All you need to know about Chinese Traditional Painting

Chinese painting © jiangli18207338996 / Public Domain / Pixabay

Traditional Chinese painting, known as “国画 Guo Hua,” was established through calligraphy, which is said to be the highest form of Chinese painting. This traditional form of painting employs a brush dipped in black or colored ink, and unlike Western tradition, oil is not normally used. From 770 BC to 221BC traditional Chinese painting was quite frequently performed on paper and silk, although some paintings were also done on walls and lacquers. The superstitions and religious beliefs of Chinese artists were reflected in their paintings and drawings, and they have subsequently influenced many neighboring countries, such as Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, and Japan (Hong. 2013).

To fully understand traditional Chinese painting, it is necessary to first study and absorb the six principles of traditional Chinese painting, established in the 5th Century A.D by Xie He 謝赫 in the “Six points to consider when judging a painting” (繪畫六法, Pinyin :Huìhuà Liùfǎ). These six principles, which can be found in his book The Record of the Classification of Old Painters (古畫品錄; Pinyin: Gǔhuà Pǐnlù (Fong, W. C. 2003)), are:

  • “Resonance of the spirit” (qiyun 气韵) or vitality (shengdong 生动), a term often translated as the nervous energy transmitted from the artist to the work. It captures the overall energy of a work of art.

  • The “bone method” (gufa 骨法) or the way to use the brush (yongbi 用笔). It refers not only to the texture and brushstroke, but also to the close connection between the artist’s writing and personality. In traditional Chinese painting, the art of calligraphy was inseparable from painting.

  • “Representation of form ” (yingwu 应物) or (xiangxing 象形), which reportedly consisted of form and line.

  • “Suitability to type” (suilei 随类) or the application of color (fucai 赋彩), which would include layers, value and shade.

  • “Division and planning” (jingying 经营) or placement and arrangement (weizhi 位置), which corresponds to the composition, space as well as the deepness.

  • “Transmission by copying” (chuanyi 传移) or copying from models (moxie 模写) of artworks from antiquity.

Even though these six principles have greatly influenced Chinese artists, other principles have influenced traditional painting and made it evolve through the different dynasties, as is the case of the types of brushes. (Sophia Suk-mun Law. 2011)

There are mainly two styles of brush painting in China : Gongbi (工筆), often referred to as meticulous, contour or outline painting, and Xieyi (寫意), bony or free style painting, which often has exaggerated forms and expresses the artist’s feelings.Both emphasize the importance of brush strokes and line drawing. Art schools in China in the past and nowadays have their students practice calligraphy, line drawing or grass orchids every day, in order to make their brushstrokes smooth and more fluid. Futhermore, in the past, students were gradually exposed to various stylistic interpretations of these characters that they would then practice by copying the manuscripts of the great calligraphers, which were often kept on carved stones so that they could be rubbed. They also were introduced to the evolution of ideogram shapes: their first appearance was found on bronzes, stones and bones around 1300 BC. (Mu, Q. 2006).

Chinese traditional painting has been classified by three genres: figures, landscapes and birds and flowers. (Zhang, M. Y., & Zo, H. 2020) The first genre, employed by early artists, consists of decorative motifs engraved on pottery and bronze objects. Figure painting reached its peak during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) with works often portraying flowers, bamboo, birds, insects and stones. The genre flourished especially under Emperor Huizong (1082-1135), who was himself an artist and excelled in both calligraphy and traditional painting, especially paintings of flowers and exquisite birds. Huizong, who was the most artistically accomplished of his imperial lineage, preferred to capture the spirit of a subject rather than its literal representation, unlike other artists of his time (Peng, L. 2013).

Painters who specialized in figures often portrayed images of emperors, court ladies, and common citizens throughout their artwork. Through their depictions of scenes and activities such as festivals, cults and street scenes, these artists reflected the appearance, expressions, ideals and beliefs of the people of that particular time. The master painter, Wu Daozi (685 - 758), created many Buddhist murals and other landscape paintings. One of his most famous works is a representation of the King of Heaven holding his newborn son Sakyamuni in his arms to receive the worship of the immortals.

During The Tang dynasties, the emperors were fond of horses and may have commissioned many artists to draw them as a design for carving. Horses are one of the first objects of fine art, depicted in cave paintings, and used in numerous sculptures. In China, horses have been considered sacred animals from ancient times, and they are associated with fertility and connected with omens, sorcerers and pagan deities. Many Chinese artists drew inspiration from the external beauty of these animals. Under Emperor Taizong, who ruled China from 626 to 649, Chinese horse painting flourished, in part thanks to his interest in depicting horse activities, which granted a lot of recognition and appreciation to the artists. One of the most famous horse paintings in Chinese painting is the portrait of “Night-Shining White”, which was Emperor Xuanzong’s favorite steed. In addition to horses, the traditional painting of simple subjects - a branch with fruit or a few flowers- expanded during the 13th century.

Narrative painting, with a wider range of colors and a much more charged composition than Song paintings, was immensely popular during the Ming period (1368-1644). (Yuhua, Z. 2019) One of most famous piece of art in China, 桃源仙境图 Fairyland of Peach Blossoms, comes from that era Qiu Ying.

In conclusion, traditional Chinese painting has evolved throughout the dynasties, as artists and scholars experimented with new materials and types of painting. Thallow us today to explore and enjoy a diversity of work according to our perception of this beautiful art.

Najoua Chetioui is a Master's student in Management and International Business, specialized in exchanges with Asia, at le Havre Normandie University. Moreover, she is passionate about Chinese culture and language. You can find her on LinkedIn here.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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