The distance from Beijing to Guangzhou as the crow flies is 1,150 miles, or much the same as from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in north-east England, to Gibraltar. From Kashgar, in the far west of Xinjiang (Sinkiang) province, to Shanghai is 2,555 miles, or roughly what it is from Seattle to Tampa (Florida). Soil and rivers remain frozen for much of the year in the provinces of the north-east, while the southern island of Hainan enjoys permanently sub-tropical temperatures. Seventy million people live in the east coast province of Jiangsu, most of which is less than 50 metres above sea level. By contrast, the 2000 census showed 2.6 million inhabitants in Tibet, where the average altitude is 4,000 metres on the plateau and 6,000 metres in the Himalayan mountains. Clearly, where one lives in China has a tremendous influence on one's pattern and quality of life, and one's appreciation of the environment.
The Chinese land provides rich and varied resources, not only by way of foodstuffs, but also the raw materials on which a sophisticated society depends, precious metals, coal, iron, copper, tin, timber, and water. In modern times, discovery of supplies of oil, gas, and uranium has added to the natural wealth of the country, though failures of political and economic planning through the 19th and 20th centuries contributed to the devastation of wide areas by deforestation and industrial pollution.
Since the beginnings of their history, some Chinese people have also enjoyed the availability of materials suitable for artistic uses, including clay, bone, metals, jadeite, bamboo, wood, ivory, and rhino horn. Taking advantage of these, some of the inhabitants of particular regions had already developed the skills to perform difficult tasks such as carving jade, casting bronze, and reeling and weaving silk as far back as the Shang dynasty, 3000 years ago.
Resources, when exploited with ingenuity and dexterity, mean wealth and power. The leadership of an empire unified as long ago as 221 BCE never underestimated its good fortune, but in pre-modern times the struggle to make the most of economic potential and distribute wealth far beyond the principal centres of population and political power was difficult in a country with relatively poor communications, even one in which the guiding philosophy required the emperor to rule to the benefit of all his people. As a result,
parts of the country that felt neglected or unfairly penalised by central government might experience an upsurge of local particularism, especially if mountain and river rendered them somewhat secluded from outside interference. As recently as the 1950s, the governor of Sichuan was accused by Mao Zedong of creating a personal kingdom in the rich south-western province. A corollary to this aspect of regionalism might be for power-holders at court to fill the important posts with scions of their own home province. Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, came from Sichuan, and under him a caucus of Sichuanese politicians occupied central government and Party offices.
Perhaps, given the above circumstances, we might expect to see more regional variation than we do in the arts of China. To some extent it is there, even when standardisation in form and decoration generally predominates. For example, bronzes made for the Shang empire, whether in northern or central China, generally comprised ritual vessels, bells, and weapons. In 1989, however, two burials of the Shang period were discovered at Sanxingdui, in Sichuan, which revealed a previously unknown and quite unparalleled style of bronze sculpture. In the Warring States period, the southern state of Chu produced distinctive artefacts that were brightly decorated and exuberantly naïve in style. In the Song period, regional kilns in Henan, Zhejiang and Jiangxi produced exclusive and immediately identifiable celadons. The 11th century art critic Guo Xi wrote that the mountains painted by Fan Kuan, who came from Shaanxi province, were not the same as those by Li Cheng, from Zhejiang. Artists sometimes went on 'painting from nature' expeditions, and certain regions became favourite subjects. One of the best known of these was the Li River and the famous 'sugar-loaf' peaks of Guizhou province. The majority of landscape pictures, however, were not intended to be depictions of any particular location, any more than the popular flower-and-bird paintings were intended to illustrate the flora and fauna of specific areas.Professor K. Pratt | Jul 2002