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Chinese Traditional Painting - Introduction

Boat on water

A Brief Introduction to Chinese Traditional Painting

Chinese traditional painting dates back to the Neolithic Period, about six thousand years ago. The colored pottery with painted animals, fish, deer, and frogs excavated in the 1920s indicate that during the Neolithic Period the Chinese had already started to use brushes to paint.

Chinese traditional painting is highly regarded throughout the world for its theory, expression, and techniques. According to their means of expression, Chinese paintings can be divided into two categories: the xieyi school and the gongbi school. The xieyi school is marked by exaggerated forms and freehand brush work. The gongbi school is characterized by close attention to detail and fine brush work.

Xieyi, , however, is the fundamental approach to Chinese painting. It constitutes an aesthetic theory, which above all, emphasizes the sentiments. Even in ancient times, Chinese artists were unwilling to be restrained by reality. Gu Kaizhi, a famous artist of the Jin Dynasty (c. 345-406), was the first to put forward the theory of "making the form show the spirit". In his opinion, a painting should serve as a means to convey not only the appearance of an object, but to also express how the artist looks at that object. Gu's views were followed by theories such as "likeness in spirit resides in unlikeness" and "a painting should be something between likeness and unlikeness". Guided by these theories, Chinese artists disregard the limitations of proportion, perspective, and light. Take Qi Baishi, a modern painter, for example. He does not paint shrimps, insects, birds, and flowers as they are in nature; only their essence was shown as a result of the artist's long-term observation and profound understanding of the subjects.

Different from Western paintings, a Chinese painting is not restricted by the focal point in its perspective. The artist may paint all the scenes along the Yangtse River on a piece of paper or silk that is long and narrow. The picture "Mulan Returns Home" provides an example. It is based on an old story in which Mulan, disguised as a boy, joins the army in her father's stead and returns home after the war was won. In the picture, one can see what people are doing both outside and inside the courtyard and the house. It can be said that the adoption of shifting perspective is one of the characteristics of Chinese painting. Why do the Chinese artists emphasize the shifting perspective? They want to break away from the restrictions of time and space in order to include, in their pictures, things that are both near and far. Also, the artists find that in life, people view their surroundings from a mobile focal point. As one walks along a river or in a garden, one sees everything on the way. The shifting perspective enables the artist to express freely what he wants.

Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting are closely related because lines are used in both. Chinese people have turned simple lines into a highly-developed form of art. Lines are used not only to draw contours but also to express the artist's concepts and feelings. A variety of lines are used for different subjects and different purposes. They may be straight or curved, hard or soft, thick or thin, pale or dark, and the ink may be dry or running. The use of lines and strokes is one of the elements that give Chinese painting its unique qualities.

Traditional Chinese painting is a combination, in the same picture, of the arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting, and seal engraving. In ancient times, most artists were poets and calligraphers. Su Dongpo (1037-1101), Ni Yunlin (1306-1374), and Dong Qichang (1555-1636) were such artists. To the Chinese, "painting in poetry and poetry in painting" has been one of the criteria for excellent works of art. Inscriptions and seal impressions help to explain the painter's ideas and sentiments; they also add decorative beauty to the painting. Ancient artists liked to paint pines, bamboo, and plum blossoms. When inscriptions like "Exemplary conduct and nobility of character" were made, those plants were meant to embody the qualities of people who were upright and were ready to help each other under difficult conditions. Chinese graphic art, poetry, calligraphy, painting, and seal engraving are necessary parts that supplement and enrich one another.

Revised June 13, 2011