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Chinese Painting


CHINESE PAINTING. The first thing to be said about Chinese painting is that very little is known of its actual achieve ments. We have indeed ample records of the lives and works of innumerable painters, from the first centuries of our era onwards, and a mass of criticism. Chinese paintings also exist in vast quantities. But it must be realized that of genuine, or probably genuine, works of the great masters of the best periods, very few indeed remain. It is impossible to doubt, from the evidence of what has survived, and from literary records, that Chinese paint ing, with its majestic and continuous tradition of more than 1,500 years, is one of the greatest schools of painting that the world has seen. But we are quite without the means of comparing Chinese painting as a whole with the paintings of Italy, or any other European school, the successive masterpieces of which are known and accessible to every student.

It is true that during the 2oth century the almost complete ignorance which prevailed on the subject till the end of the 19th century has been greatly lessened. Important discoveries have been made, and it is impossible to predict what may yet be dis covered. The fundamental difficulties, however, of the study of Chinese painting are likely to remain; the extreme rarity, namely, of certain and documented works, on which an accurate con ception of the greater masters' style can be based. The practice of repeating famous designs with variations, of copying ancient works, which has prevailed in all ages, makes it possible to have a general idea of the styles of certain periods and certain masters.

But immense and repeated destruction accounts for the rarity of ancient pictures in China itself. In Japan collections have been made, centuries ago, and religiously preserved ; and these paint ings form the best foundation for study, though in many cases the traditional attributions have been abandoned by modern criticism.

General Characteristics.

Painting is the pre-eminent art of China. It is right that the art of any nation should be judged by a world standard, not merely from a national point of view. In spite of all differences and peculiarities, Chinese painting takes its place with the other pictorial arts of the world, for there is a fundamental affinity between all successful works of art.

Painting, for the Chinese, is a branch of handwriting. Both for writing and painting a brush is used ; and to acquire a fine hand in writing demands a mastery in manipulating the brush and modu lating its strokes such as few European painters attain. Ink is the favourite medium ; but Chinese ink is a wonderful substance, capable of an immense range and an extraordinary beauty of tone. Many Chinese masterpieces are in monochrome. Coloured paintings are either light-coloured or full-coloured ; but the ink drawing remains almost always the foundation of the design. Fresco-painting, technically a different method from the fresco painting of Europe (see Church's Chemistry of Paints and Paint ing, p. 307, 1915), was largely practised—and probably the grand est art of China was in this form—but the frescoes of the finest period seem all to have been destroyed. The great mass of Chinese pictures, however, are paintings on silk or, less commonly, absorb ent paper, the pigments being water-colours or body-colours (see R. Petrucci, Encyclopedie de la Peinture Chinoise, 1918, a trans lation of a well-known treatise illustrated with woodcuts called the Mustard Seed Garden. See also Ferguson's Chinese Painting). Paintings are usually in the form of hanging pictures or of hori zontal scrolls, in both cases normally kept rolled up. The latter form involves a mode of composition peculiar to Chinese art, though imitated by the Japanese. These paintings, often of great length, are unrolled bit by bit and enjoyed as a reader enjoys reading a manuscript. A succession of pictures is presented, though the composition is continuous. Thus, in the case of land scape, for which this form has been used with most felicity, one seems to be actually passing through the country depicted. Other forms are the framed picture and the small album picture; screens also were employed for painting.

Chinese technique admits of no correction. The artist closely observes and stores his observations in his memory. He conceives his design, and having completed the mental image of what he intends to paint, he transfers it swiftly and with sure strokes to the silk. The communication through the sensitive and powerful strokes of the brush of something personal and unique must, in such an art, count for much in the spectator's appreciation. The qualities prized by the Chinese in a small ink-painting of bamboos, a favourite subject alike with beginners and masters, are those prized in a piece of fine handwriting, only there is added a keen appreciation of the simultaneous seizure of life and natural char acter in the subject. In the Mustard Seed Garden treatise cited above, it is said that in a master's work "the idea is present even where the brush has not passed." And this emphasis on the value of suggestion, of reserves and silences, is important to notice, because no other art has understood, like the Chinese, how to make empty space a potent factor in the design. It may be that Chinese painting relies too much on suggestion, presuming in the spectator a sensibility and a fineness of organization which are found but in choice societies ; on the other hand it avoids that laborious accu mulation of unessential phenomena which in European art has proved the death of so many pictures by accomplished hands. A certain slightness, comparatively speaking, is inevitable in Chinese paintings, partly because of the water-colour medium, partly be cause suggestion is preferred to statement, partly because so many of the artists were amateurs and not professionals. It is remark able, however, how solid and structural a Chinese landscape can be. The greater painters gave much thought and pains to elaborating a convention by which the sense of shape and mass can be given to rock forms, for instance, without losing directness and vitality of brush stroke, the sense of handwriting. Each successful con vention was preserved, handed down and imitated. Mountains could be painted in the manner of this old master or of that. And the Chinese, with their passion for codification, have care fully tabulated all these various methods. The painter's art is also saturated with literary associations. Certain flowers and cer tain birds, for instance, are painted together because their asso ciation is consecrated by a classic poem. Many of the painters were poets; some, like Wang Wei, equally distinguished in both arts. But it is less the direct illustration of a poem or story that is normally aimed at, than the evocation of a mood similar to that expressed in the poem.

When we turn to the subject-matter of Chinese painting, we are struck by the early appearance of landscape art and its actual predominance. Landscape is accounted the most important of subjects because it includes man and all living things; the whole is greater than the part. Man does not play the central and heroic part that he plays in the art of Europe, for which the nude human form is the most significant and expressive of motives. Flowers are quite as important as figures. This difference in the funda mental conception of life and the universe makes itself felt in design. Instead of the symmetry which contemplation of the human body has made the basis of Western composition, the Chinese prefer the principle of balance. They contemplated trees and saw that they were unsymmetrical but perfectly poised. Where in Europe we have Christian themes, in China we have Buddhist themes; instead of the stories of classic mythology we have the stories of Taoist legend and the fairy tale. Genre-painting (q.v.) is as common as in the West, though portraiture is perhaps less common. But always the life of the world outside man, the life of animals, birds and plants—plays a much larger part than in Western art. The life of action counts for less, and the con templative life for more.

Early Periods.

From literary references we can infer that painting was practised in China several centuries at least before Christ, chiefly in the form of portraiture. It is not till we come to the Han dynasty, that we have any more tangible evidence, though there exist some rude designs in red on jade which may be a thousand years earlier. Designs on lacquer of the 1st century A.D., found in Korea by Mr. Umehara, and in Chinese Turkistan by Sir Aurel Stein; some rough paintings on tiles (Eumorfopoulos collection), and other decorations; outline drawings on vases of rather later date, give some hint of what painting in the Han period was like. We see that a Chinese type of decorative design, animated by movement in the forms, was already matured. The incised stone friezes of the period are clearly translations of paintings, and these give an idea of the character of pictorial design and the range of subject—scenes from history and legend, ceremonies, dances, mythical creatures, and all the fairy world of Taoism.

In the 4th century, however, flourished an artist who ranks among China's most famous masters: Ku K'ai-chih. There exist two rolls attributed to him: one, The Admonitions of the Instruc tress in the Palace, is in the British Museum ; the other, illus trating a poem on a river nymph, is in the Freer collection at Washington. These paintings are by different hands. The one in the Freer collection is altogether drier in handling, and may be a Sung copy. The British Museum roll is of a marvellous subtlety and distinction ; the line is intimately expressive. Its actual date is disputed, but it is generally thought to be, if not an original, a T'ang copy. In any case there is no doubt that both of these paintings represent the design of the Chin dynasty (A.D. 265-420. They are, thefefore, extremely precious documents, and their value is increased by the fact that while the British Museum roll depicts scenes of court life, with all the details of dress and accessories of singular refinement, the Freer roll, with its dragon chariot and floating fairies, gives the imaginative or fanciful side of the art of the period. In both cases the land scape element is quite primitive. The landscape introduced into the London painting is indeed in strong contrast with the con summate grace and expressiveness of the tall and slender figures, and the air of a mature and fine civilization which they seem to breathe. Far from being primitive, the figure-drawing seems to belong to the close of a tradition rather than its beginning; and we may conjecture behind it the ruder, masculine style of Han gradually subtilized and transformed in the direction of elegance and charm. Ku K'ai-chih famed especially for his portraits, painted all kinds of subjects, including Buddhist themes. But if we may take these two pictures attributed to him as typical of the period, we find no trace of Indian influence in them.

Chinese Painting

Of about the 6th century are some of the earliest wall paintings in the rock temples at Tun-huang, on China's western frontier (see Pelliot, Grottes de Touen-houang, vol. iv.), full of animated movement, containing figures of the same slender and elegant type as those in the Ku K'ai-chih roll. But these are provincial in manner.

It was in the 6th century that the famous six canons of Hsieh Ho, himself a painter, were formulated. The exact meaning of the first and most important of these has been disputed, but it is clear that the emphasis is laid on creative inspiration, conceived not as a personal gift, but as the spirit of the cosmos entering into the artist and enabling him to produce in his forms the movement of life.

The legends of

the great masters tell, not of the deceptive ap pearance of reality in their paintings, but of their being so in formed with passionate life that they assumed material existence and motion. The emphasis on movement is significant. Even in decorative designs the forms seem to move and flow.

The T'ang Dynasty (A.D.

618-905).—In the 7th century the empire, after a period of division, was consolidated under the great T'ang dynasty, which lasted for 30o years. This was un doubtedly the period of China's grandest art. It is true that almost all the painting of the time has perished ; but all the available evidence confirms the testimony of the Chinese historians and critics to the greatness of the T'ang masters. Some fragments of a painting of a spring festival, found by Sir Aurel Stein in 1914 at Turf an, and some other paintings found in the same locality by the Otani expedition, are precious relics of early T'ang art, for they show us something of the pictorial style of the early 8th century. Here we find the new T'ang ideal of feminine beauty : a more massive form, compared with the slender elegance of pre ceding periods ; a full, rounded face, with hair heaped around and above the head, and an air of smiling health. Precisely the same types and the same pictorial motives are found in the few pictures surviving from this period in Japan. And it is from the early painting of Japan, closely modelled on Chinese prototypes, that we can most safely infer the great style of T'ang. This kind of painting is mostly Buddhistic, and the grandest T'ang works were of Buddhist inspiration. Supreme among them, according to all testimony, were the works of Wu Tao-tzu, acknowledged to be the greatest of all Chinese painters.

China, during this epoch, was open to foreign influences as she has never been since. Her empire expanded westward ; her suzerainty extended as far as the Caspian. Envoys and tribute bearers were constantly coming or going; there was a great inter est in foreign ways, dresses and customs ; Indians, Persians, Turks and Syrians met in the capital, which was truly a world centre. But the influence of greatest moment was Buddhism, now accepted with fervour. Great numbers of Indian monks, some of them doubtless artists, were settled in China. Chinese pilgrims journeyed to India and brought back sacred manuscripts and images. But Chinese art, strong in its own traditions, was able to assimilate the Indian formulae and create a Buddhist art of extraordinary splendour. Among the earliest of the T'ang masters may be mentioned Wei-ch'ih I-seng, who came from Khotan to China about 63o. A copy of a picture of Vaisravana by this artist is in the Freer collection at Washington ; and his style is perhaps to be discerned in a remarkable roll in Mr. Berenson's collection. Yen Li-pen (born c. 600), was famous for his portraits of national worthies, foreign envoys and Buddhist pictures. We know his work only through copies. With Wu Tao-tzu, T'ang painting underwent a transformation. His early style was fine and delicate; later, it became broad and of amazing power. He painted over 30o Buddhist frescoes, as well as paint ings of all kinds of subjects on silk. All have perished. One or two of his designs have been preserved by being engraved on stone, and some paintings and drawings are extant which may be copies from his work. The majestic fresco Three Bodhisattvas, given to the British Museum by Mr. Eumorfopoulos, dating probably from the i 2th century, presumably preserves the T'ang tradition, and from it we may infer the yet grander and more magnificent creations of Wu Tao-tzu and his followers. All records agree in emphasizing the overwhelming power of his creations and also the almost sculptural character of his figures. Of actual and authenticated work by a known T'ang artist we have only five portraits of priests (much damaged) painted about Boo by Li Chen and preserved in Japan. These are in a contained and rather austere style. But our chief documents for T'ang Buddhist painting are the pictures recovered from Tun-huang, on the western frontier of China, by Sir Aurel Stein and Prof. Pelliot. These are now in the British Museum, at Delhi and in Paris. A certain number are dated, with dates of the 9th and loth centuries. Those which are in Chinese style may be taken to reflect the central tradition of Buddhist painting, though in a more or less provincial form. Of much the same character is a large Buddhist picture of the 9th century in the Boston Museum.

The Tun-huang pictures are largely devoted to the cult of Amitabha Buddha, who presides over the Western Paradise, and of his spiritual son Avalokitesvara, or Kuan-yin, the genius of Compassion, who in later times assumes a feminine form. There are many pictures of the Paradise, in which we see a host of blessed beings presided over by a Buddha (usually, but not al ways, Amitabha) gathered round a sacred concert, where a dancer performs to music on a terrace raised above the lotus-lake. Some of these complex compositions, containing a great number of figures, are remarkable for the harmonious serenity of the design —there is no confusion or awkwardness in the arrangement—and the varied beauty of the colouring. Other votive pictures portray the great Bodhisattvas, especially Kuan-yin, or scenes from the Buddha legend. In the former case, the forms, draperies and ornaments are closely modelled on Indian prototypes ; in the latter, types, dress and architecture are purely Chinese. From the small scenes sometimes painted at the sides of the large pictures we get a hint of the secular style of the period both in figure and landscape. The figures of donors, which are also fairly frequent, give us contemporary costume. Though mostly the work of artisans rather than artists, the value of these paintings as documents is very great, and a few are of real beauty as works of art.

In this era landscape became important as an independent art. The character of Chinese landscape is seen in the word for land scape, shan-sui Witt), mountain and water. Li Ssu-hsiin (b. 651) was the first eminent painter who devoted himself mainly to landscape. He painted in greens and blues, with gold outline. None of his works exist, but copies preserve the characteristics of his style. His son, Li Chao-tao, developed this technique. A small picture in the Boston Museum, ascribed to him but probably of later date, gives a good idea of this "miniature" kind of landscape painting. A very different tradition in landscape was founded by Wang Wei (b. 699), who was equally famous as a poet. He ma tured a style of ink-painting, in which the landscape became the counterpart of an emotion, more subjective and more "impres sionist" in method than the work of Li Ssu-hsiin and his school. Copies exist (one is in the British Museum, and an earlier one in the Freer collection) of a famous roll by Wang Wei, Scenery of the Wang Ch'uan. The painting was engraved on stone when it began to decay. Rubbings have been published by Dr. B. Laufer in Ostasiatische Zeitschri f t (April 1912).

Ts'ao Pa and his greater pupil, Han Kan, were especially famous for their paintings of horses. Han Kan found endless subjects in the fine horses sent as tribute from Central Asia. He worked in the 8th century for the emperor Ming Huang. A contemporary, Han Huang, painted buffaloes and rustic scenes. The splendidly modelled pottery figures of horses and camels found in T'ang tombs give us a clue to the vigour and breadth of the animal painting of these masters, whose original work has perished.

Admirable genre pictures and scenes from court life were also painted in this era. Chou Fang is known by versions (one in China and one in a New York private collection) of his Listeners to Music, a design in which the Chinese genius for eloquent spacing is conspicuous. The beautiful picture in the Boston museum of Ladies Beating and Preparing Silk probably preserves a T'ang design.

The Five Dynasties

(A.D. 900-960) .—In this short period a great many artists are recorded, of whom Hsu Hsi was famous as a flower-painter and Chou Wen-chid for his pictures of women. Still more celebrated was Huang Ch'uan, who painted landscape, birds, flowers, etc., and who is said to have started what is called the "boneless method" ; i.e., painting without a drawn outline.

The Sung Period (A.D.

96o-126o).—Under the emperors of the Sung dynasty China was re-united. The emperor Hui Tsung was himself a painter and a great collector. In his reign the Academy of Painting became very prominent and attracted artists from all parts. A certain realism was inculcated, but in style a fastidious simplicity was to be aimed at. The small album painting of a bird in a bough in the Eumorfopoulos collection, and similar paintings in famous albums in Japan, some of which are attributed to Hui Tsung, illustrate the ideals of the time. Flower painting, hardly existent in the T'ang period, was now a favourite theme, and some painters, like Wen T'ung, specialized in ink painting of the bamboo. Of the flower-painters Chao Ch'ang was the most celebrated. The most eminent master in landscape of Northern Sung was Kuo Hsi, who wrote an essay on landscape, partly translated by Waley (Chinese Painting, pp. Mi Fei invented a new style in landscape, without outline and with boldly brushed-in wooded peaks rising above rain and mist. His style is preserved in many pictures, though again few or none are likely to be actually by his hand. Chao Ta-nien painted autumn and winter scenes; Fan K'uan was famous for his snow scenes.

But the most famous name in the art of Northern Sung is Li Lung-mien (c. Io4o-1106). Much of his work consisted of copies from earlier masters. He had a reverential passion for tradition. At first he painted horses, but soon abandoned such subjects for Buddhist themes. Rarely using colour, he drew with a delicate, nervous line. Copies of his works are numerous, and a few originals have been reproduced in the Kokka. He is revered by the Chinese as a perfect type of Chinese culture; judged purely as an artist, he would not have so great a fame.

In 112 7 the Tatars occupied northern China. The emperor Hui Tsung was taken prisoner and died in exile. Hang-chow became the new capital of what is known as Southern Sung. The changed temper of the times is reflected in the art of a people no longer greatly interested in external events which they were helpless to transform. The passion for romantic solitudes, for soaring peaks and plunging torrents, which had always haunted certain minds, eager to escape from the pressure of official life and ceremonious routine, became a mastering inspiration. The Zen sect of Buddhism, now dominant, with its reliance on intuition, its con tempt for all outward forms, replaced the votive picture of single or assembled Bodhisattvas, glowing with colour and gold, by pictures of Arhats in intense contemplation, or by swift ink sketches of Zen saints; even a poising bird or blossoming spray could become in this mode of thought as "religious" a theme as the glorified Buddha. The emphasis was all on the interior mind. This temper, to which Taoist love of freedom and fluidity contributed much, gives a peculiar poetic character to the art of Southern Sung. Some there were, like Li Sung-nien, who kept to the older traditions and painted scenes from history and legend, and sets of pictures on weaving and agriculture. But the genius of the age is seen rather in Li Tang (to whom are attributed a roll in a Japanese collection and a beautiful small picture in the Boston Museum), and still more in his famous pupils, Hsia Kuei and Ma Yuan. Owing to the enthusiasm with which the land scapes of this school were collected in Japan, we are able to judge of its productions from concrete examples. Though this school soon fell out of favour in China, it represents to Europe Chinese landscape at its finest ; synthetic in conception, impassioned in execution, it unites simplicity with grandeur. Hills and high places had always been regarded with reverence as the abode of spirits. We find no counterpart to the feeling of aversion or dis gust which the Alps inspired in Europeans down to so late a period. And though the Chinese have always been an agricultural people, it is not the relation of toiling man to the fruitful earth which inspires their typical landscape art. It is a more cosmic inspiration; a feeling of affinity between the human spirit and the energies of the elements,—the winds, the mists, the soaring peaks, the plunging torrents. Technically, Chinese landscape design differs from European. The high horizon precludes the need for uniting sky and ground, divided by the natural horizon of sight, by. means of vertical lines and masses. The eye passes from the foreground, so of ten a source of trial and difficulty to the European painter, to the central motive of the picture, usually a mountain form.

The Yuan or Mongol Period (A.D.

126o-1368).—In this comparatively short period there was a tendency to go back to the style of ancient masters. Chao Meng-f u is perhaps the most famous painter of the time. Countless pictures of horses now in Western collections are attributed to him, few of them with any probability. He also painted landscapes and flowers. An other fine painter was Jen Jen-f a, of whom there is a good example in the Eumorfopoulos collection, and others in Japan. The four chief landscape masters were : Huang Kung-wang, Wang Meng, Ni Tsan, and Wu Chen. The two latter led roaming lives and had nothing of the professional about them. Ni Tsan painted sug gestions of landscape in ink, in a reticent, delicate manner. Wu Chen, known as the "Priest of the Plum-blossom," excelled in paintings of bamboos. Ch'ien Hsiian is a master whose name is very frequently forged on paintings ; he painted 'birds, flowers, also figures. Wang Yo-shui was famous for flowers. Yen Hui is greatly admired in Japan for his pictures of Taoist sages, but is less known in China.

The Ming Dynasty (A.D.

1368-1644).—The art of the Ming period is characterized as a whole by a gradual fading out of the interior glow which under Buddhist and Taoist inspiration had suffused the creations of earlier periods. Concentrated in herself, China had no longer any stimulating contact with the world with out; and her art became concerned rather with the beauty of material things than with the expression of the interior spirit. At the same time a reverential conservatism prescribed for the painter both subject and manner of treatment. The painters of this period are so numerous that only a few outstanding masters can be mentioned. The first Ming emperor re-established the Academy of Painting, with the aim of emulating the glories of Sung art. Gifted painters flocked to his court. Lin Liang painted ink-pictures of eagles, wild geese, flowers, etc., in a style of extraordinary breadth and power. A good example is in the British Museum, which also has a fine Fairy and Phoenix ascribed to Wu Wei, a master who strove to recapture something of the strong brush-work of Wu Tao-tzu. Very typical of early Ming art are the bird and flower pictures of Pien Ching-chao (Pien Wen-chin) and of Lu Chi, in which a certain solidity and a decorative richness of colour combine with powerful drawing in a large design. In landscape, Tai Chin, accounted one of the foremost Ming painters, led a new movement and had many followers. His style was broad and free, with little or no colour. Another school preferred minuteness of detail, with an orna mental use of colour, especially a rich blue. Of this school were Chou Ch'en and Tang Yin, who also excelled in figures.

Tung Ch'i-ch'ang (1554-1636), eminent as a critic as well as a painter and calligrapher, despised these "professionals" and their laborious technique. He is associated with the "Learned Man's Painting," in which refined taste and literary associations counted for much more than mere accomplishment. Tung Ch'i-ch'ang claimed that this style originated with Wang Wei in the 8th century, the founder of the Southern school. (In distinguishing the Northern and Southern schools, he tried to give these rather shadowy terms a geographical foundation which does not really exist.) The Southern school, adorned in the earlier part of this period by Shen Chou and Wen Cheng-ming, two much-admired masters, had by the close of the dynasty become triumphant and supreme. Among bird and flower painters of the i6th century, Chou Chih-mien may be mentioned as one of the most distin guished, though his work is rare.

The Ch'ing (Manchu) Dynasty

(A.D. .—Paint ing in the I 7th and i8th centuries is very largely devoted to landscape in the style of the Southern school, which in the later developments of the literary man's style becomes loose, slight, capricious and eccentric. Among gifted amateurs of the beginning of the dynasty, Chu Ta is much admired for his ink-sketches of flowers, rocks, etc. More important artists of the K'ang Hsi period are "the four Wang Shih-min, Wang Chien, Wang Hui and Wang Yuan-ch`i.

Another great figure in the 17th century is Yiin Shou-p'ing, also called Nan-t'ien, the most famous flower painter of the Ch'ing period. Wu Li, who was converted to Christianity and became known as Father Acunha, painted landscapes. The in fluence of the Jesuits was considerable for a time in China, but had no lasting effect on the arts. The Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione was made to learn the Chinese style of painting under the name Lang Shih-ning. Chiao Ping-cheng, however, learnt something of European perspective and taught it to Leng Mei and other artists. Chiao Ping-cheng's sets of pictures of agriculture and weaving were engraved in 1696. Shen Nan-pin went to Japan and stayed at Nagasaki ; his work had a very stimu lating effect on the naturalistic movement in Japan. Apart from this naturalistic movement, the modern painting of China seems to show little new life, and though good painters flourished in the 19th century, they were mostly content with exercises in the various manners consecrated by the past.


Chinese Painters, vol. viii.—xii. ; H. A. Bibliography.-S. Omura, Chinese Painters, vol. viii.—xii. ; H. A. Giles, Introduction to the History of Chinese Pictorial Art; A. Waley, Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting and Index of Chinese Artists; L. Binyon, Painting in the Far East; R. Petrucci, Encyclopedie de la Peinture Chinoise; F. Hirth, Scraps from a Collector's Note book; J. C. Ferguson, Chinese Painting. (L. B1.)

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