Most will remark upon the enormous differences from Western paintings
“They were the oddest hills in the world, and the most Chinese, because these are the hills that are depicted in every Chinese scroll. It is almost a sacred landscape – it is certainly an emblematic one.”
Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster, 1988
Foremost among the differences being the use of ink and silk paper as opposed to oil and canvas, the use of a silk scroll rather than a wood or metal frame as well as the general lack of verisimilitude to the original subject. Unlike most Western painting traditions, Chinese painting did not place great importance on depicting an exact likeness or replica of that which exists in reality, but instead emphasized the need to capture the spiritual essence of the subject. Whether it be a portrait in which the eyes were thought to reveal the true character of the sitter or a landscape in which the fluttering of leaves were thought to capture the hidden truths of nature, it was the rendering of the life force of the painting that was the ultimate goal of the painter
Such ideas are revealed in the first theory on painting which was written in the fifth century by Hsieh Ho. Entitled the “Six Elements of Painting” they advocate that the painting:
1) Have a life of its own, be vibrant and resonant
2) Have good brushwork that gives it a sound structure
3) Bear some likeness to the nature of the subject
4) Have hues that answer the need of the situation
5) Have a well thought out composition
6) Inherit the best of tradition though learning from it
While very few paintings from this early period exist, from the Sui (589-618 AD) and Tang (618-907 AD) dynasties onwards, painting came to assume its predominant position in China’s artistic tradition. Especially popular were portraits and scenes of the Emperor’s life with envoys or court ladies, as well as scenes of nobles’ lives found on tomb frescoes or Buddhist imagery found on grotto walls. Some of the greatest treasures of Chinese painting are the frescoes found on the walls of the 468 Buddhist grottoes in Dunhuang in Gansu province. For more than ten centuries, artists painted scenes from Buddhist sutras as well as portraits and scenes of the lives of the numerous people who traveled along the Silk Road.
During the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD), a painting academy under imperial patronage was established, with two main styles of painting coming into emergence. The first style, known as academic painting, favoured bird and flower paintings depicted in minute detail. The second style, known as scholarly painting, favoured grandiose landscapes. Unlike Western landscapes which emphasized perspective and shading elements, Chinese landscapes stressed the brush stroke which could be variegated in thickness and tone. Also diverging from Western styles was the unimportance of man as figures were kept to a minimum and always depicted much smaller than the background landscape.
In the succeeding Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), a literati school comprised of scholar-painters, came into emergence. Painting was always considered the domain of the educated elite and at no other time was this ideal more apparent. The most widely painted subjects were the so-called four virtues of bamboo (a symbol of uprightness, humility and unbending loyalty), plum (a symbol of purity and endurance), chrysanthemum (a symbol of vitality) and orchid (a symbol of purity) as well as bird and flower paintings.
The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) favoured a return to tradition as artists copied the masterpieces of early times. In fact, painting manuals were written which contained prototypes of a certain leaf, rock or flower which the artist could then copy and combine to create a new work. Unlike the West which always emphasized individuality and creativity, both in painting and literature, the Chinese greatly appreciated the need to master tradition before undertaking the new.
While traditional styles continued to dominate the work of painters of the subsequent Qing dynasty (1644-1911), increasing contact with the West brought about the inevitable influence of Western styles. The Italian painter, Guiseppe Castiglione once even worked under imperial patronage, thus introducing to his Chinese contemporaries such Western techniques as shading and perspective.