Traveler in the Mountains, by Dong Qichang, painted in the 1600s. Dong effectively flattened space in his compositions so that mountains, trees, and rocks functioned less as representational forms than as semi-abstractions.

Dong Qichang, born in Huating (present-day Songjiang, Shanghai), was a distinguished Ming painter, calligrapher, art critic, and official whose landscape paintings were noted for their simplicity and elegance. Both his art theory and his practice would have a lasting impact on the development of Chinese art.

Dong Qichang studied from 1570 to 1580 with a circle of scholar-officials, artists, and collectors in and around his hometown of Huating (now Songjiang, Shanghai). In 1589 Dong placed second in the national huishi (metropolitan exam). Subsequently he was appointed as a bachelor of the imperial Hanlin Academy, a membership that was virtually a prerequisite for those ambitious scholars, including Dong, to rise to high political positions. Eventually Dong was promoted to be the court libushangshu (director of the Department of Rituals). He also briefly tutored the crown prince of the Ming emperor Wanli (reigned 1573–1620).

Dong’s acquaintanceship with other high scholar-officials helped him gain access to fine collections of ancient Chinese art, particularly landscape paintings of the Five Dynasties period (907–960 CE). Dong, painting with ink on a paper scroll, gradually developed his own style, alternating a dry brush for shading and rubbing to contrast the effects of a wet brush. Dong’s favorite subject was landscape. He painted scenes that were not true to life but rather showed deliberate dissonances in the relationship between foreground, middle ground, and background; he effectively flattened space so that mountains, trees, and rocks functioned less as representational forms than as semi-abstractions. Using fresh, moist ink he accentuated the diagonal lines of a composition to evoke the varied texture of rocks and mountains. Although Dong would occasionally include a hut or studio in his paintings, he avoided human figures.

Dong’s overall painting style could be divided into earlier and later paintings. The early paintings often contained monumental mountains that rose almost to the top of the scroll. The meandering ridges of the central mountains directed the viewer’s eyes upward toward the apex. An emphasis on gaoyuan (high extension) was obvious. Dong’s later paintings, by comparison, reduced the contrast of height between the central mountain in the background and the lower mountain in the foreground. The broadness of the solid mountains suggested the vastness of nature. Led by Dong Qichang, the circle around him was later called the “Huating school of painting.”

Dong was also accomplished in calligraphy, long considered the highest form of artistic expression in China. He excelled in cursive and running scripts. His calligraphy synthesized styles of the Tang (618–907 CE), Song (960–1279), Jurchen Jin (1125–1234), and Yuan (1279–1368) dynasties but was unique in its simplicity, elegance, and straightforwardness. Dong introduced certain terms that had evolved to discuss the expressive properties of brushstroke and composition in calligraphy into the criticism of painting, such as opening and closing, rising and falling, and the balance between solid and void.

Dong preferred learning from the ancient masters to copying from nature. He argued that the literati painting (a style that melded poetry and calligraphy with painting) satisfied “scholarly taste.” In his view literati painting expressed the painter’s personality. Focusing on the mind rather than on the skill (and echoing Ming philosophy—which held that the mind, not the physical world, is the basis of reality), literati painting paralleled the spontaneity of the Southern Chan Buddhist school. Dong downplayed often decorative court painting, with its emphasis on technical skill, which according to him fell into the category of “sweet vulgarity.” This twofold division correlated with the Chan Buddhist distinction of the Northern and Southern schools (conservative and progressive, respectively; their classifications had nothing to do with geography).

Dong Qichang’s artistic theory and practice had a lasting impact on the development of Chinese painting and calligraphy until modern times.

Further Reading

Cahill, J. (1972). Treasures of Asia, Chinese painting. New York: Crown Publishers.

Cahill, J. (1982). The distant mountains, Chinese painting of the late Ming dynasty, 15701644. New York: Weatherhill.

Ho, W.-K., & Smith, J. G. (Eds.). (1992). The century of Tung Ch’I-ch’ang 15551636. Kansas City, MO: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Yang Xin. (1997). The Ming dynasty (1368–1644). In R. Barnhart, Yang Xin, N. Chongzheng, J. Cahill, L. Shaojun, & W. Hung (Eds.), Three thousand years of Chinese painting (pp. 196–249). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Yang Xin, & Shan, G. Q. (Eds.). (2000). ?????(???). [History of the art of China (Ming dynasty).] Shandong, China: Qilu Shushe & Mingtian Chubanshe. [In Chinese]

Source: Jiang, Yu. (2009). DONG Qichang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 633–634. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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