History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Chinese painting is the art of brush and ink applied on Xuan (paper) or silk. The basic tools are those of calligraphy, which has influenced painting in both style and theory.

Characteristics and Categories of Chinese Painting

A distinctive basic characteristic of this painting is that ideas and motifs are presented primarily in the form of lines and dots in ink, rather than in color, proportion, and perspective.

These works are conceived with the aid of brushes composed of handle and head. The handle is usually made of bamboo or wood, while the head is made of animal hair, usually sheep or wolf. The heads are soft and flexible, and suitably fit the style of Chinese painting. Usually, only black ink is used, and silk and thin paper are used for the "canvases".

History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Chinese painting falls into three main categories: portraits, landscapes, and flowers and birds. Of the three traditions, the oldest is portraiture, dominating the scene until the late Tang dynasty. In general, landscape paintings depicted mountains and water, influenced by the Taoist tradition of seeking solitude in nature.

Landscape dominated in the 11th century, becoming a favorite motif of artists. Even today, when a Chinese says a place is the ideal of natural beauty, he will say it has "mountains and water." During the 9th century a different genre evolved about flowers and birds that included detailed paintings of birds, fruits, insects, and flowers. Some of these works are incredibly detailed and full of life.

Ancient Chinese painters used paintings as a means of expressing their feelings rather than merely reproducing the world on paper.

From the 10th century onward, many painters diversified their talents by also being poets and calligraphers, engraving poems or descriptive words on their works. It seems logical that many of the best painters also excel in calligraphy, as it shares much of the brush technique with Chinese painting. Chinese calligraphy is itself considered an art that requires years of learning.

History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Chinese paintings do not respect the "golden section"-the Western notion of the Law of Proportionality. This law states that two unequal parts of a whole must be in relation to each other to create a sense of balance to the eye. Instead of the "focal perspective" used in Western paintings, Chinese works use "dispersed perspective," which offers a delicate sense of proportion.

A good example of the above is the famous "Scene on the Bank in Full Clarity " (qīngmíng shàng hé tú清明上河图) which measures 24.8cm by 528.7cm. This massive scroll delineates various aspects of Kaifeng during the Song dynasty. Thoroughly detailed, the characters and scenes are proportioned from every angle.

Another feature is the habitual use of white space. The unpolluted space is used to evoke the sky. Sometimes they represent water or mist and sometimes the white space is simply nothing: just a sense of emptiness.

History of Chinese Painting

Prehistoric Age

The history of Chinese painting dates back to the prehistoric age.

  • The Yangshao culture, located in the Huanghe River basin, which is the cradle of the Chinese nation, (around 5000-3000 years B.C.E., its main industry was agriculture, belonging to the social stage of transition from matriarchal society to patriarchal society, taking the middle course of the Huanghe River as the center, reaching south to Hubei, north to Inner Mongolia. It was an immemorial largest and most influential civilization in the Huanghe River basin. Exquisite painted pottery was an outstanding feature of Yangshao culture).
  • Majiayao culture occurred as early as 5000 to 4000 years ago, which was the later culture of the Neolithic age in the upper reaches of Huanghe River. Its painted pottery reached the pinnacle of ancient Chinese pottery art.
  • The Dawenkou culture, ca. 4300-2500 B.C.E., which was the typical culture of the patriarchal society in the late Neolithic Age in the lower reaches of the Huanghe River.

History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

In the ruins of these three cultures, a lot of pottery was excavated, whose surfaces have many colorful drawings and various patterns, including human figures, fish and insects, birds and animals, flowers and plants, and geometric patterns. Therefore, the culture of that period is called "the Painted Pottery Culture".

The advancement of painted pottery culture laid the foundation for the bronze civilization, perhaps heralding the birth of porcelain pottery. Ceramics, bronze objects, and porcelain were the important carriers of ancient Chinese painting. However, they used the paintings to decorate their carriers only. The artists were anonymous. The tribal women who had just set up residence were the artists of painted pottery, meanwhile, the authors of drawings of bronze objects and porcelain were the craftsmen.

Qin and Han Dynasties

During the Han Dynasty, pictorial art could be classified into stone carvings and paintings on walls and silk. Han Dynasty painting was characterized by qualities of bravery and substantiality, and its predominant function was didactic - to educate people.
- Mortuary Chamber Frescoes and Silk Paintings

History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Wei and Jin Dynasties

During the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern dynasties, the concept of art gradually developed for its own intrinsic beauty. From this time individual artists, such as Gu Kaizhi, began to emerge. To some extent, figure painting was imbued with an air of elegance and refined beauty, although some of the painting of this period tended to be unrestrained and assertive.

History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Buddhism entered China, and monasteries and temples were built in mountains isolated from natural beauty. Taoist thinking of Laozi and Zhuangzi already promoted the concept of seclusion and the Confucian believed in the ultimate return to a life grateful for the beauty of nature. All this encouraged artists to pay their attention to the depiction of the landscape in painting, the portrayal of mountains, streams, and mists etc.
- Theory of Graphic Touch
- Famous Painter of Jin Dynasty: Most Romantic Painting of Gu Kaizhi

Tang Dynasty

Tang Dynasty painting fully developed on the basis of Sui Dynasty painting, achieved great successes in the painting of characters riding on horses, the technique of dark green landscape and ink landscape had matured a lot, the painting of flowers and birds and painting of quadruped animals became the independent painting subjects drawing people's attention.

In the early period of the Tang Dynasty, figure painting got more and more, and landscape painting followed the good style of the Sui Dynasty, some eminent people in flower and bird painting had already emerged, the secular trend of religious painting appeared.

History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy (partial)

Although people could find delight in Spring Excursion painted by Zhan Ziqian, landscape painting did not become mainstream in the splendorous era for ancient Chinese culture, the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The emperors, as always, regarded painting as a measure of preserving political dominance and cultural authority, imperial painters devoted primary energy to portraits and figure painting on the subjects of history and religion.- Qi Luo Character and Horse Riding Character
- Tang Dynasty Religious Painting
- Record of Famous Paintings of the Earlier Dynasties (Li dai ming Hua ji)

Famous Painters of the Tang Dynasty:
- Wu Daozi - Saint of Painting
- Yan Liben - Famous Painter of the Tang Dynasty

Song Dynasty

During the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-959), influenced by Chan Buddhism, color declined and monochrome painting triumphed. But in the Song and Yuan periods a variety of styles, forms and artists flourished that some current art critics do not hesitate to call "impressionist".

In the tenth century (Song) stormy landscapes predominated, as an expression of the power of the forces of nature, human actions or the artist's mood. The accessory details of the human figures (costumes, insignia, musical instruments, etc.) are enhanced and the countenances reflect composure and serenity.

History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Along the River During the Qingming Festival (partial)

Painting seemed to stagnate with the Mongol invasion: painters clung to the Song tradition and ancient styles, but then a totally renewed school emerged, called the "Four Sages". The landscapes of the Yuan-era painters show bird's-eye perspectives and the painted scrolls give the impression of walking across them as they unroll.
- Chinese painting of the Song dynasty
- Along the River During the Qingming Festival (Qingming Shanghe Tu)

Ming and Qing Dynasties

In the painting of the Ming period (1368-1644), the Wu school, formed between the 15th and 16th centuries in the district of the same name (Suzhou), is particularly noteworthy. It is distinguished by its emphasis on the philosophical bases of Chinese painting, the search for balance between the spirit of the artist and the society of his time. The greatest exponents of this trend were its founder Shen Zhou (1427-1509), with his vertical landscapes in which the upper levels fall on the lower ones, and his disciple Wen Zhengming (1470-1559).

History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Wen Zhengming's paintings

From the Qing period (1644-1911) names such as the famous Gong Xian (second half of the 18th century), who combined ink and color in landscapes without human beings, or the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), one of the most famous painters in the Manchu court of the Qing.

Modern Chinese Painting

In the 19th and 20th centuries Chinese painters were increasingly influenced by Western art. Some artists who studied in Europe refused to accept Chinese painting; others tried to combine the best of both traditions. Among the modern painters the most famous was Qi Baishi, who started his life as a poor peasant and became a great master. His best-known works depict flowers and small animals.

History and Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Qi Baishi's paintings

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