Chinese Painting
Characteristics, Types, History.
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Appreciating Plums (1598-1652)
By Chen Hongshou.
Guangdong Provincial Museum.
Example of Ming Dynasty art.

Chinese Painting (from c.200 BCE)
Characteristics and Aesthetics

Contents

Introduction
Chinese Ink and Wash Painting
Characteristics of Chinese Painting
Expressionism (Not Symbolism)
Differences Between Oriental and Western Art
Continuous Development
Mountain-and-Water Paintings
Tang Landscape Pictures
Connection Between Calligraphy and Painting
Song Dynasty (960-1279): The Golden Age of Chinese Painting
Analysis of a Chinese Painting
Colour in Chinese Painting
Roll Paintings
More About Painting in Asia



Portraits of the Yongzheng Emperor.
(1723-35). Hanging scroll from the
later era of Qing Dynasty art.
Palace Museum, Beijing.
Notice the introduction of
linear perspective.


Zhang Xiaogang - one of China's
contemporary painters and a leader
of the Cynical Realism movement -
at work in his Beijing studio (1992).

HISTORY OF ART
For important dates, see:
History of Art Timeline.
For specific art movements,
see: History of Art.

Introduction

Chinese art has a strong tradition of painting and the associated art of calligraphy. One of the earliest forms was the painting of Chinese pottery, as exemplified by the so-called Painted Pottery cultures during the era of Neolithic art, the last phase of the Stone Age. For details, see, for instance, Neolithic Art in China (c.7500-2000 BCE), as well as the Bronze Age period exemplified by Shang Dynasty Art (c.1600-1000 BCE) and Zhou Dynasty Art (1050-221 BCE), whose traditions and practices were handed on to Qin Dynasty Art (221-206 BCE) and Han Dynasty Art (206 BCE - 220 CE), which witnessed the first examples of Chinese porcelain, around 100 CE.

Compared to Western art, Chinese painting is more concerned with water based techniques, rather than oils or acrylics. In addition, Chinese painting is traditionally more stylized, more abstract and less realistic than Western types. It also emphasizes the importance of white space and may be said to favour landscape painting over portrait art, or figure painting.

Traditional Chinese painting ("guo hua") is similar to calligraphy - which itself is considered to be the highest form of painting - and is executed with a brush (made of animal hair) dipped in black ink (made from pine soot and animal glue) or coloured ink. Oils are not generally used. The most popular type of media is paper or silk, but some paintings are done on walls or lacquerwork. The completed artwork may then be mounted on scrolls, which are hung or rolled up. Alternatively, traditional painters may paint directly onto album sheets, walls, Chinese lacquerware, folding screens, and other media. In simple terms, there are two types of "guo hua": the first, known as "Gong-bi" or meticulous-style, is also described as court-style painting; the second, known as "Shui-mo" or "xie yi" or freehand-style, is also called ink and brush painting, or "literati painting", and was practiced by amateur scholar artists.

A great deal of what we know of the ancient art of Chinese painting derives from burial sites from the late Iron Age onwards (c.450 BCE). These tomb paintings were done on silk banners, various lacquered objects, and walls. Their primary function was to protect the dead or assist their souls on their journey to paradise. Tomb painting and sculpture reached its high-point during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). For a guide to the main principles which underpin fine art in China, see: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.

For the history and development of painting (ink and wash, shan shui) see: Chinese Art Timeline (c.18,000 BCE - present).

For an idea of the abiding Western fascination for Asian art - notably Chinese-style imagery - see: Chinoiserie, the pseudo-Chinese style of decoration which took off in Europe during the 18th century.

Chinese Ink and Wash Painting

Developed in China during the prosperous era of Tang Dynasty art (618-907), ink and wash painting was invented by Wang Wei, who was the first artist to apply colour to existing forms of painting. Wash Painting ("brush painting" or "watercolour painting") was further refined during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), before Buddhist monks introduced it to Japan where it grew in popularity until its peak during the Japanese Muromachi period (1338-1573).

The materials used in Wash Painting are very similar to those used in Calligraphy. Wash painters typically grind their own ink using an ink stick and a grinding stone. Ink sticks are usually composed of densely packed charcoal ash from bamboo or pine soot mixed with glue extracted from fish bones. Brushes can be made from goat hair, ox, horse, sheep, rabbit, marten, badger, deer, boar or wolf hair. The hair is tapered to a fine point, an essential requirement in Wash painting.

As in oil painting, different brushes have different qualities. A small wolf-hair brush that is tapered to a fine point can deliver an even thin line of ink (much like a pen), whereas a wide wool brush can deliver a large amount of water and ink. Once a brushstroke is made, it cannot be changed or erased. This makes Wash painting a particularly demanding art-form which requires years of training.

Traditional subjects portrayed in ink and wash paintings are the Four Noble Ones - that is, the four species of plants: the bamboo, orchid, plum blossom, and chrysanthemum. In Chinese philosophy, these plants represent the four seasons - winter, spring, summer, and autumn, respectively - and the four virtues of the ideal Confucian man.

Chinese painters noted for their skill in Wash Painting include: Mi Youren, Qi Baishi, Bada Shanren, Daqian Jushi, Su Shi and Xu Beihong.

 

Characteristics of Chinese Painting

Painting is the most characteristic art of China. Chinese sculpture is matched, part for part, in regions of the outside world; never the whole in one place, but one part in Luristan (Persia), another in India, still another in medieval France. Even the colossal ogres owe something to the Eurasian stylization that centered elsewhere. Only the grave-figurines are wholly Chinese, without a suspicion of foreign parentage, and universally recognizable as Chinese. But the painting is unique, shaped by the wisdom and love and brooding of this one people, and unrivaled in its sort through all the world.

It is here that the spirit of the national art is most intensely expressed. The Chinese canon of aesthetics which fixes the excellence of a painting in a vitality that is of the painting itself rather than of the life or object depicted, which is concerned more to open the way to the soul than to report to the mind - this canon is most implicit in the body of scroll and album paintings. The Oriental painter is a philosopher, a seer, an artist in living. He prepares himself for creative expression by spiritual absorption and by rigorous discipline of the active mind. Having stilled his assertive personal self, in apprehension of mystic meanings and cosmic harmonies, he comes to his brush and ink and field of silk with an overarching sensual aim.

There is more than a sympathetic link between painter and poet. The two are often combined in one person - partly to be explained by the fact that the artist's brush is the only writing medium in China, and that calligraphy itself is practiced with an artist's care. For the shading of the writer's lines supports his meaning; the very strokes convey his feeling toward, and the character of, the object. The purposes of the two groups of artists are alike, with a similarity not known in Western painting and poetry.

In much of Western painting there is a strain of assertive ambition - an exhibitionistic spirit, a show of personal emotion, a parade of virtuosity. There is, too, for extraordinarily extended periods, the effort to rival nature, to be scientifically right. The Eastern artist is humble. A great impersonality spreads over his pictures and statues and rugs. The copying of natural aspects, the capping of nature's effects, is the least of his undertakings. He studies nature in the large, concentrating his faculties upon understanding the greatest and the smallest of her phenomena, brooding with her. But his pictures are less a report of something seen than a distillation of a mood or a spirit felt. His most potent language is not the detail or outlines of the composition observed, but the intimation that came to him in contemplation. This he dresses in abstraction of colour, line, plane, and volume in space, and by means of it he conveys the inexpressible. Sketching (or preparatory drawing) is no part of Oriental composition.

There can be, says the Chinese, no creation of art without peace of soul. The faculty of stilling the reporting senses and the thinking mind, the faculty of expanding the soul, of gazing out silently, even ecstatically, from the centre of all being - this faculty is more to be prized than anatomical knowledge and light-and-shade exactitude. To which one may add, also out of the wisdom of the Orient, that there can be no profound enjoyment of art without inner peace.

This is not to say that Oriental art lacks magnificence or intense "this-world" vitality. It is full, vigorous, and rich. At times it runs off into extravagances of colour, ornament, or meaninglessly repeated forms. But even in its excesses, the impersonality is likely to remain. The melodramatic sentiment and forced action of Greek sculpture, for instance, would be incomprehensible in the Far East, for its emphasis upon story and personal emotion, no less than its realistic intention and the lack of formal organization, marks the development as utterly alien to Eastern intention and spirit.

Expressionism (Not Symbolism)

Some commentators explain Oriental art as primarily symbolic. Even Japanese writers have emphasized this explanation as a bridge between Eastern achievement and Western enjoyment; and indeed Japanese art - both painting and sculpture - is far more marked with symbolism than works by Chinese artists. But those who have fully savoured and enjoyed a Song mountain scene or a Han "unnatural" beast are likely to cry danger at the intrusion of symbol-seekers. A symbolic work, in the general understanding, is that which sets up one intellectual concept to suggest another. Symbolism is a matter of the thinking mind - and intellectualization is very far from the heart of Oriental art.

It is rather expressionism that is characteristically illustrated in the great body of Asiatic art. Even as that term is used, somewhat narrowly, by the current modernists, it fits Eastern art better than it does any large development of Western art before Post-Impressionism. Expressionism's three notable traits or qualities may be marked as essentials of Chinese art: utmost exploitation of the peculiar materials and methods of the art, resulting in logical form-organization and rich sensuous values; exceptional reliance upon abstract means and universal rhythms; and expression in terms of the inner understanding or essential "structure" of the subject, rather than by outward or accidental aspects. The intention is to fix the feeling of the thing rather than to reproduce its dimensions and outlines and material details. It is significant that the Chinese, in the first of their canons of painting, speak of rhythmic life or formal movement, whereas the Japanese speak oftener of decorative and symbolic qualities.

In general the symbols in Oriental art are an added rather than an essential interest, lying beyond the values of the created, aesthetically moving complex of formal elements. If the word "symbol" is used more loosely, not in the sense of one idea standing for another but in the sense, for instance, of a landscape suggesting perceptions larger than itself - evoking a sense of peace, and by further extension occasioning a feeling of release from the turmoil and dust of city-bound existence - then Oriental painting may also be said to be richly symbolic. But it is only in religious painting, chiefly Buddhistic, that a set of symbols, as objects or attitudes or emblems standing for intellectual concepts, is common.

The reliance upon symbolism as an explanation seems to be due to the need in the minds of western art critics to find some reason for the hold of Oriental art upon great numbers of people. An appreciation of formal excellence as such has not in the past been a common attainment of the educated "art lover" of Europe and America. The more learned he was, the less feeling he had for abstract, plastic, and deeply rhythmic values. Everybody had been busy pointing out how cleverly the painter had mastered anatomy and linear perspective and a marvellous fidelity of representation, and adding instruction about the significance of the subject-matter. Naturally the observer missed these "cardinal virtues" in the gallery of Chinese or Japanese art. The perspective is nonexistent; the fidelity is to aspects of nature never brought to his attention; and if there is a story element it is from an alien mythology or a little-understood way of life. He was baffled on all the counts which were academically discussed and praised: content, technique, truth, moral purpose. He simply was not prepared to recognize this other virtue in which, he was told, Oriental art excels - this abstract, vital, and expressive form-value. Yet every graduate from the intellectualized art of the West to the formalized art of the East, will tell you that the latter provides an experience of art at its purest and most satisfying.

Differences Between Oriental and Western Art

The final answer to the one who wishes to appreciate Eastern art is that he must put himself into the way of continual contact with actual paintings and sculptures. There is no substitute for experience. That he will come to appreciate them is certain, if only he will remain open-minded. Meanwhile he can aid his own progress toward understanding by remembering these few basic differences: Oriental art is not realistic or reproductive. It is considered by its practitioners to be a way of creation, concerned with life-values not to be observed or illustrated in terms of the casual and ephemeral aspects of outward nature. It depends first upon distillation of feeling and then upon expression in forms of - if not wholly abstract art - then nearly abstract elements. On the appreciation side also, art is considered a spiritual concern. Like all spiritual activities, it presupposes calm in the mind and heart, and quietude in the soul. In turn it brings peace, permits blissful comprehension. If one insists upon living life with the brain ever active, scheming, demanding; if one continues to distrust all that is beyond logic and sight; in short, if one refuses to be to some extent a mystic, one might as well ignore the arts of the East - except for their gorgeous sensuous colour and formal pattern. But for him who makes the effort and achieves re-education and a new receptivity there are undreamed-of pleasures in those rolled-up scrolls.

Continuous Development

When Indian Buddhist sculpture was introduced, fully matured, into China, an equally idiomatic art of mural painting came with it. (For more, please see also: India, Painting and Sculpture.) The examples still existing fragmentarily in cave shrines, as modified by Chinese ideas and methods, are by no means negligible or uninteresting, and they led on to a recognizable idiom of Chinese Buddhist sculpture; but they are, by reason of the foreign element, out of the main line of development of a characteristic native art.

Note: For more about early Buddhist painting, see: Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-589) and Sui Dynasty Art (589-618).

There had already been, long before, expert and original practice. If one is inclined to suspect the literary records which ascribe activities in portraiture, illustration of legend and history, and purely decorative painting to the centuries before Christ, there are nevertheless great painted building tiles produced not later than the second century BCE, in which the future direction of drawing and painting seems already fixed. The floating of the figures in living space, the delicate brush-touch, the calligraphic sensitiveness of the lines, the expressionistic concentration on essentials - all these seem to have been learned by the artists long before. There is here, indeed, the directness and nature-distortion not of primitivism but of maturely considered plastic expression, felt for along a path leading directly away from realism. Greek painting had at this time arrived at the other end of the path, at naturalism, after a long progression from the exquisite formalism of Execias and Euphronius. In the subject-matter too, the main road of Chinese painting was already indicated - not through the eyes but through some deeper sensibility.

Practically every painted work of the following eight hundred years has been lost. But if one puts Tang or Song scrolls beside these early tiles it becomes clear that in the intervening centuries, eight or ten or twelve in number, a straight course had been run, the art being gradually refined and perfected rather than changed. The tempered vigour, poetic concentration of statement, and light-sensitive method are racial characteristics.

Written records of certain lost works of that millennium survive. They leave no doubt that the art was almost continuously fostered - and appreciated. Perhaps overly so. In the eighth century CE, for instance, a military leader commissioned 18 painters to decorate a temple. Afterwards, he considered their work so incomparably beautiful that he straightaway had all 18 put to death so that such work could never be repeated for his rivals.

There are even a few rare examples attributed to known artists of the period. Ku Kai-chih of the fourth century CE, an expert in both Buddhist symbolic painting and in genre works, is represented by a serial scroll-painting now in the British Museum, known as The Admonitions of the Instructress in the Palace, and by a roll in the Freer Collection in Washington. Both show an extraordinary subtlety, characteristic mastery of expressive line, and compositional confidence. They may be copies by later masters or by hacks - and so either better or worse than the originals. Copying was an honourable and useful activity through all later eras, with a reasonable if not spiritual justification in the Chinese belief that the work of art is a living, life-giving entity in its own right. One of its ways of giving life may be in inspiring later artists to duplication of the original creation, or to slightly varied expression on the same theme.

To the writer it seems profitless to outline for Western readers the periods, schools, and personalities of Chinese painting. Our knowledge of the background of Oriental history is so vague that no correlation can thereby be established between art works and changes in political and social framework. It would seem more useful, therefore, in an introduction and interpretation, to indicate the intention of the Chinese painter, and to convey, if possible, something of the spirit of his work and to afford only the slightest factual guide of chronological succession.

Mountain-and-Water Paintings

It is better to vault over those many centuries during which painting flourished only to leave criticism and legend rather than example, and to arrive in the era of the Tang Dynasty (618-906), when the arts flourished with the official blessing of the emperor. China was never more open to foreign influences; she had commerce then with western Asia and Europe; but Chinese art was never again to be so distinctively itself. Even the invited Indian artists were soon absorbed. Buddhism was by this time a thoroughly Chinese institution; and at first the efflorescence of painting took form in Buddhist symbolic works.

Wu Tao-tzu, considered by the Chinese their greatest master, is credited with having added new body and importance to painting in the eighth century. The deliberate slightness and delicate understatement carried into his early work out of tradition gave way to a fuller, more powerful style; the historians speak of astonishing power and majestic largeness. The actual murals and silk paintings are known in description only. Wu Tao-tzu made hundreds of fresco paintings and was celebrated for other Buddhist works as well. From his period the surviving works - not his own, but others that afford information about methods, stylistic changes, changes of standards - are chiefly Buddhist votive pictures, of Bodhisattvas and other near-celestial beings and Paradise, or portraits. In the more complex paintings, done in a hieratic spirit, in the Indian idiom only slightly modified, there are occasional marginal bits - perhaps portraits of donors - which indicate a different, more strictly Chinese style.

 

Tang Landscape Pictures

But it was landscape painting which came to be, in the Tang era, the most typical form of expression. By the eighth century there were established traditions of landscape treatment. All carried considerably beyond the intention of the scenic naturalism of the Occident, which of course was not invented until eight centuries later. The Chinese term that corresponds to the word "landscape" signifies literally "mountain and water." Indeed, the aim of all Chinese landscape painters through the ages, has been to try to distill the essence of these freest of natural elements, mountains and still or flowing water. As the Taoist sages sought the secret of repose and divine identification in secure areas far from cities, war, and dust, so the painters sought to fix the feeling of cosmic penetration and absolute spirituality in mountain-and-water pictures.

Connection Between Calligraphy and Painting

Already in the eighth century there were different methods and schools. An especially quiet, style of miniature painting is ascribed to the first masters. There were, too, poet-painters, who fixed in drawings on silk the emotional characteristics of a word-picture. The literary association is further recalled in the often-remarked calligraphic character of the linear parts of the design. In Chinese calligraphy the signs derive from pictographic origins; that is, the word is a shorthand depiction of the object named, now nearly abstract, though with some faint likeness. There is additional meaning in the way in which the symbol is inscribed, in the flow of the line, its crispness or softness, its delicacy or vigour.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that writing, under these conditions, becomes a fine art in itself. For instance, the single character for "man" may be shaded and "composed" to signify weak man or strong man, coward or hero, partly by the weakness or virility and verve of the brush strokes. This is the element that cannot be translated when Chinese poems are brought over into the non-pictographic languages, and we are usually left with denatured intellectual equivalents.

Written poems, then, assumed an artistic character due partly to the sensitiveness and creative shading of the calligraphy and to the total visual effect of the manuscript. Handling of the brush became expert and expressive to an extent undreamed of in the Western world. And naturally, with the poet and painter in the Orient so close together in intention, both finding their material in subjective emotion and intuition, and their method in suggestion, there resulted a strong calligraphic character in the painting, as may be seen in outlines almost unbelievably revealing and in a play of fluent and broken line like inwoven counterpoint.

Laurence Binyon, the 20th century British art historian, went to the length of claiming that "painting, for the Chinese, is a branch of handwriting." The primary materials, brush and Chinese ink - an ink with almost magical tonal possibilities - are the same in the two arts. The method of direct application upon silk or soft paper excludes all possibility of "working over" or correcting; and so the paintings have, as a group, a freshness and vitality seldom approached elsewhere. See also: Pen and Ink drawings.

Binyon, most sensitive among the pioneer interpreters of Oriental art to the West, explained illuminatingly how the calligraphic method and the poet's approach result in the effect of important space, of aliveness in those parts of the field where line and colour and object are not. He wrote: "The artist closely observes and stores his observations in his memory. He conceives the design, and having completed the mental image of what he intends to paint, he transfers it swiftly and with sure strokes to the silk. The qualities prized by the Chinese in a small ink-painting of bamboos, a favourite subject alike with beginners and masters, are those prized in a piece of fine handwriting, only there is added a keen appreciation of the simultaneous seizure of life and natural character in the subject. It is said that in a master's work 'the idea is present even where the brush has not passed.' And this emphasis on the value of suggestion, of reserves and silences, is important to notice, because no other art has understood like the Chinese how to make empty space a potent factor in the design."

For Chinese sculpture, see: Jade Carving (c.4900 BCE onwards).

Song Dynasty (960-1279): The Golden Age of Chinese Painting

The landscape paintings, of course, shaded off into other types: landscapes with figures, for instance, which led into genre painting, eventually. In the other direction there were masters devoted particularly to still life painting, to flower studies, and to bird and animal paintings. To all this there was the parallel development of religious painting, revealing and beautiful in its own way, and of portrait art. There were, too, in the Tang period and in the following era of the Five Dynasties Period (907-60) many fluctuations of style and method.

Nevertheless, painting, unlike sculpture, came to its culminating excellence only in the era of Song Dynasty art (960-1279). There was a painter-emperor, Huizong (ruled 1100-26), who set out to make his court a centre of visual art and to transform his realm by official promotion of cultural activities. He collected five thousand paintings in one of the earliest of the "national galleries" and formed an academy. Perhaps, like Ikhnaton in Egypt, he gave too much attention to matters spiritual and artistic, and neglected the army. At any rate the Tatars overran his empire and sent him into exile, where he died. During the century or so that it took for the nation to absorb its new conquerors, the painters are said to have indulged the already developed taste for retreat from the active and troubled world. The art was then most eloquent of the regions propitious for spiritual serenity and repose: the inward world of the soul, and mountain fastnesses, and dreamy mist-covered fields. Thus a slight influence toward realism, felt during Hui Tsung's reign, was turned back.

In the late Song era, Li Tang and his pupils, Hsia Kuei and Ma Yuan, developed - according to Binyon - "landscape at its finest; synthetic in conception, impassioned in execution, it unites simplicity with grandeur"; even while Li Sung-nien was carrying on older currents of history painting and transcribing contemporary living; and while others were transforming Buddhist religious art into gorgeously decorative hangings, and still others were delighting in naturalistic accuracy. There are eight hundred names of Chinese painters recorded from the Song era. All of these currents carried on into the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

What is it that so greatly signifies in a Song landscape? It is, of course, the total aesthetic effect or evocation - a thing indefinable and elusive. There is no other type of art in which the excellence so withdraws in the face of analysis. But because of the strangeness of the Eastern painting to average Western eyes it would seem, for once, useful to trace down the various component elements, actually to pick to pieces one of these fragile works.

For painting under the Mongols, see Yuan Dynasty Art (1271-1368).

Analysis of a Chinese Painting

In the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian - there is a mountain-and-water landscape, entitled The Emperor Wen Meets the Sage Tzu-ya (12th century). Obviously the subject is not of primary significance to the beholder. To the informed Chinese the knowledge of circumstance and legend doubtless adds extra meaning, confirming the correctness of this particular setting and of the artist's blending of calm and magnificence. But one needs no literary or historic key to recognize that the work is a formal masterpiece. There is subject-matter in the other sense, apart from figures and legend - a narrative or distillation of the natural scene, constituting a typically fine instance of "simplicity with grandeur." Specifically one may note the essential tree character, the rock structure, and the peacefulness of water, all cushioned in the atmosphere of mountainous grandeur.

All this seems secondary, however, to the symphonic orchestration of formal elements. The sense of movement is extraordinary; yet the picture is poised, reposeful. Every element of design in one-half of the picture field - beginning with tumbled volumes, aggressive line, and clashing planes - is in contrast with the melodious, melting, lyric planes, lines, and volumes of the other half. Nor is the vigour of the main plastic rhythm destructive of that flatness which is a first law of decorative painting. Both the absence of natural shadow and the Oriental method of "laying up" the picture instead of employing scientific perspective contribute to this shallow effect of the field.

This is a composition, incidentally, which, after the observer has noted the striking division into a sumptuously filled and "forward" left half and a spacious, light, and distant right half, rewards the roaming eye with charming minor bits: the area with the two figures; the little tree to the lower right, characterful as tree but serving as a richly textured bit in the formal ensemble; and the hidden inlet way over at the middle left. But the focus of interest, compositionally and psychologically - the point at which the vision comes to rest, to which the eye returns gratefully after each further circuit of the field is that misty, harmonious, living space at upper centre.

And that brings us to the truth that ultimately the painter's intention and achievement is centered upon something that can be neither depicted nor described. The final thing posed in this picture is intangible - a mood, an evocation.

Objectively this is achieved by understatement. The deeper communication is by abstract means, by a peculiarly full synthesis of formal elements, a sparing use of objective means. The result, the beholder's response, is, like the artist's approach, nearer to contemplation than to observation. One knows that nature has been penetrated, profoundly understood, reflected upon; then harmonized, lifted toward the transcendental. To the mystic, nature is no external thing to be brought forward as an exhibit for enjoyment. The deeper service is to carry the awareness of man to that place in which all men and all natural phenomena exist.

Just as one might dwell on those bits where the "treatment" seems especially felicitous - on minor charming passages - so one might pause to enjoy, separately, so to speak, the virtuosity of single formal elements such as line or colour. The sensitive calligraphic line might be studied better, perhaps, in the economical depictions of bird or flower or animal, which breed despair in the Western draftsman, so incomparably sensitive and expressive is the delineation. What exquisite balance of form and character there is, too, in the drawing of Ma Yuan's Landscape with Bridge and Willows and of Chen Jung's Nine Dragons scroll!

Colour in Chinese Painting

Colour is seldom a stressed element in Chinese landscape painting. The lightest touch or faintest wash may be added to the monochrome picture, or as often omitted. But monotone in Chinese ink is not monotone in the Western sense. The range of effects is enormous.

Colour rises to a dominating position, however, in the Song and Yuan paintings. The rich play of hue and texture in some of the Buddhist hanging pictures is effective beyond description. We see the barbaric opulence oftener in embroidery and woven silk - particularly in the mandarin robes - for these have been preserved and brought to the West in greater number; but there are rare paintings with the quality. The full-coloured, full-bodied painting is found in magnificent variation in Tibet and even more notably in Korea. (For the impact of Chinese painting, sculpture, jade carving and ancient pottery on the culture of Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards).)

Chinese fresco paintings touched a level not surpassed for decorative richness in any other manifestation in the world. The rhythmic adjustment of figures, the vigorous linear interplay, the incomparable Chinese patterning with sensuously seductive colour - all these are to be seen as vitally achieved even in fragmentary compositions. Such is A Vision of Kuan-Yin, a Ming fresco of 1551 in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Roll Paintings

The roll paintings of the Chinese and Japanese are of a type unknown to the West. The artist begins his picture at one end of a band of silk and works his episodic legend or landscape continuously to the other end. The work is ordinarily kept rolled. It may be displayed, as in our museums, open at a particularly delectable passage; or, in the Oriental fashion, unrolled progressively at a sitting, and enjoyed bit by bit through the whole sequence. The unusual continuous form demands a special fluent technique: the picture must go forward rhythmically, so to speak, yet present a unified pictorial entity in each segment.

The pleasure of unrolling the landscape of a master painter, pausing as one pleases, losing one's outward self in the slowly changing visual experience, is a form of aesthetic enjoyment different from any known to Western peoples. The mechanics of unrolling and re-rolling the silk field is as natural as turning to see the changing landscape as one walks through woods and meadows, as automatic as the turning of the pages of an absorbing book.

Again, and finally, it is the mood that counts when one wanders in a gallery of Chinese mountain-and-water pictures. If we come with peace in our heart, with the inner eye open, we will find ourselves totally absorbed. This is not passivity, absence of experience, a mere withdrawal; there is dynamic movement in these things, a positive formal experience. But the experience is transmitted by a method which prepares the observer for reposeful consideration, an enjoyment within stillness.

More About Painting in Asia

Classical Indian Painting (Up to 1150 CE)
Ajanta, Bagh, Badami, Panamalai, Tanjore, and Polotmaruva schools plus Pali illuminated manuscripts, and more.
Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century)
Vijayanagar, Gujarat, Orissa schools, and more.
Mughal Painting (16th-19th Century)
Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurengzeb painting, and more.
Rajput Painting (16th-19th Century)
Rajastan and Upper Punjab schools and more.

 

• For more about traditional painting in China, see: Homepage.


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