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China > Culture and festivals > Painting, Calligraphy and Literature


Culture (Part 2) 


Content: Painting, Calligraphy and Literature 



Classical Chinese painting has a long history and conjures up images of a mystical country with mist-shrouded peaks dropping down to waterfalls surrounded by bamboo and blossoming trees. Painting in
isn’t just limited to the classical form and in the past century the art has moved through Communist Red Art to abstract modernism, although traditional styles remain popular.

Tools of the Trade 

There are said to be four great treasures in traditional Chinese painting; the brush, the ink, the inkstone and the paper or silk used. Only the finest horse hair was used for the brushes and it was then glued to pieces of bamboo, a traditional method that dates back to the fourth century BC. The ink was made by combining pine soot and glue, which was then left to harden, making a solid tablet of ink. The ink was then rubbed with water on an inkstone to create the correct consistency. Silk was the traditional medium, although this restricted creativity, since it was permanent as soon as applied. The invention of paper in 106 AD changed this and allowed for more artistic freedom. 

Tang Dynasty Art  (618-907 AD) 

The Tang dynasty saw the first real development of Chinese art. Under the Tang, China was a powerful, stable empire providing a perfect foundation for the arts which were essentially produced by scholars, high officials and poets. Arts were encouraged by the court and portrait painting gained in popularity. Paintings depicted emperors and their families and also serve as excellent historical documents reflecting court life from this period. 

Song Dynasty Art (960-1279 AD) 

With the collapse of the Tang came the rise of the Song dynasty, whose artistic legacy has been handed down to China’s modern painters. Their focus was on the landscape and they wanted to capture the vast expanse of China’s geography. Huge areas of the canvas were left blank in order to create space, depth and to capture light, aspects that are clearly reflected in works by Ma Yuan (1165-1225 AD). Academies were established under royal patronage and a number of emperors, most famously Huizong, adopted the hobby. 


Yuan, Ming & Qing Dynasties (1279-1911) 

With the invasion of the Mongols and the rise of the Yuan dynasty, many officials were forced to retire, allowing for a change in composition and subject matter. Although the traditional brush and ink techniques remained of key importance, images became more personal, with an emphasis on experimentation.  Detailed images of plum blossoms, bamboo, flowers and birds fused with color washes became common and a passion for mixing calligraphy with their canvases added to the Yuan style. However, it was the rise of the Qing dynasty in the 17th century that first saw European influences merge with the earlier traditions andWestern materials and subject matter became more common. 

The 1900s 

The biggest changes to Chinese art occurred during the 20th century through contact with the Western world and the Communist ideals promoted by Russia. Artists began to paint their great leader, Mao, in stronger, bolder colors and used Western materials such as oil on canvas.  

Painting, like everything else, became a medium for political propaganda and a movement developed known as ‘Red Art’ –
Shanghai’s PropagandaPosterArtCenter has an excellent collection. Zhang Zhenshi’s (1914-92) portrait of Mao has become an icon from this period and copies of it have stood at the entrance to the Forbidden City since 1950. Red Art is currently undergoing a revival in China and can be seen throughout the country’s galleries and markets.

Modern Art 

Modern art in China has been influenced by international styles and techniques, which have been fused with deeply embedded traditions to create powerful images of life today. Modern Chinese paintings often reflect artists’ frustration at the censored society in which they live and the turmoil of the last century. Good places to get a feel for China’s modern art scene are at Beijing’s hip Dashanzi district, Shanghai’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Guangzhou’s Guangdong Museum of Art and Shenzhen’s Overseas Chinese Town.


The artistic portrayal of Chinese characters has a long imperial tradition and still flourishes today. Calligraphy traditionally went hand-in-hand with poetry and was practiced by scholars, although emperors and court officials also spent years mastering the art. During the Tang dynasty, a united China allowed a standard script to emerge, and calligraphy was considered so important that the emperor added it to the list of criteria for assigning posts in the civil service.  


Today calligraphy is very much alive in modern China and you will see it everywhere, from the work of traditional masters in temples to artists on the street. For those hunting for exquisite ancient calligraphy, Shanghai Museum has some of the finest examples in the country. 



Early Chinese literature is defined by philosophical works reputedly written by great masters such as Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism  Confucius and their disciples. However there were exceptions to this quasi-religious theme such as Sun Zi’s fifth-century-BC military treatise, the Art of War, and the extraordinary Historical Records, written by Sima Qian in the Han dynasty. The latter was an immense tome chronicling Chinese history from Huangdi, through the Shang and Zhou dynasties and up to his time.  


Historical Records enlivened its 130 chapters with biographies and constructed conversations (based on real events); its style was so engaging that it formed the basis for imperial historic works to follow. However, until the 15th century, books were written as scholarly works and remained inaccessible to the masses.  


In the Ming and subsequent Qing dynasties, a new, more vernacular language emerged and classics such as Journey to the West, Outlaws of the Marsh, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Dream of the Red Chamber were written. These tales are still popular today, but reading books remained an elitist activity and it was only with the arrival of the social commentaries of Lu Xun (1881-1936) on the literary scene that baihua (white language) emerged.  


Once the Communists emerged victorious, authors like Sheng Congwen (1903-86) found their literary freedom suppressed and little material of interest was produced, although Mao’s Little Red Book is a fascinating insight into socialist doctrine. Since the 1980s, restrictions have relaxed, but many of the grittiest modern writers such as Wang Shuo don’t have a legally published book to their name in China.  


With its tones and rhyming nature, Chinese is well-suited to poetry and the pictographic characters themselves add further sentiment. For this reason since the earliest times, poetry has been the preferred mode of written expression. The Book of Songs, accredited to Confucius, is the original Chinese poetic work and was quoted by scholars, envoys and philosophers alike. Chinese poetry reached its pinnacle under the Tang with the works of two starkly contrasting wordsmiths.  


Li Bai (701-762 AD) was a Taoist eccentric with a passion for nature and wine who embodied the poetic values of freedom, spontaneity and defiance of convention. Dufu (712-770 AD) was Confucian through and through, but his failed political career led him to appreciate the hardships of the common man and his poems reflect this. Li Bai and Dufu’s differing styles and stances highlight the dichotomy of China through the ages – split between the rigid conventions of Confucian conformity and the romanticism and intuitive thought associated with Taoism.  


Born during the Song dynasty, Su Dongpo (1037-1101 AD) is perhaps the most famous of all Chinese poets, and was also a skilled calligrapher, painter and politician. Su’s outspoken views saw him exiled more than once, but his minute attention to detail and the graceful nature of his poems continue to earn him adulation to this day. 



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introduction to chinese calligraphy.
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China > Culture and festivals > Architecture, Bronzes, Ceramics & Jade

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China travel guide : China Painting, Calligraphy and Literature, China culture