Catherine PAGANI

Portrait of Sao Yong by Ren Yi (Ren Bonian 1840–1895). Ren often painted portraits of his fellow artists in contemplative poses. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Painting as an art form came into its own in the Han dynasty, and would later join poetry and calligraphy as one of the “three perfections” of the scholar-gentleman (wenren). Styles of post-imperial painting were affected by political turmoil, repression, and ensuing reforms; twenty-first century painters now have the freedom to challenge viewers with controversial subject matter.

Painting—along with poetry and calligraphy—is one of the “three perfections” of the scholar-gentleman (wenren) ?? in Chinese culture. Painting and calligraphy, the latter being the means by which poetry was traditionally recorded, use essentially the same materials—brush, ink, and silk or paper—and depend on line for expression. The brush is of greatest importance in controlling the quality of the line. The thickness, flexibility, and readiness of the brush to absorb ink allow for the variety of strokes that an artist can achieve.

As early as the Neolithic period (8000–5500 BCE) evidence of painting in China can be found in the swirling abstract patterns on Yangshao painted pottery. Bronze décor of the Shang (1766–1045 BCE) and Zhou (1045–256 BCE) dynasties shows further development of pictorial art. These patterns and images were symbolic and were believed to possess special powers. At this time artists also produced wall paintings. The archaeological remains are fragmentary and few, but early texts confirm that surfaces were covered in painted designs. Painting was found in other media, too: During the Warring States period (475–221 BCE) painted silks and lacquers, especially those of tombs from the state of Chu, reflect the development of regional artistic styles.

Achievements of the Han Dynasty

Painting in China came into its own during the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), which inherited the tradition of painting murals from its predecessors during the Warring States period and the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE). The subjects of Han painting, because of the increasing influence of Confucian thought, included models of proper social and moral behavior. But much of what is known about painting of that time is found only in written records, with only stone reliefs, pictorial clay tiles, tomb murals, painted lacquer, and a few silk paintings still in existence to provide visual evidence. The paintings from the tombs at Mawangdui in Changsha, Hunan Province, are among the most important examples.

Although they are different from paintings on paper or silk, clay and stone tile reliefs give a more complete sense of the use of pictorial space during the Han dynasty. The stamped, incised, or molded tomb decorations indicate interest in the afterlife, Confucian themes, and human activity. These relics, with fragmentary paintings found on tomb walls, show the Han artists’ ability to depict receding space and their interest in observing nature.

Earliest Masters

The earliest known Chinese painting masters lived after the Han dynasty collapsed. The first treatises on painting and calligraphy also date from that time. Xie He’s (c. 500–c. 535) Six Canons of Painting, which outlines early painting theory, is the earliest and most influential example. Although little painting exists from this time (largely because it was destroyed during periods of social and political upheaval), the copies and fragments of works tell us of a considerable interest in Confucian subjects. One work, attributed to Gu Kaizhi (c. 344–c. 406), is Admonitions of the Instructress to the Ladies of the Palace. Rendered in ink and color on silk, this handscroll uses text and image to outline wifely virtues and rules for proper behavior. Other important pictorial expressions of Confucian values are not paintings at all, and yet indicate the development of certain painting conventions. An engraved stone sarcophagus, illustrating tales of filial piety and dating to the sixth century, details the Confucian theme of having respect for elders and shows as well the beginning of landscape elements in art and an increasing confidence in depicting space. The sarcophagus is now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Buddhism was introduced to China during the Han dynasty and began to flourish during the North and South dynasties (220–589 CE). The Buddhist cave-temple site of Dunhuang, on the eastern edge of the Gobi Desert, has the greatest collection of wall paintings. Artists began painting at Dunhuang in the fourth century and continued for several hundred years. The paintings there, combining Chinese and central Asian elements, are characterized by a vitality unsurpassed in early Chinese art, and they continue to provide inspiration for artists in the twenty-first century.

Painting at Its Pinnacle

After centuries of disunion China was reunited under the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE). The dynasty lasted only thirty-seven years, but it set the stage for the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), China’s most cosmopolitan and glorious period. During the Tang dynasty painting achieved great heights. For example, the first imperial painting academy was established at the court and attracted many notable artists, such as Wu Daozi (flourished 720–760), the master of the monochromic technique; Yan Lide (d. 656) and his brother, Yan Liben (d. 673); Li Sixun (651–716) and his son Li Zhaodao (c. 675–741), famous for their landscapes in the blue-and-green style; and the horse painter Han Gan (flourished 742–756). Although few paintings that survive can be firmly attribute to these artists, enough examples exist to give a sense of the character of their work. Those of Yan Lide and Yan Liben epitomize early Tang figure painting. The figures were first outlined in black, and then the colors were filled in, using some shading. Wu Daozi developed baimiao, or “white line,” a monochromatic technique that focused on calligraphic line. This simple method would influence later landscape artists, and it contrasted sharply with the more complex and strongly colored landscape paintings of Li Sixun and Li Zhaodao. Scholars associate the painter and poet Wang Wei (699–759) with the development of true monochrome landscape painting, where the focus was on nature rather than on narrative.

Song Dynasty Landscapes

The Song dynasty (960–1279) was a period of political decline and yet one of intellectual and artistic achievement. The growing number of patrons and the abundance leisure time, combined with the rise of neo-Confucianism, contributed to a flourishing intellectual and artistic environment in which landscape painting reached its pinnacle. Song dynasty paintings would inspire artists into the Qing dynasty (1644–1912).

The monumental landscape characterizes painting of the Northern Song period (960–1126). In this style artists broke free from Tang influence and created a style that was purely Song. The early masters of the style were Fan Kuan (flourished c. 990–1030) and Li Cheng (919?–967?). Their works exhibit the rationalism and realism characteristic of the period. Artists conveyed the sense of distance and depth with towering mountains surrounded by clouds and mist, detailed foregrounds of rocks, and weathered, aged trees. Under Li Cheng’s st
udent Guo Xi (c. 1020–c. 1090), this style reached a climax. His greatest work, Early Spring, is one of the most important works in the history of Chinese painting.

The monumental landscapes were scaled down to small scenic views near the end of the Northern Song dynasty. These paintings, their subjects often viewed from bird’s-eye perspectives and through veils of mist, were more poetic and softer in feeling, as exemplified in the work of Mi Fu (1051–1107) and his son Mi Youren (1072–1151).

China’s first important painting academy began during the Northern Song dynasty, formed in the twelfth century under the Huizong emperor (1082–1135). At this academy teachers encouraged artists to paint in a more literal style, going beyond mere technical performance to capture the subject, usually flowers and birds. The Huizong emperor himself was a talented calligrapher and painter as well as a collector and connoisseur, and several of his works survive. His talent, however, did not extend to military matters; the invading Jin armies captured him in 1126, and he died in prison. The newly founded Southern Song dynasty (1126–1279), however, continued Huizong’s so-called Academy style in the new capital of Hangzhou.

Artists of the early years of the Southern Song academy featured some who had worked in the north, including landscapists as well as bird-and-flower painters. The landscape painters Ma Yuan (flourished c. 1190–c. 1225) and Xia Gui (c. 1180–1230) created the Ma-Xia style, in which the artist focused on a specific view of the natural world and used empty space by eliminating some detail and highlighting the extremes of distance and foreground.

Chan (the school of thought known in Japan as “Zen”) Buddhist painter-priests were also working at this time. They used more spontaneity with their brush and ink in capturing the essence of subjects, as exemplified in the work of Muqi (c. early thirteenth century–after 1279).

Scholar-Painters of the Yuan Dynasty

In the fourteenth century the Mongol conquests of the Southern Song empire devastated the Chinese. Although the Mongols employed some Chinese scholars at their court, most scholars refused to serve these “barbarian” rulers and dedicated themselves instead to painting, poetry, and calligraphy. Because of this dedication, the brief Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) included a great development in the arts and produced some of China’s greatest masters.

Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) was one artist who was criticized for serving the Mongols. Zhao, a descendant of the Song imperial line, took a job in the Yuan bureaucracy and distinguished himself as a painter. His handscroll, Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains, with its varied, interwoven, and textured brush strokes, remains one of the great paintings of this period.

As the Yuan dynasty came to a close artist studios became gathering places for wenren. The scholar-gentlemen painted not as a means of livelihood, as did professional painters, but rather for personal expression and enjoyment. The best-known of these literati painters were the “Four Great Masters”: Wu Zhen (1280–1354), Ni Zan (1301–1374), Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), and Wang Meng (1308–1385). They refused to serve the Mongol bureaucracy and stressed an attitude of art for art’s sake, preferring landscapes to other subjects and working with ink on paper. The sharpness and purity of these media highlighted their meticulous, almost calligraphic, brushwork. Their theories of painting would influence later artists.

Restoration under the Ming Dynasty

The Mongols were driven out by the mid-fourteenth century, and China was again ruled by the Chinese under the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). With this new rule came the desire to return to Chinese traditions and to purge any memory of barbarian rule.

Because artists looked to the past and were influenced by the masters of the Tang and the Song dynasties, painting during the Ming period tended to be conservative. Distinctions between amateur and professional painters continued in the two principal schools. The conservative Zhe school—so named because one of its most prominent members, Dai Jin (1388–1462), came from the southeastern province of Zhejiang—consisted of professional and court painters who looked to Xia Gui and Ma Yuan of the Song dynasty for their inspiration. Zhe painters, in turn, had a strong influence on later artists. The Wu school, named after the Wu district near Suzhou where many scholar-painters lived and pursued art for pleasure, looked to the Four Great Masters of the Yuan dynasty—and the spirited sense of freedom from foreign court service that informed their painting. Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) and Shen Zhou (1427–1509) were the leading masters of the Wu school.

It is not always easy to distinguish between the professional painters who worked in the styles of the Song dynasty and the amateurs who based their work on the Yuan dynasty artists. Three mid-Ming masters emerged, perhaps influenced to a lesser or greater extent by both schools: Tang Yin (1470–1523), Zhou Chen (d. c. 1536), and Qiu Ying (flourished c. 1522–1552).

The theorist and painter Dong Qichang (1555–1636) provided new impetus in the arts by the late sixteenth century. Dong, in studying the division between northern and southern schools of Chan Buddhism that began during the Tang dynasty (the “northern” and “southern” labels referred to their opposing views, not to their geographic positions), felt that painting similarly could be divided into two schools. The northern school of professional, often decorative painting with a focus on technical expertise, was characterized by the colored landscape style of Li Zhaodao and others who worked in the manner of Song artists Xia Gui and Ma Yuan. The southern school of painting, which favored poetic expression, ink over color, and free brushwork over meticulous detail, was characterized by the works of Wang Wei and other literati painters who followed the Four Great Masters of the Yuan. Dong ultimately favored the southern literati school, and his theory was especially influential when literati painting became the conventional (orthodox) style for artists of the early Qing dynasty,

Qing Dynasty and the Classical Tradition

The high point of the classical/traditional form of painting occurred under the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty (1644–1912). During this time two basic approaches to painting existed: (1) the orthodox literati style, based on studying masters of the Song and Yuan, and encouraged by the writings of Dong Qichang, and (2) the individualist style, favored by many Ming loyalists who cultivated highly original styles, often to express frustration aver another foreign rule.

The orthodox style is represented by the works of the Four Wangs: Wang Shimin (1592–1680), Wang Jian (1598–1677), Wang Hui (1632–1717), and Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715). The most traditional of the four was Wang Shimin, who assimilated Song and Yuan styles. The most original was Wang Yuanqi, who was closer to the individualist painters than the other three.

Some individualist painters, like their Yuan-dynasty predecessors, did not want to serve under foreign rulers and thus retired from official life to write poetry and to paint privately. Zhu Da (also called “Bada Shanren,” 1626–1705) had an abbreviated style, capturing his subjects with a minimum of brush strokes. The monk-painter Kuncan (also called “Shiqi,” 1612–1673) produced more complex paintings than Zhu Da and made effective use of color. Yuanji (also called “Shitao” and “Daoji,” 1642–1707) used bold washes, much deeper color, elegant detail, and in later life adopted an almost abstract treatment of landscape. Gon
g Xian (c. 1619–1689) was one of the most forceful of the individualists. His style features velvety ink and somber landscapes. In contrast, Hongren (1610–1664), the monk-painter from south China, painted spare landscapes composed of refined and simple brush strokes first seen in the work of Ni Zan of the Yuan dynasty.

Painting at the Qing court was influenced by the presence of European artists in the eighteenth century. The Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining, 1688–1766) spent years in Beijing and combined Western realism with Chinese conventions. But his paintings, although admired by the Qing rulers, were little appreciated by Chinese literati.

The Twentieth Century to Today

Chinese art was redefined by the political turmoil of the twentieth century—led by the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 and followed by the May Fourth Movement of 1919, the War of Resistance against Japan (known outside China as the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945), the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949), and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Traditional literati painting faced opposition as artists began to look outside China for inspiration. Chen Shuren (1883–1949) and the brothers Gao Jianfu (1879–1951) and Gao Qifeng (1889–1933) were among artists who advocated the reform of traditional painting in the early part of the twentieth century. They were members of the Lingnan School in Guangzhou (Canton). Gao Jianfu had substantial influence on young Xu Beihong (1895–1953), the best-known artist to blend French academic and Chinese styles. In contrast, Lin Fengmian (1900–1991), another modern master, was influenced by the fauvists and post-Impressionists.

With the founding of the People’s Republic of China art became a tool for the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party and reflected Marxist views on class, as outlined in Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature” of 1942. Art, according to Mao, should serve the masses and further the revolutionary cause. His Cultural Revolution created further upheaval as artists were persecuted, and many were sent to the countryside to be “reeducated” and to learn from the peasants. Art was symbolic of party policy and was rendered on a grand scale for wide distribution, as seen in the two- and three-dimensional portraits of Mao that appeared throughout China.

Art After Mao

Mao’s death in 1976 ended the Cultural Revolution. There followed a gradual relaxation of government control in the arts and an openness to Western modernism. China’s young artists embraced this openness. Scar Painting was one of the first movements to emerge, seeking to address the deep societal “wounds” left by the Cultural Revolution. Avant-garde artists in the 1980s used previously banned Western-painting styles to create works that urged social reforms and called on the Chinese to break free from the past. The government attacked such art by launching its Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of 1982. This campaign resulted in a stronger and more widespread avant-garde movement in 1985 (known as the “’85 Movement”), which produced such artists as Xu Bing (b. 1955), whose work, Book from the Sky (1987), was made of four thousand printed characters that, although they closely resembled classical Chinese, were in fact meaningless. Another noted artist was Cai Guo-Qiang (b. 1957), who came to international prominence by detonating gunpowder on paper or canvas. In 1989 the events of Tiananmen Square brought a return to conservatism.

Two new forms of avant-garde art emerged in the early 1990s: Political Pop and Cynical Realism. Political Pop mixes Marxist ideology and capitalism with American Pop art. Cynical Realism addresses serious ideological issues with irony, humor, and cynicism. Political Pop’s commentary about the intersection of consumerism and ideological propaganda is evident in Wang Guangyi’s poster-style painting, Great Castigation Series: Coca-Cola (1993), in which three Cultural Revolution–era workers are juxtaposed next to a large Coca-Cola logo. Major artists of Cynical Realism include Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964) and Yue Minjun (b. 1962). Zeng’s Mask Series 1996 No. 6 (1996), depicting eight masked figures dressed as Red Guards, set a record price for Asian contemporary art when it sold at auction in 2008. An example of the Chinese avant-garde and its brush with political controversy is Yue’s Execution (1995). Inspired by the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the painting depicts men pointing mock guns at grinning men standing in their underwear in front of a red wall that resembles the red wall of the Tiananmen Rostrum.

Although Chinese painters continue to be influenced by Western styles, these artists also look to their long artistic tradition to create works that are a synthesis of China’s culture and current international styles.

Further Reading

Barnhart, R., Yang Xin, Nie Chongzheng, Cahill, J., Lang Shaojun, & Wu Hung. (1997). Three thousand years of Chinese painting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cahill, J. (1960). Chinese painting. Lausanne, Switzerland: Skira.

Fong, Wen C. (1992). Beyond representation: Chinese painting and calligraphy, 8th–14th century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jiang Joshua. (2007). Burden or legacy: From Chinese cultural revolution to contemporary art. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Loehr, M. (1980). The great painters of China. Oxford, U.K.: Phaidon.

Murck, A., & Fong, Wen C. (Eds.). (1991). Words and images: Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and painting. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sirén O. (1956–1958). Chinese painting: Leading masters and principles (7 vols.). New York: Ronald 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: Pagani, Catherine. (2009). Painting. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1681–1687. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Autumn Outing, by Lin Fengmian (1900–1931). Hanging scroll. Ink, pencil, and watercolor on silk. Museum of Fine Arts Boston. In 1929 the government created the National Hangzhou Arts Academy (now called China National Academy of Art) and appointed the French-trained Lin Fengmian as its head. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Ren Xiong (1823–1857). Self Portrait. Hanging scroll. Palace Museum, Beijing. The museum showcases an impressive collection of the Qing master’s work. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Painting (Huìhuà 绘画)|Huìhuà 绘画 (Painting)

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