Types of Chinese Art: A Guide to Valuing & Collecting Chinese Art

Tang Dynasty Painted Pottery Figure of a Lady. Tang Dynasty Painted Pottery Figure of a Lady. Coming to auction on 14 April 2024 via Ethereal Auctioneers. Est: NT$5,000 TWD - NT$10,000 TWD.

Chinese art, with varieties as expansive as its history is long, is among both the most daunting and rewarding of categories to begin collecting. From delicate porcelains, intricately carved jades, and serene ink landscape paintings to regal robes, brazen stone lions, and fantastic dragons, these artworks are imbued with historical traditions and motifs from as early as 10,000 B.C.

“As China becomes a more powerful force in the world, more and more people have become interested in Chinese antiques,” says John Schofield, head of the Asian Arts Department at Eldred’s. “In our experience, items with the most provenance are most sought after.”

Many pieces of Chinese art were accrued by missionaries and travelers, passed down through generations, and then disseminated across the world – often without recognition of their value. This, in turn, resulted in extraordinarily rich backstories. As awareness grows, the market becomes more competitive.

The destruction of many historic artifacts in the 1960s and 1970s paired with the overall delicacy of the materials means that well-preserved, authentic Chinese antiques are increasingly difficult to find. While age might leave artifacts fragile or damaged, time has also embellished Chinese works of art with enduring beauty and relevancy. These works of art make timeless and compelling additions to any collection, small or large.

Types of Chinese Art

Vessels

Perhaps the most widely collected object within the realm of Chinese art is the vessel, which includes snuff bottles, hand-painted porcelain vases and pots, teapots, and plates.

Snuff bottles, which were used to carry powdered tobacco for the purpose of remedying ailments such as headaches, are typically no larger than the palm of one’s hand. Most often, snuff bottle collectors prefer those that were created and used during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Snuff bottles are most commonly made of glass, but can also comprise of jade, porcelain, amber, or metal. The rarity of the material, as well as the beauty and intricacy of the decoration, represented status and wealth during the Qing dynasty. Prices can start from around $200, rising into the thousands depending on condition, with rare, 18th-century snuff examples with authenticated reign marks often selling for the highest price at auction.

Like snuff bottles, vases, pots, teapots, and plates were made out of materials including clay, jade, bronze, and porcelain. Porcelain was not commonly used until the Song dynasty in 960 A.D., after which artisans mastered the blue and white painted porcelain popular today. Ornately painted bronze vessels called cloisonné were developed in the 14th century. Cloisonné is characterized by soldered strips of gold or silver on metal with enamel and jeweled inlays.

Paintings

As opposed to Western paintings, which are typically made on canvas or other woven fabric, Chinese paintings predominantly exist on silk or rice paper. The most well-known examples are produced with water-based inks and depict stylized yet intricate visions of nature, people, animals, and more. Works in this category tend to be small to medium-sized in the form of a horizontal or vertical scroll, a fan shape, or a flat sheet. Paintings often fall in a lower price range compared to other Chinese antiques.

Much like the majority of artwork, a Chinese painting’s monetary value will align with its time period, rarity and condition – and of course, the artist. The combination of poetry, calligraphy and painting was historically seen as the highest art form in China, with calligraphic brushstrokes still prominent in contemporary Chinese art. Following the Qing dynasty and with more exposure to the western world, a new cultural movement of Chinese artists using western painting techniques was born.

A set of ink-brush paintings by Chinese artist Qi Baishi set a record in 2017 for Chinese paintings sold at auction. The 12 panels, painted in 1925, sold for £105 million. Those looking for slightly more of a steal could expect to pay anything from $50 to $55,000 at auction.

Sculptures

Chinese sculptures, like paintings, depict many things such as people, animals, mythical creatures, Buddha, and more. They can be made out of clay, bronze, glass, or stone. Collectors all over the world are particularly interested in the use of jade in sculpture. You could source a 19th-century jade sculpture for around $300 at auction, with bronze pieces such as this Zhou dynasty tiger reaching a loftier price tag.

An artform of ancient origin, archeologists discovered the oldest-known example of Chinese sculptural art in Henan Province in 2020 – a miniature bird figurine dating back 13,500 years. China’s tradition in sculpture truly started to develop from the Shang dynasty onwards, with the most famous example being the Terracotta Army uncovered near emperor Qin Shi Huang’s secret tomb in Xi’an.

Jade

Jade, used for both tools and also for ceremony since Neolithic times, is characterized by a translucent white and green color. There are both hard and soft versions of jade – hard jadeite and soft nephrite. The most sought-after type of jade in Chinese art is white jade, sometimes referred to as “mutton fat” jade. Prices can vary extensively, with quality jadeite generally carrying more value than nephrite.

Symbolizing good luck and prosperity, jade decorative art pieces can take on a variety of forms, from stunning jewelry to carvings and sculpture. The earliest examples of jade creations within China include pendants, necklaces and bracelets, followed by animal figurines and ritual objects throughout the Shang, Zhou and Song dynasties, with a movement into ornate jade carving displayed through vases and vessels during the Qianlong period.

Poetry

Painted poetry is a centuries-old skill with a style unique to China, with aesthetics developing by dynasty. The artform can be viewed in two different ways, with poetic painters either using a poem as the inspiration for their painting, or inscribing a poem directly onto their chosen medium.

The Ming dynasty was known for its ‘literati painters’ – celebrated artists who would complete a painting by writing a poem that encapsulated the emotion of the artwork. This tradition continued throughout the Qing dynasty, with artists portraying sweeping landscape scenes with poetic verses alongside. Although European artistic techniques began to exert their influence in the 19th and 20th centuries, the link between poetry and painting within contemporary Chinese art has remained consistent. Poetic script can be found on everything from paper and canvas to porcelain and ceramic pottery.

Pottery

Perhaps the most coveted example of Chinese artistry, the country’s pottery tradition leads back to ancient China, with the Neolithic Period heralding advances in free brush painting and geometric design. The dynasties that followed influenced pottery creation worldwide, with the Yuan and Ming dynasties famous for their exquisite blue and white porcelain. 

The potential value of a pottery piece can be ascertained by looking out for specific reign marks and details in glaze, shape and motif. Vases are the most celebrated form of Chinese pottery, but artisan pieces can appear at auction in an array of forms – from sculpted figures selling for $175 to prized Sui dynasty glazed stoneware at $520,000.

Calligraphy

Valuing & Collecting Chinese Art: Xu Bing, Happy the Man, 2019.

Xu Bing, Happy the Man, 2019. Sold for £50,000 GBP via Bonhams (May 2023).

A strongly distinguishing feature within Chinese art, calligraphy as a visual art form has been prized within China since the 4th century, and was seen as a superior skill to traditional painting. With every artist expressing something unique within their ink, calligraphic artworks are generally crafted on paper or silk in a variety of script types. The skilled form and flow of calligraphy often guides its value rather than its linguistic content, and there are five different script types in use today. From the Song dynasty onwards, ink painting and calligraphy could be found sharing the same canvas, a harmonious relationship that has continued into contemporary calligraphic work.

A Ming dynasty landscape painter, Wu Bin’s calligraphic handscroll, Ten Views of Lingbi Rock (c.1610), broke records when it became the most valuable work sold at auction in Asia, selling for between $75.4 million – $76.4 million in 202 via Beijing Poly Auction.

Elements of Chinese Art & Antiquities

Ancient artifacts and modern works alike show great deference to Chinese history. Art and antiques almost always refer to historical symbols or philosophy. To collect Chinese art, one must first understand the references that exist in each piece.

Motifs

The meanings behind these recurring elements have withstood the test of time and appear frequently in paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and garments. Below is a short list of imagery to look out for:

  • Dragons are used to represent ultimate power and high rank.
  • Longevity is often displayed with a circular, abstract butterfly-like pattern.
  • Peaches are very commonly depicted in Chinese art, and are representative of immortality.
  • Amber is used as a symbol of courage, once believed to be the manifestation of a deceased tiger soul.
  • Lotus flowers often reference the Buddhist tradition, in which they are symbols of purity.
  • Peonies are regarded as symbols of wealth and virtue.
  • Fish are symbols of wealth as the Chinese word is a homonym for the word for “abundance.”
  • Lions or Foo Dogs make appearances in Chinese art as guardians of the household.
  • The Phoenix, which is believed to never harm living creatures and only appears during times of peace, is the symbol of benevolence and of a perfect marriage between emperor and empress when paired with the dragon.

Philosophy

Chinese philosophy, characterized by the importance of individual good deeds to achieve greatness, is often described in calligraphy, painting, and illustration. Confucianism heavily focuses on the individual’s familial duty. This philosophy has been passed on to modern times, so depictions of family are particularly common in Chinese art. The reverence towards teachers and learning also led to many depictions of Confucius in Chinese paintings.

Doing good deeds in order to attain transcendence gave birth to philosophies such as I-Ching and Taoism. Taoism, well known by the iconic yin yang symbol, is particularly present in ink paintings. Taoism is characterized by the belief in the unification of opposites such that one element is necessary for the other, and when one element becomes the strongest, it subverts itself to its opposite.

Taoism’s emphasis on opposite forces is frequently illustrated in art through symbolism such as one black and one white fish swimming around each other, and the juxtaposition of the dragon and phoenix. The two are very different in temperament, but symbolic of the perfect marriage. The implied balance of dark versus light, nature versus civilization, and reality versus perception are also examples of oppositions that reflect this philosophy.

Tibetan Buddhism, which made its way over to China in the 2nd century A.D. during the Yuan Dynasty, is a very important genre of Chinese art. Like Confucianism, there is a strong reverence to the teacher. The Buddha motif is manifest in paintings, vessels, and sculptures. Often, Buddhism is represented by a symbol – as a wheel of dharma, victory banner, conch shell, lotus flower, parasol, treasure vase, pair of fish, or an endless knot. Sculptures of Buddha and affiliated deities, as well as paintings and tapestries, are used as domestic decorations to bring peace and blessings to a dwelling.

Tips for Buying Chinese Art Online

You can now easily buy Chinese art and antiques from online marketplaces like Invaluable; however, you may not have the chance to inspect the object in person before you purchase it. Follow these guidelines to ensure you are getting what you want:

1. Examine Condition & Provenance

Prior to making a purchase, always be very diligent to inquire after the condition of the object and from where the object was acquired.

Many of these artworks have already undergone significant repair. Sculpted details on ancient statues may be worn down over time from handling and some pieces have been adhered together. Watch out for details like this to inform the value of your potential purchase. Consider the extent and quality of the repair work when deciding how much the artwork is worth to you.

Provenance research also adds value and credibility to artworks. Works may have been passed through generations of a family or belonged to someone important years earlier. Understanding the history of the work is just as important as analyzing the quality of the piece.

As the art market for Chinese art grows and works fetch higher prices, stolen and counterfeit works are also appearing in the market. Trust your instincts. If the research behind a work isn’t airtight, don’t buy it. “Nearly all auction houses have open exhibitions when you can personally inspect items and ask questions to the firm’s specialists. Ask a lot of questions!” reminds Schofield.

2. Register to Bid Several Days in Advance

Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid with each auction house on the platform and be approved. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.

3. Familiarize Yourself with the Terms and Conditions

  • How does the auction house handle taxes?
  • Will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer price?
  • How will the item be shipped?
  • How much time do you have to pay for the item?
  • How do you contact the auction house or dealer with questions?

4. Ask Follow-Up Questions

If you have any other questions, ask them. If the answer is not satisfactory to you, do not bid or buy.

5. Research Past Prices

Make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.

6. Don’t Bid Unless You’re Sure

All sales at an auction are final. For larger items, the auction house will provide a list of good art handling or shipping companies.

7. Take Care of Your Works

Like any investment, maintenance plays a substantial role in value. In order to best enjoy and preserve your purchase, take care of your work based on its age and medium.

While contemporary snuff bottles, vases, pots, teapots, and plates might be attractive works to include on your kitchen table, older vessels are significantly more fragile and will likely not hold up to frequent handling.

Most Chinese paintings have been executed on delicate papers or silks. Over time, silks and paper can yellow, become brittle, and begin to tear and fray. Generally, these paintings are best preserved when displayed away from direct sunlight. A cool, dry place with limited light is ideal. Natural body oils, like those from your hands, can hasten the yellowing of fabrics and papers. Therefore, it is best not to handle work with bare hands.

Limiting the amount of time you put a Chinese painting on display also helps to protect the work from light damage as well as dust, but when storing never fold a work even if it is on a fabric. When not on display, store the painting in a cool, dry, dark, and pest-free environment.

Lastly, if you are unsure of how to best take care of your purchased artwork, ask a specialist.

Find Chinese art & antiques available now on Invaluable.

Written by Alexis Culotta View all posts by this author →

Alexis holds a PhD in art history and has enjoyed professional roles across gallery, museum, and academic settings. Thanks to these myriad experiences, Alexis holds a wealth of knowledge across the fields of fine and decorative arts and enjoys every opportunity to share these insights along with the stories of these makers and objects with Invaluable collectors.