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Traditional Chinese Painting

The traditional Chinese painting is a shining artistic pearl in human history, but may have as a mysterious beginning as human life itself. Some paintings, more specifically the prehistoric rock engravings or sculptures, remain a riddle to modern people. However, we can identify certain characteristics that Chinese paintings share throughout history.

Loquat and Bird Painting

Loquats and Mountain Bird
Southern Song Dynasty (11271279)

Generally speaking, Chinese paintings dating before the Tang Dynasty (618-907CE) are composed mainly of drawings of people engaged in various activities, and was the golden age of human figure painting. Then from the mid- Tang Dynasty, landscape and flower-and-bird paintings gradually gained dominance. Paintings of mountains, forests, fields, and gardens have the ability to relieve people from the stress of the material world and transport them into a peaceful, carefree realm. Because of this, landscape paintings have always been highly prized by China's literati and officialdom. The flowers, grass, trees, stones, and birds and other animals depicted in the lively and energetic flower-and-bird paintings are also widely admired. Thus the landscape and flower-and-bird types of painting, together with the earlier human figure painting, comprise the three main categories of traditional Chinese painting.

In the Tang and Song dynasties, Chinese paintings were warmly welcomed and highly supported by the governing class. Furthermore, the incentives behind artistic works produced within this period was more serious and had political and educational significance. The works tended to be elaborate and ornate. The Song dynasty court established a well systematized academy of painting. The Emperor Hui Tsung of the Song Dynasty, a lover of fine art and painting and an accomplished artist in his own right, granted special patronage to the painters in this academy and sponsored the training of promising artists. The Academy of Painting reached the zenith of activity in this period.

However, due to gradual social, economic, and cultural changes, more and more men of letters began to take up painting, and literature came to exercise an everincreasing influence on painting. By the time of the famous Song dynasty poet Su Shi (1036-1101CE, better known as Su Dongpo), the school of "Literati Painting" had already emerged. By the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271- 1368CE), there was no longer a formal painting academy organization within the imperial palace, so the court style of painting declined. At this point, the "literati" school of painting entered the mainstream, and the leadership in Chinese painting circles fell into the hands of literati painters.

Different from the formal painting academy, literati typically prefer to paint according to their own fancy and without restriction, advocating a fresh, free, understated, and elegant style. They were fond of subjects like mountains and rocks, clouds and water, flowers and trees, the "four gentlemen" (plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo, and chrysanthemums). Because natural objects such as these are less demanding subjects to paint than the human figure, the painter can better exploit the brush and ink's potential for free expression.

Whether Chinese painting is "realistic" is the object of frequent debate. Some may feel that it is not realistic, but such an answer tells only part of the story. Realism in Chinese painting peaked in the painting of the Tang and Song dynasties. However, the kind of "realism" sought after in Chinese painting is not an objective reflection of the existence of an object as perceived through the sense of sight, but rather is an expression of a subjective kind of recognition or insight.

The fundamental component of Chinese painting is the line, as is same in Chinese calligraphy. Because of this shared feature, these two arts are usually mentioned in the same force. By the time that "literati painting" had become popular in the Yuan Dynasty, men of letters who painted put even more conscious effort into reaffirming the link to Chinese calligraphy, and actively led a trend to fuse calligraphy and painting. And the close relationship between poetry and painting was formed under the strong influence of literature on painting. Scholar-statesmen and literati led the melding of poetry and painting, and this eventually spread to the academy of painting. The Song Emperor Hui Zong is known to have used poetry to test painters on their ability to express with ink and paper the enchanted world created in written verse.


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