The art of a highly Buddhist influenced state was of course not in the first place oriented to secular matters. The work in the famous grottoes of Dunhuang 敦煌 with their coloured statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and other beings of Buddhist belief had already begun during the 4th century. But especially under Northern Wei patronage, the amount of sculptures rose highly. The Tuoba rulers had their "house caves" near the old capital Datong, the Yungang Caves 雲崗石窟. Here, the Inner Asian art style of Gandhara was slowly formed to a more soft, Chinese style of Buddhist art under the guidance of Tanyao. When the Northern Wei transferred their capital to Luoyang, there was a need to establish new grottoes at Longmen 龍門. The work in these grottoes was continued during the following Tang Dynasty (618-907), also under protection of the ruling house. In Longmen, we do not only see pictures of the Buddha and his followers, but also bas-reliefs that show members of the ruling house or the aristocracy worshipping in a procession.
Secular art shows much more military influence, especially in pictorial art and for pottery, where soldiers and warriors are an often seen motif. While painted pottery was popular during the Han Dynasty, from the Three Kingdoms on, pottery is glazed with light brown, yellow or green-yellow colors. The missing of paintings on pottery made it more necessary to lay stress on the shape of pottery vessels. We see birds and leafs as the main decoration motifs on Jin and Northern Dynasties' pottery. The shape of the vessels also changed to more round, almost ball-like pots, sometimes with long necks and handles. Lacquerware has totally diappeared after the end of Han. We don't know much about natural materials and architecture of that time. War and time have destroyed many relicts.
In contrast to the Non-Chinese "barbarian" north of China, the intellectual atmoshpere of the south was marked by a refined aristocratic culture, at least until the end of the 5th century. Scenes of daily life, farming or persons inside the palace, were enriched by the thoroughly new genre of landscape painting. One of the most famous painters of that period was Gu Kaizhi 顧愷之, whose works were used for educational purposes for many centuries. Another new kind of art was calligraphy. Characters were not mor simple instruments of writing, but now became an object of art. The most famous exponent of calligraphy art was Wang Xizhi 王羲之. The first book analyzing painting was the book Guhuapin 古畫品 "Old paintings" of Xie He 謝赫, followed by the sequel catalogue Xu Guhuapin 續古畫品 by Yao Zui 姚最. Lacquerware was out of trend and was replaced by the newly invented porcelain, glazed with soft yellow, light brown and green colors. With the arrival of Buddhism, new objects of sculpture developed, in the south mostly used for veneration at home.
Calligraphy by Wang Xizhi 王羲之, Lantingxu 蘭亭序
Painting by Gu Kaizhi 顧愷之
Musician, Wallpainting from a Jin tomb
Religious procession, Relief from the Longmen Caves 龍門
Great Buddha statue, Yungang Caves 雲崗
Glazed earthen pot, Southern Dynasties