Chinese Paintings — Development, Tradition, Aesthetics, Poetic Beauty, and Artistic Conception 

Part of Genre Painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" (Qingming Shanghe Tu) by Qiu Ying

Part of Genre Painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" (Qingming Shanghe Tu) by Qiu Ying (about 1498 — 1552) — Liaoning Museum

 

Development and Styles of Ancient Chinese Paintings.

Neolithic Paintings

 

The most ancient Chinese Characters are Pictograms, which combined writing and painting into one system, to record important events and convey information. 

Symbols on Painted Pottery Basin of Yangshao Culture (Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC)

Symbols on Painted Pottery Basin of Yangshao Culture (Around 5000 BC — 3000 BC) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Mural Paintings

 

Gradually, with more formation principles had been applied to enrich and develop Chinese Characters, paintings gradually separated as an independent art form. 

 

Till Qin (221 BC — 207 BC) and Han (202 BC — 220 AD) Dynasties, murals on palaces, and mausoleums are two major Chinese painting styles. 

 

Palace murals are usually in regard to eulogizing accomplishments of the ancestors and sages, memorizing meritorious generals and officials, praying blessings from deities, etc. 

 

These exquisite and fancy paintings, however, mostly turned into dust with the fall of the palaces. 

Mural "Sima Tu" Unearthed from Ruins of Xianyang Palace, The Imperial Palace of Qin Shi Huang.

Mural "Sima Tu" Unearthed from Ruins of Xianyang Palace, The Imperial Palace of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC).

Mausoleum murals buried underground, on the other side, are preserved relatively better. 

 

In general, grave murals would include detailed life experiences and major accomplishments of the mausoleum's master, as well as a wondrous world that the decedent’s soul would be living in, which was guarded by auspicious mythical animals and surrounded by beautiful clouds and stars. 

Grave Mural of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) 7.3 m × 0.7m

Grave Mural of Dahuting Tomb of Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) Drawing about the Owner's Banquet

In the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Taoism Religion was formed, and later Buddhism was introduced. Since then, religious murals have been widespread and popularized rapidly and reached a peak during the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).

Portion of Dunhuang Mural of Mogao Grottoes (around 618 — 907)

A Portion of Dunhuang Buddhism Mural of Mogao Grottoes (Built Around 618 — 907) 

Chinese religious murals portray figures of deities and tell stories of their cultivation experiences, which include valuable information in regard to culture, society, customs, history, mythology, etc.

Part of Murals of Taoism Deities on the Walls inside the Yongle Palace (Built in 1247 — 1358) in Shanxi Province

Part of Murals of Taoism Deities on Walls inside the Yongle Palace (Built in 1247 — 1358) in Shanxi Province

Silk Painting

 

From no later than the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) to the paper's invention in Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), paintings on silk had been popular among nobles, originally used inside graves to guide the deceased's soul to heaven or to enter the next life successfully. 

Earliest Existing Silk Painting in China, from Ma Wang Dui Tomb

Earliest Existing Silk Painting in China, with Auspicious Animals and Deities Welcoming the Owner to Heaven, Unearthed from Mawangdui Tomb of Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD).

Later, people started to paint for other purposes, to appreciate paintings as art forms, and the less expensive paper became the most popular material after being invented. 

 

However, paintings on silk and other types of fabrics remain a popular style for their ethereal beauties. 

Part of Silk Painting "Luoshen Fu" by artist Gu Kaizhi (348 — 405)

Part of Silk Painting "Luoshen Fu" by artist Gu Kaizhi (348 — 405). This is the copied version by people of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Palace Museum.

Traditional Chinese Painting 

 

After the paper was invented during the Han Dynasty, Traditional Chinese Painting gradually formed, which commonly use brushes and ink to paint on paper, and can be mounted on scrolls, as well as be drawn on fans, folding screens, album sheets, umbrellas, and inside snuff bottle (Inner Painting).

Traditional Chinese Painting inside Snuff Bottle or Inner Painting, by Zhou Leyuan in 1891

Traditional Chinese Painting inside Snuff Bottle or Inner Painting, by Zhou Leyuan in 1891— Liaoning Museum

 

Artists and Aesthetics Influencers of Ancient Chinese Paintings.

 

In ancient China, painting artists are mainly from two groups, the ruling classes that paint as hobbies, and professional artisans that paint as a career. 

 

Chinese Literati Painting

 

Chinese Literati Painting or Wenren Hua, originated in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), includes paintings drawn by the nobles and scholars, the ruling class of ancient China who paint for fun or to express emotions, and had been the major influencers of aesthetic values. 

 

Most of them were amateurs, and consider writing calligraphy and painting as the means to show their disposition, temperament, educational level, ambition, elegance, morals, and wisdom.

 

Hence, ancient Chinese Literati Paintings pay more attention to artistic conception than being realistic, the essence and spirit of objects than rich colors, and are usually closely connected with Chinese Calligraphy and Poetry.  

Chinese Literati Painting "Xiaoxiang Zhushi Tu" by Eminent Scholar Su Shi (1037 — 1101)

Chinese Literati Painting "Xiaoxiang Zhushi Tu" by Eminent Scholar Su Shi (1037 — 1101) — National Art Museum of China

Chinese Court Painting

 

Chinese Court Painting or Yuanti Hua refers to paintings drawn by professional artists that work in imperial courts, who painted under command of emperors and other royals. 

 

It originated in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), to portray the life of the royals, or to paint things that the imperials commanded or appreciated. 

Court Painting "Bunian Tu" about Emperor Taizong of Tang Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, by Yan Liben (601 — 673) Under the Emperor's Command

Court Painting "Bunian Tu" about Emperor Taizong of Tang Receiving the Tibetan (Tu Bo) Envoy, by Yan Liben (601 — 673) Under the Emperor's Command — Palace Museum

Chinese Court Painting thrived in Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), and reached its peak during the reign period of Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135), who was a great artist and taught painting in his imperial art academy. 

Auspicious Crane (He Rui Tu), Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song

Auspicious Crane (He Rui Tu), Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song — Liaoning Museum

Therefore, the emperor's personal interests and aesthetic values played important roles in court paintings, which in general are delicate, neat, colorful, magnificent, bright, and sophisticated.  

Part of Painting Thousands Miles of Mountains and Rivers (Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu), by Artist Wang Ximeng of the Song Dynasty

Part of Painting "Thousands Miles of Mountains and Rivers" (Qian Li Jiang Shan Tu), by One of Emperor Huizong of Song's Student, the Artist Wang Ximeng (1096 — 1119) — The Palace Museum

 

Common Motifs and Symbolisms of Traditional Chinese Paintings.

 

In traditional Chinese paintings, some motifs have been quite common to draw, including figures, buildings, landscapes, birds, animals, flowers, fruits, immortals, mythical creatures, mystical lands, and religion-related stories. 

 

Most objects have specific symbolism, such as:

 

  • Mountain and Water — Great and stable reign, prosperous society, eminent power, or tranquil and peaceful place. 

 

  • Water — Modesty, noble ambition, purity, and wisdom.

 

  • Bamboo, Orchid, and Chrysanthemum — Virtues, elegance, modesty, and loyalty. 

 

  • Pine Trees — Life, strength, and unbending. 

 

Click to Read More About Symbolic of Flowers in Chinese Culture

 

Introduction to Traditional Chinese Patterns and Chinese Symbols

"Hu Zhong Fu Gui Tu" that Xuande Emperor Zhu Zhanji Painted to Award His Exceptional Prime Minister Yang Shiqi (1365-1444), Wishing Him A Long and Wealthy Life

"Hu Zhong Fu Gui Tu" that Xuande Emperor Painted to Award His Exceptional Prime Minister Yang Shiqi (1365-1444), Wishing Him A Long and Wealthy Life — Taipei Palace Museum

Among all motifs of Traditional Chinese Paintings, there are three main styles that are believed the most popular and established: Figure, Landscape, and Flower-and-Bird Paintings.

 

Appreciation of Chinese Figure Paintings.

Figure Painting is the most ancient style in China, originally serving political and religious functions in history. 

Human Figure in Silk Painting of the Warring States Period

Human Figure in Silk Painting of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), With Chinese Phoenix That Believed Could Guide the Deceased's Soul to Heaven — Hunan Museum

Therefore, emperors, officials, sages, court ladies, historic events, religious figures, and stories, are basic subjects of Chinese Figure Paintings. 

Figures in the Painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai", by Gu Hongzhong 1
Figures in the Painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai", by Gu Hongzhong 2

Figures in the Painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai", by Gu Hongzhong (910 — 980). This is the copied version by people of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Palace Museum.

Later in Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), with the thriving economy and culture, Genre Painting  (Fengsu Hua) became quite popular, as a splendid art form that presented the prosperity of a great reign and the wealthy lives of ordinary civilians. 

Genre Painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty 1
Genre Painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty 2
Genre Painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty 3

 "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"  by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145),
Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty — Palace Museum

 

Artistic Conception of Chinese Landscape Paintings.

 

Chinese Landscape Paintings or Shanshui Hua formed as an independent painting style in the Sui Dynasty (589 — 619), which usually contain mountains, lakes, rivers, stones, trees, buildings, boats, and other natural sceneries. 

 

Since the beginning, there are two major styles of Chinese Landscape Painting, the Blue-Green (Qinglv) and the Ink and Wash (Mobi). 

Blue-Green or Qinglv Style Chinese Landscape Painting "You Chun Tu" by Zhan Ziqian (about 545 — 618)

Blue-Green or Qinglv Style Chinese Landscape Painting "You Chun Tu" by Zhan Ziqian (about 545 — 618) — Palace Museum

Ink and Wash or Mobi Style Chinese Landscape Painting "Jianggan Xueji Tu" by Wang Wei (701 — 761).

Ink and Wash or Mobi Style Chinese Landscape Painting "Jianggan Xueji Tu" by Wang Wei (701 — 761).

Later, a type of golden paint (Nijin) was added to outline in Blue-Green Paintings, forming the resplendent Golden-Blue Landscape Painting (Jinbi Shanshui). 

Golden-Blue Landscape Painting or Jinbi Shanshui "Minghuang Xingshu Tu" by Li Zhaodao (675 — 758), About Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Fled to Sichuan during An-Shi Rebellion

Golden-Blue Landscape Painting or Jinbi Shanshui "Minghuang Xingshu Tu" by Li Zhaodao (675 — 758), About Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Fled to Sichuan during An-Shi Rebellion. This is the copied version by people of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Taipei Palace Museum.

With the increasing influence of scholar-officials since the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), their favorite style, the poetic Ink and Wash paintings that resemble Chinese Calligraphy became more and more popular. 

 

Through those quiet, dreamy natural sceneries and masterful use of brushes and ink, they could pursue inner peace, spiritual serenity, and self-cultivation. 

Chinese Landscape Painting "Chongjiang Diezhang Tu" by Zhao Mengfu 1
Chinese Landscape Painting "Chongjiang Diezhang Tu" by Zhao Mengfu 2

Chinese Landscape Painting "Chongjiang Diezhang Tu" by Zhao Mengfu (1254 — 1322) — Taipei Palace Museum

The most recommended way to appreciate Chinese Landscape Paintings is to immerse oneself in the painting, to walk, sit, live, and visit those poetic mountains, rivers, lakes, and fields.

Chinese Landscape Painting "Guanchao Tu" by Yuan Jiang (About 1671—1746)

Chinese Landscape Painting "Guanchao Tu" by Yuan Jiang (About 1671 — 1746) — Palace Museum

 

Poetic Beauty of Chinese Flowers and Birds Paintings. 

 

Chinese Flowers and Birds Painting or Huaniao Hua is about natural lives, including plants, birds, insects, fishes, mammals, and mythical creatures. 

Chinese Flowers and Birds Painting "Xinghua Yingwu Tu" by Huang Jucai (About 933 — 993)

Chinese Flowers and Birds Painting "Xinghua Yingwu Tu" by Huang Jucai (About 933 — 993) — Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

It was formed as an independent genre in Tang Empire (618 — 907), and the realistic Gongbi style of Flowers and Birds Paintings reached its peak during the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279).

Gongbi Style Chinese Flowers and Birds Painting "Guoshu Laiqin Tu", by Artist Lin Chun of the Song Dynasty

Gongbi Style Chinese Flowers and Birds Painting "Guoshu Laiqin Tu", by Artist Lin Chun of the Song Dynasty — Palace Museum

Later, the relatively free ink and wash Xieyi style became popular with the rising power of scholar groups and reached a summit during the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644).

Xieyi Style Chinese Flowers and Birds Painting "Zhushi Mudan Tu", by Xu Wei (1521 — 1593)

Xieyi Style Chinese Flowers and Birds Painting "Zhushi Mudan Tu" by Xu Wei (1521 — 1593) — Shanghai Museum

 

Important Elements of Chinese Paintings. 

 

Besides painting skills and artistic conceptions, there are some other important elements that can consist of a beautiful traditional Chinese painting.

 

Calligraphy

 

Calligraphy, as a supreme art form in ancient history, is a significant part of Chinese Painting. 

 

In general, calligraphy characters include painters' autographs, later written poems, and articles, which could complete the painting in harmony. 

 

Calligraphy works on Chinese paintings sometimes can be written by people other than the artist, usually an excellent calligrapher or a powerful person, or later the painting's collectors.

Calligraphy Charcters On Painting "Xianglongshi Tu" by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135)

Calligraphy On Painting "Xianglongshi Tu" by Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135) — Palace Museum

Poem

 

Since the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), artists would write poems on their paintings, which usually highlight the essence and spirit of the painting, and show one's literary talent and noble virtues. 

Seal

 

Well-designed and rightly stamped seals, including the painters', the calligraphy inscribers', collectors', and art connoisseurs',  can perfect a Chinese painting aesthetically, while telling its origin, history, and values.

Seals on Genre Painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"  by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145)

Seals on Genre Painting "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"  by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — Palace Museum

 

Four Treasures of the Study and Other Chinese Painting Supplies.

 

Four Treasures of the Study (Wen Fang Si Bao), including brush, ink, paper, and inkstone, are the main supplies to draw Traditional Chinese Paintings. 

 

Other tools are helpful to practice Chinese paintings as well, such as Chinese pigments, paperweights, brush hangers, brush holders, brush washers, seals, ink paste, as well as fabric materials if one chooses to paint other than paper. 

Penglai Island Painted by Artist Qiu Ying (about 1497 — 1552)

Mythical World Penglai Island Painted by Artist Qiu Ying (about 1498 — 1552) — Poly Art Museum