Autumn Wind by Ni Zan When people think of Chinese painting they think of graceful, harmonious, images of flowers, birds, water, mountains, trees and other natural objects. "There is no art in the world more passionate than Chinese painting," wrote New York Times art critic Holland Carter. "Beneath its fine-boned brush strokes, ethereal ink washes and subtle mineral tints flow feeling and ideas as turbulent as those in any Courbet nude or Baroque Crucifixion."
The oldest paint brush found in China—made with animal hair glued on a piece of bamboo—was dated to 400 B.C. Silk was used as a painting surface as early as the 3rd century B.C. Paper was used after it was invented I the A.D. 1st century. The oldest existing Chinese paintings are Buddhist works painted in caves and temples.Painting has generally fallen into two major traditions: 1) the court tradition, depicting urban and rural scenes often in great detail; and 2) the literary tradition, with evocative landscapes and still lives. Many Chinese paintings are covered with stamps. These are from artists and scholars who liked what they saw and left their seals as testimony of their approval. They are kind of like artistic applause.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources on Chinese Painting: China Page chinapage.org ;University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; Chinese Painting Collection Blog chinesepaintingcollection.blogspot.com ; China Vista chinavista.com ; Books: Chinese Painting by James Cahill (Rizzoli 1985). Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei by Wen C. Fong, and James C. Y. Watt (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996). Wen C. Fong, Professor of Art and Archeology at Princeton, is the consultive chairman of the Asian Art Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Calligraphy : China Page chinapage.org ; University of Washington depts.washington.edu ; China Vista chinavista.com Brushes China Vista ; Calligraphy Masters on China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com
Painting of a painter Good Websites and Sources on Chinese Art: China --Art History Resources art-and-archaeology.com ; Art History Resources on the Web witcombe.sbc.edu ; Art of China Consortium nyu.edu/gsas/dept/fineart ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts/mclc.osu.edu ; Asian Art.com asianart.com ; China Online Museum chinaonlinemuseum.com ; Huntington Archive of Asian Artkaladarshan.arts.ohio-state.edu ; Qing Art learn.columbia.edu Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw ; Beijing Palace Museum dpm.org.cn ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Sackler Museum in Washington asia.si.edu/collections ; China Page Museum list chinapage.com
Chinese Culture: Cultural China (site with nice photos cultural-china.com ; China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu China Research Paper Search china-research-papers.com ; Book: The Culture and Civilization, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press).
Links in this Website: CHINESE ART FROM THE GREAT DYNASTIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; TANG DYNASTY (A.D. 690-907) Factsanddetails.com/China ; SONG DYNASTY (960-1279) Factsanddetails.com/China ;YUAN (MONGOL) DYNASTY (1215-1368) MING DYNASTY (1368-1644) Factsanddetails.com/China ; QING (MANCHU) DYNASTY (1644-1911) Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE JADE Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE CERAMICS AND PORCELAIN Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE PAINTING Factsanddetails.com/China ;CHINESE CALLIGRAPHY Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE CRAFTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; COLLECTING, LOOTING AND COPYING ART IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
History of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy
In imperial times, painting and calligraphy were the most highly appreciated arts in court circles and were produced almost exclusively by amateurs--aristocrats and scholar-officials--who alone had the leisure to perfect the technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. The implements were the brush pen, made of animal hair, and black inks made from pine soot and animal glue. In ancient times, writing, as well as painting, was done on silk. But after the invention of paper in the first century A.D., silk was gradually replaced by the new and cheaper material. Original writings by famous calligraphers have been greatly valued throughout China's history and are mounted on scrolls and hung on walls in the same way that paintings are. [Source: Library of Congress]
“Painting in the traditional style involves essentially the same techniques as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black or colored ink; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk. The finished work is then mounted on scrolls, which can be hung or rolled up. Traditional painting also is done in albums and on walls, lacquerwork, and other media. [Ibid]
“Beginning in the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), the primary subject matter of painting was the landscape, known as shanshui (mountain-water) painting. In these landscapes, usually monochromatic and sparse, the purpose was not to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere so as to catch the "rhythm" of nature. In Song dynasty (960-1279) times, landscapes of more subtle expression appeared; immeasurable distances were conveyed through the use of blurred outlines, mountain contours disappearing into the mist, and impressionistic treatment of natural phenomena. Emphasis was placed on the spiritual qualities of the painting and on the ability of the artist to reveal the inner harmony of man and nature, as perceived according to Taoist and Buddhist concepts. [Ibid]
“Beginning in the thirteenth century, there developed a tradition of painting simple subjects--a branch with fruit, a few flowers, or one or two horses. Narrative painting, with a wider color range and a much busier composition than the Song painting, was immensely popular at the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). [Ibid]
“During the Ming period, the first books illustrated with colored woodcuts appeared. As the techniques of color printing were perfected, illustrated manuals on the art of painting began to be published. Jieziyuan Huazhuan (Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden), a five-volume work first published in 1679, has been in use as a technical textbook for artists and students ever since. [Ibid]
Chinese Artists and Forms
Unlike artists in the West who were either skilled craftsmen paid by the hour or professional artists who were commissioned to produce unique works of art, Chinese artists were amateur scholar gentlemen "following revered ancients in harmony with forces of nature."
Calligraphy and painting were seen as scholarly pursuits of the educated classes, and in most cases the great masters of Chinese art distinguished themselves first as government officials, scholars and poets and were usually skilled calligraphers. Sculpture, which involved physical labor and was not a task performed by gentlemen, never was considered a fine art in China.
Works of calligraphy and paintings were generally not painted on canvas like Western painting. They appear as murals, wall paintings, album leaf paintings, hanging scrolls and handscrolls. Hanging scrolls are hung on walls as interior adornments; handscrolls are unrolled on table tops; and album leaf paintings are small paintings of various shapes collected in book-like albums with "butterfly mounting," "thatched window mounting" and “accordion mounting."
Calligraphy and Painting Tools
The tools and brush techniques for painting and calligraphy are virtually the same and calligraphy and painting are often considered sister arts. The traditional tools of the calligrapher and the painter are a brush, ink and an inkstone (used to mix the ink). Chinese calligraphers and painters both used brushes whose unique versatility was the result of a tapered tip, composed of careful groupings of animal hairs. Chinese calligraphers prized bamboo brushes tipped with hair from the thick autumn coats of martens.
Many brushstrokes depict things found in nature such as a "rolling wave," "leaping dragon," "playful butterfly," "dewdrop about to fall," or "startled snake slithering through the grass." Natural terms such as "flesh," "muscle" and "blood" are used to describe the art of calligraphy itself. Blood, for example, is a term used to describe the quality of the ink.
Calligrapher’s paper is still made by hand in some places by smoothing oatmeal-like pulp made of inner tree bark and rice and pressing and drying it.
Chinese Handscroll Painting
The first handscrolls, dating back to the Spring and Autumn period (770-481 B.C.), appeared in ancient books and documents and were made mostly from bamboo or wood strips bound together with chord. Beginning in the Eastern Han Period (25-220 A.D.) silk and paper were commonly used.
Until the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 690-906), most books and documents were kept as handscrolls that were around a foot and half wide and varied in length from a few inches to several hundred feet. The proper way to look at a book-style handscroll is to hold it vertically, unroll it from the left and roll it from the right, examining a section at a time.
Handscroll paintings were generally much longer than they were wide. Compositions were focused from left to right and most scrolls contained one painting although some had several short paintings mounted together. One 85-foot-long silk handscroll from 1550 contained 1,000 figures and 785 horses.
Many masterpieces are painted on scrolls, which are not intended to be hung or mounted on walls, but rather are meant to be stored in boxes and periodically taken out to be looked at. This helps preserve the frail paint which breaks down when exposed to humidity and air. Collectors have traditionally unrolled their scrolls after the rainy season in the summer, savored them with some tea and returned them their boxes.
Scrolls unfortunately are one of the world's most fragile art forms. Careless handling, exposure to bright light and humidity, inept restoration, insects, temperature changes all contribute to the deterioration of paint. Plus, silk is a protein-based animal fiber that breaks down over time and has damaging chemical reactions with pigments and glues. Western oil paintings, by contrast, lasts longer because the pigments are preserved in oil and protected from the elements by varnish.
Plum and Bamboo by Wu Zhen
Chinese Painting, Calligraphy and Poetry
Poetry is much more fully integrated into painting and calligraphy in Chinese art than it is into painting and writing in Western art. There are two words used to describe what a painter does: Hua hua means "to paint a picture" and xie hua means "to write a picture." Many artists prefer the latter.
Poetry, painting and calligraphy were known as the "Three Perfections." Poems are often the subjects of painting. Painters were often inspired by poetry and tried to create works with a poetic, lyrical quality.
Recalling a series of twelve poems by Su Shih (1036-1101) that inspired him, the great master painter Shih T'ao (1641-1717) wrote: "This album had been on my desk for a year and never once did I touch it. One day, when a snow storm was blowing outside, I thought of Tung-p'o's poems describing twelve scenes and became so inspired that I took up my brush and started painting each of the scenes in the poems. At the top of each picture I copied the original poem. When I chant them the spirit that gave them life emerges spontaneously from paintings." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
When a painting did not fully convey the artist feelings, the artist sometimes turned to calligraphy to convey his feelings more deeply. Describing the link between writing and painting, the artist-poet Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) wrote:
Do the rocks in flying-white, the trees in ancient seal script
And render bamboo as if writing in clerical characters:
Only if one is truly able to comprehend this, will he realize
That calligraphy and painting are essentially the same.
Other times the message of the calligraphy was more mundane. An inscription on the side of Sheep and Goat by Zhao Mengfu read: "I have painted horses before, but have never painted sheep, so when Zhongxin requested a painting, I playfully drew these for him from life. Though I can not get close to the ancient masters, I have managed somewhat to capture their essential spirit”.
Difference Between Chinese and Western Painting
Art in the East developed very differently from art in the West. In China, calligraphy (the art of making letters) and painting evolved together and thus painting, the graphic arts, poetry and literature became linked together in way they never did in Europe.
The expressive and philosophic aspirations of Chinese painters were much higher than their counterparts in the West. Historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in The Creators, "their works were less varied in subject matter, color and materials. Their hopes and their triumphs offered nothing like the Western temptations to novelty, and their legacy is not easy for Western minds to understand." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
Linear perspective was introduced by Europeans. The Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci criticized Chinese art in the 16th century for its lack of perspective and shading, saying it looked "dead" and didn't have "no life at all." The Chinese for their part criticized oil painting brought by the Jesuits as being too lifelike and lacking expression.
Chinese Painting Styles and Goals
Bamboo by Zhu Wei By the Tang dynasty the criteria for good painting had been established. One of the main objectives was capturing the qi, or life force, of the subjects. In the Tang dynasty artists favor figures over landscapes. As time went by the reverse became true.
Chinese painting can be divided into three major stylistic forms: 1) the meticulous, detailed kung-pi style and 2) the free, expressive hsieh-I ("sketching ideas") style. 3) The middle path avoids both extremes and tries to capture the "inner spirit" of the subjects, which has always been more important than simply rendering the outward form.
One of the most important notions of classical Chinese painting was the "Concealment of Brilliance." Overt expressions of technical skill were considered vulgar. "Creativity and individuality were highly valued," but only in an understated way "within the framework of tradition."
Whether the subject of a work of art is a single dignified mountain or range with a thousands peaks and valleys, the goal of Chinese painting is to draw the viewer into the painting a create a "kind of reality like the palpable world." Artists who chose the liberated approach kept their energies focused and never followed their emotions and thoughts to the point they created abstract or representative art. Artists who painted extremely fine details did not copy their subjects.
Color, Shading and Perspective in Chinese Painting
Confined by the tools of the calligrapher, Chinese painters all but ignored color. Shading was regarded as a European technique, introduced second-hand by Buddhist missionaries in the A.D. 3rd century.
Classic Chinese artists never developed the idea of central perspective and the vanishing point which were essential to the development of Renaissance art in Europe. "Instead," Boorstin wrote, "the Chinese captured space in their painting, by an invisible linear perspective that diminished objects in the distance, and by aerial perspective that made distant objects increasingly indistinct.
The Chinese developed and classified three personal points of view, all related to ways of viewing a landscape: the "level distance" perspective, where the spectator looks down from a high vantage point; the "deep distance perspective," where the spectator's vision seems to penetrate into the landscape; and the "high distance" perspective, where the spectator look up. This helps explain why the Western observer feels strange when looking at a Chinese painting. And also why Chinese paintings seem to need no frame." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
Copying, Forgeries and Fakes
What is regarded as fake in the West is often treated with great reverence in China. Even great Chinese masters copied works of their predecessors right down to their signatures and seals. Chiang Dai-chein, regarded by many as China's greatest 20th century artist, was an expert forger who sold thousands of paintings attributed to classic painters. The wide availability of counterfeit goods and indifference to copyright laws today shows the notions of individualism and individual ownership remain weak in China.
New York Times art critic Holland Carter wrote, "Debates about authenticity have always been part of art in China, where 'originals' are often chimerical things, creative copies are revered as supreme masterpieces and distinctions between copying and forging are fuzzy."
"The inspiration of nature and past masters," wrote Boorstin, "gave a special kind and continuity, originality, and inwardness to painters. ...Forgery acquired a new ambiguity. The Chinese artists' proverbial talent for copying leads reputable art dealer nowadays to be wary of offering 'authentic' old Chinese paintings. Seeking constant touch with the past and the works of great masters by hanging pictures on the wall in rotation according to the seasons or festivals, the Chinese created a continuing demand that supported workshops for mass production by professional painters. These artists following the Tao showed remarkable skill in making both new originals and copies of copies.” [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
Michele Cordardo, the director of the Central Conservation Institute in Rome, was invited to China to work in Xian. He told The New Yorker, "The Chinese have a different sense of the value of original and copy...The Chinese...have a tradition of conserving by copying and rebuilding...This system of considering by copying or rebuilding works well as long as you keep the artisan traditions intact. The problem is that those traditions have broken down in China...Once the continuity of Chinese imperial civilization came to an end knowledge of traditional pigments, resin, and textiles, and techniques of painting, wood carving or building quickly began to disappear."
Subjects of Chinese Painting
Gibbons Chinese artists, wrote Boorstin, painted a "limited number or appropriate subject matters and these could be depicted in a certain number of techniques...To the inexpert Western eye, the Chinese painter seems less an original creator than a performer—like an inspired Western musician playing the composition of great artists before seasoned listeners." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
Even though painting techniques changed over time the subjects remained pretty constant, and included portraits, dragons and fishes, landscapes, animals, flowers and birds, vegetables and fruit, wild scenery and the hermit scholar. Things like pine trees, bamboo, rocks, mountains and running water were important symbols with easily recognizable meanings. Portraits were usually of emperors and noblemen.
"Ink bamboo," a subject that unified calligraphy and painting, was an especially popular subject. During the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) some painters painting nothing but bamboo their entire careers. Bamboo often symbolized the inner personality of the artist as the gentleman scholar. Bamboo stalks bend but don't break like a true scholar that adjusts with the times but stays true of his ethics. Bamboo was also a symbol of the ability to endure oppression.
"The composition, too," wrote Boorstin, "expressed the order of nature, with a tension between giving and taking, passive and aggressive, host and guest. In a group of trees, the ‘host’ tree will be bent with spread branches, and the guest tree slim and straight. If a third tree is added, it must not be exactly parallel. Such a group of trees can itself be a host in relation to another ‘guest group’ in another part of the painting...The host-guest principal of tree to tree can equally be applied to the relation of rock to rock, mountain to mountain, or man to man." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
Chinese Landscape Painting
Leisurely Sound of
Mountains and Spring
by Shi Tao
Unlike traditional Western painters, who used landscapes as background filler for battle scenes, portraits and central images of suffering religious figures, Chinese artists painted landscapes as the main subject matter. Religious, historical and mythological themes that were dealt with explicitly in the West were captured in the symbolism of trees, rocks, rivers, mountains and birds in the natural landscapes in Chinese paintings.
Landscape painting developed in the 4th and 5th century and became the most popular theme for painters beginning in the 11th century. While early figure painting was influenced by Confucianism, landscape painting found inspiration in Taoist thought. As it developed artists often sought inspiration more from artistic tradition than directly from nature. The painter-connoisseur Dong Qichang (1555-1636) wrote, "If one considers the wonders of nature, then painting does not equal landscape. But if one considers the wonders of brushwork, then landscape does not equal painting. "
Buddhism, Confucianism and early Taoism all emphasized the concepts of reclusiveness and communing with nature and this was reflected in landscape painting. Popular subjects such as mountains, streams, trees and mist were all prized for the transcendent freedom they inspired. Mountains usually come in two types: the rugged, steep, precipitous of northern China, or the misty, elegant, rolling mountains of the Kiangnan region in southern China.
Some landscape paintings are descriptive: an accumulation of painstaking details. Other are more emotional. Figures are mere specks that are primarily there to establish scale.
"All landscapes," wrote the 11th century critic Shen Kua, "have to be viewed from the angle of totality...to see more than one layer of the mountain at one time...see the totality of its unending ranges." In the early fourteenth century the philosopher Tang Hou wrote: "Landscape painting is the essence of the shaping powers of Nature. This through the vicissitudes of yin and yang—weather, time, and climate—the charm of inexhaustible transformation is unfailingly visible. If you yourself do not possess that grand wavelike vastness of mountain and valley within your heart and mind, you will be unable to capture it with ease in your painting.
of the Taoist immortal Taoism had a major influence on Chinese art forms such as painting, ritual objects, sculpture, calligraphy and clothing. Themes include rituals, cosmology and mountains.
Chinese painting was greatly influenced by Taoism, a mystical religion-philosophy based on the principal that following the rhythms of nature are key to reaching heaven. The Tao tradition brought together past and present, nature and art, and poetry and painting. The best Tao-influenced Chinese art was defined as "divine class" or "marvelous class," terms that describe works by painters who developed their individual capacities to reveal the spirit of heaven and nature found in everyone.” [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
One of its most important goals of Taoist painting was revealing qi, variously known as the "Breath of Heaven," the "Breath of Nature" or the "Quality of Spirit." According to one painting manual, "qi is as basic as the way [people] are formed and so it is with rocks, which are the framework of the heavens and of earth, and also have qi. That is the reason rocks are sometimes spoken of as 'roots of the clouds.' Rocks without qi are dead rocks, as bones without the same vivifying spirit are dry bare bones. How could a cultivated person paint a lifeless rock...rocks must be alive."
Taoist painting often contained heavenly deities, roaming immortals, guardian figures and protectors of the faith. These images helped propagate Taoism by informing illiterate people though images rather than texts.
Among the popular subjects of Taoist paintings are the Eight Immortals, Liu Hai and his golden three-legged toad, deities on flying dragons, guardian figures, protectors of the faithful, "The Three Purities" (three important Taoist deities roaming through heaven), and "Three Officials on an Inspection Tour" (deified officials of heaven, earth and water on a procession through the clouds, land and water).
Immortality was a central element of Taoism. Famous Taoist painting dealing with immortality include Immortal Ascending on a Dragon, Riding a Dragon, Fungus of Immortality, Picking Herbs, and Preparing Elixirs.
Taoism and Painting Quickly From Memory
Taoist immortal To paint in a Taoist manner, painters had to paint quickly in an attempt to capture nature in its true state. "To paint the bamboo," the poet and painter Su Shih wrote in the 11th century, "one must have it entirely within one. Grasp the brush, look intently [at the paper], then visualize what you are going to paint. Follow you vision quickly, lift your brush and pursue directly that which you see, as a falcon dives on a springing hare—the least slackening and it will escape you."
Chinese painters were expected to paint from memory rather than depicting a landscape that lay before them. The artist was expected to have a kind of "photographic memory" which psychologists G. W. Allport later described as a "visual-memory image [that] revives the earlier optical impression when the eyes are closed...with hallucinatory clearness." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
The Chinese were also forced by their materials to paint quickly in one continuous process. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci, who developed oil paints for the Last Supper which could applied at a rate of only a few strokes a day, Chinese painters used quick drying ink and absorbent paper which could not be erased or retouched. In the 11th century landscape painter Kuo His wrote: "In painting any view the artist must concentrate his powers to unify the work. Otherwise it will not bear the peculiar imprint of his soul...If a painter forces himself to work when he feels lazy his productions will be weak and spiritless, without decision."
"As the arts of the calligraphy and painting developed," Boorstin wrote, "these arts developed a discipline to assure a calm mind, a cultivated memory. All the scholars activities were acts of reverence for nature, or as a metaphor for the nobility of man." To prepare for painting some Chinese artists medited on the rhythms of nature by taking reflective walks in the forest. The goal wrote the Taoist scholar Chang Tzu was to "achieve the goal of self-cultivation" through "sageliness within and kingliness without." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
History of Taoist Art
Early Spring by Guo Xi
The earliest examples of Taoist art—murals, sculptures and talisman made by shamans and Taoist adepts—have been lost to time. Although works of Taoist art remain from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) none of them are paintings. Taoism spread throughout China during the Six Dynasties Period (220-588 A.D.), when Taoist art was often featured on the walls Taoist monasteries and temples. The father of Taoist painting is regarded as Ku K'ai-chih, a 4th-century sage-painter. Although none of his works remain, we know about him from the Tang Dynasty text Record of Famous Painting Throughout the Ages. Ku K'ai-chih is credited with painting images of Illustrious Fairies and Illustrious Immortals.
Taoist painting flourished during the Tang dynasty (618-906) under the generous patronage of the imperial court. Famous Taoist Tang painters include the muralists Wu Tao-tzu (690?-758?) and Yang T'ing-kuang (713-741). Chang Su-ching produced great images of guardian figures during the Five Dynasties period (907-960).
During the Sung dynasty (960-1279), Taoism and Taoist art were lavishly supported by the emperors Chen-tsung (998-1022) and Hui-tsung (1101-1125). The zenith of Taoist painting occurred in the 11th century, when 100 artists, chosen from 3,000 candidates, lead by chief painter Wu Tsung-yuan produced the wall painting Immortal Protectors of the Dynasty in the Three Purities temple at Lonyang.
Very few paintings remain from the golden period of Taoist periods. All of the Taoist paintings from the Tang dynasty have been lost but a few from the Sung dynasty survive. The Yung-lo Temple, built during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), in Shaanxi Province contains some old Taoist paintings. Most of the Taoist paintings seen in temples and museums come from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1645-1911) dynasties. Works by the artists Ma Yuan (1190-1224) from the Sung Dynasty and Chang Yü-ch'u from the Ming dynasty can be seen at the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Luo Ping, the Ghost Painter
Luo Ping was an 18th century Chinese artist who specialized in rendering ghosts. Yale historian and China expert Jonathan D. Spence wrote: ‘Luo Ping was not only innovative in ‘portraying’ his ghosts with such specificity, he kept the element of surprise constantly to the fore...In the third section of his Ghost Amusement portrayed an absorbed amorous couple in unmarred human form, gazing into each other's eyes, while a man in the tall white hat of the underworld's guardians prepared to lead the couple into the netherworld. The woman's bared red shoes offered the viewer a signal that was, for the times, shockingly erotic. After four more panels of the magically displayed ghost figures, the eighth and final panel would have come with a startling force to the unprepared viewer—as two complete skeletons were portrayed standing tall and opposite each other in a clump of bare trees, dark rocks, and wild grasses. The precisely delineated specificity of these figures did not convey an auspicious message, but instead closed the scroll on a somber more than a mysterious note.’[Source: Jonathan D. Spence, New York Review of Books, in connection with Eccentric Visions: The Worlds of Luo Ping (1733-1799): an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 6, 2009; January 10, 2010]
Luo Ping ghost painting In one series of Luo Ping scrolls he art historian Yeewan Koon wrote: ‘Half naked with bald pates and small swollen stomachs, the two figures also recall the world of hungry ghosts, one of the Buddhist realms of existence. But the human emotions on the faces of Luo's ghosts place them in a gray consciousness that lurks between the real and the otherworldly. In this painting, Luo has created an ethereal existence by making his ghosts both strikingly familiar, through their human pathos, and evocatively strange,through their physical deformities. “ [Ibid]
Koon wrote: ‘The second leaf is a contrast of types: a skinny, bare-chested ghost with an official's hat follows a fat, bald ghost in tattered clothes against an empty background. The oscillation between specificity of types and ambiguity of situation allows room for a range of interpretations; some viewers were prompted to read this scene as phantasmagoric social commentary. [One scholar], for example, a Hanlin academician and playwright, described the figures in leaf 2 as a ‘slave ghost’ and his master, whom he then compared to corrupt Confucian officials. “ [Ibid]
This ‘urge to rationalize the ghosts as allegories of human behavior,’ adds Koon, ‘is derived in part from the theatrical immediacy of the images,’ and in this sense the ghost paintings catch the tensions and contrasts that were coming to dominate this time in China's history—as well as the layers of religious euphoria that lay behind the alternate reading of the scrolls title as a ‘realm of ghosts,’ a literalness of interpretation that Luo Ping deliberately fostered by his repeated claims that he had seen the ghosts in person on many occasions. This claim, writes Koon, was a part of Luo Ping's ‘invented persona as an artist who saw and painted ghosts,’ a persona that ‘set him apart in a capital teeming with talent.” [Ibid]
Life of Luo Ping
Luo Ping ghost painting Spence wrote: “Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the capital at Beijing with the prosperous commercial and intellectual hubs of Suzhou and Hangzhou. Yangzhou's strategic location and commercial prominence served it well, and by the time of Luo Ping's birth it” was “ the financial center for the salt merchants of coastal and central China, who purchased from the central government the right to sell and transplant salt, and built up colossal private fortunes from this lucrative trade.” [Source: Jonathan D. Spence, New York Review of Books]
“Partly because of the lavish kickbacks that the merchants made to local officials and to the emperor's personal household managers, the city was graced with six visits from Emperor Qianlong, visits that sparked a building boom in order to provide adequately opulent living quarters for the imperial visitor and his entourage. At the same time there were correspondingly lavish expansions of Buddhist temples, decorative waterways, elaborate gardens, and a predictably energized ambience of restaurants, teahouses, and brothels.” [Ibid]
“The city was favored with both imperial patronage and the generosity of the salt merchants—many of whom assembled magnificent libraries and hired renowned local scholars as cultural amanuenses or tutors to their children, so that they might have a chance to pass the imperial examinations. This vibrant intellectual world in its turn attracted other scholars and artists to the region so that Yangzhou became a byword for informed connoisseurship and aesthetic exploration.” [Ibid]
“Luo Ping's father had passed the second level of the state examinations, which was no small feat, and could be achieved only by those with excellent academic training—but he died before Luo Ping was one year old; the most celebrated ancestor Luo could claim was a great-grandmother who was glorified—at least in family lore and reminiscence—for having taken her own life in the fierce siege of 1645. Luo was raised by an uncle, who saw that he got a good education, fostered his skills as a poet, and introduced him to some of the wealthy merchants known for their cultural gatherings. At age nineteen, Luo married a finely educated woman, already celebrated for her literary and artistic skills, with whom he had three children, who also became accomplished poets and painters.” [Ibid]
Luo Ping and His Patron
Luo Ping ghost painting Spence wrote: “Around 1757 Luo Ping met and became friends with a seventy-year-old widower, Jin Nong, who was living alone in one of the many Buddhist temples in the city. In his prime, Jin had worked variously as an art dealer, calligrapher, and tutor, and had built up a national reputation as a poet and a painter. One of his many specialties was painting plum blossoms, a genre at which Luo and his wife were also skilled. Jin's eyesight was fading, and it was apparently a natural step for the two men to become friends.”[Source: Jonathan D. Spence, New York Review of Books]
“Jin was often behind with a backlog of orders for painted scrolls and calligraphy, and for Buddhist devotional art (another of his specialties). It was in tune with the spirit of the times to take on more than one could accomplish, and it was natural for Jin to turn to Luo Ping for help, as he did to various other young students or assistants. One unanticipated consequence was that Jin was more than just a teacher and mentor to Luo—he became a friend of the family, and often visited Luo and his wife, staying sometimes at their residence in Yangzhou for days or even weeks. Some Yangzhou artists and scholars chided Jin Nong for exploiting his young assistants as ‘substitute brushes’ or ‘ghost painters,’ saying that the practice showed his ‘laziness’ and indicated that he was ‘taking advantage of his pupils for the sake of profits.’” [Ibid]
By chance, one of Jin Nong's letters to Luo Ping has survived, giving quite precise details about what the older man was seeking from his ghost painter: “Paint a vermilion bamboo with bright pigment. To be excellent, it must be luxurious and fresh with an antique flavor. Leave more empty space so that I can easily inscribe it. Paint another one: an ink bamboo using the other one as a model, but don't do anything too surprising. For the ink bamboo, half a teacup of ink should be enough.” [Ibid]
“In another letter we see Jin Nong giving even tighter guidelines. The ghost painter must leave adequate space next to the two Buddhist figures, writes Jin, for ‘if the inscription is too small, it will be unsatisfactory.’ ‘Tomorrow morning I will send paper for the ink bamboo,’ adds Jin, ‘along with some prepared ink.’ In the closing lines of this letter he writes, ‘If you will again paint for me, I will choose some excellent objects to present in exchange,’ and he closes quietly, ‘Letter written by lamplight on the 27th.’” [Ibid]
Luo Ping Achieves Fame as Ghost Painter
Luo Ping ghost painting “By the early 1780s,” Spence wrote, “ we can find nationally known Chinese scholars singling out three of Luo Ping's paintings for special praise” including a “work identified as Ghost Amusement. This alerts us to the other side of Luo Ping's labors as a ghost painter, namely that of being a painter of ghosts, for it was as a painter of ghostly images that Luo achieved his final leap into the ranks of upper-literati society. This quest led him...to Beijing, where prestigious officials were gathered in the greatest numbers and the chances for preferment beckoned. He carried the Ghost Amusement scroll with him. [Ibid]
“This was a bold and perhaps almost unprecedented experiment, which carried within it a way of confronting the dangers of the unknown and probing the meanings of the underworld through his own vision of the ghost worlds that for most of us are never revealed or comprehended. The painting may have been originally conceived as a series of individual leaves, and the first identifiable colophon—or attached brief statement—from an influential scholar to whom Luo showed the initial ghost images can be dated to 1766. But in Beijing, as Luo learned to make his way and expand his contacts, success followed fast: nine new colophons were added to his scroll in 1772, four more in 1773, one in 1774, a steady scattering in the later 1770s and 1780s, and a further torrent in Luo's final years, with six in 1790 and seven in 1791]
From 1790 onward Luo lived mainly in Beijing, often with his two sons, who seem to have been successful painters. He remained busy and active into the 1790s and, among numerous commissions and social events, found time in 1797 to create a second version of his Ghost Amusement scroll, similar in main outline to the original version from the 1760s but with a different—though still Western—version of a skeleton in the final panel...Luo Ping died in 1799, but the tokens of respect for his ghost images continued in written form throughout the nineteenth century.” Sometime after his death, an art connoisseur wrote on the same portrait scroll in an undated colophon that Luo had been a ‘completely original painter of Buddhist figures, Daoist immortals, and ghosts,’ and added that Luo had been ‘a man of exceptional creativity’ who was ‘never muddled’ and ‘painted with a limpid lucidity.’ The colophon writer added that ‘before reaching old age [Luo] withered away and died.’
Image Sources: 1, 14) Wikipedia; 2, 4, 8, 9, 10) University of Washington; 3) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 5, 6, 7 ) China Beautiful website; 9, 12) Palace Museum, Taipie; 11, 13) Metropolitan Museum of Art; 14) Shanghai Museum. Luo Ping ghost painting from the Met in New York, Nelson-Atking Museum, Ressel Fok collection, Shanghai Museum
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated August 2012