Chinese painting is one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions
in the world. Painting in the traditional style is known today in
Chinese as guóhuà (simplified Chinese: 国画; traditional Chinese:
國畫), meaning "national" or "native painting", as opposed to
Western styles of art which became popular in China in the 20th
century. Traditional painting involves essentially the same techniques
as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black ink or
coloured pigments; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most
popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk. The
finished work can be mounted on scrolls, such as hanging scrolls or
handscrolls. Traditional painting can also be done on album sheets,
walls, lacquerware, folding screens, and other media.
The two main techniques in
Chinese painting are:
Gongbi (工筆), meaning "meticulous", uses highly detailed
brushstrokes that delimits details very precisely. It is often highly
coloured and usually depicts figural or narrative subjects. It is
often practised by artists working for the royal court or in
Ink and wash painting, in Chinese shui-mo (水墨, "water and ink")
also loosely termed watercolour or brush painting, and also known as
"literati painting", as it was one of the "Four Arts" of the Chinese
Scholar-official class. In theory this was an art practiced by
gentlemen, a distinction that begins to be made in writings on art
from the Song dynasty, though in fact the careers of leading exponents
could benefit considerably. This style is also referred to as
"xieyi" (寫意) or freehand style.
Landscape painting was regarded as the highest form of Chinese
painting, and generally still is. The time from the Five Dynasties
period to the Northern Song period (907–1127) is known as the "Great
age of Chinese landscape". In the north, artists such as Jing Hao, Li
Cheng, Fan Kuan, and
Guo Xi painted pictures of towering mountains,
using strong black lines, ink wash, and sharp, dotted brushstrokes to
suggest rough stone. In the south, Dong Yuan, Juran, and other artists
painted the rolling hills and rivers of their native countryside in
peaceful scenes done with softer, rubbed brushwork. These two kinds of
scenes and techniques became the classical styles of Chinese landscape
1 Specifics and study
2 Early periods
2.1 Six principles
3 Sui and Tang dynasties (581–907)
4 Song and Yuan dynasties (960–1368)
5 Late imperial China (1368–1895)
6 Modern painting
6.1 Since 1978
7 High quality reproductions
8 See also
11 Further reading
12 External links
Specifics and study
Chinese painting and calligraphy distinguish themselves from other
cultures' arts by emphasis on motion and change with dynamic life.
The practice is traditionally first learned by rote, in which the
master shows the "right way" to draw items. The apprentice must copy
these items strictly and continuously until the movements become
instinctive. In contemporary times, debate emerged on the limits of
this copyist tradition within modern art scenes where innovation is
the rule. Changing lifestyles, tools, and colors are also influencing
new waves of masters.
The earliest paintings were not representational but ornamental; they
consisted of patterns or designs rather than pictures. Early pottery
was painted with spirals, zigzags, dots, or animals. It was only
Warring States period
Warring States period (475–221 BC) that artists began to
represent the world around them. In imperial times
(beginning with the Eastern Jin dynasty), painting and calligraphy in
China were among the most highly appreciated arts in the court and
they were often practiced by amateurs—aristocrats and
scholar-officials—who had the leisure time necessary to perfect the
technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy
and painting were thought to be the purest forms of art. The
implements were the brush pen made of animal hair, and black inks made
from pine soot and animal glue. In ancient times, writing, as well as
painting, was done on silk. However, after the invention of paper in
the 1st century AD, silk was gradually replaced by the new and cheaper
material. Original writings by famous calligraphers have been greatly
valued throughout China's history and are mounted on scrolls and hung
on walls in the same way that paintings are.
Artists from the Han (206 BC – 220 AD) to the Tang (618–906)
dynasties mainly painted the human figure. Much of what we know of
early Chinese figure painting comes from burial sites, where paintings
were preserved on silk banners, lacquered objects, and tomb walls.
Many early tomb paintings were meant to protect the dead or help their
souls to get to paradise. Others illustrated the teachings of the
Confucius or showed scenes of daily life.
Gu Kaizhi (344–406 AD)
Six Dynasties period (220–589), people began to
appreciate painting for its own beauty and to write about art. From
this time we begin to learn about individual artists, such as Gu
Kaizhi. Even when these artists illustrated Confucian moral themes –
such as the proper behavior of a wife to her husband or of children to
their parents – they tried to make the figures graceful.
Main article: Six principles of Chinese painting
The "Six principles of Chinese painting" were established by Xie He, a
writer, art historian and critic in 5th century China, in "Six points
to consider when judging a painting" (繪畫六法, Pinyin: Huìhuà
Liùfǎ), taken from the preface to his book "The Record of the
Classification of Old Painters" (古畫品錄; Pinyin: Gǔhuà
Pǐnlù). Keep in mind that this was written circa 550 CE and refers
to "old" and "ancient" practices. The six elements that define a
Sakyamuni Buddha, by Zhang Shengwen, 1173–1176 CE, Song dynasty
A mural painting of Li Xian's tomb at the Qianling Mausoleum, dated
706 CE, Tang dynasty
"Spirit Resonance", or vitality, which refers to the flow of energy
that encompasses theme, work, and artist. Xie He said that without
Spirit Resonance, there was no need to look further.
"Bone Method", or the way of using the brush, refers not only to
texture and brush stroke, but to the close link between handwriting
and personality. In his day, the art of calligraphy was inseparable
"Correspondence to the Object", or the depicting of form, which would
include shape and line.
"Suitability to Type", or the application of color, including layers,
value, and tone.
"Division and Planning", or placing and arrangement, corresponding to
composition, space, and depth.
"Transmission by Copying", or the copying of models, not from life
only but also from the works of antiquity.
Sui and Tang dynasties (581–907)
Tang dynasty painting
During the Tang dynasty, figure painting flourished at the royal
court. Artists such as Zhou Fang depicted the splendor of court life
in paintings of emperors, palace ladies, and imperial horses. Figure
painting reached the height of elegant realism in the art of the court
of Southern Tang (937–975).
Most of the Tang artists outlined figures with fine black lines and
used brilliant color and elaborate detail. However, one Tang artist,
the master Wu Daozi, used only black ink and freely painted
brushstrokes to create ink paintings that were so exciting that crowds
gathered to watch him work. From his time on, ink paintings were no
longer thought to be preliminary sketches or outlines to be filled in
with color. Instead, they were valued as finished works of art.
Beginning in the Tang Dynasty, many paintings were landscapes, often
shanshui (山水, "mountain water") paintings. In these landscapes,
monochromatic and sparse (a style that is collectively called
shuimohua), the purpose was not to reproduce the appearance of nature
exactly (realism) but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere, as if
catching the "rhythm" of nature.
Song and Yuan dynasties (960–1368)
Guo Xi is a representative landscape painter of the Northern Song
dynasty, depicting mountains, rivers and forests in winter. This piece
shows a scene of deep and serene mountain valley covered with snow and
several old trees struggling to survive on precipitous cliffs.
Buddhist Temple in the Mountains, 11th century, ink on silk,
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (Missouri).
Painting during the
Song dynasty (960–1279) reached a further
development of landscape painting; immeasurable distances were
conveyed through the use of blurred outlines, mountain contours
disappearing into the mist, and impressionistic treatment of natural
phenomena. The shan shui style painting—"shan" meaning mountain, and
"shui" meaning river—became prominent in Chinese landscape art. The
emphasis laid upon landscape was grounded in Chinese philosophy;
Taoism stressed that humans were but tiny specks in the vast and
greater cosmos, while
Neo-Confucianist writers often pursued the
discovery of patterns and principles that they believed caused all
social and natural phenomena. The painting of portraits and closely
viewed objects like birds on branches were held in high esteem, but
landscape painting was paramount. By the beginning of the Song
Dynasty a distinctive landscape style had emerged. Artists mastered
the formula of intricate and realistic scenes placed in the
foreground, while the background retained qualities of vast and
infinite space. Distant mountain peaks rise out of high clouds and
mist, while streaming rivers run from afar into the foreground.
There was a significant difference in painting trends between the
Northern Song period (960–1127) and Southern Song period
(1127–1279). The paintings of Northern Song officials were
influenced by their political ideals of bringing order to the world
and tackling the largest issues affecting the whole of society; their
paintings often depicted huge, sweeping landscapes. On the other
hand, Southern Song officials were more interested in reforming
society from the bottom up and on a much smaller scale, a method they
believed had a better chance for eventual success; their paintings
often focused on smaller, visually closer, and more intimate scenes,
while the background was often depicted as bereft of detail as a realm
without concern for the artist or viewer. This change in attitude
from one era to the next stemmed largely from the rising influence of
Neo-Confucian philosophy. Adherents to
Neo-Confucianism focused on
reforming society from the bottom up, not the top down, which can be
seen in their efforts to promote small private academies during the
Southern Song instead of the large state-controlled academies seen in
the Northern Song era.
Ever since the
Southern and Northern dynasties
Southern and Northern dynasties (420–589), painting
had become an art of high sophistication that was associated with the
gentry class as one of their main artistic pastimes, the others being
calligraphy and poetry. During the Song Dynasty there were avid
art collectors that would often meet in groups to discuss their own
paintings, as well as rate those of their colleagues and friends. The
poet and statesman
Su Shi (1037–1101) and his accomplice Mi Fu
(1051–1107) often partook in these affairs, borrowing art pieces to
study and copy, or if they really admired a piece then an exchange was
often proposed. They created a new kind of art based upon the
three perfections in which they used their skills in calligraphy (the
art of beautiful writing) to make ink paintings. From their time
onward, many painters strove to freely express their feelings and to
capture the inner spirit of their subject instead of describing its
outward appearance. The small round paintings popular in the Southern
Song were often collected into albums as poets would write poems along
the side to match the theme and mood of the painting.
The "Four Generals of Zhongxing" painted by Liu Songnian during the
Southern Song dynasty.
Yue Fei is the second person from the left. It
is believed to be the "truest portrait of Yue in all extant
Although they were avid art collectors, some Song scholars did not
readily appreciate artworks commissioned by those painters found at
shops or common marketplaces, and some of the scholars even criticized
artists from renowned schools and academies. Anthony J. Barbieri-Low,
a Professor of Early Chinese History at the University of California,
Santa Barbara, points out that Song scholars' appreciation of art
created by their peers was not extended to those who made a living
simply as professional artists:
During the Northern Song (960–1126 CE), a new class of
scholar-artists emerged who did not possess the tromp l'œil skills of
the academy painters nor even the proficiency of common marketplace
painters. The literati's painting was simpler and at times quite
unschooled, yet they would criticize these other two groups as mere
professionals, since they relied on paid commissions for their
livelihood and did not paint merely for enjoyment or self-expression.
The scholar-artists considered that painters who concentrated on
realistic depictions, who employed a colorful palette, or, worst of
all, who accepted monetary payment for their work were no better than
butchers or tinkers in the marketplace. They were not to be considered
However, during the Song period, there were many acclaimed court
painters and they were highly esteemed by emperors and the royal
family. One of the greatest landscape painters given patronage by the
Song court was
Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145), who painted the original
Along the River During the Qingming Festival
Along the River During the Qingming Festival scroll, one of the most
well-known masterpieces of Chinese visual art. Emperor Gaozong of Song
(1127–1162) once commissioned an art project of numerous paintings
for the Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute, based on the woman poet Cai
Wenji (177–250 AD) of the earlier Han dynasty.
Yi Yuanji achieved a
high degree of realism painting animals, in particular monkeys and
gibbons. During the Southern Song period (1127–1279), court
painters such as Ma Yuan and
Xia Gui used strong black brushstrokes to
sketch trees and rocks and pale washes to suggest misty space.
Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), painters joined the arts
of painting, poetry, and calligraphy by inscribing poems on their
paintings. These three arts worked together to express the artist's
feelings more completely than one art could do alone. Yuan emperor
Tugh Temur (r. 1328, 1329–1332) was fond of
Chinese painting and
became a creditable painter himself.
Late imperial China (1368–1895)
The panorama painting "Departure Herald", painted during the reign of
Xuande Emperor (1425–1435 AD), shows the emperor traveling on
horseback with a large escort through the countryside from Beijing's
Imperial City to the Ming Dynasty tombs. Beginning with Yongle,
thirteen Ming emperors were buried in the
Ming Tombs of present-day
Jieziyuan Huazhuan Lotus Flowers", Mustard Seed Garden Painting
Beginning in the 13th century, the tradition of painting simple
subjects—a branch with fruit, a few flowers, or one or two
horses—developed. Narrative painting, with a wider color range and a
much busier composition than Song paintings, was immensely popular
during the Ming period (1368–1644).
The first books illustrated with colored woodcuts appeared around this
time; as color-printing techniques were perfected, illustrated manuals
on the art of painting began to be published. Jieziyuan Huazhuan
(Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden), a five-volume work first
published in 1679, has been in use as a technical textbook for artists
and students ever since.
Some painters of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) continued the
traditions of the Yuan scholar-painters. This group of painters, known
as the Wu School, was led by the artist Shen Zhou. Another group of
painters, known as the Zhe School, revived and transformed the styles
of the Song court.
Shen Zhou of the
Wu School depicted the scene when the painter was
making his farewell to Wu Kuan, a good friend of his, at Jingkou.
During the early
Qing dynasty (1644–1911), painters known as
Individualists rebelled against many of the traditional rules of
painting and found ways to express themselves more directly through
free brushwork. In the 18th and 19th centuries, great commercial
cities such as
Shanghai became art centers where wealthy
merchant-patrons encouraged artists to produce bold new works.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese painters were
increasingly exposed to Western art. Some artists who studied in
Europe rejected Chinese painting; others tried to combine the best of
both traditions. Among the most beloved modern painters was Qi Baishi,
who began life as a poor peasant and became a great master. His
best-known works depict flowers and small animals.
Shop of Tingqua, the painter
Beginning with the New Culture Movement, Chinese artists started to
adopt using Western techniques. Prominent Chinese artists who studied
Western painting include Li Tiefu, Yan Wenliang, Xu Beihong, Lin
Fang Ganmin and Liu Haisu.
In the early years of the People's Republic of China, artists were
encouraged to employ socialist realism. Some
Soviet Union socialist
realism was imported without modification, and painters were assigned
subjects and expected to mass-produce paintings. This regimen was
considerably relaxed in 1953, and after the Hundred Flowers Campaign
of 1956–57, traditional
Chinese painting experienced a significant
revival. Along with these developments in professional art circles,
there was a proliferation of peasant art depicting everyday life in
the rural areas on wall murals and in open-air painting exhibitions.
During the Cultural Revolution, art schools were closed, and
publication of art journals and major art exhibitions ceased. Major
destruction was also carried out as part of the elimination of Four
Following the Cultural Revolution, art schools and professional
organizations were reinstated. Exchanges were set up with groups of
foreign artists, and Chinese artists began to experiment with new
subjects and techniques. One particular case of freehand style (xieyi
hua) may be noted in the work of the child prodigy
Wang Yani (born
1975) who started painting at age 3 and has since considerably
contributed to the exercise of the style in contemporary artwork.
After Chinese economic reform, more and more artists boldly conducted
innovations in Chinese Painting. The innovations include: development
of new brushing skill such as vertical direction splash water and ink,
with representative artist Tiancheng Xie, creation of new style by
integration traditional Chinese and Western painting techniques such
as Heaven Style Painting, with representative artist Shaoqiang
Chen, and new styles that express contemporary theme and typical
nature scene of certain regions such as Lijiang Painting Style,with
representative artist Gesheng Huang. A 2008 set of paintings by
Cai Jin, most well-known for her use of psychedelic colours, showed
influences of both Western and traditional Chinese sources, though the
paintings were organic abstractions.
High quality reproductions
High quality reproductions are made by special printing techniques, at
Rongbaozhai in Beijing, and at Duoyunxuan in Shanghai.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Paintings from China.
Chinese Piling paintings
Eastern art history
Eight Views of Xiaoxiang
History of painting
List of Chinese painters
List of Chinese women artists
Three perfections – integration of calligraphy, poetry and painting
Wǔ Xíng painting
Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou
Cantonese school of painting
^ Sickman, 222
^ Rawson, 114–119; Sickman, Chapter 15
^ Rawson, 112
^ a b (Stanley-Baker 2010a)
^ (Stanley-Baker 2010b)
^ Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China, 162.
^ Morton, 104.
^ Barnhart, "Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting", 93.
^ Morton, 105.
^ a b c Ebrey, Cambridge Illustrated History of China, 163.
^ Walton, 199.
^ Ebrey, 81–83.
^ Ebrey, 163.
^ Shao Xiaoyi. "Yue Fei's facelift sparks debate". China Daily.
Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Retrieved 2007-08-09.
^ a b Barbieri-Low (2007), 39–40.
^ Robert van Gulik, "
Gibbon in China. An essay in Chinese Animal
Lore". The Hague, 1967.
qq.com. Retrieved 31 October 2015.
^ 漓江画派,百度百科 http://baike.baidu.com/view/200826.htm
^ Goodman, Jonathan. "Cai Jin: Return to the Source". Brooklyn Rail.
Retrieved 7 March 2015.
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Famous Chinese painters and their galleries
Chinese painting Technique and styles
Cuiqixuan – Inside painting snuff bottles
Between two cultures : late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century
Chinese paintings from the Robert H. Ellsworth collection in The
Metropolitan Museum of Art Fully online from the MMA
A Pure and Remote View: Visualizing Early Chinese Landscape Painting:
a series of more than 20 video lectures by James Cahill.
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