Traditional Chinese Painting (Part 1)
Traditional Chinese painting, also known as "Chinese painting," reflects China's national consciousness and her aesthetic disposition and inclination. It demonstrates the understandings of China's ancient people about nature, society, and other associated social aspects, such as politics, philosophy, religion, morality, and art. Traditional Chinese painting places emphasis on "learning outwardly from nature, gaining inwardly in the heart," harmonizing the outer/nature and inner/heart to create artistic conception. It requires that "the composition is already conceived before one starts to paint, and the finished work depicts the precise aspiration of the artist." Its goal is to depict spiritual character through physical form, having both form and spirit as well as vivid spiritual resonance.
Chinese painting has a long history; as far back as the Warring States period of over 2000 years ago, people painted on silk. This is known as silk painting. Before then, there were also primitive forms of rock painting and pottery painting. These early paintings laid a good foundation for the development of Chinese painting, which used line as the primary means of composition. By the Han and Wei dynasties, social stability and unity took a dramatic turn towards division; the impact of the collision between extraterritorial culture and local culture, and their eventual combination, gave rise to religious paintings, which constituted the main type of painting at that time. There were also paintings of historical figures, which drew on literary works. Paintings of landscapes, flowers, and birds also took shape during this period of time.
The Sui and Tang dynasties experienced a period of highly prosperous socio-economic and cultural development. Along with this, there also occurred a prosperous period of development in painting. Landscape and flower-bird styles of painting reached their maturity. Religious painting also reached its peak at this time. There also appeared a secular trend, with figure paintings depicting the life of aristocrats and paintings depicting people's characteristics at that time. The emergence of literati painting and its later further development greatly enriched the creative concept of Chinese painting and methods of depiction.
The Three Categories of Chinese Painting
Chinese painting consists of three categories, namely, figure painting, landscape painting, and flower-bird painting. On the surface, they are classified by topic, while in fact they present a form of conceptualization and thought through art. The so-called "three categories of painting" include three aspects of the universe and human life: figure painting depicts human society and interpersonal relationships; landscape painting expresses the relationship between man and nature, combining the two into one; and flower-bird painting expresses the varieties of natural life and their existence in harmony with man. The combination of the three constitutes the whole multitude of things in universe, each bringing out the best in each other and complementing each other.
Figure painting is a generic term for paintings with humans as the primary subject. Gu Kaizhi in the Eastern Jin period specialized in figure painting. He was the first to put forward the idea of "expressing the spirit through form." In his figure painting, he was committed to the vivid depiction of individual character and a lively resonance, while giving ample consideration to both form and spirit. Through this method, individual character in his figure painting was vividly expressed through depiction of environment, atmosphere, posture, and motion. Therefore Chinese painting theory calls figure painting as “expression of the soul.” To excel in figure painting, besides succeeding in the traditional techniques, one must also research and understand basic human body forms, proportions, anatomy and the patterns of change in bodily motion. Mastering these together allows accurate depiction and expression of the subject’s form and spirit.