In the painted pottery of proto-historic China one may find a clue to the direction taken in later periods, for the patterns on these wares lean toward linear design and abstract motifs filled with swirling forms. In these designs, moreover, the light and dark elements tend to alternate and complement each other in balanced and asymmetrical spaceareas. There is already a preference for the contrast of filled and empty, or positive and negative, areas, and for the line that may suggest movement or delineate form. There is little that can be identified with the physical world, except for a few stylized animals or ghostly-looking human beings. Even at that time the realm of the spirit was important to the Chinese painter.
Early records occasionally describe painted wall decorations and portraits of worthy men and women. But since they were painted on silk or on walls long since gone, we must base our conception of them on descriptions or on fragments of lacquer, painted pottery and bronze dating from the third century s.C. By the second century A.D. we know that line had become more important than color, character more important than physical appearance, a sense of movement more important than verisimilitude, and that brush stroke was already a key factor in the painter’s act of creation. Appropriate subjects were derived from man’s relationship to his fellow man according to Confucian ethics and ancient ceremonial, and from man’s relationship to the world of the spirits, the shades of departed ancestors, the inhabitants of the Isles of the Immortals, and the lesser sprites of folk imagination. Confucianism and Taoism had already opened two doors; one led to good conduct and the maintaining of a harmony between heaven and earth by means of ritual and a respectful regulation of one’s affairs; the other led toward the harmony with nature that might come to the pilosopher who retired from the world and trusted to intuitive perception rather than the written word for his glimpses of Universal Order. These two trends influenced painters and their work. In later eras, the lives of artists fitted into two main categories, that of scholar, poet, or public servant (and one man could be all of these), or that of hermit. The favorite subjects were figurestudies of the sages, historical personages and events (see illustration), and paragons of filial piety-all in the Confucian tradition-or of magicians, demon-quellers, Immortals, nymphs, fairies and imaginary creatures-all inspired by Taoist thought. Another main subject was landscape-the mountain-and-water picture dear to all Chinese. Obscure places as well as the sacred mountains, rivers and lakes were painted in all seasons and under all conditions. Next to the majesty of great heights, man was put in his proper, insignificant place. Parts of the panorama, such as trees (especially bamboo), rock formations, flowers and birds, were singled out as symbols of growth and life. Despite experiments in line, form and color, and changes in compositional scheme, these subjects formed the core of inspiration for the majority of Chinese artists.
When Buddhism became a powerful force in Chinese life in about the fourth century A.n, new themes were introduced. Thousands of devotees took up painting to gain merit in a future life, or became patrons of painters. Buddhist cavetemples and other sanctuaries followed plans developed in India for ritual purposes; walls and ceilings were covered with murals expressing fundamental Buddhist ideas in an iconography developed in the mother country and in Central Asia. Banners and votive offerings were painted on silk and hemp cloth for use on ceremonial occasions. The murals and banners of Tun-huang, Kansu, are as significant in Chinese art as the Sistine Chapel in European art. Because these images had to conform to Indian ideals in form, color, and proportion, there was a wave of foreign influence that reached its climax in the T’ang period in the eighth century . The Buddhas, Bodhisattvas (lesser deities who were on the threshold of Enlightenment), Arhats or Lohans (holy men who belonged to monastic orders, Lokapala (symbolic guardians of the Law in time and space), Vajrapani (muscular guardians armed with weapons), Apsarases and other minor deities of sky and earth, all were a part of the Buddhist hierarchy. Foreign at first in physiognomy and dress, they gradually became Chinese.
One contemplative sect of Buddhist adherents, the Ch’an group, had ideas so similar to those of the Taoists that it became possible for the hermit-painters to serve both equally well. They followed no set rules but waited in meditation for an inspiration and then painted rapidly in a spontaneous burst of energy. Painted in monochrome, their pictures are masterpieces of understatement. In their hands ink alone could suggest color and form. Mu Ch’i and Liang K’ai of the Sung period, Chu Ta and Tao-chi of the Ching period in China, Shubun and Sesshu of the Ashikaga period were of this “untrammeled” group.
By the Sung period painting had become a passion for some men, a pastime for others. It was an essential accomplishment for the Superior Man, a profession for the court painter, a delight for the poet, an aid in meditation for the monk, and for the collector a prize as valuable as ancient jade. The greatest of the collectors was the Emperor Hui Tsung (1082-1135 A.v.) ; he was a painter as well as a patron. His example was imitated by later Chinese rulers, and by Japanese, Mongol, Persian and Mughal Indian sovereigns. For the connoisseur, standards of judgment had been crystallized as early as the fifth century and set down as canons by Hsieh Ho. According to these the artist might be classed as Divine, Wonderful, Able, or Spontaneous, or in terms of one of four degrees of merit. The painter’s use of his brush was as personal as his handwriting, so that painting and calligraphy were almost inseparable sister arts. Paintings were classified according to types of brush stroke. Pai Miao work was done with a fine brush in careful outline, sometimes with a touch of watercolor; Kung Pi also was a fine line drawing, often with the addition of gold and green in an archaic style; Mo-ktt Hua, the boneless manner, dispensed with outlines, producing form by means of color tones in various shades and depths: P’o Mo was an ink-splash technique; Fei Pai called for a flowing, running style; Hsieh-i entered into spontaneous creation, making use of line and tonal wash in quick, rhythmic strokes.
The forms in use included murals, screens (both folding and one-panel), scrolls, and album pieces. Hanging scrolls (generally called kakemono by Westerners), consisted of a painting mounted with silk brocade borders on a fine paper backing; there were rollers at each end, and a loop of silk for hanging. When not in use the scroll was rolled, and put into a silk case and a special box made of wood or other fine material. The handscroll, or makimono, was mounted and cared for in the same way, but was meant to be unrolled and viewed flat, about a foot of the painting to be seen at one time, starting from the right and rolling to the left. Though a roll might be as long as fifty feet, each section of it was a pleasant picture in itself, and the viewer, giving careful attention to each detail, progressed in time and space. The album piece was a single painting, rectangular, round, or fan-shaped, mounted on single sheets of stiff paper, or bound together under brocade covers.
The painter sat on the floor, or on a low seat, with his paper or silk laid flat on a table. At hand were brushes of various sizes, a water-pot and ink sticks (pine soot compressed into a solid) or pigment. The artist dipped his stick into water and ground it on a special stone, the amount of ink and water depending on the effect desired. The brush was held at right angle to the wrist, the motion originating in the shoulder. The tip of the brush could be manipulated to give a fine line or a thick one, or to spread a tonal wash. Years of disciplined effort were required before the painter could hope to achieve any notable success, for there could be no erasures or overpainting, and preliminary sketches were rarely used.
A painter had several names. His family name was written first and then his ming or personal name; as he matured he was given a tzu, or courtesy name, and as he won success in his art, he took a hao, or literary name, which might be descriptive of his personality, his studio, or his place of origin. In time other hao could be added. Many painters had a classical Chinese education in literature and history that involved as many as three academic degrees, and court painters were given special titles and rewards.
All paintings other than murals were fragile in construction, and exquisitely mounted. They were to be handled reverently: a hanging scroll was to be rolled up and protected and a handscroll was to be seen by two or three congenial friends, who would study it with delight, usually while they were quietly drinking tea together. Public display in a museum was unthinkable and painting for a competition, except one sponsored by the Emperor, was unheard of. Religious paintings were done for a particular place in a temple, usually as symbols of divine power. None was intended to catch the eye of the public. Only in modern times have there been museums in China; and the treasures in them have come largely from former imperial collections. With all the upheavals in China, many scrolls and murals have been destroyed. Some of the most noted of those that survive have never been adequately photographed or published, since the owner usually regarded them as entirely personal. Certainly this was the attitude of the Sung period collectors, and the tradition held into the Yuan period. While Mongol taste was for color and action in art, the most patriotic Chinese painters went in for monochrome. Most artists retired to the country rather than collaborate with the “Barbarians.” Ni Tsan and Huang Kung-wang were experimenters, but they created their clear, cool, spotless landscapes away from the “dusty world.” By the Ming period painting had become so much a part of Chinese life that one cannot begin to enumerate the names of artists famous enough to be recorded. The two principal groups were the Wu led by Shen Chou, and the Che led by Tai Chin. The first were scholars and poets-the Wen Jen revered by later generations; the second were for the most part professionals. Independent geniuses were not highly regarded by the connoisseurs, for their work was considered not refined enough to merit serious attention. Critics were outspoken in the Ming period. Past judgments were reassessed and new ones offered. Among the most famous of the many publications of the period was the “Treatise on the Paintings and Writings of the Ten Bamboo Studio” (1633), a series of sixteen volumes of color prints illustrating watercolor techniques. It reproduced flowers, fruits, birds (see illustration), and stones. It is not the oldest example of color printing in China, but it marks a time of notable achievement. In Chinese opinion a print could never rival a painting, because the process of mechanical reproduction lacked the artist’s personal touch, but they had already mastered the arts of line and color printing, and of gauffrage.
The fall of the Ming dynasty brought an end to a great era in the painting arts. With the Manchu conquest of 1644, loyalists like Chu Ta and Tao-chi went into retirement, while others, like the Four Wangs, continued to work in the Ming tradition or in earlier styles. Men turned to the past, rather than to nature, for inspiration; and in portraits of ancestors or the imperial family emblems of rank became important and resemblance to the actual subject secondary.
In the twentieth century every phase of Chinese painting is still being carried on by many artists. There is a revival of woodblock printing, much of it under European and Russian influence, and there is much painting on silk, paper, and canvas. Many artists, like Hsu Pei-hung (see), have studied in Europe and the United States; others, like the the venerable Ch’i Pai-shih (see), work in the native tradition. Again there are many painters in exile; some are masters of brush and ink and the delicate line; others paint in oils and try to reconcile the past with the present, or to forget the past as they merge into an International Style.
The following are the principal stages or periods in the development of Chinese painting:
The Six Dynasties (386-581) Sui Dynasty (581-618) Tang Dynasty (618-907) The Five Dynasties (907-960) Sung Dynasty (960-1279) YUan Dynasty (1279-1368) Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Ching Dynasty (1644-1912) The Republic (1912- )