Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220)

       In 221 BC the ruler of the feudal Qin state united all of China under himself as Qin Shihuangdi (“First Sovereign Emperor of Qin”) and laid the foundation for the long stability and prosperity of the succeeding Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

       Literature and poetry indicate that the walls of palaces, mansions, and ancestral halls of the Han dynasty were plastered and painted. Themes included figure subjects, portraits, and scenes from history that had an ethical or didactic purpose. Equally popular were themes taken from folk and nature cults that expressed the beliefs of popular Daoism. The names of the painters are generally not known. Artists were ranked according to their education and ability from the humble craftsmen-painters (huagong, 畫工) up to the painters-in-attendance (daizhao, 待詔).

       In addition to wall paintings, artists painted on standing screens, used as room dividers and set behind important personages, and on long rolls of silk. Paper was invented in the Han dynasty, but it is doubtful whether it was much used for painting before the 3rd or 4th century

       Surviving Han paintings include chiefly tomb paintings and painted objects in clay and lacquer. A very early painting, a funerary banner from about 168 BC, excavated in 1972 at Mawangdui (馬王堆), reveals how sophisticated early Han and even late Zhou painting must have been. Painted with bright, evenly applied mineral pigments and fine, elegant brush lines on silk, the banner represents a kind of cosmic array, with separate scenes of a funerary ceremony, the underworld, and the ascent of the deceased (Xin Zhui, wife of the Marquis of Dai) to a heavenly setting filled with mythic figures. It contains stylistic features not previously seen before the 4th century, creating spatial illusion through foreshortening, overlapping, and placement upon an implied ground plane, as well as suggesting certain lighting effects through contrasting and modulated colors.

       Han landscape painting is well represented by the lacquer coffins of Lady Dai at Mawangdui, two of which are painted with scenes of mountains, clouds, and a variety of full-bodied human and animal figures.