A Western-style portrait of a Chinese lady. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The term guohua or “national-style painting,” first gained prominence in the early twentieth century as part of a broader discussion about how to define “Chineseness.” Although originally used to distinguish Chinese painting from Western art (xihua), the term guohua is now used primarily to distinguish between traditional art and modern art.

The term guohua, or “national-style painting,” refers very broadly to artworks that employ the materials (ink, mineral pigment, paper, silk) and stylistic models established as far back as the Tang (618–907 CE) and Song (960–1279) dynasties. Sometimes referred to as Zhongguo hua (“Chinese painting”), such works are frequently contrasted with xihua, or “Western-style painting,” though in most instances such sharp dichotomies are somewhat artificial.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) and the founding of Republican China the country entered a period of rapid social transformation that was accompanied by unprecedented exposure to foreign ideas on virtually every front—political, industrial, economic, and cultural. Partly as a reaction to these circumstances and in the process of defining the new nation, questions of national identity arose. During these years guoyu (“national language”) first came to be defined and the Beijing Opera started to be known as guoju (“national theater”); also at this time, the guoxue (“national study”) movement, which focused on Chinese history and classical literature, was initiated by the scholar Liang Qichao (1873–1929). The concept of guohua, emerging from this milieu, was thus part of a larger consideration of Chineseness.

While many early proponents of guohua were concerned with transmitting traditional Chinese artistic values, they were also interested in experimenting with some of the more modern (Western) visual techniques and ideas to which they were now being exposed. The issue, in other words, was not simply one of preserving tradition but of finding ways to “imbue new pictorial configurations with historical authenticity” (Wong 2006, xxiv). Particularly influential in this enterprise was a group of artists from Guangdong Province who promoted a “new national-style painting” (xin guohua), by which they meant artworks that combined Chinese themes and Western techniques. Known as the Lingnan (“south of the ranges”) school, this group’s founders had studied in Japan, where they were much influenced by nihonga, or “Japanese-style painting,” a Meiji movement that similarly championed a fusion of East and West.

Following the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949, traditional Chinese-style painting increasingly shared the stage with proletarian prints as the sanctioned art of the state. As culture became ever more politicized, guohua artists were faced with the new challenge of how to apply to painting Communist leader Mao Zedong’s famous dictum that the past should serve the present. One solution was the creation of a hybrid art that fused revolutionary values and history with traditional painting styles. Sunrise in Yan’an after Snow by Qian Songyan (1899–1985), for example, shows a towering pagoda, emblematic of the past, off in the distance, while a modern highway bridge with trucks and buses spans the misty gorge at the heart of the composition. “The whole is illuminated by the rosy glow of dawn, or perhaps to those who wished to read it so, of Communism” (Andrews and Shen 1998, 234).

The situation for painters (and other visual artists) in China has changed dramatically since the late 1980s, especially for certain postmodern practitioners who have been avidly embraced by the international art market. Traditional Chinese-style painting, guohua, continues to be produced and continues to be popular, especially domestically, but the issues of identity that informed its early history now seem to be located elsewhere. In the face of globalization, the question of guohua versus xihua no longer seems to be the pressing issue that it was a century ago.

Further Reading

Andrews, J. F., & Shen Kuiyi. (1998). A century in crisis: Modernity and tradition in the art of twentieth-century China (exhibition catalog). New York: Guggenheim Museum.

Barmé, G. R. (2002). An artistic exile: A life of Feng Zikai (1898–1975). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Croizier, R. (1988). Art and revolution in modern China: The Lingnan (Cantonese) school of painting, 1906–1951. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sullivan, M. (1996). Art and artists of the twentieth century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sullivan, M. (1996). Modern Chinese art: The Khoan and Michael Sullivan collection. Oxford, U.K.: The Ashmolean Museum.

Thorp, R. L., & Vinograd, R. E. (2001). Chinese art and culture. New York: Abrams.

Wong Aida Yuen. (2006). Parting the mists: Discovering Japan and the rise of national-style painting in modern China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

An image of a bamboo has already been formed in mind before it is committed to the painting canvas.


Xiōng yǒu chéng zhú

Source: Lachman, Charles. (2009). Guohua (National-Style Painting). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 969–971. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

An example of the Guohua national-style painting tradition. Wu Changshi, Four Seasons, 1911. One of a set of 4 hanging scrolls, ink and color on paper, each 250.7 × 62.4 cm.

Guohua (National-Style Painting) (Guóhuà 国画)|Guóhuà 国画 (Guohua (National-Style Painting))

Download the PDF of this article