China's artistic traditions stretch back thousands of years. Ceramic vessels have been found in graves over 10,000 years old. An exciting archaeological find was made in 1974, when peasants digging a well uncovered the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the emperor who first united the warring states of ancient China in 221 BC. Buried with him was a life sized army of terracotta statues, each one different and armed with real weapons.

For centuries, painting, writing and collecting antiquities were considered cultured activities in China. The highest form of visual art has traditionally been calligraphy, the art of writing Chinese characters-an art form with no equivalent in the West. The greatest calligraphers were regarded with the reverence Westerners give to da Vinci and Picasso. Calligraphy can be found decorating temples, mountains and monuments. The preeminence of calligraphy can also be seen in Chinese painting, which uses ink instead of paint, and like writing emphasizes lines and tone.

Historically, professional writers and artists have been less common than amateurs in China, yet the Chinese also pioneered many literary techniques. An immense body of poetry includes all genres, ranging from long works celebrating heroic deeds to short lyrics on love, including the love for one's home, a common theme in Chinese art.

China's musical traditions are equally rich. The country's many native instruments include the qin, a seven-stringed lyre; the hu qin or Chinese violin; the guan, a double-reed pipe; various bamboo flutes; and percussion instruments made from bronze, jade or wood. Some of these instruments are used in Chinese opera or theatre, which spawned a number of other arts, such as acrobatics, martial arts and stylized dance.

China's artistic traditions suffered during the Cultural Revolution, when anything that represented the past, including "personal" art, was rejected and often destroyed. Artists, writers and musicians are just beginning to emerge again. One of the most well-known contemporary Chinese arts is filmmaking. Recent directors who have garnered international recognition include Chen Kaige (Farewell, My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (The Story of Qiu Ju). Hong Kong cinema, on the other hand, is well-established in the West, where the work of late actor Bruce Lee, actor Jackie Chan and action-film director John Woo is very popular.

  Did you know?
The 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Gao Xingjian, a prolific writer whose works include the novel Soul Mountain. His work was banned in China for political reasons. Xingjian now lives in Paris.

  Did you know?
Mouth organs were first made in China about 1100 BC; 2,000 years later, Chinese temples had mouth organ orchestras.