Brick Painting in China
China: Wei and Tsin
Tomb painting is an art in which China has made
some of its highest achievements. The outside
world has been made familiar with vast and
beautiful tomb murals of Tang and Han dynasties.
Almost 2000 years ago, Chinese were also
decorating tombs of the upper class with miniature
paintings. Middle Kingdom's artists, at that time,
already were masters of aesthetics of space as
modern man defines it.
Of China's smaller tomb paintings, the most famous
viewable in West are those in the collection of
Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: A set of painted
molded brick tiles. These were found in Eastern
(or Later) Han tomb.
in 1971, a tomb near Chiayukuan (in Western Kansu
province, one of the principal terminals of
ancient Silk Road) was excavated. Some of the
relics found were painted bricks, then tentatively
identified as of Later Han period vintage: 26 to
In 1972-73, in the same general vicinity but more
precisely at a site in Gobi Desert, Northwest of
Chiaukuan City, eight brick tombs were excavated,
belonging to Wei and Western Tsin dynasties.
Wei dynasty (220-265 AD), one of the states in the
celebrated "Epoch of the Three Kingdoms"
in Chinese history, was the direct heir of the
Tsin, sometimes rendered Chin (265-420AD), was the
dynasty which supplanted Wei and finally
vanquished the other two of the "Three
Kingdoms" that had come to partition China.
All Han tombs that have been dug so far are among
China's most ornate. They are often of brick or
stone; some made of timber have also been
discovered. Most Han tombs are decorated with wall
paintings, with sculpted stone or with stamped or
This tradition was not lost on Wei and Tsin
rulling classes, who, as their Han predecessors
did, availed themselves of the skill and
creativity of artisans and artists from the ranks
of the masses they ruled.
More than 600 painted brick tiles, forming part of
the inner walls of six of the eight tombs
excavated in 1972-73 at Hsincheng People's
Commune, near Chiayu Pass, were found. In bright
red, vermilion, yellow and black, paintings depict
various workaday scenes on North-West China
between 278 and 421 AD.
There are paintings of lordly persons being
entertained in musical performance, being served
by servants, hunting and humbler folk drawing
water from well, cooking, farming, raising
livestock, gathering mulberry leaves, among
others. Some paintings are captioned with Chinese
The faces show Han Chinese and that particularly
Middle Kingdom marriage of Central Asian and
Chinese roots already seen in Tang and Han dynasty
tomb paintings and statuary.
Sizes of bricks range from squares, 17.2x17 cm
(6.88x6.8 in) to the larger pieces, of more than
60x16 cm (24x6.4 in). Bricks in Boston are larger.
Thickness ranges from 4 to 5 cm (1.6-2 in).