Painting and Calligraphy
In imperial times, painting and calligraphy were the most
highly appreciated arts in court circles and were produced almost
exclusively by amateurs--aristocrats and scholar-officials--who
alone had the leisure to perfect the technique and sensibility
necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was thought to be the
highest and purest form of painting. The implements were the brush
pen, made of animal hair, and black inks made from pine soot and
animal glue. In ancient times, writing, as well as painting, was
done on silk. But after the invention of paper in the first century
A.D., silk was gradually replaced by the new and cheaper material.
Original writings by famous calligraphers have been greatly valued
throughout China's history and are mounted on scrolls and hung on
walls in the same way that paintings are.
Painting in the traditional style involves essentially the same
techniques as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black
or colored ink; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most
popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk.
The finished work is then mounted on scrolls, which can be hung or
rolled up. Traditional painting also is done in albums and on
walls, lacquerwork, and other media.
Beginning in the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907), the primary
subject matter of painting was the landscape, known as shanshui (mountain-water) painting. In these landscapes, usually
monochromatic and sparse, the purpose was not to reproduce exactly
the appearance of nature but rather to grasp an emotion or
atmosphere so as to catch the "rhythm" of nature. In Song dynasty
(960-1279) times, landscapes of more subtle expression appeared;
immeasurable distances were conveyed through the use of blurred
outlines, mountain contours disappearing into the mist, and
impressionistic treatment of natural phenomena. Emphasis was placed
on the spiritual qualities of the painting and on the ability of
the artist to reveal the inner harmony of man and nature, as
perceived according to Taoist and Buddhist concepts
(see The Hundred Schools of Thought
, ch. 1).
Beginning in the thirteenth century, there developed a
tradition of painting simple subjects--a branch with fruit, a few
flowers, or one or two horses. Narrative painting, with a wider
color range and a much busier composition than the Song painting,
was immensely popular at the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).
During the Ming period, the first books illustrated with
colored woodcuts appeared. As the techniques of color printing were
perfected, illustrated manuals on the art of painting began to be
published. Jieziyuan Huazhuan (Manual of the Mustard Seed
Garden), a five-volume work first published in 1679, has been in
use as a technical textbook for artists and students ever since.
Beginning with the New Culture Movement, Chinese artists
started to adopt Western techniques. It also was during this time
that oil painting was introduced to China.
In the early years of the People's Republic, artists were
encouraged to employ socialist realism. Some Soviet socialist
realism was imported without modification, and painters were
assigned subjects and expected to mass-produce paintings. This
regimen was considerably relaxed in 1953, and after the Hundred
Flowers Campaign of 1956-57, traditional Chinese painting
experienced a significant revival. Along with these developments in
professional art circles, there was a proliferation of peasant art
depicting everyday life in the rural areas on wall murals and in
open-air painting exhibitions.
During the Cultural Revolution, art schools were closed, and
publication of art journals and major art exhibitions ceased.
Nevertheless, amateur art continued to flourish throughout this
Following the Cultural Revolution, art schools and professional
organizations were reinstated. Exchanges were set up with groups of
foreign artists, and Chinese artists began to experiment with new
subjects and techniques.
Data as of July 1987