In traditional China, calligraphy, painting and poetry were conceived of as the perfect arts. These three arts were very much interwoven. Scholars were also poets, painters and philosophers. Self-expression in writing was considered as "painting thoughts". Both calligraphy and Chinese painting are based on brush strokes, which explain the preference for black ink over colors in Chinese painting, as well as the importance given to the quality of line.
In traditional China, calligraphy was the most important art and the basis for all the other arts. Chinese calligraphy at its best is an adventure in movement, resembling a dance. Its essential beauty lies in the dynamic brush stokes. These, being alternately fast and slow, broadening and narrowing, breathe life into the written characters. The handwriting will often reveal the calligrapher's temperament.
Before the invention of paper, most Chinese texts had been written on bones, bronze or bamboo. Following the invention of paper (made out of wood, hemp and cloth) by Cai Lun 蔡伦 (63-121 CE), the main medium of communication became that of characters written on paper. Writing was done with a brush, and the solid ink was rubbed with drops of water on a special stone to achieve the desired intensity of darkness. The paper, brush, solid ink and stone, used for writing the characters, are called "the four writing treasures" 文房四宝 . The brush is made of animal hair (sheep, deer, fox, wolf, mouse or hare), bound into a bamboo pipe. The solid ink stick is made of compressed soot from the burning of certain woods (especially pine). It is created in the form of a small block adorned with designs, which themselves are a work of art.
The use of a brush as a writing tool has had a strong influence on Chinese culture, utterly changing the writing style, linking it to painting. After the brush started to be used for writing, a flowing script, comprised of curving lines, thick and thin, full of life and grace, replaced the angled script that was found incised on bones and bronze from the Shang (1600-1046 BCE) and Zhou1046-221) BCE) dynasties. Thus, writing characters became the main art in Chinese culture. The customary direction of writing had been either vertical, from the top down, or horizontal, from right to left. Today all directions (from left to right, right to left, from top down and from bottom up) are acceptable, but most customary is writing horizontally from left to right.
Calligraphy is the basis for the conception of line and form in Chinese art. Both paintings and architecture derive their forms and contours from calligraphy. The flowing lines and the graceful angles of the roofs of Chinese temples are inspired by the brush strokes of Chinese writing. In calligraphy, as in painting, there is a variety of styles, ranging from hard graphic forms to the free-flowing lines that characterize Chan Buddhist painting.
As early as in the Sui 隋 dynasty (581-618 CE) calligraphy played an important role in training scholars. It was customary to give a calligraphic work – a saying or a poem - as a present to friends, in order to commemorate an event or express gratitude for hospitality. This custom is still practiced in present-day China.
As an art that involves movement of the whole body, calligraphy is considered a healthy exercise. Calligraphic work is done early in the morning, when the man and the world are renewed and refreshed. The calligrapher will usually stand in front of a high table, unless he is writing on a large surface, in which case he will place it on the floor, holding a long brush in his hand. With one hand, he will rub the solid ink onto the ink stone and with the other, he will write. While preparing the ink for writing, he will meditate and relax to the utmost.
Chinese painting is very close to calligraphy in its nature, principles and techniques. These two arts complement one another and are considered in China as twin arts. Both use the same materials – "the four writing treasures". As a product of the use of the writing brush, painting was the domain of scholars. It was done on paper or silk, and sometimes used to decorate hand fans. There were also wall paintings, most of them Buddhist.
The use of a brush for both writing and painting is the source of the significant difference between Chinese and Western painting. In Chinese paintings, the outline is emphasized and the lines flow like those of calligraphy. Originally, a painting without calligraphy was considered worthless.
The traditional Chinese paintings usually depict peaceful harmonious environments. Painters presented colors that are true to nature, not because they aspired to naturalism, but as a part of the prevalent perception that a painter who does not paint things correctly, does not understand them. Objects were nonetheless not expected to be precisely copied. According to Chinese aesthetic perception, going into too many details deprives the painting of its main qualities - liveliness and vitality. Through the brush strokes, the painter expresses his awareness of nature.
As early as the years 265-588 CE that followed the fall of the Han dynasty, a variety of theories were written about painting. These attempted to broaden the painting discipline beyond that of a mere representation of reality. According to one theory, the creation of images as abstract symbols of natural forms and phenomena is analogical to the hexagrams from The Book of Changes.
The greatness of Chinese art lies in the love of nature. This does not mean an excitement over pleasant forms, colors and atmosphere, but is an expression of the deep sense of awe experienced upon the merging of man with nature. It is a romantic passion for nature. The artist feels that he participates in universal life, including the life of animals such as birds and insects. In every painting that he makes, the artist tries to convey the entire picture, like a philosopher who tries to reach the principle or the universal law behind everything. Thus, the painter introduces the essence of things, as the philosopher Zhuang Zi 庄子 (369? -286 BCE) said: "The real sage, while looking at the beauty of the world, penetrates the essence of things".
Chan Buddhist painting derives from the belief in sudden enlightenment. Painted prolifically and fast, both in the past and present, and not paying too much attention to detail, these paintings are meant to represent the essence of the painted object. Like the Daoist paintings, they comprise objects that float in the air to express the transient existence of man upon earth, and a misty landscape to express spirituality. Their paintings often show very small human figures in a vast landscape. This is meant to present the smallness of man facing the world, and his lack of control over his fate. The Confucian paintings, in contrast, reflect interest in form rather than in ideas.
The basic requirements of a good painting appeared for the first time in the book Documents on Ancient Chinese Painters 古画品録 , written by Xie He 谢赫 in the sixth century CE. The six guiding principles, as described in this book, are as follows:
1. The spiritual essence 气 of the subject should be harmoniously expressed.
2. The structural elements of the painting should be emphasized by brush strokes.
3. The painting should be faithful to reality.
4. Colors should match the painted objects.
5. The composition of the painting should be carefully planned.
6. The painter should develop his abilities through copying paintings of previous master painters.
Later critics and theoreticians emphasized one principle or another, but all of them stressed the importance of the first one. With regard to the sixth principle, the Chinese are very attached to their past and appreciate everything that reminds them of their tradition in form or content. The traditional Chinese painter is expected to follow the tradition and dedicate at least part of his time and energy to copying Old Masters' works. Such copying, comparable to the daily practice of a pianist, is required to bring the painting technique into perfection, from which the painter will then create his own personal style.
During the eighth century monochromatic painting developed alongside the polychromatic. Landscape painting became prevalent. One theoretician wrote that a painting should include all the five colors. However, in his view, effects (achieved by means of different brushes or different degrees of brush moisture, etc.) could be used to replace the colors themselves.
Documentation of the history of Chinese art first appeared in China in 845 CE in The History of Famous Painters through the Dynasties 历代名画记, written by Zhang Yanyuan 张彦远. Zhang had preceded Vasari, his Western parallel, by about 700 years. Presenting a moral perception of painting, the book was based on sources from the Han dynasty on. Zhang believed that paintings derive from nature rather than from man's will. He saw painting as a creation of the gods that promotes culture and moral principles. Referring to portraits painted in the past, he contended that seeing goodness warns against evil, and seeing evil helps man to aspire to wisdom. Thus, paintings serve as models for the good people, and as warnings for the evil ones. Through such educational material moral values can reach perfection and a high standard of social morality is maintained. This approach abandoned aesthetic values for the sake of content. Gradually, as the interest in behavior and morality waned, stressing the importance of nature in evoking feelings inexpressible in words, increased. Chinese painters had, in any case, never depicted man in a position higher than that of nature
Some theoreticians saw in painting an expression of the artist's feelings towards the painted object, and considered a painting successful if it evoked in the observer the same emotional reaction that the painter himself had experienced towards that object.
A Theory on Landscape Painting 林泉高致 was written in the 11th century by the painter Guo Xi 郭熙 (1001-1090), who painted landscapes on scrolls. In his book, which plays an important role in studying the history of Chinese aesthetics, Guo writes that when one plans to paint a landscape, one should create a harmonious relation between heaven and earth. According to his theory, there are three levels of dimension: the height of a man, of a tree, and of a mountain. A mountain is taller than a tree and a tree is taller than a man. The painter should create a balance between heaven and earth, by leaving areas for heaven and earth in his painting. Likewise, he should create a balance between light and shadow and between the revealed and the hidden elements in the landscape. The purpose of landscape painting is to create a new ideal landscape, enabling the observers to relax from their everyday activities.
Mountains were important objects in traditional Chinese landscape painting, but they would never appear by themselves. Clouds, water and forests would be added. Guo Xi writes that the painter creates anew a world of nature through his expertise and variety of brush strokes. Landscape painting glorifies the Imperial order that was conceived of as a reflection of the cosmic order. Guo Xi's own landscape paintings were intended to glorify and please the emperor. The latter was compared to a high mountain overlooking the hills surrounding it. Guo's painting technique was unique, using a variety of different brushes and inks to create three-dimensional forms.
With the influence of Chan Buddhism, Chinese painting became more mystical in nature, an approach expressed in patches of hues without outline, using black ink rather than color. Chan Buddhist artists from the 12th and 13th centuries expressed their moment of enlightenment through the brush in their paintings; a monk or a mountain bursting out of the mist, represents this moment. For them, form by itself was never enough; content and significance were always required too.
One legend that demonstrates the nature of Chinese painting narrates that an emperor had ordered a painter to paint him a peony flower. The painter replied that he would need five years to carry out the command. After five years, when the emperor reminded the artist of his command, the latter took a piece of paper and in the space of a few minutes had painted a beautiful peony for him. Then, he led the surprised emperor to his studio, which included five rooms full of peony paintings that he had painted during the five years.
Painting was one of the skills that Emperor Hui Zong 徽宗 (ruled 1101-1125 CE) required of his court officials. He himself was a painter, poet, calligrapher, and skilled and knowledgeable in music and history. Thus, he represented the ideal politician who was also an artist.
Painters worked under the patronage of emperors. Portraits painted by them, depicting emperors, empresses, high public officials and famous generals, adorned the palaces. Temples were naturally adorned with portraits of Buddha, Bodhisattva and prominent donors.
In ancient China, beside landscape paintings and portraits, there were paintings intended to expel evil. Paintings of tigers were hung on doors to drive away devils, and paintings depicting victories over devils were intended to drive away evil spirits.
Guo Ruoxu 郭若虚, one of the greatest critics during the Northern Song dynasty, wrote in his Records about the Visions and Feelings that the Painting Conveys 図画见闻志from 1047 CE, that paintings derive from the painter's spirit, and that they flow and are revealed through the tip of the brush. The illusion of things is created mysteriously. It can excite people and evoke greatness in their souls.
An approach that conveys both Daoistic and Confucian ideas found its expression after the fall of the Song dynasty (after 1279) in the works of painters who were called "scholar-painters" 文人画. These artists, whose approach was based on Confucian values, became the mainstream of the Chinese art world. They believed that a painting that is created by an educated person reflects sincerity. In their view, an ideal painting should be created spontaneously, just as acts from heaven take place spontaneously. This approach is close to "non-doing" 无为 , a central idea in Dao, and to Chan Buddhism, according to which meditation empties the mind. The spirit is cleansed and concentrated, and thus becomes clear. Then, when the spirit is clear, there is no involvement. He who acts sincerely, without effort, does the right thing without intellectual effort. Like the actions of a true Confucian, painting must be motivated by a true purpose or have no rational purpose at all. In any event, the aspiration for appreciation by others is definitely considered as improper. The scholar-painter painted in order to be occupied between learning activities, and to release accumulated energy. Likewise, he expressed his understanding of others as a reflection of his own nature, feelings and thoughts.
During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE) the brush stroke technique was the main criterion for judging a painting. The subjects of the paintings were neither original nor considered important. Originality was apparent in the special treatment of the subject. In the scholars' paintings, whether a landscape, a cow, a flower or a human figure, it was the brush technique that was the most important element.
Artists especially liked painting on scrolls, which were destined to be kept rolled up in a box and to be unfolded slowly, so that the observer would follow the journey through the depicted mountains and rivers. This type of painting usually presented panoramic landscapes.
Chinese art reflects an aspiration to express eternality and infinite spaces. According to traditional writings on art, the Chinese painter would never paint directly from nature. He would absorb the landscape while looking directly at nature, then return to his studio and create his own interpretation through form, color and line.
Western visitors to China did not always know how to appreciate Chinese painting. Marco Polo (1254-1324), the Venetian explorer who traveled to China, was amazed by its culture, but had nothing to say about the Chinese master painters. In contrast, Matheo Ricci (1552-1610), who reached China in 1601 as the first Catholic missionary to the emperor's court, praised the Chinese painters for their natural talent. He remarked that it was impossible to compare them to the European painters because they did not know how to paint in oil colors or to use scientific perspective. These critics of Chinese painting failed to understand that the Chinese painters had their own way of expression, not inferior to that of the Europeans.
As opposed to Western painters, who usually painted in one-point perspective, Chinese traditional painters painted in multi-point perspective. Many paintings are painted on a long horizontal or vertical scroll, with the presented landscape depicted from the many points of view facing it. By presenting a panoramic view of a winding path in the mountains, a teahouse, or human figures, the painter not only creates an illusion of a real landscape, but also invites the observer to follow him on his journey.
The range of colors in Chinese painting is also different from the Western one, in the limited use of color. The Chinese saying that "black is ten colors", emphasizes the superior importance of the brush stroke technique that breathes life into the composition.
In traditional China each painting expressed a personal philosophy even when inspired by a certain place or memory. Unlike Western painters, the Chinese were not occupied with personal events, however, but presented a kind of generalization that expressed their philosophy.
In Chinese paintings there is always a feeling of space, even when the painting is very small. This approach derives from Daoism, which preached emptiness, and adopted water, which expands and fills spaces, as its symbol. This is why water is a central element in many paintings
Chinese painting, being inspired by nature, is characterized by movement and rhythm. Just as nature is dynamic, so too is the painting. Rhythm is seen as the essence of art, which represents the essence of life. There are no static things in the paintings; rivers, clouds, leaves, men and women, and above all – animals, are presented in their unpredictable movements. Some scholars believe that the movement of clouds inspired the creation of the image of the dragon - a creature in an infinite movement that dwells in an infinite space.
Description of the multi-disciplinary nature of painting found its expression in the writings of the painter Shi Tao 石涛(1641-1707), a family member of a Ming dynasty emperor, who became a Buddhist monk. In 18 concise essays, he presents a unique methodological theory of painting. Several chapters set out practical advice for painting landscapes, but most of them are philosophical, combining cosmological, historical and technical ideas, reflecting mainly the Daoism of Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi.
According to Dao, a single brush stroke can depict the existence beyond the boundaries of the universe. A brush stroke connects man with the cosmos because it is hidden in man's spirit and is revealed as a result of religious enlightenment. The approach that presents an association between the first depicted line and supreme awareness derives from Chan Buddhism.
From the 18th century on, the influence of Chinese art on European art became apparent, although Europeans mistakenly approached Chinese painting according to European standards of technique and composition, rather than according to Chinese standards.
During the 20th century, after the fall of the Qing dynasty (1911), there was growing pressure by the West on China to accept Western ideas. Many painters decided to study abroad, first in Japan and later also in Europe, especially in Paris. Upon their return to China they brought with them “novelties”, including strong colors, European brush techniques, perspective and abstract trends. Some painters completely abandoned the Chinese style, while others saw European art as a threat to their tradition and continued to paint in the Chinese style as if nothing else existed. There were also those who created a combination of the Chinese and European styles. Before the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1911 the Chinese had been familiar with European painting, but had also been highly confident concerning their own art.
Abstract painting was not new to the Chinese, who had already prefigured it in their calligraphy. However, in their art, abstract painting was not customary, and figurative forms have always been featured in their paintings.
The establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 heralded an important change in Chinese art and culture. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, paintings became imbued with political content; but following his death in 1976, Chinese art has tended to be less political.
Whereas painters belonged to the upper class of scholars, craftsmen belonged to the lower classes of traditional Chinese society. These artisans were apparently divided into groups according to the materials that they used. There were wood craftsmen, jade craftsmen, potters, etc. Each estate had its own artisans. Unlike painting, after the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1911 the decorative arts became less influenced by the West and most of the styles remained traditional Chinese. With the establishment of the People's Republic of China, however, the decorative began to be imbued with the political.
Under the leadership of Mao Zedong many folk arts such as weaving, basketwork and woodcut, which had not gained artistic recognition in Imperial times, became significant.
In China, since ancient times, sculptures had been used for religious purposes, to escort the dead on their way to the afterlife, or to protect against demons and evil spirits. Pairs of sculpted lions or hybrid animals were used as guardians flanking the entrances of the emperors' palaces, or as guardians of tombs, arranged in an avenue leading to the tomb.
As early as about 5,000 or 6,000 years ago Chinese people began using large three-legged pots (some were four-legged) made of clay for ritual purposes, some of them reaching 1.30 m in height. These vessels were adorned with reliefs, and in some cases were designed in animal shape such as an elephant or rhinoceros. There were also pots with handles shaped like dragons.
The most significant Chinese sculptural work is of course that of the terracotta warriors 兵马俑that were discovered near Xian 西安 in 1974. Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di ( 秦始皇帝 ) (259-210 BCE; seized power in 246 BCE) started the construction of his mausoleum when he was only 13 years old. More than 8,000 sculpted soldiers and knights accompanied him after his death. Each of the terracotta soldiers, in natural size and with individual facial expressions, had its uniform designed according to rank and unit. They include archers, riders and knights arrayed in battle position, holding bows, arrows and swords.
In the domain of Buddhist sculpture the Chinese artists were influenced by the Indians. Indian sculpture itself was influenced by Persian, Hellenistic and Roman art. During the fifth and sixth centuries CE, Chinese Buddhist sculpture developed its own unique character. The proportions of the Chinese sculpted Buddha changed. His figure became elongated. An elongated face with a delicate smile replaced the square-shaped face that had been influenced by Indian Buddhist sculpture. The form of the body almost completely disappeared behind the rhythmic folds of the robe.
Unlike the great artists of classical Greece, who aspired to create an ideal beauty and based their art on the conception that man is the center of the world, Buddhist artists in China and India presented in their sculpture a Buddha who was conceived of as alienated from human emotions and earthly passions. As superhuman, universal and ageless, his body is not emphasized. His nature is represented by his meditation position and faint suggestion of an internal smile. His image, detached from humans, is sublime. He has left the earthly world and dwells eternally in nirvana.
During the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), which is considered the most artistically creative in Chinese history, China became open to foreign influence and the form of the sculpted Buddha became more human, delicate and graceful.
In the domain of architecture, China discarded the Indian approach. The materials used in both cultures differ significantly, as does the perception of space. While India built in bricks, China built in wood. The traditional Indian architect was a stonemason while the Chinese architect was a master carpenter. Whereas the Indian temple is dim inside and adorned with abundant sculptures and reliefs, the Chinese temple is basically full of light, an elegant roof supported by a forest of columns, sometimes linked together by decoratively painted partitions suspended by the columns above the ground and not reaching the roof.