Chinese traditional painting dates back to the Neolithic Age about 6,000 years ago. The excavated colored pottery with painted human faces, fish, deer and frogs indicates that the Chinese began painting as far back as the Neolithic Age. Over the centuries, the growth of Chinese painting inevitably reflected the change of time and social conditions.
From Primitive to Modern
In its earliest stage, Chinese prehistoric paintings were closely related to other primitive crafts, such as pottery, bronzeware, carved jade and lacquer. The line patterns on unearthed pottery and bronzeware resemble ripples, fishing nets, teeth or frogs. The animal and human figures, succinct and vivid, are proofs to the innate sensitivity of the ancient artists and nature.
Paintings or engravings found on precipitous cliffs in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou in Southwest China; Fujian in East China and Mount Yinshan in Inner Mongolia; Altai in China’s extreme west and Heihe in the far north, are even more ancient. Strong visual effects characterize the bright red cliff paintings in southern China that depict scenes of sacrificial rites, production activities and daily life. In comparison, hunting, animal grazing, wars and dancing are the main themes of cliff paintings in northern China.
Before paper was invented, the art of silk painting had been developing. The earliest silk painting was excavated from the Mawangdui Tomb in central China of the Warring States Period (476-221 BC). Silk painting reached its artistic peak in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD25).
Following the introduction of Buddhism to China during the first century from India, and the carvings on grottoes and temple building that ensued, the art of painting religious murals gradually gained prominence.
China plunged into a situation of divided states from the third to the sixth century, where incessant wars and successions of dynasties sharpened the thinking of Chinese artists which, in turn, promoted the development of art. Grotto murals, wall murals in tomb chambers, stone carvings, brick carvings and lacquer paintings flourished in a period deemed very important to the development of traditional Chinese painting.
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) witnessed the prosperity of figure painting, where the most outstanding painters were Zhang Xuan and Zhou Fang. Their paintings, depicting the life of noble women and court ladies, exerted an eternal influence on the development of shi nu hua (painting of beauties), which comprise an important branch of traditional Chinese painting today.
Beginning in the Five Dynasties (907-960), each dynasty set up an art academy that gathered together the best painters throughout China. Academy members, who were on the government payroll and wore official uniforms, drew portraits of emperors, nobles and aristocrats that depicted their daily lives. The system proved conducive to the development of painting. The succeeding Song Dynasty (960-1127) developed such academies into the Imperial Art Academy.
During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) the “Four Great Painters” -- Huang Gongwang, Ni Zan, Wei Zhen and Wang Meng -- represented the highest level of landscape painting. Their works immensely influenced landscape painting of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
The Ming Dynasty saw the rise of the Wumen Painting School, which emerged in Suzhou on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Keen to carry on the traditions of Chinese painting, the four Wumen masters blazed new trails and developed their own unique styles.
When the Manchus came to power in 1644, the then-best painters showed their resentment to the Qing (1644-1911) court in many ways. The “Four Monk Masters” -- Zhu Da, Shi Tao, Kun Can and Hong Ren -- had their heads shaved to demonstrate their determination not to serve the new dynasty, and they soothed their sadness by painting tranquil nature scenes and traditional art.
Yangzhou, which faces Suzhou across the Yangtze River, was home to the “Eight Eccentrics” - the eight painters all with strong characters, proud and aloof, who refused to follow orthodoxy. They used freehand brushwork and broadened the horizon of flower-and-bird painting.
By the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of the Republic of China, Shanghai, which gave birth to the Shanghai Painting School, had become the most prosperous commercial city and a gathering place for numerous painters. Following the spirit of the Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou, the Shanghai School played a vital role in the transition of Chinese traditional painting from a classical art form to a modern one.
The May 4th Movement of 1919, or the New Culture Movement, inspired the Chinese to learn from western art and introduce it to China. Many outstanding painters, led by Xu Beihong, emerged, whose paintings recognized a perfect merging of the merits of both Chinese and Western styles, absorbing western classicism, romanticism and impressionism. Other great painters of this period include Qi Baishi, Huang Binhong and Zhang Daqian.
Oil painting, a western art, was introduced to China in the 17th century and gained popularity in the early 20th century. In the 1980s Chinese oil painting boomed.
Then came popular folk painting -- Chinese New Year pictures pinned up on doors, room walls and windows on the Chinese New Year to invite heavenly blessings and ward off disasters and evil spirits - which dates back to the Qin and Han dynasties. Thanks to the invention of block printing, folk painting became popular in the Song Dynasty and reached its zenith of sophistication in the Qing. Woodcuts have become increasingly diverse in style, variety, theme and artistic form since the early 1980s.
Classification of Chinese Traditional Painting
Traditional Chinese painting has its special materials and tools, consisting of brushes, ink and pigments, xuan paper, silk and various kinds of ink slabs. Based on different classification standards, Chinese traditional painting can be divided into several groups, as follows:
According to painting techniques, Chinese painting can be divided into two styles: xieyi style and gongbi style. Xieyi, or freehand, is marked by exaggerated forms and freehand brushwork. Gongbi, or meticulous, is characterized by close attention to detail and fine brushwork. Freehand painting generalizes shapes and displays rich brushwork and ink techniques.
The principal forms of traditional Chinese painting are the hanging scroll, album of paintings, fan surface and long horizontal scroll. Hanging scrolls are both horizontal and vertical, usually mounted and hung on the wall. In an album of paintings the artist paints on a certain size of xuan paper and then binds a number of paintings into an album, which is convenient for storage. Folding fans and round fans made of bamboo strips with painted paper or silk pasted on the frame. The long, horizontal scroll is also called a hand scroll and is usually less than 50 centimeters high but maybe up to 100 meters long.
Traditional Chinese paintings can be classified as figure paintings, landscapes and flower-and-bird paintings. Landscapes represent a major category in traditional Chinese painting, mainly depicting the natural scenery of mountains and rivers.
The range of subject matter in figure painting was extended far beyond religious themes during the Song Dynasty (960-1127). Landscape painting had already established itself as an independent form of expression by the fourth century and gradually branched out into the two separate styles: blue-and-green landscapes using bright blue, green and red pigments; and ink-and-wash landscapes relied on vivid brushwork and inks. Flower-and-bird painting deviated from decorative art to form its own independent genre around the ninth century.
Traditional Chinese painting, poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal engraving are necessary components that supplement and enrich one another. “Painting in poetry and poetry in painting” has been a criterion for excellent works. Inscriptions and seal impressions help explain the painter’s ideas and sentiments and also add beauty to the painting.