Tang Beauty Playing Go

Chinese practiced the art of painting on ceramic vessels as early as the Neolithic Period (the earliest paintings from ancient Greece are also on ceramic vessels). These early painting revealed a range of aesthetic qualities---lively, sedate, wild and free, restrained and stern.

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: ““The earliest forms of Chinese painting that we have date from the last centuries B.C. During the period of fragmentation of the late Zhou (771-221 B.C.), the many different feudal courts of China employed all sorts of artisans, and many rulers lavished attention on court painters. Even during this early period, painting in China is very much a "calligraphic" art. "Calligraphy" means the art of writing words, and in traditional China, all writing was done with brushes, rather than with a "stylus" (pen-like point). The paint lines of early Chinese paintings were made much the way that people brushed the strokes of the characters they wrote in composing letters and other records. Naturally, the fact that all literate people were accomplished in using an ink brush contributed to widespread skills useful for painting. Although much of the earliest painting we have is of human figures, the great skill of early artists in subtle application of a "calligraphic" line of black ink is already visible. An example is a section of a wall paintingfrom the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 CE). The painting depicts two Confucian scholars, and the detail in the middle shows the very fine brush control that allowed the artist to create lifelike expressions with only a few quick strokes of ink. For comparison, note the brush strokes in the calligraphy at right, which comes from a bamboo text inscribed about a century before the Han era. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University]

Pictorial art during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) took the from of stone engraving, wall painting, and paintings on silk. Paintings mentioned in the Han period texts include Picture of “Riding the Dragon to Ascend the Clouds”, “Picture of the Eastern Wall” and “Picture of the Western Wall”, and “Scripture of Grand Harmony”. None of these remain today and we have no clue what they looked like. Han art is thought to had a solemn style and didactic function..The main objective of painting during this period was to educate people.

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

Six Canons, Painting Manual From the Fifth Century

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Fan Kuan's Travelers
During the Wei (A.D. 220-265), Chin (265-420) and Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589) the concept of beautiful art for art's sake gradually developed. Figure painting during this period was known for its elegance and beauty, though styles of painting were wild and untamed. Themes relating to Buddhism, Confucianism, early Taoism and nature were developed. Popular subjects such as mountains, streams, trees and mist were all prized for the transcendent freedom they inspired.

Chinese painting has changed very little over the centuries. The most influential painting text, “The Six Canons”, was written by the A.D. 5th century by artist and critic Hsieh Ho (Xie He) who said paintings must breath life and inspiration and individual brush strokes must express the strengths and character of the artist.

In one passage Hsieh Ho outlined the "Six Elements" essential for good painting: "First, Spirit Resonance which means vitality; second, Bone Method which is [a way of] using the brush; third Correspondence to the Object which means the depicting forms; forth, Suitability to Type which has to do with the laying on of colors; fifth, Division and Planning, that is, placing and arrangement; and sixth, Transmission by Copying, that is to say the copying of models...But, while works of art may be skillful or clumsy, aesthetics knows no ancient and modern."

Tang Dynasty Painting

During the Tang Dynasty (619-907) both figure painting and landscape reached great heights of maturity and beauty. Forms were carefully drawn and rich colors applied in painting that were later called "gold and blue-green landscapes." This style was supplanted by the technique of applying washes of monochrome ink that captured images in abbreviated, suggestive forms.

During the late Tang dynasty (907-960) bird, flower and animal painting were especially valued. There were two major schools of this style of painting: 1) rich and opulent and 2) "untrammeled mode of natural wilderness." Unfortunately, few works from the Tang period remain.

Lovely murals were discovered in the tomb of Princess Yongtain, the granddaughter of Empress Wu Zetiab (624?-705) on the outskirts of Xian. One shows a lady-in-waiting holding a nyoi stick while another lady holds glassware. It is similar to tomb art found in Japan. A painting on silk cloth dated to the A.D. mid-8th century found in tomb of a rich family in the Astana tombs near Urumqi in western China depicts a noblewoman with rouge cheeks deep in concentration as she plays go.

Famous Tang dynasty paintings include Zhou Fang’s “Palace Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses”, a study of several beautiful, plump women having their hair done; Wei Xian’s “The Harmonious Family Life of an Eminent Recluse”, a Five Dynasties portrait of a father teaching his son in a pavilion surrounded by jagged mountains; and Han Huang’s “Five Oxen”, an amusing depiction of a five fat oxen. “Night Revels” of Han Xizai is a classic 10th-century scroll painting by Gu Hongzhong about a dissolute government official who becomes a drunken reveler after failed imperial reforms. The works has been copied and has been an inspiration for works by a number of other artists.

Wang Wei (701-761) is a legendary Tang dynasty painter and poet who said "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings." Tang dynasty brush and ink painter Han Gan was described by New York Times art critic Holland Carter as a master of capturing the vitality of a subject. He brought animals alive "with contour lines and calligraphic strokes that look almost joltingly vibrant" as if "the testimony of generations of connoisseurs is there to confirm it.”

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Ladies with Flowered Headresses by Zhou Fang

Song Dynasty Painting

According to the Shanghai Museum: During the Tang and Song dynasties, Chinese painting matured and fully developed. Figure painters advocated ‘the form as a vehicle for conveying the spirit’, emphasizing the internal quality of painting. Landscape painting was divided into two major styles: the blue-and-green landscape and the ink-and-wash landscape. Many different regional styles emerged. Various expressive painting techniques were created in flower-and-bird paintings: realistic meticulous painting with color, ink-and-wash painting with light color, and boneless ink-wash painting. During the Northern and Southern Song periods, the Imperial Art Academy prevailed for a time. The Northern Song Art Academy favored a meticulous and exquisite realistic style. The Southern Song espoused the style of simplicity with bold strokes. Literati painting was a unique style developed outside the Academy and stresses a free expression of the artists’ personal ideas. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Chinese painting perhaps reached its pinnacle during the Song dynasty (960-1279) under 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. Landscape painting during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) matured even further. 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.

The artists of many of the great masterpieces of Chinese are unknown. Among the great painters who are known are Zhang Zeduan, Yuang, Gu Hongzhong, Fan Kuan and Guo Xi. Guo Xi is another famous landscape painter. He wrote: "wonderfully lofty are these heavenly mountains, inexhaustible in their mystery. In order to grasp their creations, one must love them utterly and never cease wandering among them, storing impressions one by one in the heart."

Among the important Sung dynasty painting are “Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains”, a 2.1-x-1.3 meter scroll painted a 1,000 years ago by Fan Kuan, “Early Spring” by Guo Xi. These two works are owned by the National Palace Museum and have been insured for $180 million. “Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains” is sometimes called the Mona Lisa of Chinese art. It is so precious and fragile that it is only displayed 40 days every three years at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. One critic described it as “not a distant view to enjoy but a veritable challenge. Climb me if you have the courage and the heart to encounter true nature.” It is the sole extant work by Fan Kuan, a Taoist who lived like a mountain recluse.

Spring Festival on a River

Very few paintings from the Sung period remain, One of the most famous is “Spring Festival on the River”, a 17-foot-long, 12th century hand scroll of ink and color painted by Zhang Zeduan. It contains over 800 figures and is so rare and delicate that it’s hardly ever viewed by the public.

In early 2000, “Spring Festival on the River” was shown at the Shanghai Museum in a special exhibition that cost $750 to see. Describing the work, Sheila Melvin wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “It depicts a tranquil landscape of rolling mountains and leafless trees with thatched cottages scattered here and there along a riverbank. As the river meanders onward, donkeys, fishermen moor their boats and men carry buckets of water on shoulder poles. The river widens and is spanned by a gravity-defying, rainbow-shaped bridge mobbed with peddlers, pedestrians, coolies and idlers.”

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A scene from Spring Festival on a River by Zhang Zeduan

“A boat prepares to pass beneath, its crew hustling to lower the masts as dozens of passerby stop to watch and offer unsolicited advise. Just past the bridge lies a town, a snug and prosperous enclave of homes, restaurants, hotels and temples. Everywhere there are people engaged in the business of life; shopping for a new bow; slurping noodles; commuting by camel caravan, ox cart, horse, sedan chair and foot; listening to a storyteller; having their fortune told; sipping tea, or showing off a grandson to friends encountered in the street.”

Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasty Painting

During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) painters worked at capturing their own feelings and ideas and the qualities of their ink and brush rather than qualities of their subjects. Scholar artists were the leading figures in the arts, and their painting were characterized by simplicity, understatement and transcendent elegance.

During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) scholarly painting continued to prevail and ink wash painting of the Imperial Painting Academy and Southern Sung court was briefly popular. Paintings were often filled with human figures, whose size was an indication of their rank.

During the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties two approaches to scholarly painting were developed: the first in which artists copied and studied ancient themes and subjects, and the second in which artists abandoned models and expressed their own creativity through inventive means. The individualist expressive form predominated in the mid Qing dynasty. Research on ancient inscriptions influenced painting in the late Qing period. Hanging scroll portraits of emperors and other nobleman contained Tibetan and Islamic influences.

Mustard Seed Garden Manual

The most influential book in Chinese painting after the 17th century was “The Mustard Seed Garden Manual”, a text named after the home of its publishers. The heart of this book is "the six essentials and the six qualities," "the three faults" (associated with brush handling), and "the twelve things to avoid." In the manual students are told, "in painting, it is better to be inexperienced (young qi) than stupid. It is better to be audacious than commonplace." It also advises painters to "be careful to avoid the deadening effect of merely copying the methods of the ancients."

“The Mustard Seed Garden Manual” describes nine different kinds of subjects: Trees (the first essential for the landscape painter) and Rocks (all of which have three "faces"), People and Things, Orchids, Bamboo, Plums, Chrysanthemum, Grasses, Insects and Flowering Plants, Feather-Sand-Fur and Flowering Plants. In regard to symbolism the manual tells the painter: "When trees...grow among rocks, are washed by springs, or are clinging to steep cliffs, the roots of old trees are exposed. They are like hermits, the Immortals of legends, whose purity shows in their appearance, lean and gnarled with age, bones and tendons protruding. Such trees are marvelous."

Among the sixteen different brush strokes are one that resemble “tangled hemp fibers," “big ax cuts" and "small ax cuts," "skull bones" and "horses' teeth." There was even sections on "dotting like small eddies" and "dotting in the form of a plum blossom." Descriptions of drawing trees are quite detailed. "Mark well the way branches dispose themselves. The yin and yang of them; those in front and those in back, those on the left and those on the right; mark well the tensions created by some branches pushing forward while others seem to withdraw." [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

“The Mustard Seed Garden Manual” provides advise on capturing the essence of objects. “All the plants of the world rival one another in their beauty and give pleasure to the hearts and eyes of men,” the manual reads. “They offer great variety. Generally speaking the wood-stemmed plants may be described as having a noble elegance, the grasses a soft grace. Grasses please the heart and eye mightily...the chrysanthemum is a flower of proud disposition; its color is beautiful, its fragrance lingers. To paint it, one must hold in his heart a conception of the flower whole and complete. Only in this way can that mysterious essence be transmitted in a painting."

Ancestor Portraits and Qing Dynasty Painting

Large wall-size portraits of ancestors were produced for the aristocracy and ruling class during the Qing dynasty. They feature realistic seated renderings of individual painted in bright colors. They were often placed over family altars.

The paintings were regarded as mediums for communications to deceased relatives. The Chinese have traditionally believed the dead didn't die they just went to a different world where they could be contacted by the living. The dead were believed to want to hear news and receive offerings and sacrifices from time to time by living relatives.

The Shanghai School was an influential painting movement founded in the mid-19th century that is credited with combining traditional Chinese ink paintings with modernist trends. Incorporating heavy black strokes to outline figure and bring attention to details, it influenced Japanese wood block printing and early manga art among other things. Important Shanghai School artists included Qin Zuyong (1825-1884) and Qian Huian (1833-1911).

Describing a work called Kingyo-zu by the artist named Xugu Christoph Mark wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Light touches diluted ink to create reflections on water as abstract goldfish swim beneath...The scant use of color---a reddish orange for the fish---is characteristic of...paintings that rely heavily on inking skills to convey what color would be used for in other styles."

Image Sources: 1, 14) Wikipedia; 2, 4, 8, 9, 10) University of Washington; 3) Nolls China website ; 5, 6, 7 ) China Beautiful website; 9, 12) Palace Museum, Taipie; 11, 13) Metropolitan Museum of Art; 14) Shanghai Museum

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 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.

Last updated November 2021

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