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Chinese Painting

Chinese Painting History

Chinese Painting originated over 3000 years ago when Chinese artists began painting on walls during the Shang Dynasty.  A Chinese painting was excavated from a tomb dated during the Western Han dynasty from 206 BC to 9 AD.  This remains the oldest known Chinese Painting today.  Called Mawangdui, this Chinese painting is featured in the Hunan Provincial Museum.

Silk painting began in China around 300 B.C.E. as artists painted on scrolls and banners.  The silk fan featuring Chinese Painting remains a popular import item from China even today.  Chinese painting started to appear on paper medium during the 13th century.  Chinese Painting in the traditional style involves the same techniques as calligraphy where a brush is dipped in black or colored ink.  Oils are typically not used.  Although oil painting was introduced to China by Jesuit Priests during the Qing dynasty from 1644 to 1911, it never really became popular.  

The Chinese painting does not attempt to recreate a copy of the subject as in the case with Western painting.  The goal of the Chinese painting is to bring out the most salient features of the subject but it does not get into details.  It brings out the feelings behind the looks.

Paper and Silk remain the popular medium for Chinese painting today. They are mounted on scrolls which can be rolled or hung up.  Chinese Paintings are desirable decorative items around the world as featured in the popular Asian style of decorating.  This provides a great opportunity for those interested in importing from China.

Chinese Painting Techniques

From a technique perspective, there are two styles of Chinese Painting:

  1. Meticulous Gong-bi - also known as "court style"
  2. Freehand Shui-mo - watercolor or brush painting.  "Shui" mean water and "Mo" means ink.  This style also is referred to as "Xie Yi" which literally means freehand.

Human figures were mainly painted by artists during the Han (202 BC) to Tang (618-906) Dynasties.  Learnings about the Chinese painting came from the discovery of burial sites.  Chinese painting was found on tomb walls, silk banners or lacquered objects.  Some Chinese paintings were meant to protect and guide the dead to the paradise of afterlife while others depicted Confucius teachings or simple images of daily life.

The highest form of Chinese painting was considered to be landscape.  The "Great Age of Chinese Landscape" was considered to be from the Five Dynasties period to the Northern Song Period (907-1127).  Famous Chinese painting artists in northern China such as Guo Xi portrayed images of tall mountains using heavy black lines.  Chinese painters in southern China such as Ju Ran painted rolling hills and rivers using a softer rubbed brush work.  These two styles of Chinese Painting and their associated objects became the classical styles of Chinese Landscape painting.

Modern Chinese Painting

Beginning with the New Culture Movement, Chinese painters began to incorporate techniques from Western countries.  The use of oil was introduced to China.  During the early communist rule, Chinese painters were encouraged to incorporate socialism realism especially those ideas imported from the Soviet Union.  Chinese painters were assigned subjects to paint by the Chinese government.  These were mass produced. Fortunately for the Chinese painters, this request was relaxed in 1953.

After the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956-1957 where Communist Party of China encouraged a variety of views and solutions to national policy issues, there was a renewed interest in traditional Chinese painting again. There was an increase in the Chinese painting of peasants in everyday life as demonstrated on wall murals and open-air painting exhibitions.  Art schools and art journals, art exhibitions were shut down during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's as part of the getting rid of Four Olds Campaigns (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas).

Chinese Painting in the Modern World

Contemporary Asian as a decorating style which incorporates Chinese art and Chinese painting for the Western culture is alive and well.  An example is the Mandarin Oriental Hotel where Asian style is created for the modern Western world.  This trend will never go away.  So take advantage of Chinese paintings in your import from China efforts.