Sitting Alone by a stream by Fan Kuan

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “After many centuries where decorative painting and painting of human and animal figures were the most developed forms of visual art in China, landscape painting entered a period of sudden development during the Tang and early Song Dynasties. While we have almost no paintings from the Tang that remain, some of China's most famous paintings come from the early Song (the Northern Song period, 960-1127, before the invasion of North China forced the Song rulers into the South). These are monumental "hanging scrolls," very large paintings on silk that are mounted to hang on walls. They were composed by professional court artists, and the technique used in them departs from the "calligraphic" skills common to all literate people, and attempts to use a very complex array of brush strokes to convey an effect of "verisimilitude" (that is, the landscapes seem "real").” Two of the most famous paintings from the period are "Travelers By Streams and Mountains" by Fan Kuan — featuring travelers and their ox-carts, dwarfed by the landscape — and "Early Spring," by Guo Xi. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The Sung dynasty (960-1279) was an age of cultural expansion. An aesthetic marked by simplicity prevailed and permeated all levels of society. The imperial court valued the classical rites of high antiquity, and scholar-officials acquired a sensibility firmly grounded in the values of antiquity and archaism from their scholarly and collecting activities. Artisans also infused forms and decorative motifs with elements from Nature, as works of art reveal a dedication to and celebration of life among the people of the Sung dynasty. Landscape painters such as Fan Kuan, Guo Xi, and Li Tang created new manners based on previous models. Guided by artistically-inclined emperors, painting at the Song court academy reached new heights. Moreover, Song scholars expanded the realm of visual expression beyond "formal likeness," marking the beginnings of literati painting as a new trend in art. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Scholars constructed aesthetic theories and compiled comprehensive catalogues on the objects they saw and collected. The imperial court mandated the presentation of tribute gifts from all regions, ordered the production of models, and appointed special officials for the purpose of nurturing the manufacture of arts and crafts. Continuous innovation in the realm of scientific technology, in tandem with the growing dexterity of craftsmen, resulted in the creation of wares characterized by an interest in everyday life, a solemn formality of styles, and a natural grace. Neighboring regions, such as the Liao (916-1123), Western Hsia (1032-1227), Ta-li (752-1251), Chin (1125-1234), Mongolia, Korea, and Japan, all rushed to make diplomatic offerings and pursue trade relations, in large part to benefit from the burgeoning crafts industry in China. Porcelain and lacquerware thus were in heavy demand throughout East Asia. \=/

Sung dynastic styles largely persisted in the neighboring Chin (1115-1234) and following Yüan (1271-1368) dynasties, the former later conquering the northern area of the Sung and the latter ultimately vanquishing it completely. Underglaze blue wares, carved lacquer, and enamelware, among other such decorative arts, gradually came to dominate the market in the late Yüan period, around the mid-14th century. In fact, art from the period between the Sung and early Yüan became a revered classical model for handicrafts in later centuries.” \=/

Good Websites and Sources on the Song Dynasty: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; ; Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn; Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization ; Chaos Group of University of Maryland ; 2) WWW VL: History China ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia Websites and Sources on Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: China Online Museum ; Painting, University of Washington ; Calligraphy, University of Washington ; Websites and Sources on Chinese Art: China -Art History Resources ; Art History Resources on the Web ; ;Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Visual Arts/ ; Asian ; China Online Museum ; Qing Art Museums with First Rate Collections of Chinese Art National Palace Museum, Taipei ; Beijing Palace Museum ;Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Sackler Museum in Washington ; Shanghai Museum

Three Perfections and Scholar-Official Painting

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ The life of the educated man involved more than study for the civil service examinations and service in office. Many took to refined pursuits such as collecting antiques or old books and practicing the arts — especially poetry writing, calligraphy, and painting (“the three perfections”). For many individuals these interests overshadowed any philosophical, political, or economic concerns; others found in them occasional outlets for creative activity and aesthetic pleasure. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer ]

In the Song period the engagement of the elite with the arts led to extraordinary achievement in calligraphy and painting, especially landscape painting. But even more people were involved as connoisseurs. A large share of the informal social life of upper-class men was centered on these refined pastimes, as they gathered to compose or criticize poetry, to view each other’s treasures, or to patronize young talents.

left Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “During the middle of the Northern Song scholars began to take up painting as one of the arts of the gentleman, viewing it as comparable to poetry and calligraphy as means for self expression. Brushwork in painting, by analogy to brushwork in calligraphy, was believed to express a person's moral character. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“The scholars who took up painting generally preferred to use more individualistic and less refined styles of brushwork. These styles were relatively easier to master by those already familiar with the brush from calligraphy, and did not require the years of exacting training needed to succeed as a professional or court artist. /=\

“The eminent poet and statesman Su Shi (1037-1101) explicitly rejected the attempt to capture appearance as beneath the scholar. Paintings should be understated, not flashy. His painting of Rock and Old Tree, executed with a dry brush, exhibits rough qualities and does not aim at pleasure. The painting is more akin to an exercise aiming to improve and develop calligraphic skill than the sorts of paintings done by contemporary court painters. Emphasizing subjectivity, Su Shi said that painting and poetry share a single goal, that of effortless skill. /=\

“Scholar painters were not necessarily amateur painters, and many scholars painted in highly polished styles. This was particularly true in the case of paintings of people and animals, where scholar-painters developed the use of the thin line drawing but did not in any real sense avoid "form likeness" or strive for awkwardness, the way landscapists often did. One of the first literati to excel as a painter of people and animals was Li Konglin in the late Northern Song. A friend of Su Shi and other eminent men of the period, he also painted landscapes and collected both paintings and ancient bronzes and jades. Figures done with a thin line, rather than a modulated one, were considered plainer and more suitable for scholar painters.” /=\

Literati and Academic Painting and Politics in the Song Dynasty

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Despite the flourishing of the academic tradition during this period, the Northern Song is also the era that sees the initial sprouts of the monochrome ink style from which a new form of painting ultimately grew: literati style painting. The literati were the Confucian-trained men who had been groomed to pass the national civil service examinations, and while their education included mastery of the literature of history and thought, it also taught them the skills of poetry and calligraphy, and, for some, this led to an interest in painting as well. Not trained as technical experts in the academic style of painting, literati nevertheless shared command of the painter's chief tool: the brush. Literati came to idealize the model of the scholar who so embodied the evolved patterns of civilization that his character could be viewed and appreciated through the dynamics of his brushwork. They saw themselves overcoming any lack of technical expertise with the far more substantial values of cultural and ethical virtue, expressed kinetically and aesthetically. /+/

“One of the first to set a new standard of artistic excellence - in stark contrast to the intricate delicacy of monumental academic art - was Su Shi (also known as Su Dongpo, 1037-1101), a brilliant poet, fine calligrapher, and virtuoso scholar-official. Su Shi's "Ancient Tree with Rock," below, highlights the calligraphic elements of the brush strokes by simplifying the form (not even bothering to complete features of the tree). Su Shi's painting resonates with simplified paintings associated with Song era Zen (Chan) Buddhism (discussed on page 8, below), and prefigures the rich tradition of literati painting that, as we will see, reached its first full flowering during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). /+/

“ During the latter part of the Song Dynasty, after North China had been conquered by non-Chinese and the Chinese emperors had been forced to move their capital to the South and give up efforts to control all China, academic painting took a new and different turn. Professional painters began increasingly to explore smaller and more intimate forms of painting, even when depicting broad landscapes. In reducing the scale of their paintings, they also developed innovative ways to use abbreviated lines and ink washes to represent effectively landscape features which the Northern Song masters had rendered with intense detail. The less grandiose painting style of the Southern Song was, in effect, an invitation to amateurs. Although the academic painters achieved simplicity through enormous imagination and effort, the skills they employed were more accessible to literati, who were, after all, masters of brushwork in the field of calligraphy.

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “Many of the paintings made at court served political purposes. Emperors liked to see paintings that testified to the effectiveness of their rule, signs that the people were prosperous and happy, or that Heaven had responded to their virtue by sending auspicious omens. Another favored topic was stories of noble or exemplary individuals, especially ones that had messages for rulers. Emperors also commissioned illustrations of the classics, which confirmed their support of learning. All of these uses of painting were especially prominent during the reign of the first emperor of the Southern Song, Gaozong, who had to convince the literati that even though they had not been able to push back the Jurchen and retake the ancient homeland of China, they were the legitimate government, the protector of ancient traditions. [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, /=]

“The central section of a large hanging scroll illustrates the story of a loyal minister of the Han dynasty. At a court audience Zhu Yun inappropriately asked for the emperor's sword. Outraged, the emperor sentenced Zhu to death, but when his guards tried to drag Zhu away, he protested vehemently, grabbing onto the balustrade, and insisting that he be put to death immediately. One minister did not object, but another intervened to defend Qu's character and admonish the emperor. Depictions of peace and prosperity also served the political needs of the court. Paintings like Zhang Zeduan's “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” or Li Song's Knickknack Peddlar could be read by emperors as evidence of the success or their governments.

Song Art Themes: Ancients, Beauty of Nature, Foreign Cultures and Elegant Living

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “People of the Sung dynasty valued proper and authentic rituals, searching for evidence of them from ancient times. In the early Sung, the "San-li t'u (Illustrated Three Rites)" was designated as the authoritative manual for implements used in rituals and ceremonies. Northern Sung scholars also appreciated and collected ancient ritual objects, and they did critical readings of inscriptions in order to rectify errors with regard to the current forms of vessels. “Illustrated manuals recording these objects were composed and printed, including "K'ao-ku t'u (Illustrated Antiquities)" and "Hsuan-ho po-ku t'u-lu" (Illustrated Catalogue of Hsuan-ho Antiquities). Not only did these become models for the instruments and wares subsequently produced for halls and temples, their elegant classicism came to characterize Sung period aesthetics. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“People in the Sung dynasty were keenly observant of all things around them, and even utilitarian, everyday objects were inspired by nature. Forms of objects were given descriptive titles like "hibiscus bowl" or "lotus-leaf cup", and the terms "hare's fur" and "partridge spots" were poetically applied in praise of glaze colors. Artisans were adept at rendering ripe melons and fruit, supple flower petals, ducks, geese, fish darting through water, and rabbits and deer in a forest. Regardless of form or pattern, such decorative motifs impart to vessels an air of graceful elegance that surpasses their utilitarian function.” \=/

"From the 10th to 14th centuries, East Asia not only witnessed the rise of the Chinese Sung dynasty, but other states also emerged alongside it, including the Liao (916-1123), Western Hsia (1032-1227), Ta-li (752-1251), and Goryeo (Korea). Later appeared the Chin dynasty (1125-1234) and finally the Mongol Yuan (1271-1368). Objects were often exchanged as tribute, given as rewards for service, and served as media for trade, with craftsmanship, design, and overall style becoming reciprocal sources of inspiration among these peoples. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Ma Yuan, scholar by a waterfall

“Sung scholars were serious connoisseurs of the implements of the studio – brush, paper, ink, and inkstone – treasuring those of exquisite quality. Commoners in the cities took pleasure in such aspects of daily life as making offerings of incense, testing tea, arranging flowers, and viewing plantings. In an effort ti satisfy popular demand, craftsman took care to their creations a meaningful and lasting appeal. Enhanced by their imagination, mirrors, pillows, flower vases, incense burners tea wares, wine vessels, and other objects of daily life were all of an exquisite and elegant nature. Examples of this in the collection at the Palace Museum in Taipei include: a pillow in the shape of a recumbent child with white glaze ( Porcelain, Ting ware, Northern Sung dynasty, ca., 11th-12th centuries) and Inkstone with landscape of the "Orchid Pavilion" (T'ao River stone, Sung to early Ming dynasty, ca. 10th -14th centuries).

“Southern Song culture tended toward refinement and elegance as court painters excelled at rendering the palace banquets, activities of the seasons, and ceremonial celebrations in and around the capital of Hangzhou. Whether records of real events or flights of the imagination, they all reflect the prosperous and sumptuous spirit of actual life among members of the upper classes and the imperial family in the Southern Song. The elegance of scholar life, private gardens of recluses, viewing of paintings and chanting of poems, tasting of tea and unrolling of scrolls, and appreciation of curios are all found in the works of art done at this time, becoming specialized subjects in painting. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The subject of figures and genre had appeared in painting starting from the Five Dynasties and Northern Song period, also including artists who specialized in them. Along with the commoners mentioned in poems and songs, they all reveal and relate to the tradition of folk life. A rich variety of works in this subject also appear in the Southern Song, and with consummate perfection of skill in rendering, they further express the feeling and appearance of everyday life among ordinary folk.” \=/

Song Dynasty Painting

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The Song and Yuan periods are considered by many the high point of painting in China. Figure painting during the Song carried on the achievements of Tang representations of the human subject, which had reached a high level of skill in the portrayal of individual psychologies and the nuances of the given narrative.” [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington,]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The main aspects of Chinese painting, such as the techniques of rendering, specialization of painters, ideas of painting, types of painting subjects, the establishment of individual styles and regional manners, and the cultural realm of painting all matured in the Northern Sung period [960-1127] and reached a level of completion. Later generations often followed the modes and ideas established in this period to develop their own paths in painting.[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The medium for early Chinese painting (in ink either with or without color) and calligraphy (ink) was usually silk, a material that, when exposed for prolonged periods to the light and air of exhibition galleries, tends to deteriorate and become brittle at an accelerated rate. In order to protect these works, it was decided several years ago that their display at the Museum be restricted to periods of no more than three months. Moreover, some works were deemed particularly ancient or important, thus necessitating even further protection. Consequently, starting in 1984, twenty works of painting and calligraphy were chosen for their renown, importance, or age. They are restricted in terms of display, research, and photography — being only available for public viewing from October to November. This is considered the best time of the year for display in terms of humidity and temperature. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/]

Song Dynasty paintings and calligraphy in the National Palace Museum, Taipei collection include: 1) "Sitting Alone by a Stream" (Fan K'uan); 2) "Monkey and Cats" (I Yuan-chi); 3) "Buildings on a Mountainside" (Hsiao Chao); 4) "Children at Play in an Autumn Garden" (Su Han-ch'en); 5) "Banquet by Lantern Light" (Ma Yuan); 6) "Lady Wen-chi's Return to China" (Ch'en Chu-chung); 7) "Squirrel on a Peach Branch" (Ch'ien Hsuan); 8) "Scroll of Buddhist Images" (Chang Sheng-wen, Ta-li Kingdom [Sung Period]); 9) "The Ladies' Book of Filial Piety" (Kao-tsung and Ma Ho-chih); 10) "Pavilions Amid Winter Trees" (Anonymous); 11) "Green Bamboo and Feathered Guests" (Anonymous); Calligraphy; 12) "Poem" (Hui-tsung).

Song Dynasty Painters and Painting Schools

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “In the Northern Song period (960-1279), such artists as Fan Kuan, Guo Xi, and Li Tang established a new paradigm in landscape painting with their towering and majestic manner of monumental peaks. With an emphasis on sketching from life, the bird-and-flower paintings of such artists as Huang Jucai and Cui Bo overflow with life and spirit. Emperor Huizong formed a Painting Academy system that accelerated the pursuit of lyricism while providing an important goal for painting. And even by the end of the Southern Song (1127-1279), this painting style continued to flourish. Furthermore, such scholar-artists as Wen Tong and Su Shi, who did not seek formal likeness in representation, paved the way for the formation of a new realm in Chinese art: literati painting. Li Gonglin was a Song dynasty painter who gave form to the ideal of painting as a reflection of the artist's mind and an expression of deeply held values. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei,]

Some scholars say that Chinese painting reached its pinnacle during the Song dynasty under Huizong (Hui Tsung,1100-1126), an emperor who was much better painter than ruler. He set up and taught at China's first academy of painting and amassed a collection of 6,400 painting by 231 masters. Chinese artists often collected the works of other artists as sources of inspiration. Ebrey wrote: “During the Northern Song, and especially during the reign of Huizong, the standing of court painters was raised and the court painting academy became an educational institution; court painters were ranked, tested, and rewarded in imitation of the way civil service officials were. Courtly styles throughout the Song and Yuan period were characterized by technical finesse and close observation. Court artists spent part of their time copying old masterpieces, a practice that served the practical purposes of preserving compositions but also helped maintain high technical standards.”

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “While the Song period was one of perfection in all fields of art, painting undoubtedly gained its highest development in this time. We find now two main streams in painting: some painters preferred the decorative, pompous, but realistic approach, with great attention to the detail. Later theoreticians brought this school in connection with one school of meditative Buddhism, the so-called northern school. Men who belonged to this school of painting often were active court officials or painted for the court and for other representative purposes. One of the most famous among them, Li Lung-mien (ca. 1040-1106), for instance painted the different breeds of horses in the imperial stables. He was also famous for his Buddhistic figures. Another school, later called the southern school, regarded painting as an intimate, personal expression. They tried to paint inner realities and not outer forms. They, too, were educated, but they did not paint for anybody. They painted in their country houses when they felt in the mood for expression. Their paintings did not stress details, but tried to give the spirit of a landscape, for in this field they excelled most. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Best known of them is Mi Fei (ca. 1051-1107), a painter as well as a calligrapher, art collector, and art critic. Typically, his paintings were not much liked by the emperor Hui Tsung (ruled 1101-1125) who was one of the greatest art collectors and whose catalogue of his collection became very famous. He created the Painting Academy, an institution which mainly gave official recognition to painters in form of titles which gave the painter access to and status at court. Ma Yuan (c. 1190-1224), member of a whole painter's family, and Xia Kui (c. 1180-1230) continued the more "impressionistic" tradition. Already in Song time, however, many painters could and did paint in different styles, "copying", i.e. painting in the way of Tang painters, in order to express their changing emotions by changed styles, a fact which often makes the dating of Chinese paintings very difficult.

Subjects of Song Dynasty Painting

Landscape painting matured during the Song Dynasty. Artists created paintings that viewers could gaze on, wander and travel through and dwell in. Artists who painted birds, flowers and animals tried not only to accurately depict the shape and appearance of their subjects, they also aimed to capture their internal emotions, ideas and essential characteristics.

Landscapes, birds and flowers weren’t the only subjects of Song paintings. Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “In the Song period, the range of acceptable subject matter for artists expanded considerably-like poets and other writers, painters began depicting scenes of daily life with much greater frequency. Accordingly, the art works of this period often present us with a fuller and more complex look into social customs and relationships than an examination of written sources alone could provide. Our knowledge of how people dressed, interacted socially, and how and where they made a living or practiced their trade is greatly enhanced by studying paintings of the period.[Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington,]

Ma Yuan, Walking on a Path in Spring

The artists of many of the great masterpieces of Chinese are unknown. Among the great Song era painters who are known are Zhang Zeduan, Gu Hongzhong, Fan Kuan, Ma Yuan; and Guo Xi. Song-era paintings in collection at National Palace Museum, Taipei include: 1) "Sitting Alone by a Stream" by Fan K'uan; 2) "Monkey and Cats" by I Yuan-chi; 3) "Buildings on a Mountainside" by Hsiao Chao; 4) "Children at Play in an Autumn Garden" by Su Han-ch'en; 5) "Banquet by Lantern Light" by Ma Yuan; 6) "Lady Wen-chi's Return to China" by Ch'en Chu-chung; 7) "Squirrel on a Peach Branch" by Ch'ien Hsuan; 8) "Scroll of Buddhist Images" by Chang Sheng-wen, Ta-li Kingdom [Sung Period]; 9) "The Ladies' Book of Filial Piety" by Kao-tsung and Ma Ho-chih; 10) "Pavilions Amid Winter Trees" by Anonymous; 11) "Green Bamboo and Feathered Guests" by Anonymous, Sung Dynasty.

Some of the most delightful and informative paintings from Song era deal with everyday life subjects. “Traveling on a River After Snow, by Guo Zhongshu is an ink on silk hanging scroll, measuring 74.1 x 69.2 centimeters. Guo Zhongshu, style name Shuxian, was a native of Luoyang, Henan. This work shows two large boats with cabins below upper decks. Shutters, propped open to reveal geometric window latticing, protect from the wind and rain. The main masts are secured via ropes. Every aspect, including cabins, decks, and masts, is done in fine detail with exact and logical structure. The goods on the boats indicate these are also cargo ships, making this an important reference for studying Song shipbuilding.

“Snowy Manor and Oxcarts: by an anonymous Song artist is an ink and light colors on silk hanging scroll, measuring 164.2 x 104.1 centimeters. This work depicts a manor on a winter day and mountains filled with snow and barren desolate trees. Rising in the distance are hills with oxcarts driven by travelers coming and going on a snowy path. In the manor courtyard are oxen and donkeys lying down or at rest. In front of the eaves are two figures holding hands in conversation. The watermill by the river’s edge is for grinding grain. The artist used narrative techniques and fully grasped in detail the harshness of deep winter and aspects of country life and travel. “The slopes and rocks here are all done with slanting "axe-cut" texture strokes, the method exacting with strong brushwork and dark ink. Perhaps this work is by a later Southern Song artist influenced by the style of Li Tang.

Southern Song Painting

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “After remnants of the Song court moved the south and established its capital in Hangzhou, Gaozong (Zhao Gou, 1107-1187), the first emperor of the Southern Song, actively searched for artists in an effort to reconstruct the court painting academy. He also strove to reassemble an imperial collection from the scattered works of painting and calligraphy, resulting in the quick rise and continued development of artistic activities in the Southern Song. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]


“Despite being troubled by warfare, Gaozong recommenced the collection of painting and calligraphy masterpieces; once the Song-Jin treaty was signed, he also began reacquiring the artefacts lost from Bianjing of Northern Song from official markets. By the Shaoxing period the number of masterpieces in the Song imperial collection was already a match to that of Zhenho and Xuanho reigns of Northern Song. Gaozong was very tolerant about artistic styles, which resulted in a high variety of artistic styles coming from imperial painters of the Southern Song academy. \=/

“The court re-assembled the Painting Academy and searched far and wide for artists of talent. Under the leadership of the imperial clan, court artists engaged in the task of decorating and painting palaces and temple buildings as well as walls and screens for government offices. Following the achievements of the ancients in such subjects as landscapes and figures, flowers and animals, and ruled-line buildings, these artists developed even more refined, lyrical, and painterly manners. \=/

“The composition of landscape paintings, for example, went from the full monumental scenes of the Northern Song to the one-corner arrangements of the Southern Song, expressing a new visual aesthetic of scenery viewed as both far and near, dense and expansive, open and closed, and high and low. Bird-and-flower painting went from the full compositions of the Northern Song with their feeling of animals in Nature to the selection of more intimate scenes, using close-up and realistic techniques to describe a branch of blossoms, a single bird or animal, or a few clumps of grass and insects, for instance. Brushwork tends to be more reserved and suggestive but still with strokes rich in expression, simplifying the complexity of Nature while expressing the unique features of the artist complemented by dramatic applications of monochrome ink. In addition, the reciprocal fusion of poetry, painting, and calligraphy formed a paradigm that was emulated by later generations.” \=/

Southern Song (1127-1279) Art History Book

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Supplements to the Records about Paintings” by Deng Chun of Song dynasty, “records the art history of Chinese painting which contains 10 volumes and is written by Deng Chun. It was intended to be a supplement work to Record about Painting by Guo Ruoxu of Northern Song Dynasty, and was therefore entitled Supplements to the Records about Paintings. It records news and knowledge about paintings during the 93 years from about paintings lasting for 93 years from the 7th year of Xining period of Nothern Song Dynasty (1074) to the 3rd year of Qiandao period of Southern Song Dynasty. The first seven volumes contain biographical information about 219 artists. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, from the “Encyclopedia of Painting”, complied by Wang Yuanzhen of Ming dynasty between 1590 and 1591 \=/]

Volumes one to five list the artists in the order of their social position, being respectively Huizong Emperor, members of the royal family and noblemen, the wealthy and talented, gentrified commoners, Taoists and monks, descendents of official families and women, and eunuchs. Volumes six and seven categorize artworks by their themes, including spiritual beings, character portraits, landscapes, floral and birds, fauna, architecture and vehicles, plants and vegetables, and scenery and miscellaneous paintings, and also contain the records of biographies and artistic expertise of art school artists and professional artists. Volume eight contains an index of selected private collections seen by the author. Volumes nine and ten are miscellaneous essays by the author, expressing his artistic views and recording miscellaneous activities of art schools during the Song Dynasty. \=/

“Deng Chun had emphasized on the training and nurturing of artists, and proposed "painting is the ultimate expression of literature"; he admired literati paintings with an "Spirit feeling" and objected to the "xuanhe style" of artistic realism.” One “page shows Deng Chun's theory of "painting is the ultimate expression of literature". While not all literati were able to paint or enjoyed painting, it was Deng Chun's view that: it would be a rare thing for a good writer to be unable to paint, and also a rare thing for a poor writer to be a good artist. \=/

“Manual of Plum Blossom Painting”

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: The “Manual of Plum Blossom Painting” by Song Boren of the Song dynasty “comprises of two volumes and was drawn by Song Boren, of Southern Song Dynasty. It was initially a compilation of drawings published on wooden plates in the 2nd year of Jiaxi period of Southern Song Dynasty (1238). Song Boren had the style name "Qizhi" with the sobriquet "Xueyen", and was a native of Guangping (some say Houzhou); he had served as an official of the Salt Transportation Bureau during the Jiaxi era (1237~1240). Song Boren was an expert plum blossom artist and referred to himself as a "plum blossom fanatic"; he had built a pagodas and a nursery at home, and had personally planted plum trees. He had often been found wandering amongst the bamboo fences and straw huts, admiring the plum blossoms in their "bowing, rising, opening and closing". He completed more than 200 sketches of plum blossoms, and selected 100 of them for compilation in this book. [Source: Zhibuzuzhai imprint during Qianlong and Daoguang reigns (1736-1850), Qing dynasty]

“The book depicts plum blossoms in eight stages, from the first bud to final withering, and each stage was also given a logical and interesting title according to the various aspects of the plum blossom, so that the drawings correspond to the titles in an entertaining fashion, for example: four branches of buds, sixteen branches of small blossoms, eight branches of large blossoms, eight branches of blossoming, fourteen branches of full blossoming, twenty-eight branches of magnificence, sixteen branches of wilting, and six branches of fruiting. Each depiction of plum blossom is also accompanied by a five-character quatrains. The Song Dynasty vernacular referred to portraits as "Xishen" (character resemblances), and Song Boren had therefore given the book the title Manual of Plum Blossom Painting.

“The artistic strokes used in the book are concise and unrestrained, capturing realistically all aspects of the plum blossom, whether they be old and bald branches or young and beautiful buds. The carving of the wood plate was also quick and sharp, well matching the style of the author. The purposes for this book were on the one hand to provide first learners of plum blossom sketching with examples for imitation, and on the other hand, according to the preface written by the author himself, to also "entertain gentlemen of refined tastes". This book is the earliest surviving book of drawings published on plates in China, and is also a representative work on plum-blossom painting since Song Dynasty.” \=/

Paintings by Ma Yuan

Immortal riding a dragon by Ma Yuan

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Ma Yuan (fl. 1190-1224) was a court master of painting in the reigns of Emperors Guangzong and Ningzong, often illustrating the poetry of Ningzong's empress, surnamed Yang (also known as Yang Meizi). Ma Yuan was of Shanxi ancestry and resided in the capital of Hangzhou. Serving as Painter-in-Attendance in the Southern Sung, he specialized in landscapes, birds-and-flowers, and figures, being especially accomplished in the former. “Riding a Dragon”, an ink and colors on silk hanging scroll, measuring 115.9 x 52.4 centimeters, is one of his more dramatic works. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Raising a Cup to the Moon in Jest” attributed to Ma Yuan (fl. 1190-1222) is an ink and light colors on silk hanging scroll, measuring 205.6 x 104.1 centimeters. According to to the National Palace Museum, Taipei” This work was inspired by Li Bo's famous line that reads, "I raise my cup to the bright moon. With my shadow, we are three." It depicts a scholar facing a mist-filled gorge and drinking with a goblet under the bright moon above. Large axe-cut strokes define the rocks throughout. The strong contrast in ink tones and mature technique indicate features of the Ma Yuan and Xia Gui school. Although the traditional title gives the painter as Ma Yuan, in the lower left is a signature that reads "Qinli" and the seal for "Zhong, Qinli," indicating that it actually came from the hand of Zhong Li, the famous Ming dynasty Zhe School artist.

“Imperial Banquet by Lantern Light” Ma Yuan is an ink and light colors on silk hanging scroll, measuring 111.9 x 53.5 centimeters. “The branches of pine and plum trees in this work seem to appear and disappear in the light mist of an early spring day. The interior of the hall is brightly lit and set up with a red curtain, standing screen, and long table. Several officials clasp their hands making salutations, and to the side are female attendants holding gilt pots as well as cups and plates. Outside the building, in the courtyard, female palace musicians and dancers put on a show. Judging from the form of architecture, this appears to describe a palace hall in the Southern Song imperial city. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Egrets on a Snowy Bank” by Ma Yuan is an ink and light colors on silk hanging scroll,, measuring 59 x 37.6 centimeters) Ma Yuan has reduced the elements of this painting to a dramatic contrast between black and white to suggest the penetrating cold of winter. In other words, Ma used dark ink to represent the rocks and trees, while the areas indicating snow have been left blank. By a bank are three egrets behind the rocks, while another stands to the side at the edge of the water. Ma Yuan almost always edited the scenes in his paintings to suggest the most with the least. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Paintings by Li Song

“Watching the Tide on a Moonlit Night” by Li Song (ca. 1170-1255) is an ink and colors on silk album leaf, measuring 22.3 x 22 centimeters. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: This painting depicts a scene of watching the tide enter the mouth of the Qiantang River on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. A splendid two-story pavilion with a single hip-and-gable roof stands majestically at the right, with no walls on the four sides of the upper level, making it ideal for appreciating the distant view. The wooden elements to protect the hip-and-gable siding, such as the weatherboard and gable-side pendants and ornaments, are all finely painted with gold outlining. In front of the building by the river is a large moon-viewing terrace with a winding corridor; rockeries and palm trees also dot the courtyard inside. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The beautiful scenery of the Qiantang River and West Lake around the capital of Lin'an (Hangzhou) were chosen as sites for constructing palace buildings and gardens, the natural views there often playing an important role. On this painting is an inscription by Empress Yang, quoting from the poetry of Su Shi in his "Watching the Tide on the Mid-Autumn Festival," and her square "Kungua" seal. \=/

“Knick-knack Peddler and Children Playing” by Li Song is an ink and light colors on silk album leaf, measuring 25.8 x 27.6 centimeters): This painting describes an old knick-knack peddler with his vast assortment of goods as a matron with a group of young children approaches him in excitement. The carriers on either side of the peddler's shoulder pole are divided into six levels holding an array of items, foods, and toys. Some even have labels to identify them, including "Immortal Scripture," "Writing," "Shandong Yellow Rice Wine," and "Sour Vinegar." Among the branches on the left is the artist's signature that reads, "Painted by Li Song in the gengwu year of the Jiading reign (1201)," and on the trunk of the tree is another inscription in small characters for "300 items." Using children from a village family as the main characters, Li Song has here portrayed an interesting scene from life that is full of emotion. As a result, this work is indispensable in the study of genre painting and folk life in the Southern Song period. \=/

"Along the River During the Qingming Festival"

“Along the River During the Qingming Festival” (also known as “Up the River During Qingming” and and “The Spring Festival Along the River”) is arguably China’s most famous painting. A handscroll painting over five meters long by the Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan (1085–1145), it captures the daily life of people and the landscape of the capital, Bianjing, today's Kaifeng, from the Northern Song period. Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “ This painting is considered one of the most valuable in Chinese art history for its high level of technical quality and the liveliness with which it portrays the myriad details of urban life. It is generally interpreted as portraying the city environs of Kaifeng, the Northern Song capital, and some of the surrounding countryside.” The painting is considered to be the most renowned work among all Chinese paintings and it has been called "China's Mona Lisa."

The Qingming Festival has been observed by the Chinese for over 2500 years. It takes place between April 4th and 6thand is usually a time when , Chinese families visit the tombs of their ancestors to clean the grave sites, pray for them and make ritual offerings of traditional food dishes to the ancestors while burning of incense. The painting celebrates the festive side of the festival rather than tomb sweeping and prayers. The scenes reveal the lifestyle of all levels of the society from rich to poor as well as different economic activities in rural areas and the city, and offer glimpses of period clothing and architecture. As a work of art, the piece has been revered by court artists of subsequent dynasties, who made re-interpretive versions, each following the overall composition and the theme of the original but offering new details and techniques. Over the centuries, the Qingming scroll was collected and kept among numerous private owners, before it eventually returned to public ownership. The painting was a particular favorite of Puyi, the Last Emperor, who took the Song dynasty original with him when he left Beijing. It was re-purchased in 1945 and kept at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City. The Song dynasty original and the Qing versions, in the Beijing and Taipei Palace Museums respectively, are regarded as national treasures and are exhibited only for brief periods every few years. [Source: Wikipedia]

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Zhang Zeduan's "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" from the early 12th century in the late Northern Song period is universally recognized as one of the great masterpieces of Song genre painting. It depicts scenes of prosperity along the banks of the Bian River in Kaifeng, the Northern Song capital. With its realistic techniques in painting and legendary history in collecting, the scroll not only captured the attention of connoisseurs and collectors through the ages but also later became the focus of art-historical research in modern times. Often with numerous opinions but little agreement among scholars, "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" has even become a formal subject of study. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Zhang Zeduan (style name Zhengdao), a native of Dongwu, was skilled at painting vehicles and boats, markets and bridges, and buildings of all types...The title of this painting on the subject of "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" derives in part from Commentary on the Book of Changes: "With ease it is easily understood, and with brevity it is free of labor." In other words, something is easy to understand when its content is plain and straightforward. The artist here therefore probably intended for the viewer to grasp the full scope of prosperity in the capital by simplifying elements of the painting. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

bridge in "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"

People, Scenery, Buildings and Action in "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"

The "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" handscroll painting is 528.7 centimeters long and 24.8 centimeters wide, with a densely-populated urbanized section to the left and a rural area to the right. Some divide into three parts: 1) spring in the rural area, the 2) busy Bianhe River ports, and 3) the prosperous city streets. Others say it has five major sections: A) serene rustic scenery: B) the section focusing on Rainbow Bridge and crowded market scene around it; C) the bustling activity outside the city gate; D) the long section between the Pine and Bamboo (Songzhu) Hall and a large wooden bridge with scenery along both sides of the river; and E) beautiful scenery around Golden Brightness (Jinming) Lake. The painting is also known for its accurate images of variety natural and man-made elements including buildings, boats, bridges, markets, stores, trees, people and scenery. [Source: Xu Lin,, November 8, 2011]

The Song original by Zhang Zeduan at the Palace Museum, Beijing is 25.5 centimeters in height and 5.25 meters long. Within the painting are 814 humans (of whom only 20 are women), 28 boats, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 20 vehicles, 8 sedan chairs, and 170 trees. with the river meandering through the entire length. Buildings include shops, restaurants, inns, temples, private residences, official buildings varying in grandeur and style, shacks and mansions with grand backyards. Farmers are planting seeds in the fields, people are sweeping graves, walking in the streets and eating. Children fly kites, merchants make sales, workers drive carts, officials ride horses and women carry baskets. People and goods are transported in wheeled wagons, on donkeys and mules and in sedan chairs, and chariots. The river is chock-a-block with fishing boats and passenger-carrying ferries. Men along the river bank pull the larger boats. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In the rural section there are crop fields and rural people — mostly farmers, goatherds, and pig herders — in bucolic scenery. A country path broadens into a road and joins with the city road. The urban area transitions from the rural area into more densely populated area before finally reaching the city proper marked by its gates. Among the economic activities taking place are people loading cargoes onto the boat, shops welcoming customers and food stands selling food. Even a tax office appears to be open. All kinds of people are depicted: fortune tellers, doctors, innkeepers, jugglers, actors, paupers, peddlers,beggers, monks asking for alms, teachers, carpenters, masons, millers, metalworkers and official scholars from all ranks. +

Many businesses operate outside the city proper, selling grain, wine, cookware, secondhand goods, musical instruments, gold and silver, ornaments, dyed fabrics, bows and arrows, lanterns, paintings, medicine, needles, and artifacts. The vendors (and in the Qing revision, the shops themselves) extend all along the Rainbow Bridge. The area where the great bridge crosses the river is the center and main focus of the scroll. The people here are animated and there is great commotion. A boat doesn't have its mast completely lowered and appears doomed to crash into the bridge. The crowds on the bridge and along the riverside are shouting and gesturing toward the boat. Someone near the apex of the bridge lowers a rope to the crew on the boat. +

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei many of the details in "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" are roughly corroborated by Song dynasty writings, principally the Dongjing Meng Hua Lu, which describes many of the same features of life in the capital...The version here traditionally attributed to Zhang includes such scenes starting from the right as a rustic countryside followed by a colorful bridal procession, the main arched bridge with a market, areas surrounding the city walls, and various bridges and waterfront activities. The method of painting the earth and trees differs markedly from those of the original by Zhang, and the brushwork here is somewhat weaker. The coloring is also more decorative and the rendering of space appears flatter, suggesting an imitation from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) instead. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]

boat about to crash in "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"

Appreciating "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"

Madeleine Boucher wrote in the Art Genome Project: “Despite its uncertain attribution to Northern Song Dynasty academy painter Zhang Zeduan and unknown date, this masterful painting has nonetheless become one of the most famous and hotly-debated works in Chinese history. Meant to be viewed by unfurling the lengthy silk handscroll a little at a time, the painting becomes an animated story in which we peer into an idealized city from a birds-eye view. Scroll through the length of the highly-detailed painting from right to left to find a bustling marketplace, sailors, farmers, scholars, monks and people of all classes going about their daily lives. The painting immerses the viewer in an expansive survey of city life from nearly a thousand years ago. [Source: Madeleine Boucher, Art Genome Project, June 24, 2014]

Marina Kochetkova wrote in DailyArt Magazine: “The main focus of the scroll is where the great bridge crosses the river. Vendors extend all along the Rainbow Bridge. You can see the bustling activity with a multitude of people. You wonder if the boat will crash into the bridge as it approaches at an awkward angle with its mast not completely lowered. The crowds on the bridge and along the riverside are gesturing toward the boat. [Source: Marina Kochetkova, DailyArt Magazine, June 18, 2021]

The painting treasured for centuries by the Chinese Imperial family. The Qianlong Emperor may have composed the following poem on the Qing copy of the painting.
The bustling scene is truly impressive.
It is a chance to explore vestiges of bygone days.
At that time, people marveled at the size of Yu,
And now, we lament the fates of Hui and Qin.”

The work is so famous in China that artists there created a 3D animated, digital version of the painting called the River of Wisdom. It is roughly thirty times the size of the original scroll and features a computer-animated mural with moving characters and objects and portrays the scene in four-minute day and night cycles. Today, the animation is on permanent exhibition at the China Art Museum, Shanghai.

Copies of "Along the River During the Qingming Festival"

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: With its realistic techniques in painting and legendary history in collecting, the scroll not only captured the attention of connoisseurs and collectors through the ages but also later became the focus of art-historical research in modern times. Often with numerous opinions but little agreement among scholars, "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" has even become a formal subject of study. Artists likewise adopted different perspectives, such as imitation and copying, leaving behind the innumerable versions extant today. Scholars believe that approximately a hundred versions exist nowadays in private collections and major museums around the world, demonstrating just how much influence "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" has exerted in Chinese art over the years.[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“In the collection of the National Palace Museum are eight handscroll paintings on the subject of "Along the River During the Qingming Festival." They can be divided into three categories: one attributed to the original Song dynasty artist, Zhang Zeduan (fl. early 12th century); one attributed to the Ming dynasty painter Qiu Ying (ca. 1494-1552); and the other by Qing dynasty (1644-1911) court artists. In terms of structure and content, the first two ultimately trace back to Zhang Zeduan's original now in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Though copies or forgeries, they include new urban elements and period features that yield different appearances compared to the prototypical Song version. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The handscroll attributed to Qiu Ying includes several scenes that differ from the other versions attributed to Qiu Ying, such as the stage performance, willow shooting, acrobatics, tightrope walking, and military review. In terms of the details for the boat race on Lake Jinming, not only are the buildings quite ornate and beautiful, the figural tiles on the eave ridges extend with exaggeration to emphasize the sumptuous and majestic quality of palace architecture. The activities are also unusually raucous, such as the imperial boat race to capture pennants, dance scene, and other past-times. The bright coloring here likewise differentiates this work from the others, including the plentiful use of mineral blue and green, cinnabar, gamboge, whitewash, and violet to create a strongly decorative and beautiful style for the painting surface. Other details, such as the technique for rendering the water ripples and the formulaic layering of the landscape forms, combine to suggest an illusory feeling to the space. Thus, this painting appears to be a conscious emulation of the Qiu Ying style by a Suzhou workshop artist in the Ming dynasty. \=/

“The Qing court version of "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" is an 18th-century collaborative effort on the part of five artists at the Painting Academy: Chen Mei (1694-1745), Sun Hu, Jin Kun, Dai Hong, and Cheng Zhidao. The content of the painting is all-inclusive and its production refined and meticulous, integrating the specialties of the individual artists to rival the beauty of Zhang Zeduan's original. As for Shen Yuan's version of around the same period, it may differ from the Qing court painting in terms of material and coloring but throughout is almost identical in layout, objects, vehicles, and figures, offering a glimpse into how large handscroll projects were handled at the Qing Painting Academy.” \=/

Another Qing era handscroll “represents a collaborative effort on the part of five Painting Academy artists active in the eighteenth century at the Qing court of the Qianlong emperor. The figural scenes are especially numerous and detailed, making this painting stand out among the various versions of "Along the River During the Qingming Festival." This scroll can be divided into several major parts, including the rustic setting at the beginning (on the right), arched bridge and market, city wall and surroundings, and Lake Jinming. In addition to the bustling figures and packed shops, there are also untrammeled literati garden settings and a magnificent imperial garden, creating for a fascinating and visually pleasing atmosphere that makes this painting a microcosm of life in China at the time. The architectural elements accord with the rules of perspective, and the buildings and streets are all laid out in an orderly fashion, the use of proportion and distance likewise meticulously handled with great precision. Western-style architecture is also evident. The handling of brush and ink is highly refined and the coloring beautiful, making this the finest of all the "Along the River During the Qingming Festival" scrolls in the National Palace Museum collection. \=/

“Shen Yuan's composition and arrangement of the scenes in this painting are almost identical to those in the Qing dynasty court version of "Along the River During the Qingming Festival." It differs only in terms of certain details, such as the scene of crying by the grave during tomb sweeping near the beginning of the rustic scene at the right and the inclusion of an inn and shops by the side of the arched bridge in the middle part. There are also some discrepancies in terms of the shop names as well as the structure and painting method of the architecture, the arrangement of the garden scene in the top-scholar's mansion likewise slightly different. This scroll is done on paper and mostly in ink with only a few washes of ochre added to the outlines of the figures and buildings to give it a fresh and elegant manner. The rendering of the bridge beams, buildings, and figures is exceptionally precise and orderly, making this a fine example from the Painting Academy of the Qing dynasty court.” \=/

In 2014, Chinese artist and photographer Dai Xiang exhibited his reinterpretations of “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” at the 2014 Lianzhoufoto Festival. According to ChinaSmack: “By inserting modern scenes into an ancient backdrop, Dai Xiang cleverly depicted numerous “incidents” in recent years across China, including popular topics such as chengguan, forced demolition, prostitution, gutter oil, among many others. Netizens praised his work as an embodiment of modern Chinese society.” [Source: ChinaSmack, November 23, 2014]

Image Sources: Guo Xi painting, University of Washington; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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