Chinese art, like the nation itself, occupies a unique place in world history, having one of the longest traditions, which developed an often staggering degree of refinement, producing some of the most brilliant creations ever made.

The Chinese written language is itself a work of art, at once differing from all other linguistic forms through the visual dynamics of its forms, expressing unique motion and conceptual aspiration inspired by nature, which passes far beyond the reach of merely descriptive modes of writing.

For this reason, poetry has always been held in great regard in China, often practised by its rulers as well as scholars and thinkers. Numbering in excess of 50,000 characters within which immense subtlety of meaning is philosophically embodied, the translation of these works into other languages is unavoidably flawed. Given such range of characters in use, China was also at the forefront in the development of printing.

The oldest known collection of poetic forms in China is found in the book of odes, an anthology of 305 works, dating back to the eleventh century BC, though due to the frequent spells of book burnings that have peppered Chinese history, many other works which may have had even more ancient provenance and profundity have undoubtedly been lost.

The use of language, both visual and sonic, to hint beyond the surface nature of things and reveal the Tao or 'essence' which underlies all motion and form within the inner unfolding of nature achieved its most subtle form in Taoist poetry, in the works ascribed to Lao Tzu and Chiang Tzu, which in turn would later influence the development of Haiku in Japan, under the auspices of Zen Buddhism, a direct descendent of Taoism.

This philosophic notion of the flow of nature permeates much of the entire output of Chinese art, a value which is most famously obvious in many of its paintings, particularly the mystical landscape paintings of clouds and mountain scenes in which the mysterious blending of reality and formlessness are beautifully presented.

The naturalistic themes which characterise Chinese painting, with its emphasis on natural form and the depiction of daily life, as well as rocks, streams, trees, butterflies, birds and plants were common in China, and a whole philosophy of brushwork based on natural motion, in which the artists were themselves expressing the underlying Tao, long predate the liberation from the strictures of religion which hampered western art until the revolution brought about by the impressionist movement of Europe.

Indeed the future impressionists of France were enormously influenced, creatively and intellectually liberated by the thematic vision, colours and subtle natural simplicity of brushwork which they saw in the painting adorning Japanese ceramics, itself a child of Chinese art, which were exhibited in France at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867, just prior to the cultural explosion of impressionism. Likewise, the groundbreaking Art Nouveau movement and modern fashion were similarly influenced in this way.

The Chinese excelled at ceramics from the earliest times, with ceramics being produced in China from at least 18,000 BC.

It was with the creation of porcelain however, which is still referred to in common parlance as ‘China’ to this day, that the eloquent Chinese mastery of ceramics began. True translucent porcelain wares of immense ornate subtlety and sophisticated form date from at least the Han dynasty (202 BC), though it is known that non-translucent proto-porcelain wares existed before this time.

Many eras of China’s long civilisation have created ceramic masterpieces that are still regarded as the finest ever made, covering a wide range of styles, from simple white pieces designed to embody the perfection of shape, to superbly detailed and stunningly coloured shimmering artistry.

Although the Ming Dynasty (1368 -1664) is commonly assumed by many collectors to epitomise the perfection of Chinese supremacy in ceramics, the earlier Song Dynasty (960-1279) is retrospectively considered to represent the era of finest creativity in Chinese porcelain.

Chinese porcelain was of incalculable influence upon world pottery. Although in ancient times, middle-eastern and Mediterranean ceramics had also achieved great refinement, in the Christian Europe of the middle ages and beyond, pottery was a rather crude affair until the Chinese imports in the seventeenth century set European potters alight, giving rise to the many famed western ceramic houses we know today.

Nowhere is the influence of Chinese ceramics more apparent in Europe, and particularly in Britain, than in the ritual of drinking tea, whose ornamental accoutrements stem directly from China.

In no small measure, the Chinese flair for creating fine ceramics had its roots in another field in which Chinese mastery eclipses that of all other cultures, that of sculpture and, more particularly, carving, and indeed one of the most iconic of Chinese visitor attractions is the Terracotta Army of Xi’an, an early ceramic masterwork paradoxically itself influenced by the Hellenic culture of Alexander the Great, though the real stars are the accompanying magnificent bronze horses.

Early sculpture in China was characterised by the wave of Buddhism that swept across the country and the Buddhist caves of China house among the greatest and most important collections of Buddhist art anywhere. Perhaps the most famous of its Buddhist sculptures is the grand edifice of the Leshan Buddha.

However, it was not in the colossal grand figures that the Chinese perfected the use of the chisel, but rather in the infinitely detailed marvels of their small carved works, executed in wood, ivory, jade, soapstone and bone, the finest examples of which display unrivalled and incomparable genius.

In no other artistic endeavour do the principles of Taoist mystery achieve such expression as in these beautifully conceived miniature landscapes, swirling dragons and fantastic visions, fashioned with unbelievable finesse and exquisite skill.

Perhaps nothing more playfully epitomises the wondrous mastery and astonishing craftsmanship of Chinese carvers than the Chinese puzzle ball, an intricately ornamented spherical sculptural feast which is delicately hand carved into its deepest recesses, using a range of specially shaped miniature tools before separating the individual layers which are able to rotate, each inside the other.

The commonest variations of these delightful creations are usually comprised of three to seven spherical rotating layers, but a splendid nineteenth century floral example, carved of mammoth ivory exists, consisting of an astounding forty two layers, currently held in the Belz Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States.

While this location provides a great addition for visitors visiting the holy shrines of rock n’ roll history, it illustrates a common problem when seeking out the art of many nations. Just as many of the most famous works of the impressionists are no longer found in France, but housed in overseas or private collections, so it is the case with many of China’s most prized artefacts, which are hidden away in collections all over the world.

Nevertheless, for the visitor to China, there are still many fine examples of Chinese art held in public collections within China, such as the Palace Museum of the Forbidden City, the Chinese Art Museum, and the National Museum among the most notable in Beijing, which feature many art treasures among their collections, while in Shanghai, the Shanghai museum also features several fine displays of historic art and artefacts.