Early forms of art in China were made from pottery and jade in the Neolithic period, to which was added bronze in the Shang Dynasty. The Shang are most remembered for their blue casting, noted for its clarity of detail. Early Chinese music and poetry was influenced by the Book of Songs, Confucius and the Chinese poet and statesman Qu Yuan.
Early Chinese music was based on percussion instruments, which later gave away to string and reed instruments. Chinese furniture began its development around 202 AD, generally made of softwood or bamboo. In early imperial China, porcelain was introduced and was refined to the point that in English the word china has become synonymous with high-quality porcelain.
Around the 1st century AD, Buddhism arrived in China, though it did not become popular until the 4th century. At this point, Chinese Buddhist art began to flourish, a process which continued through the 20th century. It was during the period of Imperial China that calligraphy and painting became highly appreciated arts in court circles, with a great deal of work done on silk until well after the invention of paper.
Buddhist architecture and sculpture thrived in the Sui and Tang dynasty. Of which, the Tang Dynasty was particularly open to foreign influence. Buddhist sculpture returned to a classical form, inspired by Indian art of the Gupta period. Towards the late Tang dynasty, all foreign religions were outlawed to support Taoism. In the Song Dynasty, poetry was marked by a lyric poetry known as Ci which expressed feelings of desire, often in an adopted persona.
Also in the Song dynasty, paintings of more subtle expression of landscapes appeared, with blurred outlines and mountain contours which conveyed distance through an impressionistic treatment of natural phenomena. It was during this period that in painting, emphasis was placed on spiritual rather than emotional elements, as in the previous period. Kunqu, the oldest extant form of Chinese opera developed during the Song Dynasty in Kunshan, near present-day Shanghai.
In the Yuan dynasty, the Chinese painter Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫) greatly influenced later Chinese landscape painting, and the Yuan dynasty opera became a variant of Chinese opera which continues today as Cantonese opera. Late imperial China was marked by two specific dynasties: Ming and Qing. Artwork in the Ming dynasty perfected color painting and color printing, with a wider color range and busier compositions than Song paintings. In the Qing dynasty, Beijing opera was introduced; it is considered the one of the best-known forms of Chinese opera.
Qing poetry was marked by a poet named Yuan Mei whose poetry has been described as having “unusually clear and elegant language” and who stressed the importance of personal feeling and technical perfection. Under efforts of masters from the Shanghai School during the late Qing Dynasty, traditional Chinese art reached another climax and continued to the present in forms of the “Chinese painting” (guohua). The Shanghai School challenged and broke the literati tradition of Chinese art, while also paying technical homage to the ancient masters and improving on existing traditional techniques.
The history of Chinese painting can be compared to a symphony. The styles and traditions in figure, landscape, and bird-and-flower painting have formed themes that continue to blend to this day into a single piece of music. Painters through the ages have made up this “orchestra,” composing and performing many movements and variations within this tradition. It was from the Six Dynasties (222-589) to the Tang dynasty (618-907) that the foundations of figure painting were gradually established by such major artists as Gu Kaizhi (顧愷之) and Wu Daozi (吳道子).
Modes of landscape painting then took shape in the Five Dynasties period (907-960) with variations based on geographic distinctions. For example, Jing Hao (荊浩) and Guan Tong (關仝) depicted the drier and monumental peaks to the north while Dong Yuan (董源) and Juran (巨然) represented the lush and rolling hills to the south in Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River).
In bird-and-flower painting, the noble Tang court manner was passed down in Sichuan through Huang Quan (黃筌)’s style, which contrasts with that of Xu Xi (徐熙) in the Jiangnan area. In the Song dynasty (960-1279), landscape painters such as Fan Kuan (范寬), Guo Xi (郭熙), and Li Tang (李唐) created new manners based on previous traditions. Guided by the taste of the emperors, especially Zhao Ji (趙佶), painters at the court academy focused on observing nature combined with “poetic sentiment” to reinforce the expression of both subject and artist.
The focus on poetic sentiment led to the combination of painting, poetry, and calligraphy (the “Three Perfections”) in the same work (often as an album leaf or fan) by the Southern Song (1127-1279). Scholars earlier in the Northern Song (960-1126) thought that painting as an art had to go beyond just the “appearance of forms” in order to express the ideas and cultivation of the artist. This became the foundation of the movement known as literati (scholar) painting.
The goal of literati painters in the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), including Zhao Mengfu (趙孟頫) and the Four Yuan Masters, namely Huang Gongwang (黃公望), Wu Zhen (吳鎮), Ni Zan (倪瓚), and Wang Meng (王蒙), was in part to revive the antiquity of the Tang and Northern Song as a starting point for personal expression. This variation on revivalism transformed these old “melodies” into new and personal tunes, some of which gradually developed into important traditions of their own in the Ming and Qing dynasties. As in poetry and calligraphy, the focus on personal cultivation became an integral part of expression in painting.
Jin Dynasty (265 – 420)In early imperial times, calligraphy and painting in China were the most highly appreciated arts in court circles and were produced almost exclusively by amateurs, usually aristocrats and scholar-officials, who had the leisure time necessary to perfect the technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. During the Jin Dynasty, people began to appreciate painting for its own beauty and to write about art.
From this time individual artists, such as Gu Kaizhi, started to emerge. Even when these artists illustrated Confucian moral themes – such as the proper behavior of a wife to her husband or of children to their parents – they tried to make the figures graceful. Tang Dynasties (618 – 907)
During the Tang Dynasty, figure painting flourished at the royal court. Artists such as Zhou Fang showed the splendor of court life in painting of emperors, palace ladies, and imperial horses. Figure painting reached the height of elegant realism in the art of the court of Southern Tang (937-975). Most of the Tang artists outlined figures with fine black lines and used brilliant color and elaborate detail. However, one Tang artist, the master Wu Daozi, used only black ink and freely painted brushstrokes to create ink paintings that were so exciting that crowds gathered to watch him work. From his time on, ink paintings were no longer thought to be preliminary sketches or outlines to be filled in with color. Instead they were valued as finished works of art.
Beginning in the Tang Dynasty, many paintings were landscapes, often shanshui (山水, “mountain water”) paintings. In these landscapes, monochromatic and sparse (a style that is collectively called shuimohua), the purpose was not to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature (realism) but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere so as to catch the “rhythm” of nature. Song and Yuan Dynasties (960 – 1368)
In the Song Dynasty period (960-1279), 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. One of the most famous artists of the period was Zhang Zeduan, painter of Along the River During the Qingming Festival.
Yi Yuanji achieved a high degree of realism painting animals, in particular monkeys and gibbons. During the Southern Song period (1127-1279), court painters such as Ma Yuan and Xia Gui used strong black brushstrokes to sketch trees and rocks and pale washes to suggest misty space. While many Chinese artists were attempting to represent three-dimensional objects and to master the illusion of space, another group of painters pursued very different goals. At the end of Northern Song period, the poet Su Shi and the scholar-officials in his circle became serious amateur painters.
They created a new kind of art in which they used their skills in calligraphy (the art of beautiful writing) to make ink paintings. From their time onward, many painters strove to freely express their feelings and to capture the inner spirit of their subject instead of describing its outward appearance. During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), painters joined the arts of painting, poetry, and calligraphy by inscribing poems on their paintings. These three arts worked together to express the artist’s feelings more completely than one art could do alone. Late Imperial China (1368 – 1911)
Beginning in the 13th century, the tradition of painting simple subjects—a branch with fruit, a few flowers, or one or two horses—developed. Narrative painting, with a wider color range and a much busier composition than Song paintings, was immensely popular during the Ming period (1368-1644). Some painters of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) continued the traditions of the Yuan scholar-painters.
This group of painters, known as the Wu School, was led by the artist Shen Zhou. Another group of painters, known as the Zhe School, revived and transformed the styles of the Song court. During the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), painters known as Individualists rebelled against many of the traditional rules of painting and found ways to express themselves more directly through free brushwork. In the 1700s and 1800s, great commercial cities such as Yangzhou and Shanghai became art centers where wealthy merchant-patrons encouraged artists to produce bold new works.
In the late 1800s and 1900s, Chinese painters were increasingly exposed to the Western art. Some artists who studied in Europe rejected Chinese painting; others tried to combine the best of both traditions. One of the most beloved modern painters was Qi Baishi, who began life as a poor peasant and became a great master. His best known works depict flowers and small animals.
The handscroll is a long narrow scroll for displaying a series of scenes in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean painting and calligraphy. The handscroll presents an artwork in the horizontal form and can be exceptionally long, usually measuring up to a few meters in length and around 25–40 cm in height. Handscrolls are generally viewed starting from the right end. This kind of scroll is intended to be viewed flat on a table while admiring it section for section during the unrolling as if traveling through a landscape. In this way, this format allows for the depiction of a continuous narrative or journey.
The Six Canons of Chinese Brush PaintingIn the 5th Century A.D., Hsieh Ho wrote the “Six Canons of Painting” whichform the basis of all Chinese Brush Painting to this very day. They are:
1. “Circulation of the Ch’i”: (Breath, Spirit, Vital Force of Heaven) – producing “movement of life”. This is in the heart of the artist.
2. “Brush Stroke Creates Structure”: This is referred to as the bone structure of the painting. The stronger the brush work, the stronger the painting. Character is produced by a combination of strong and lighter strokes, thick and thin, wet and dry.
3. “According to the Object, Draw its Form”: Draw the object as you see it! In order to do this, it is very important first to understand the form of the object! This will produce a work that is not necessarily totally realistic but as you “see” it. Thus, the more you study the object to be painted, the better you will paint it.
4. “According to the Nature of the Object Apply Color”: Black is considered a color and the range of shadings it is capable of in the hands of a master painter creates an impression of colors. If color is used, it is always true to the subject matter.
5. “Organize Compositions With the Elements in Their Proper Place.”: Space is used in Chinese Brush Painting the same way objects are used. Space becomes an integral part of the composition.
6. “In copying, seek to pass on the essence of the master’s brush & methods”: To the Chinese, copying is considered most essential and only when the student fully learns the time honored techniques, can he branch out into areas of individual creativity. Landscape painting was regarded as the highest form of Chinese painting, and generally still is. The time from the Five Dynasties period to the Northern Song period (907–1127) is known as the “Great age of Chinese landscape”.
In the north, artists such as Jing Hao, Li Cheng, Fan Kuan, andGuo Xi painted pictures of towering mountains, using strong black lines, ink wash, and sharp, dotted brushstrokes to suggest rough stone. In the south, Dong Yuan, Juran, and other artists painted the rolling hills and rivers of their native countryside in peaceful scenes done with softer, rubbed brushwork. These two kinds of scenes and techniques became the classical styles of Chinese landscape painting.