Chinese Painting — Development, Traditions, Aesthetics, and Artistic Conception
Development and Styles of Ancient Chinese Paintings.
The most ancient Chinese Characters are Pictograms, which combined writing and painting into one system, to record important events and convey information.
Gradually, with more formation principles applied to enrich and develop Chinese Characters, paintings separated as an independent art form.
Palace murals usually include eulogizing the accomplishments of the ancestors and sages, memorizing meritorious generals and officials, praying blessings from deities, etc.
However, these exquisite and fancy paintings mostly turned to dust with the fall of the palaces.
On the other hand, Mausoleum murals buried underground are preserved relatively better.
In general, grave murals would include detailed life experiences and significant 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.
In the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Taoism Religion was formed, and later Buddhism was introduced. Since then, religious murals have rapidly spread, popularized, and peaked during the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).
Chinese religious murals portray figures of deities and tell stories of their cultivation experiences, which include valuable information regarding culture, society, customs, history, mythology, etc.
Part of Murals of Taoism Deities on Walls inside the Yongle Palace (Built in 1247 — 1358) in Shanxi Province
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 were famous 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, 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 fabrics remain a popular style for their ethereal beauties.
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 paper was invented during the Han Dynasty, Traditional Chinese Painting gradually formed, which commonly used 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).
Artists and Aesthetics Influencers.
In ancient times, Chinese artists are mainly from two groups, the ruling classes who paint as hobbies and professional artisans who paint as a career.
Chinese Literati Painting
Chinese Literati Painting, or Wenren Hua, originated in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) and included paintings drawn by the nobles and scholars, the ruling class of ancient China, who painted for fun or to express emotions had been the primary influencers of aesthetic values.
Most were amateurs and considered writing calligraphy and painting 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) — National Art Museum of China
Chinese Court Painting
Chinese Court Painting or Yuanti Hua refers to paintings drawn by professional artists who worked in imperial courts and painted under the 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.
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 — Liaoning Museum
Therefore, the emperor's interests and aesthetic values played important roles in court paintings, which were delicate, neat, colorful, magnificent, bright, and sophisticated.
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 Painting.
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
Among all motifs of Traditional Chinese Paintings, three main styles are believed to be the most popular and established: Figure, Landscape, and Flower-and-Bird Paintings.
Appreciation of Chinese Figure Painting.
Figure Painting is the most ancient style in China, initially serving political and religious functions in history.
Therefore, emperors, officials, sages, court ladies, historical events, religious figures, and stories are basic subjects of Chinese Figure Paintings.
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 remarkable reign and the wealthy lives of ordinary civilians.
"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 Painting.
Chinese Landscape Paintings, or Shanshui Hua, formed as an independent painting style in the Sui Dynasty (589 — 619), usually containing mountains, lakes, rivers, stones, trees, buildings, boats, and other natural sceneries.
Since the beginning, two major Chinese landscape painting styles are Blue-Green (Qinglv) and Ink and Wash (Mobi).
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).
Later, a type of golden paint (Nijin) was used 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. 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 resembling Chinese Calligraphy became increasingly popular.
Through those quiet, dreamy natural sceneries and masterful use of brushes and ink, they could pursue inner peace, spiritual serenity, and self-cultivation.
The most recommended way to appreciate Chinese Landscape Painting 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) — Palace Museum
Poetic Beauty of Chinese Flowers and Birds Painting.
Chinese Flowers and Birds Painting or Huaniao Hua is about natural life, including plants, birds, insects, fishes, mammals, and mythical creatures.
Flowers and Birds Painting "Xinghua Yingwu Tu" by Chinese Painter Huang Jucai (About 933 — 993) — Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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) — Shanghai Museum
Important Elements of Chinese Painting.
Besides painting skills and artistic conceptions, some other important elements can consist of a beautiful traditional Chinese painting.
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 harmonize the painting.
Calligraphy works on paintings sometimes can be written by people other than the artist, usually an excellent calligrapher or an influential person, or later the painting's collectors.
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.
Well-designed and rightly stamped seals, including the painters', the calligraphy inscribers,' collectors,' and art connoisseurs,' can perfect a 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) — 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 for drawing.
Other tools are helpful to practice painting, such as Chinese pigments, paperweights, brush hangers, brush holders, brush washers, seals, ink paste, and fabric materials if one chooses to paint other than paper.
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