Chinese Folk Arts

China and the Indian subcontinent have civilizations that date back thousands of years. Except for intermittent conquests, these cultures were relatively uninterrupted in their development, and industrialization arrived late. It is likely, therefore, that folk art in these regions has a history dating back to ancient times. Because of the great period of time involved, however, it is not always possible to distinguish true folk art from the tribal, or primitive, arts that may have persisted for several centuries. By contrast, folk art in Japan can be dated back only to the 17th century.

Chinese folk art is as extensive as any in the world. Each section of China had its own styles, and the entire output of art was enormous for both family and community use. The art associated with festivals, weddings, and funerals was extravagant even among the poor, and vestiges of it can still be seen in Chinese holiday celebrations.

Paper was invented in China, and much folk art using paper was devoted to making shop signs and festival objects. The design and execution of wood-block prints has already been noted.

The production of furniture provided some of the finest examples of Chinese folk art. Before the introduction of Buddhism from India in about the 1st century AD, the Chinese used little in the way of furniture, normally sitting on the floor cross-legged or on stools. Buddhism introduced a more formal kind of sitting on chairs with back rests, and with chairs came other types of furniture.

Chinese furniture was mainly of two types: plain hardwood pieces and lacquered wood pieces either inlaid with mother-of-pearl or elaborately carved. Both are products of the finest artisanship and have influenced furniture making in the West. The kinds of furniture produced are chairs, beds, stools, tables, wardrobes, chests, and finely painted screens. As time went on, of course, much of this manufacture moved from the province of pure folk art into the hands of artisans who made it their only occupation.