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The breathtaking scope of Chinese art—highly decorated Bronze Age vessels, exquisitely executed calligraphy, monumental Buddhas carved from rock cliffs, landscape paintings brushed in ink on silk scrolls, the Socialist Realism of the Mao years, and even the fireworks display at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (designed by a renowned Chinese artist)—comprise a remarkable several-millennia-old body of Chinese art that developed both in response to, and isolated from, other cultures.
Chinese art, as part of China’s culture, can claim to be one of the world’s oldest and continuous traditions—existing in relative isolation at times, at other times heavily influenced by outside elements. It deserves respect for extraordinary achievements, especially in calligraphy and pictorial art, and for a more than one-thousand-year-old tradition of landscape painting, through which Chinese painters have used art to come to terms with human life and nature. Although Chinese artists in the twenty-first century have absorbed Western ideas, many still continue to draw upon their tradition.
Pre-Imperial Chinese Art: circa 3000–221 BCE
The origins of Chinese art date to the third millennium BCE with the emergence of settled agricultural communities, mainly in the North China plain. Since early in the twentieth century archeologists have unearthed many pieces of finely built, wedged and coiled ceramic pottery in a variety of regional, cultural styles. Early artisans embellished their bowls and flasks with brushwork in abstract designs or with depictions of fish and other creatures. This tension between stylized and more naturalistic representations remains an enduring feature of Chinese art throughout history, from the Neolithic period on.
With the emergence of cities and dynasties by the second millennium BCE (Shang dynasty, 1766– 1045 BCE; Zhou dynasty, 1045–256 BCE), a highly stratified society appeared in which the royal house and nobility patronized artisans who produced luxury goods, some for personal consumption and many for ceremonial purposes, especially rituals having to do with the emerging cult of the ancestors. Tombs from the period are full of items—jade, ivory, and lacquer objects; gold and silver ornaments; and bronze eating and drinking vessels in particular—made by highly skilled craftspeople to serve the deceased in the afterworld (and perhaps to appease vengeful spirits who might harm the living). During the Shang dynasty large-scale human and animal sacrifices were included in these burial treasure troves, but under the influence of Confucian humanism by the late first millennium BCE, this practice was replaced by the use of substitute figures (ming qi) fashioned in clay, metal, or wood.
The utilitarian but highly decorated bronze vessels, the most admired and studied of these artifacts, signified the wealth and power of the families who owned (and were buried with) them. The vessels evolved in a basic repertoire of about thirty shapes, with the three-legged bowl (ding) being the favored form. Some vessels were very large, weighing over 100 kilograms (about 225 pounds); some derived from earlier pottery forms; others were sculptural and took the shape of composite animals. The artistry and technical virtuosity that went into these ritual bronzes has seldom been equaled and never surpassed in bronze casting anywhere. The outside surfaces were highly decorated with rigid bands of semi-abstract relief sculpture— some suggesting feathers and scroll patterns, and others depicting birds, dragons, animals, and mythical figures, many of which reflect Shang attitudes to the supernatural world. Most famous is the “monster face” (taotie), a mask-like, double-profile motif with eyes and curlicue brows but no lower jaw. The image evokes the shaman’s costumed face in pre- Confucian religion; even in the twenty-first century shamans wear animal skins that are missing the lower jaw.
The ceremonial and burial use of bronzes continued throughout this period but by the late Zhou, especially after 600 BCE, styles reflected changes in Chinese society and culture. Warring states and disunity brought social unrest; the era of China’s great philosophers—Confucius, the legendary Laozi, and Mozi—arose. Thus the intricate scroll patterns and monster faces of earlier times lost the energy and mystery of the old shaman rituals. Bronze vessels still used in burial sites were adorned with a looser, decorative elegance, and they have become treasured collector’s items in the twenty-first century.
Early Imperial Chinese Art: 221 BCE–220 CE
Archaeological finds, mainly from tombs, remain the best source for studying the development of art in the era beginning with the Qin (221–206 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties. The most spectacular find in recent years was the huge, 2,200-year-old army of terracotta soldiers buried to guard the tomb of the Qin emperor Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor” to unify China. In 1974, a farmer digging a well near the modern city of Xi’an stumbled upon some of these slightly larger-than-life-sized statues. Subsequent excavations showed not only the highly developed skill in clay sculpture of the time but amazingly realistic detail and individual facial features.
This realism also appears in miniature clay figures, notably of dancers and entertainers, found in less grandiose tombs from the Han period. Han funerary traditions also included burying clay models of houses, some with realistic details such as penned enclosures for pigs and hutches for chickens. A scene depicting two crows perched on the branches of a tree, part of the decorative embellishments painted on the exterior walls of such a model (now at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri) is a precursor to tenth-century flower and bird painting—the first extant example, in fact, of what would become in the tenth century an important and independent genre in Chinese art.
More luxurious tomb items forged from precious and semiprecious metals (gold and silver as well as bronze) further attest to the high skill of workmanship and the tendency toward realistic representation. A highly detailed bronze—a miniature horse and chariot, complete with driver, umbrella, and reins, which was found in Gansu Province along the ancient Silk Roads route—is very different from the massive, symbolically decorated bronze vessels of the previous era. Even more striking is the bronze “Flying Horse of Gansu,” in which the horse, depicted in full gallop, is poised on just one hoof. Here, spirit as well as naturalism animates the creation of this long-dead anonymous sculptor.
Archaeologists have uncovered an example of one of China’s unique contributions to world art and commerce—silk fabric art—in a burial site at Mawangdui, on the outskirts of present-day Changsha. Bog-like conditions helped preserved artifacts in the tomb of the Marquise of Dai (Lady Dai), including the noblewoman’s clothing and body (found in a semi- mummified state), and a large T-shaped silk banner. Painted scenes on the banner, dating to the second century BCE and now in the Hunan Provincial Museum, represent hierarchical levels of the cosmos—heaven, Earth, and underworld—and reflect the early Han belief in the close relationship between the human and supernatural worlds.
Departing from traditional views that interpret the banner based on three sections of equal proportion in the composition, Wu Hung (1992), in his study “Art in a Ritual Context: Rethinking Mawangdui,” sees the scene comprising four parts. Heaven, predictably occupying the top (i.e., the “crossbar” of the T), contains a sun (superimposed with the image of a crow) in the right corner, a crescent-shaped moon with a perching toad on the left, and the Han imagining of the Great Ancestor (a primordial deity depicted as a man with a serpent’s tail) in the middle. Among the constellations immediately below swarm dragons and fantastic snakes. Positioned at the place where this horizontal heaven is connected to the T’s stem, two doorkeepers eagerly wait to admit Lady Dai. All the figures are painted energetically, in an almost cartoon-like style, combining human and capricious animal forms floating in the ether.
In the two “earthly” sections below heaven, which occupy more than a third of the banner’s total space, Lady Dai prepares for entry to the afterlife— underneath a high ceiling that signifies the difficulty of entering heaven, and above the section where family members offer sacrifices to her. In the lowest and fourth part of the composition an underworld creature holds up the world like a Hercules. Coiling snake-like dragons enclose each of these four sections. At the dramatic center they crisscross threading through a circular jade bi disc (a symbol of heaven). The artist’s skill in organizing such a complex story in a series of space cells reveals an early mastery of a narrative form and an approach to image making that moves toward “realism.”
Painting and Calligraphy: 220–589 CE
Relics such as Lady Dai’s banner provide tantalizing glimpses not only into the society and belief system of the age but also into the early development of two-dimensional Chinese art—painting. The Chinese invention of paper and ink is of enormous significance to the world as papermaking techniques and brush writing also moved west along the Silk Roads. (At the same time outside influences, specifically Buddhism and its art, moved eastward along the same route.) Paper and the writing brush hugely influenced the development of China’s centralized bureaucratic form of government and the high culture of its literati class. Painting and calligraphy would develop in China as “high art” forms.
Abundant Chinese literary sources and histories state that the post-Han era—a period of disunity before the Sui dynasty began in 589 CE—was an important one for painting. But because works of art were destroyed in periods of social unrest and political upheaval, few paintings of the period survive. One of the most important that does, a silk handscroll called Admonitions of the Instructress to the Ladies of the Palace and attributed to Gu Kaishi (c. 344–c. 406), illustrates the already centuries-old Confucian view of art as didactic and morally enriching: the narrative defines wifely virtues, filial piety, and rules for proper behavior. In one scene an empress resolutely places herself between her frightened emperor husband, his frantic courtiers, and a charging bear; in another, servants groom and dress royal children while their indulgent parents look on. The figures, outlined in even brushstrokes with only a few areas of color filled in, show detailed facial expressions, especially on the men. Handscrolls (this one some 3.5 meters (11 feet long), were meant for intimate viewing, with three of four people looking on as the person holding the scroll revealed small sections at a time.
For Daoists of the period, whose ancient traditions fostered connections to nature, art had spiritual value; thus landscape, later a major theme in Chinese painting, emerged as a subject. The quality of brushstrokes, as vehicles of expression and as the “bones” giving a work its primary structure, became the benchmark by which the Chinese judged a painting. This combination had already found its purest embodiment in calligraphy, a form of expressive handwriting in a variety of styles that would carry on pedigrees of famous scholars. Wang Xichi (c. 303–361 CE), one of the most renowned practitioners of his day, became the model for many later calligraphers and literati elite.
Buddhism and Chinese Art
The arrival of Buddhism, which started as a trickle of monks with sutras and images in the late Han dynasty and built to a flood by the sixth century CE, was the major foreign influence on Chinese art before the global reach of European culture and power in recent times. Buddhism, brought by Indian monks traders, entered China by two routes: maritime via the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, and overland by the Silk Roads into northwestern China, which was still the center of the empire. The visual stimuli initially arrived through illustrated scriptures and small portable images and shrines, but soon Chinese created their own larger Buddhist sculpture and mural painting.
After the fall of the Han dynasty, the disintegration of central political authority, ensuing social chaos, and invasions from the north greatly facilitated the acceptance of this otherworldly religion in both the North China plain and the Yangzi (Chang) Valley; Buddhism offered consolation in life and the promise of salvation after death. The carving of huge caves and monumental statues from solid rock cliffs, an art form established in India, migrated with Buddhism to China and punctuated the landscape en route. (The huge standing statue of the Buddha in Afghanistan, destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban, is such an example.)
The rulers of the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE), who made Buddhism a state religion in the large part of northern China they ruled, became important patrons of Buddhist sculpture. In the first Northern Wei capital at Datong (Shanxi Province), in the shadow of the Great Wall, they sponsored the construction of cave temples with large stone statues and brightly painted murals inspired by the Gandharian style of northwestern India and Afghanistan, which itself had borrowed heavily from Greco-Roman sculpture. In the great cave complex at Yungang magisterial images of the Buddha and his pantheon still exist; some, over thirty feet high, depict stories of his lives drawn from the Jataka Tales. Originally painted with gold and vivid colors on living rock, they now stand largely intact but weathered into a more austere, colorless appearance not unlike that of the once-painted classical architecture and statuary of ancient Greece.
Images of the Buddha (and the practices of Buddhism) changed as they traveled east. Already at Yungang, Chinese aesthetic and social values made their mark on the foreign religion and its art. Here the full bodied, curvaceous Indian Buddhist images assumed a newly sinicized form and were flattened and hidden under robes, according to Chinese Confucian propriety, to avoid any corporeal impropriety. When the Northern Wei emperor moved his capital south to Luoyang in 494 CE, a former co-capital with Xi’an, he decreed that evermore magnificent caves be carved out of the living rock at nearby Longmen Grottoes on the bank of the Yi River; they were also painted with scenes from the Buddha’s lives. The stone at Longmen—a hard, closely grained, and dense limestone, quite different from the sandstone at Yungang—allowed for more detailed carving.
After the reunification of the Chinese Empire under the Sui (589–618 CE) and Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties, Chinese rulers continued imperial patronage by building additional cave temples at Longmen. (With more than 2,300 caves, and 100,000 statues and relief sculptures carved over a 250-year period, Longmen contains some of the finest examples of large-scale Buddhist carvings in China.) The style of Buddhist imagery was transformed again by a new wave of Indian influence, as the Buddha and his heavenly host had lost their stiff, disembodied poses and were refigured with softer, rounder, even sensuous bodies, sometimes in other materials such as wood and bronze.
Cave-temple paintings created from the fifth through the twelfth centuries, with their Indian and Central Asian inspirations, trace the evolution of Chinese religious painting over this long period. The largest and best preserved cover the walls and ceilings of 492 caves at the Mogao complex (at the oasis of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert in Gansu Province). Many murals feature radiant polychrome frontal images of a seated Buddha with his huge bejeweled pantheon hierarchically arranged in paradise. Others draw on the Jataka Tales, chronicling the former lives of the Buddha. An exotic motif used in these murals—and, in the context of Confucian morality, an erotic one—are the Flying Apsaras, heavenly (female) beings without wings who nevertheless soar through the sky wearing scanty Indian-style clothing and long diaphanous scarves that help them fly. Mural artists painted the Apsaras in deeply hued colors using some shading to suggest volume.
Two other aspects of these desert-air-preserved paintings deserve mention, not just for the subjects they address but for the backgrounds they place their subjects against. First, such paintings often show the Buddha seated in front of a Chinese-style palace, and these representations are the oldest visual record of Chinese palace-style architecture of wooden construction—more horizontal than vertical, with series of courtyards and distinctively upturned golden tile roofs. The form of architecture persisted, the surviving Qing Imperial Palace in Beijing being its latest reincarnation. Second, more relevant to the development of Chinese painting, Dunhuang paintings sometimes use natural scenery in the background. The color choice is noteworthy, especially in view of later Chinese landscape painting’s general preference for monochrome ink or muted color. In the Tang period (618–907 CE), artists painted mountains, valleys, and rivers in brilliant blue and green hues, a color pattern that would predominate as landscape painting, treating nature itself as the main subject, emerged in the late Tang and subsequent dynasties.
The most famous example of this use of blue and green mineral colors in a non-religious context is a silk hanging scroll, Emperor Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu. Although the painting is attributed to Li Zhaodao (c. 675–730), it is almost certainly a Song dynasty copy. (Chinese reverence for the past made copying artworks a common practice, sometimes as forgery but more often to preserve valued cultural artifacts whose material substance, silk or paper, was prone to decay and disintegration.)
The painting recounts a famous incident in Tang dynasty history, the story of the emperor forced to flee from the capital when a rebel general, who’d had an illicit liaison with the emperor’s favorite concubine, Yang Guifei, defeated imperial troops and seized the throne. Accompanying the emperor in exile is a procession of black-hatted courtiers riding through passes between three steep mountains. Women in wide, brimmed hats with veils move in single file along the narrow paths. In the glorious composition, with the picture plane tilted skyward to convey spatial depth, the verdant, pointy peaks poke through layers of clouds.
Emergence of Literati Art: Song–Yuan Period
Chinese society underwent profound changes in this so-called Middle Period of Chinese history. For art, the most important change consolidated social eminence and cultural hegemony with the emergence of the literati (wen ren). The term refers to those literate in the classical language who aspired to pass the imperial government’s civil-service examination, a system of recruiting officials on merit rather than on family or political connections. Only a small minority of the millions of men who took these rigorous exams actually passed with a score high enough to win them a government post. (Women were not eligible to apply for court positions, and thus to take the exams, but they nevertheless studied classical language and parallel subjects in the Confucian spirit to make themselves more worthy to be chosen as wives and mothers.) As a consequence the large pool of male examination “failures” constituted a landowning rural gentry class that preserved largely Confucian values and imperial peace throughout the vast empire. Literati were profoundly “civil” rather than militaristic in their outlook, a sensibility reflected in the art they patronized and produced themselves. Although these trends started in the Han period and continued in the Tang, Confucian ideals of ruling through the pen (“writing brush” in China) were only fully realized in the Song period; there too they remained in dynamic tension with imperial power and the military might behind it.
Literati art is remarkable, almost unique in world history, because the individuals who produced it also consumed or patronized it. Most importantly it was, at least for a time, independent of court influence. The cultural prestige of these gentleman artists became part of their social status. Literati art forms were almost all “arts of the brush”—calligraphy, poetry, and ultimately painting.
During the tenth century a number of subsequently famous landscape masters began to treat “scenery” as more than a background to human activity. Landscape’s emergence as the most prestigious genre of painting, often linked to the veneration of nature in Chinese Daoist philosophy, has also been correlated to the Confucian self-esteem of artists who expressed their own feelings rather than cater to the wishes of rich and powerful patrons. Many centuries would pass before anything comparable developed in Europe; thus some art historians acknowledge a precursor to “modernity” in Chinese painting by the end of this period.
The first half of the Song dynasty, noted for large hanging landscape scrolls, is also the earliest period from which survive a reasonable number of original works, although their subsequent prestige and market value has made forgery a thriving industry right down to the twenty-first century. One famous work from the eleventh century, Travelers by Streams and Mountains by Fan Kuan (active c. 1023–1031), now at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan, is monumental in size (206.3 x 103.3 centimeters, almost seven feet high) and heroic in concept. The three planes of the painting, the smallest in the foreground giving way to immense scale and space beyond, illustrate a particularly Chinese expression of perspective. Inky, textured strokes in the bottom eighth of the picture depict a low-lying group of rocks. In the next section two tiny figures driving a mule team enter from the right; craggy hillsides spanned by a bridge rise above them, on which leafy gnarled trees grow, their trunks outlined in black; a temple roof appears at the timber line of the hill on the right. In the third section, which fills nearly two-thirds of the scroll, a giant mountain looms, rendered with dry-brushed ink strokes pressed closely together to create the illusion of a towering monolith. A waterfall drops from a cleft in the mountain like a decorative ribbon and dances its rhythmic course over rocks at the mountain’s base, which is partly obscured by mist. The scene embodies a kind of naturalism—one could imagine standing in this landscape and experiencing the feeling the artist so clearly conveys: the glory of nature within the universe and the small role that humans play in this celestial plan.
A number of talented artists of the period, such as Guo Xi (c.1020–1090) and Li Tang (c.1050–c. 1130) practiced this new form of monumental realism in landscape painting. Emperor Huizong (r. 1101–1126) was a talented painter himself who led the Song dynasty academy. Perhaps his preoccupation with the arts was so intense that he neglected the threat to his empire when the Northern Jin state invaded his capital Bianliang (present-day Kaifeng). Some of the court fled south to Hangzhou, where his son established a temporary capital as the Southern Song (1127–1279).
The Southern Song emperor Gaozong (reigned 1127–1162) reestablished the academy in this milder clime. Living next to the beautiful West Lake surrounded by mountains, lush flora, and trailing mists, artists confronted a new imperial mood and a new way to convey an atmospheric landscape. Song rulers were no longer lords of the “Middle Kingdom,” as the Chinese named their country. They were a military failure in flight from the northern conquerors. Having lost their confidence as masters of their world they turned inward, living for the pleasures of the moment, day and night. Moreover, “form likeness,” what they called copying from nature, was considered an unworthy goal.
Southern Song paintings were smaller in concept and scale; handscrolls designed for intimate viewing unwound with a cinematic effect, and album leaves (pages) provided yet a smaller scale. Artists no longer attempted to paint towering landscapes that conveyed the precise wonders of a scene; instead they focused on compositions that expressed a lyrical mood, something the art historian James Cahill, a Chinese specialist, calls “a blend of dream and reality.” Two outstanding academy artists, Ma Yuan (flourished c. 1190–c. 1225) and Xia Gui (c. 1180– 1230) used simplified forms—contrasts of light and dark, and great expanses of blank space—to suggest a fleeting world captured only in glimpses. The extant portions of Xia Gui’s Twelve Views from a Thatched Hut (handscroll, ink on silk, 28 centimeters [11 inches] high; 2.31 meters [about 7.5 feet] long) show subtly and perfectly modulated ink washes that evoke a landscape veiled in mist; just a few deft brushstrokes indicate details of the scene—grasses, trees, fisherman, and two bent-over human figures carrying heavy pails.
The “Ma-Xia one-cornered style,” an innovation named after these Southern Song masters, conveyed a sense of space by using asymmetrical compositions. Ma’s Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight (Metropolitan Museum of Art), a silk fan mounted on an album leaf, exemplifies this charmingly off-center configuration; an angular landscape of cliff and mountains occupies the space on the lower left, from which white-robed gentlemen gaze at plum branches reaching toward the moon—a small, pale circle counterbalanced and floating in the sense of limitless space on the upper right.
Although the Mongol conquest of China during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) devastated the Chinese in many respects, the arts continued to flourish. Many Song scholars refused to serve their new “barbarian” rulers and devoted themselves to literati pursuits of painting, poetry, and calligraphy. One such scholar, Ni Zan (1301–1374), who had grown up in effete luxury but then withdrew from official society, ignored the traditional spatial convention of near, middle, and far distances as they spanned from the bottom of the picture to the top. Scholars interpret Ni Zan’s un-peopled compositions—with standard-issue trees, rocks and mountains—as an expression of the artist’s isolation from his foreign-occupied world, and a longing for a simpler time. James Cahill calls Ni Zan’s dry-brushed compositions “unimpassioned, subdued, and static.”
The range of landscape styles during the late Yuan dynasty increased as literati pursued and developed painting outside the influence of the court. Wang Meng (ca.1308–1385), another painter whose work conveys an aura of detachment, seemed to fill every square inch of silk with trees, rocks, streams, architecture, animals, and people. Fang Congyi (c.1301–c. 1393) paints in a powerful, individual, and more emotional style, with inky trees and flowing ink lines. His hillside mushrooms up in a powerful explosion of black strokes to an umbrella crest of vegetation, while shadowy mountains rise in the distance.
The restoration of Chinese rule with the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) reinforced literati dominance of high Chinese culture, but such tastes did not totally predominate. The Ming saw a resurgence of popular culture and art with accelerating economic growth and urbanization; like Europe in this period, China too was developing a middle-class culture rather different from rural-based folk culture, itself given a boost by the availability of cheap, popular prints. (Most of the vernacular painting and printmaking for popular or middle-class consumption, however, has been lost.) Yet the history of the period remains associated with upper-class art and, as many art historians agree, that art is one of the most sophisticated traditions in global art history.
The Ming’s conscious attempt at summoning leading artists to court resulted in the group informally called the Ming Academy. These artists produced colorful bird-and-flower paintings in dramatically decorative styles as well as portraits, history, and genre paintings. At the same time the rise of amateur literati artists, who had gained recognition in the Southern Song and Yuan, became a more important part of Chinese art. Shen Zhou (1427–1509), a shining example of a literati painter born into a family of scholars-painters, learned many styles by copying. Thus with a mastery of ancient styles he created his own compositions—Shen was the first to use the motif of a poet dominating the nature he observes, not being dwarfed by it—and included poems in a finely wrought calligraphic hand to reinforce the painting’s meaning. In Watching the Mid-Autumn Moon, (ink and colors on paper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), the artist and his friends sit drinking wine in a grass shack across from an expanse of still water, while the harvest moon shines. His heart-felt poem extols enduring friendship and the evanescence of life.
Later in the Ming, Dong Qichang (1555–1636) dominated the scene as scholar-official, painter, and theorist. His view of Chinese art history divided painters into two schools: a northern (conservative) school dominated by professional painters whose often-decorative style emphasized technical skill (something he categorized as “sweet vulgarity”), and a southern (progressive) school whose painters aimed for free, expressive brushstrokes and the development of personal style. (Neither school depended on any geographic significance.) Dong introduced ideas used to discuss calligraphy, such as “opening and closing,” and “rising and falling,” into dialogues about painting. He advocated learning from ancient masters before attempting to paint from nature, cautioning that the excellence of a painting should not be judged by how closely the work resembles nature, but by its evocative power.
Dong’s landscapes show deliberate dissonances in the relationship between foreground, middle ground, and background; he effectively flattened space so that mountains, trees, and rocks functioned less as representational forms than as semi-abstractions. In Autumn Mountains Dong Qichang shows his innovative spirit by arranging his landscape arbitrarily; curving mountains hug the earth and trees march into the distance like soldiers at the painter’s command.
The Last Emperors: 1644–1911/12
The Manchu conquerors of China, who ruled as the Qing dynasty (1644–1911/12), went to great lengths to conciliate the Confucian literati class, and they became avid patrons of Chinese high culture. Eventually most Chinese scholar painters were reconciled to Manchu rule, but several “loyalist painters”—because of their creativity, but also perhaps due to their blood ties to the Ming, which appealed to modern Chinese nationalism—have been highly esteemed since the twentieth century. Two worthy of mention are Zhu Da (1626–1705) and Zhu Ruoji (1642–1707), better known by their respective assumed names, Bada Shanren and Shi Tao.
Zhu Da lived in luxury as a Ming prince until the age of eighteen, when the dynasty fell. He joined a Buddhist monastery where, according to some historians, he affected “crazy” behavior to escape Qing persecution. He took the name Bada Shanren (Dweller of Eight Great Mountains) and channeled his despair into painting flowers and birds (the latter usually rendered with angry expressions and only one leg), fish and other creatures, and simple landscapes with powerful inky black strokes that course across the paper in surprising directions. His work falls well within the Chan (Zen) Buddhist tradition of seeking essential truth within a tiny piece of nature. Shi Tao, another relative of the Ming, was only two when the Qing came to power. His principled eremitism earned the respect of Confucian literati and his emphasis on originality has made him an icon for modern Chinese ink painters. At times some of his landscapes approach abstraction; in one, an album leaf simply called Landscape, a monk sits in a small hut enveloped by heavily outlined, mountainous terrain dotted with vegetation that seems, literally, to swallow him up. Dots, traditionally used to suggest diminutive vegetation on rocks, assume a much more dominant place in this composition; Shi Tao’s use of them clearly influenced Wu Guanzhong (b. 1919), whose Pine Spirit (1984), with its links to abstract expressionism, still pays homage to Chinese tradition.
The Manchus, who had already adopted many Chinese practices before ruling as the Qing, continued to show respect for Chinese art that was based on the study of old styles and masters. Literati painting in the Qing thus became orthodox and stereotyped, especially as represented by the prestigious “Four Wangs” of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: Wang Shimin (1592–1680), Wang Jian (1598–1677), Wang Hui (1632–1717), and Wang Yuanqi (1642–1715). But painting was still infused with a current of individualism and the idea that the art represented the moral character of the artist. In the eighteenth century a group known as the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou,” named for the prosperous commercial center in the lower Yangzi Valley where they worked, continued in this direction, appealing to the tastes of an audience beyond the court with figural subjects (and more flowers and birds) that were less ponderous and more commercially viable than landscapes.
Many have claimed that, after the trauma of Mongol Yuan, Chinese culture adopted an inward, “Great Wall” mentality. This is only partly true, although “foreign” Buddhist art, long since sinicized, had indeed lost much of its creative force. Systematic contact with maritime Europe started in the sixteenth century and had some influence on some aspects of Chinese art, largely through European prints brought by Jesuit missionaries; such traces can be found in portrait painting from the late 1600s onward, and in efforts at fixed-point perspective in early seventeenth- century landscapes. In general, literati artists regarded European painting as a curiosity rather than serious art, but Qing emperors were enamored of Western representational techniques and the effects of chiaroscuro. The Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione (1688–1766), who became a court painter for the Qing sometime after 1716 (under the Chinese name Lang Shining), worked to some extent with Chinese assistants to synthesize European methods and traditional Chinese media.
Chinese ceramics, however, made a very significant impact on the rest of the world, including Europe. China’s long history of advanced ceramic technique culminated in the perfection of smooth white and green celadon in the Song and true porcelain in the Ming. Appreciated as an object d’art by both court and literati, porcelain was nevertheless a tradesman art. There were famous kilns, like Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province under imperial control, but no famous potters. Porcelain was a major Chinese contribution to world trade and world culture, but in China it was not an art form in which a gentleman could express his command of high culture.
Art historians have generally regarded the nineteenth century in Chinese art as a period of stasis, if not decline, but this characterization may be oversimplified. The cultural changes that slowly began to influence Chinese artists at the end of the Qing dynasty can best be understood by reviewing the dark period that began with foreign invasions and civil wars in the mid-nineteenth century. After Britain’s victory in the First Opium War of 1839–1842 (a second war would follow from 1856 to 1860), the defeated Chinese conceded five treaty ports where foreigners could live and trade. The opening of treaty ports brought new visions of the world through books, magazines, technologies, and materials. Photography and various printing techniques, including Japanese-style woodblock printing, all of which were quite different from methods previously practiced in China, helped to disseminate new views.
In 1864, after the Taiping Rebellion, a prolonged and devastating civil war conducted under the ominous presence of Western troops, Qing imperial forces finally triumphed over peasant forces. Chinese felt increasing pressure after the French conquest of neighboring Vietnam and when Japan defeated China in 1895. The final blow came in 1900 when legions of foreign soldiers defeated the imperial troops in the Boxer Rebellion. At the same time many intellectuals did indeed find nineteenth-century ink painting on silk and paper stagnant. Paintings of idealized mountain landscapes, thought to be without energy and originality, had little relationship to the multiple realities of China—from the increasingly international cities to the decreasingly pristine countryside. But the changes to Chinese traditional painting were subtle in the beginning, introduced one small step at a time. In the second half of the century, a resurgence of calligraphic styles that had been used in ancient “metal and stone” inscriptions revitalized painting in the modern urban center of Shanghai, where the grand literati genre of landscape painting was eclipsed by new vigor in flower-and-bird and some figure painting. It is by no means clear that Chinese art had lost all its creative vitality. In particular, the “Four Rens” in Shanghai (Ren Bonian, Ren Xiong, Ren Yu, and Ren Xun) looked both backward to the grand tradition of ink painting and forward to the challenges posed by the coming of the West.
Post-Imperial, Modern Chinese Art
The movement of reform in Chinese art, connected to the introduction of modern science in China, started before the end of the Qing dynasty with the emergence of the first Western-style schools and the inclusion of Western-style drawing as part of the curriculum. After the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, a weak government prevented the state from leading this educational reform effectively, although the Minister of Education, Cai Yuanpei, considered art to be an essential part of modern culture and spiritual values. But within several years Liu Haisu (1896–1994), a precocious teenager who would go on to be a leading oil painter and art educator in the Republican era, founded the first private art school in Shanghai. By the 1920s a number of art schools appeared in other major cities such as Guangzhou (Canton) and Beijing, with young artists who had studied in Europe or Japan taking the lead in teaching the new Western art—oil painting, sculpture, design—to an iconoclastic generation eager to rejuvenate Chinese culture.
Their efforts remained a very small part of total Chinese art, confined to major cities and with more effective state support after the establishment of the Nationalist (Guomindang) government in Nanjing in 1927. The next ten years were the most productive period for introducing Western art, both formal academic styles (as represented by the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts–trained oil painter Xu Beihong at the new National University in Nanjing), and by more modernist painters such as Lin Fengmian in Hangzhou and Pang Xunqin in Shanghai. All Western styles were, of course, new and “modern” to China. But there was a sharp difference between two factions: on one side the putative avant-garde who saw the latest styles of Western modernism—post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism—as the shock treatment needed to stimulate a progressive modern consciousness in China; and on the other side, those who stressed the scientific realism of more conventional Western art as the key to building national strength. The latter would eventually get more support from the Nationalist government and their Communist successors.
Ink painters remained far more numerous and claimed a far larger share of a growing urban art market. Many clung to tradition but others tried to use modern innovations such as galleries and exhibitions to keep the tradition alive and develop it further. Two of the most famous landscape artists, Huang Binhong (1864–1955) and Zhang Daqian (1899–1983), both called on ink painters to be inventive and display a new energy within the old parameters. Huang explored a deeper level of intensity in black ink; Zhang used color with inventive boldness, especially after he toured the Mogao caves in Dunhuang during the 1940s. There he copied the Buddhist cave murals, using the past as inspiration to rejuvenate the present.
Probably the most famous twentieth century artist, however, was the carpenter-turned-literati-painter Qi Baishi. He reinvigorated the literati tradition by painting humble subjects—garden vegetables, fish, shrimp, and baskets—often with splashes of brilliant color. But his calligraphy, poetic inscriptions, and seal carving (an artist’s insignia stamped on a painting) were all continuations of that cultural milieu—and his venerable appearance fit the role perfectly. He was lionized in both the Nationalist and Communist eras.
The Japanese invasion in 1937 politicized much of Chinese art, but this trend was apparent even earlier in the left-wing woodcut movement supported by modern China’s most famous writer, Lu Xun. The woodcut print was an old medium in China but new movement—its strong and distorted styles inspired by Western artists such as the German Expressionist Kathe Kollowitz and modernist Russian print makers—introduced themes of social criticism and patriotic resistance against the Japanese. During the War Against Japan (1937–1945) many of these young artists joined the Communist Party in its rural base in the far northwest and shifted their artistic focus to appeal more to peasant tastes. This trend foreshadowed the fate of most Western modernist styles under the People’s Republic. Art, in Mao Zedong’s words, must “serve the people.”
“Serving the people” meant that art and artists had to follow the revolutionary agenda of the Communist Party in a prescribed style called Socialist Realism, a term borrowed from Stalin’s Soviet Union. Perhaps the most iconic example of the style was Dong Xiwen’s (1914–1973) Founding of the Nation (1954), which depicts Mao atop the balcony of Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1949 as he announced the establishment of the People’s Republic. The dramatically arranged composition, with the new leadership lined up at Mao’s side, inferred infinite control and a great future. The Communist Party distributed reproductions of the painting as a form of propaganda over a period of years, but the copies (and the painting itself) had to be doctored several times as figures present on that historic occasion disappeared when they were removed from power.
Traditional ink painting, linked to feudalism, was condemned as part of the old society in 1949. Not surprisingly, many ink painters fought passionately to restore its status, and it resonated with Chinese cultural nationalism especially after the split with the Soviet Union in 1960. The new compositions retained the Socialist Realist formulae but used ink and watercolor as the media. In one prominent example of this “new red wine in old Chinese bottles,” the talented revolutionary woodcut-artist-turned-ink-painter, Shi Lu (1919–1982), created Fighting in Northern Shaanxi (1959) in a reprogrammed ink and watercolor style. A small but empathic figure of Mao stands triumphantly peering over the steep drop of rocky mountain dramatically bathed in a revolutionary red–washed landscape.
The politicization of art reached its peak during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the last ten years of Mao’s life. For instance, Dong Xiwen had to paint the disgraced president of the People’s Republic, Liu Shaoqi, out of Founding of the Nation, and Shi Lu was denounced for making Chairman Mao so small in his Fighting in Northern Shaanxi.
For a time Cultural Revolution populism demanded that art be for and by the people, with famous artists denounced either for reactionary feudal thought, bourgeois influences, or both. But by the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s reform policies both traditional ink painting and less political art came back in all fields.
The first somewhat premature assault on Socialist Realism as a style and doctrine came from a group of young artists in Beijing who took the name “Star Stars.” In late September 1979, they created works in previously taboo modernist styles with even more taboo political and sexual content. They hung an unauthorized exhibition outside the National Art Gallery for two days before police removed it.
Though temporarily stalled, the new generation of artists’ impulse to explore modern Western styles could no longer be held back as China opened to the world economically and culturally. By the mid-1980s a “New Art Tide” (xin meishu chao) was rising, particularly among students at the state’s most prestigious art academies. It crested and broke with a privately sponsored exhibition, “China Avant-Garde,” at the National art Gallery in 1989.
This large-scale exhibition drawing younger artists from all over China featured Western-inspired art forms—conceptual art, installation art, mixed media, performance art—as well as all manner of twentieth-century Western modernist styles in painting and sculpture. Dialog epitomized the confrontational nature of performance art and prompted authorities to close the show. Dialog’s two young artists fired pistol shots into a pair of telephone booths they had set up with dummies of a woman and a man connected in their telephone conversation. Five months later the avant-garde’s dialog with authorities broke down completely when the more lethal gunfire in Tiananmen Square marked the crushing of the student-led democracy movement.
Democracy may have been stopped in Tiananmen, but new art was not as China became increasingly integrated with the rest of the world at the end of the twentieth century. The 1990s saw the rise of genres popular with foreign buyers, such as “Cynical Realism” and “Political Pop,” which turned some younger artists into market superstars. Several who combine painting with installation and/or performance art have become international art celebrities with critical acclaim and exhibitions in the West and subsequent fame in China, especially Gu Wenda and Xu Bing, who both have lived in the United States for long periods. Their deconstruction of the Chinese written language by producing meaningless Chinese characters, either calligraphically or by woodblock printing, has struck a responsive postmodernist cord in the West for toying with the pillars of the established culture, suggesting its impotence and irrelevance. Another emigre, Cai Guo-Qiang, has become famous for his exploitation of gunpowder, another Chinese discovery, in large-scale pyrotechnic displays. He orchestrated the fireworks for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The speed of this leap from domestic to global in the early years of the new millennium is an affirmation of China’s creativity and innovation. Even if belated, this recognition in the art world has been welcomed by the Chinese, as they achieve a difficult feat: to create new art that is both international and Chinese.
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