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Chinese Painting
  • The roots of Chinese painting can be traced back to paintings on Neolithic pottery, such as figures of fish, frogs, deer, birds, flowers, tree leaves and dances, 6,000-7,000 years old. The earliest Chinese characters were pictographs. Since similar tools and lines were used for the earliest painting and writing,painting is said to have the same origin
    as calligraphy. Thus, Chinese painting has an outstanding characteristic,that is to say,poetry or calligraphy are inscribed on paintings so that the three are integrated, giving people a keener enjoyment of beauty.

    Many ancient Chinese paintings were executed on walls or decorative screens. Today, murals can be seen in the tombs of the Han, Tang and other dynasties. Gu Kaizhi, a famous painter of the Jin Dynasty, was good at presenting historical themes. His painting The Nymph of the Luo River portrayed poet Cao Zhi’s meeting with the goddess. The Tang and Song dynasties were the golden age of Chinese painting. The Tang painter Wu Daozi, called the “Sage Painter,” was an expert at figure and landscape painting. Riverside Scenes at the Qingming Festival, a genre painting of significant historical value done by the Northern Song Dynasty painter Zhang Zeduan, depicts the bustling scene in the then capital during the festival. The Tang painters Li Sixun and Li Zhaodao, who were father and son, used mineral substances as pigment to paint landscape paintings, which were called “magnificent landscapes.” Wang Wei practiced watercolor painting with vigorous strokes depicting floating clouds and flowing water. Flower-and-bird painting is also an important traditional Chinese painting genre.

    Painting originated in the late Chou Dynasty, and its roots were cultivated in the Han Dynasty. These early paintings, which usually depicted the afterlife and heroic tales, saw a heightened sensitivity to space and distance and the first exhibition of the elements of the landscape: small trees and great mountains. In the period of the Six Dynasties, which harbored Ku Ki-chih, long considered the father of
    landscape painting, Chinese painting took on a delicate and ethereal quality that has been adhered to throughout the long tradition of Chinese landscape art.

    The Tang Dynasty (618-906), the golden age of cultural accomplishment, saw the rise of three great painters Tang Wei, who instilled a sense of intimacy, simplicity, and sad quietness into his work, Li Su-hsun and Li Chao-tao, who are both known for the vivid green and blue, complex landscapes that have come to define the Tang painting.

    Painting diverged into many threads of ideas, styles, and schools in what is generally seen as its culmination in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The Song established a royal painting academy for the first time, and officially patronized a plethora of famous artists. The bird-and-flower painting found its home in the royal court and has since been a popular theme among modern artists. A split between the Northern and the Southern styles emerged as well. The paintings of the North Song reflected a concern with complex composition and brushwork, texture, and high concentrations of rocky cliffs, waterfalls, and bands of small figures. A type of literati painting, known as wen-jen hua, surfaced, preferring simple, revelatory subjects such as a tree or a rock or a bamboo shoot. The Southern Song saw a landscape tradition regarded as the Ma-Hsia school, after Ma Yuan and Hsia Kuei, which produced expansive, over-arching views, covering great spans of land and mist, and cultivating a feeling of weightlessness and otherworldliness. To convey the void, the sensation of open space, and to suggest the never-ending quality of the world was the greatest objective here. Ma Yuan, ne-corner Ma liked to paint in one corner of the canvas and leave the rest empty. The Zen painting, originating with Zen monks, who disliked the academic cult and coveted the spontaneity of painting, produced free and loosely defined paintings, which would be popular in later centuries.

    The Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties, saw a gradual disillusionment with the court, and many officials retired from royalty to become painters, comprising a school known as the literati and separate from the patronized, academic tradition. In the Yuan and Ming, bolder dashes of brush strokes were employed and interest in void and space yielded to a dramatic appreciation for form. While the academic art school continued to imitate the work of previous centuries, individual scholars, or literati, compensated by contributing to the dynamism and mutability of Chinese painting. The seeds of individuality were planted as painters rejected orthodoxy and imitation, and became freer and less restrained with their art.

    In the 20th Century, with the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the rise of the Republic of China and then the People of Republic of China, Chinese painting has also underwent the pressure to modernize and adopt Western styles and traditions. Many painters studied in the international world and brought innovative styles, such as the use of bold colors, European brushwork, and perspective. Some paintings under Mao Zedong even took on political commentary in subject matter while retaining the old styles. Nevertheless, Chinese painting has never let go of its long-standing, centuries-old tradition. Painting will always contain the Tao, the notion of one power penetrating the whole universe. The Chinese artist still seeks harmony with the universe by communion with all things. If an artist has chi, the spirit of art and of the universal order, everything else follows; but if he or she misses chi, no amount of likeness, embellishment, skill, or even genius can save the work from lifelessness. The western mind is apt to think of Chinese painting as unemotional, as western content leans so heavily on the portrayal of love, joy, grief, anger, and courage. But in Chinese painting, drama is handled differently. Brush and ink are not just tools. They possess the Tao, and reveal the spirit of chi. The chi is in the tip of the brush. The brush is an extension of the hand which is the servant of the spirit. Use of the brush must be effortless. Yet there must be strength in the brush which depicts the trees and mountains. Ink is thought to have the five colors. It can be used to depict both what is and what is not. There must be unity in composition. Yin and yang are opposing forces which need one another for completeness. The term for landscape, shan shui, or mountain-water, is in itself symbolic of yin-yang. Mountains are believed to be associated with yang while water is associated with yin. Yin-yang applies to perspective. Objects in the layout should be looked at from the front and from the side. Brush strokes should be upright and slanted. There should be parts that are sparse, and parts are dense. The light and thick should balance. Thick ink must be accompanied by thin. Everywhere this principle of the opposites is applied to painting. Voids contribute much towards the suggestive quality of landscape painting. Like all other forms of art, Chinese painting, while changing and yielding to the times like an organism, will always have its distinctly Chinese character.

    Contemporary painters have specialties. Some only paint figures of ladies, and some only paint animals, or even one kind of animal, such as cats, donkeys, or horses. As a result, the more they paint, the better their paintings become.

    The Chinese painting world is very active. The China Art Gallery and other art galleries hold individual or joint art exhibitions year in, year out. Also, exhibitions of traditional Chinese paintings have been held in Japan, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Different from Western oil paintings, traditional Chinese painting attracts foreign virtuosos and collectors with its Eastern artistic beauty.

    China has also made great progress in Western-style painting, such as oil painting, woodcut, and water colors. Many Chinese painters have created works that combine traditional Chinese painting techniques with those of the West, adding splendor to Chinese painting.