
title King Zheng (sometimes spelled Cheng). At the time he ascended the throne, Qin was the
strongest of China’s seven so-called Warring States, which were remnants of the Zhou (Chou)
dynasty, a feudal regime that ruled China from about 1045 BC until 256 BC. Over the centuries,
nobles had become rulers of independent kingdoms and had taken up arms against one
another. Beginning in the 4th century BC, the Qin rulers who preceded King Zheng
implemented reforms designed to strengthen the government of the Qin state. Military and
administrative appointments, which had previously been determined by noble birth, were now
decided by merit. Farmers, no longer enslaved servants, were allowed to own their land, and
production increased. The Qin government strictly enforced laws issued by the rulers, and for
this reason it is often described as Legalist.

Although King Zheng had ascended the throne in 247 BC, officials from his father’s government
continued to rule the Qin state until Zheng was declared of age in 238 BC. Upon assuming
control, Zheng began planning the conquest of the other six states. In 230 BC Qin defeated
Han, the weakest of the states, and within nine years it had conquered the others.

In 221 BC King Zheng, having completed the unification of China by military force, proclaimed
himself Qin Shihuangdi (First Qin Emperor). As the first ruler to govern a truly unified China,
Qin Shihuangdi imposed an extraordinary series of measures designed to reinforce the
authority of the central government. A new system replaced feudal kingdoms with 36 (later 42)
jun (provinces) that were run by appointed officials. To facilitate trade and communication, the
government standardized weights and measures and created a uniform writing system for the
Chinese language. The regime maintained tight control over information by destroying books
or removing them from circulation (books about agriculture, divination, and medicine were
exceptions), and by putting hundreds of dissenting scholars to death. The government also
built an extensive network of new roads and canals to improve communication and
transportation. To protect China’s northern frontier, the government constructed fortifications,
thereby creating a precedent for the later network of walls that became known as the Great

The extent of Qin Shihuangdi's personal role in these measures is hard to determine. Records
suggest that he was energetic and intelligent, but the emperor’s minister of state, Li Si (Li
Ssu), is generally given most of the credit for shaping the dynasty. Qin Shihuangdi survived at
least three assassination attempts and in time became preoccupied with a quest for
immortality. He consulted magicians and traveled around the empire in search of a potion that
would bring him eternal life. He also ordered the construction of a massive tomb near the
modern city of Xi’an (Sian). Excavation of the tomb, which began in 1974, uncovered
thousands of life-size terra cotta soldiers and horses positioned to protect Qin Shihuangdi from
threats in the afterlife. Some of the emperor's concubines and the workers who had built the
mausoleum were buried with him to keep secret the tomb’s precise location.

For centuries, most Chinese scholars condemned Qin Shihuangdi as a heartless tyrant whose
harsh Legalist doctrines ignored the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius (see Chinese
Philosophy). Some Western evaluations suggest that these scholars exaggerated the
emperor's flaws and excesses to conceal the degree to which subsequent dynasties carried
forward Qin Shihuangdi's legacy. Although later Chinese emperors based their governments on
Confucian ethics, they nonetheless followed the dynasty’s examples of a unified China,
government through bureaucratic administration, and application of harsh laws when the
occasion demanded.

Hangzhou, also Hang-chou or Hangchow, city, southeastern China, capital of Zhejiang

(Chekiang) Province, near Shanghai. It is a port at the mouth of the Qiantang River in
Hangzhou Bay and at the southern end of the Grand Canal. Manufactures include silk and
cotton textiles, chemicals, steel, machine tools, and processed food. Scenic Xi Hu (West Lake),
with many ancient shrines and monasteries, is here.

The city was walled and given its present name in AD 606. Serving as the capital of the Five
Dynasties (907-959), it prospered as a port for the silk trade. During the Southern Song
dynasty (1127-1279) it became a renowned cultural center, as well as the capital. Venetian
traveler Marco Polo, who visited here in the late 13th century, characterized Hangzhou as the
most beautiful city in the world. In the 14th century the city's importance declined after the
port became clogged with silt. Taiping rebels destroyed much of the old city in 1861, and
Japanese forces occupied Hangzhou from 1937 to 1945. Rebuilding of industrial plants took
place in the 1950s. Population (1999 estimate) 2,105,000.
Hangzhou, China
Hangzhou, located in southeastern China, is a bustling port at the mouth of the Qiantang River. When
Italian traveler Marco Polo arrived here in the 13th century, he called it the most beautiful city in the world.

Chinese House
This contemporary house in Hangzhou, China, typifies the basic architectural style of that country, which
hasn’t changed significantly in centuries. The structure is made of wood, with piers for support. The roof,
made of tile, features curving lines with wide, turned-up eaves supported on carved brackets.
Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York
Grand Canal, China
China has more than 100,000 km (60,000 mi) of navigable inland waterways. The busiest is the Grand
Canal, which extends 1,900 km (1,200 mi) from Beijing to Hangzhou. Construction of the canal largely took
place in the 7th and 13th centuries. It is now used primarily for industrial purposes.
Photo Researchers, Inc./Robert Hernandez
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