China Information >> Chinese Pinting
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
A painted pottery basin
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.
A rock painting
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.
Grotto mural in Dunhuang
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.
Painting of beauties
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 Bi