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Traditional Chinese Painting: A Brief Introduction

    Chinese traditional painting may be intimidating to many outsiders.

    After all, it looks so different to traditional Western paintings.

    And China’s history and philosophy is extremely vast. Its written language and cultural references are complex.

    But once you begin to understand a part of it, the bigger picture steadily comes into focus.

    You will be richly rewarded when it does…

    Detail from A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains by Wang Ximeng
    Detail from A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (1113 AD) by Wang Ximeng, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 51.5 x 1191.5 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Earliest Chinese painting

    As with most (if not all) civilisations, painting began in China before writing did.

    The earliest examples of Chinese painting are decorative painting found on pottery and walls around 3,000 years ago.

    Soon after, the written Chinese language then began to develop. Its earliest forms are preserved today on animal bones and shells.

    As Chinese writing become more sophisticated, so too did the technology for it.

    This is where the first important unique feature of traditional Chinese painting appears…

    After the very early painting period, painting was often done with the same tools that were used for writing.

    So, Chinese painting and Chinese writing are deeply interlinked.

    The tools of Chinese painting matter

    Up until the 20th century, the Chinese wrote with the same set of toolsThe four treasures of the study (sometimes translated as the four treasures of the studio)

    Theseare the basic tools emperors, officials, scholars and artists used throughout Chinese history:

    One: Paper

    This was invented in China in the second century AD. Before that, bamboo, bone, and silk were variously used.

    Two: Brush

    Chinese brushes

    Chinese brushes were originally made with bamboo and different animal hair. 

    They are not the same as Western paintbrushes. 

    Chinese brushes tips are uniquely shaped for writing. The tip’s hair is bundled and layered in specific way that reinforces it.

    Ink holds inside its structure and flows down into the tip.

    Wax is often is used to preserve this shape. And different animal hairs are used for different brushes.

    For example, rabbit hair is relatively firm, which helps with clear writing or intricate details in a painting. 

    But wolf hair is softer. It is better suited to painting broad and smooth lines needed in some paintings.

    Three: Inkstick

    This is dried ink formed in the shape of a rectangle or tube. It is mixed with water when it is ready for use.

    Chinese ink was traditionally made from residue left over when pine was burned. This residue (known as lampblack in English) was then mixed with glue.

    Black is the most commonly used colour for writing and painting. 

    However, colours are also made. They were traditionally created by mixing in other elements, such as cinnabar for red.

    Today, pre-made liquid ink comes in bottles.

    Four: Inkstone

    An inkstone is a small, hollowed out ceramic or stone object where inksticks are ground down and mixed with water.

    They are sometimes treated as objects of art themselves. 

    The famous Northern Song dynasty painter and calligrapher Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD) was obsessed with them. 

    He is even said to have once gained an inkstone by declared to the emperor that ‘after a lowly commoner such as myself has touched it, it’s no longer fit for your majesty.’

    The processes of preparing an inkstick in an inkstone has long been seen as therapeutic. Many painters and calligraphers see it as a ritual that calms their mind.

    Mounted Official by Zhao Mengfu
    Mounted Official (1296) by Zhao Mengfu, handscroll, ink and colour on paper, 30 x 52 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    Tools create the rules

    The use of the above-mentioned tools makes Chinese painting unique.

    Unlike in the west, the same set of tools continued to be popular for writing and painting. 

    This helped foster cross-over in techniques (such as brushstrokes) and artistic theory behind each activity. 

    Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting

    In China, calligraphy is considered a fine art. Painting only really approached the same distinction around the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD).

    But even then, calligraphy was generally seen as the higher form of expression. 

    Evidence of this lies in the fact that members of the imperial Academy of Calligraphy had more privileges than those of the Academy of painting.

    Part of the reason for this is that a higher level of education is required to master calligraphy.

    The Three Perfections

    The Three Perfections (calligraphy, poetry, and painting) are the three main arts China’s elite practiced have practiced for thousands of years.

    Chinese paintings often feature, which can range from comments, to prose descriptions or even poems. 

    This began in the Yuan dynasty (1271 AD – 1368 AD). But it echoes a principle present much longer in Chinese history: a gentleman was expected to be someone who was good at many things.

    This sentiment is expressed well in the Confucius’ Analects:


    Confucius said: “A Gentleman is not a pot.”

    – Analects (2.12)

    Here ‘pot’ can also be translated as ‘utensil’. The meaning here is being like a pot, i.e., having one use, is narrow and inferior.

    In the case of the arts, a true gentleman should ideally be equally competent in the three perfections. However, a fourth (music) is often mentioned, too.

    The main styles of traditional Chinese painting

    Traditional Chinese paintings can be generally grouped into two distinct categories and one hybrid category that combines them both.

    Gongbi – ‘Elaborate style’

    The Elegant Gathering at the Western Garden(Yuan dynasty) by Zhao Mengfu, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 131.5 x 67cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Gongbi (工笔 [gōngbǐ]) painting is a very detailed and meticulous style. It is often used for landscape painting and the depiction of busy scenes of towns, gatherings, or battles.

    It is also used to depict simple yet intricate scenes, such as closeups of flowers or birds in trees.

    Xieyi – ‘Sketching the idea’

    An example of literati painting: Wu Zhen’s Fishermen (1345 AD), ink on paper, section on a handscroll, 35.2 x 332cm. Shanghai Museum. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The xieyi (写意 [xiěyì]style of painting usually produces relatively ‘loose’, liberal and sparse-looking pictures.

    It relies of skilful and elegant brushwork done in a freehand style to create stylised paintings.

    The goal isn’t to create a realistic depiction of a subject or object, rather an interesting and expressive representation.

    Professional painting vs literati painting

    Auspicious Cranes by Huizong Emperor
    Auspicious Cranes (1112 AD) by Huizong Emperor, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 51 x 138.2 cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Professional Chinese painters were not high up in the hierarchy of China’s elite society. Many of them began their craft at young ages with apprenticeships.

    They were not educated to the levels of officials and often sought out patronage from that group.

    (However, during the late Song dynasty, an Academy of Painting was opened. It granted higher status to painters than they had previously held).

    The literati, by contrast, were the educated elite. They had deep knowledge of the Chinese classics and would often adorn paintings with an elegant poetry or prose in a skilful calligraphic hand.

    Literati painting is often much less technically accomplished than professional painting. Many literati painters justified this using sophisticated quotes, allusions, and artistic theories.

    One recurring argument is that paintings should reflect artists’ inner self over ‘superficial’ outward appearances.

    Dong Qichang (1555 – 1636 AD) summarises this attitude up by quoting Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD):

    If one is talking in terms of the exceptional in views, then painting is not as good as a real landscape. If one is talking in terms of wonderful brushstrokes, then landscapes are certainly not as good as painting. There are lines by [Su Shi] which read: “If anyone discusses painting in terms of formal likeness,/ his understanding is nearly that of a child.”

    – Dong Qichang

    Professional paintings vs literati paintings

    Professional painters worked on large scrolls or murals with great detail, colour, and technical skill. 

    By contrast, the literati largely created monochrome (black and white) literati painting on scrolls or other forms of paper (such as fans).

    The theory (or self-justification) behind the literati’s different style, was and is often articulated with a variation of a particular set of concepts. 

    For example, literati paintings relative technical simplicity is not – it is argued – down to the artists’ lack of technical know-how. 

    It was their levels of cultivation and their arts’ viewers’ ability to sense meaning beyond what was directly represented.

    Think of rock bands looking down on pop bands (but still ultimately being commercial enterprises themselves…)

    The reality was often different though. Diaries and other documents have shown that there was clearly a business side to many literati’s’ work.

    In some cases, this private information directly contradicts public pronouncements.

    Categories of traditional Chinese paintings

    Chinese paintings – whether by professional painters or literati – tend to be grouped into various categories.

    In the historic landmark of Chinese art and art theory, the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (1120 AD), ten categories of painting are listed.

    These include landscapes, figures, animals, vegetables, and more.

    However, here we will simply look at the most prominent categories.

    Landscape painting

    Seeking the Dao in Autumn Mountains (ca. 980) by Juran, hanging scroll, 156.2 x 77.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Landscapes are considered one of the most distinguished and sophisticated forms of painting in China.

    The genre has a long history, but reached its peak in the first half of the Song dynasty. 

    The aristocratic Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD) is widely considered the most innovative and brilliant landscape master.

    a solitary clearing amid peaks by li cheng
    A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks (ca. 960) by Li Cheng, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 111.4 x 56 cm. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. (Purchase: Nelson Trust). (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Li’s vivid and evocative views look almost like otherworldly dreamscapes. Many painters continued to pursue this effect for centuries after.

    Portrait and figure painting

    Detail from The Night Revels of Han Xizai (ca. 970) by Gu Hongzhong, handscroll, ink and colour on silk, whole piece is 28.7 x 335.5 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Figure painting was often – but not exclusively – associated with religious imagery in China. 

    Chinese portraits do not achieve the same ‘form-likeness’ (i.e., similarity or realism) as many well-known western artists.

    However, they often capture a unique essence that represents the subject in a new light.

    Chinese painting philosophy

    The philosophy behind painting in China has varied throughout time and between artists.

    Early on, painting was often done as a collective activity. 

    However, the concept of the individual Chinese artist appeared, too. 

    This is highlighted by a story in the Zhuangzi, a hugely influential Daoist book written during this time:

    When Lord Yuan of Song wanted some pictures painted. Many clerks filled his court, paid their respects, licked their brushes and prepared their ink. There were so many of them that many queued outside. 
      One calmly sauntered in late and paid his respects. Instead of waiting in line, he withdrew to his quarters.
      The Lord sent someone to see what he was doing. He was found naked and sitting down cross-legged.
      “Excellent!” the Lord said, “That is a true painter!”

    – Zhuangzi (21.07)

    Over time, more detailed art theory appeared. 

    The 6th century Chinese painter and art critic Xie He had 6 principles of painting. The third principle was ‘correspondence to form’, i.e., paintings should be realistic…

    Five centuries later, one of the most influential figures in art theory, Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD), wrote:

    If anyone discussed painting in terms of formal likeness, 
    His understanding is nearly that of a child.

    – Su Shi

    Su was an exponent of the literati style of painting. In the nearly 1,000 years since he lived, the ideas he articulated have been discussed and debated by many.

    Many subsequent schools of artists appeared, each with different variations and emphasis.

    And in the modern era, socialist realism appeared – perhaps the polar opposite of much literati painting.


    As with Chinese calligraphy, brushstrokes are an essential part of traditional Chinese painting.

    Chinese brushstrokes have been categorised for calligraphy, landscape painting (which has 30 strokes) and the painting of figures (which has 18 strokes).

    However, knowing all of these brushstrokes isn’t essential. As the Song dynasty intellectual Shen Kuo (1031 – 1095):

    The excellence of painting and calligraphy should be sought through sympathetic identification and not through formal elements. Critics of painting can usually indicate faults of shape, composition, ad colouring, but one seldom sees a man who understands its subtle ordering and profound beginning. 

    – Shen Kuo, Dream Pool Essays 《梦溪笔谈》

    In fact, the qi and character of the artist behind the brushstrokes matters more than the technical formalities of them.

    The importance of qi, naturalness and dao

    Three concepts are often mentioned in the context of Chinese art.

    Qi (气 [])

    Qi can be translated as ‘breath’, ‘vital energy’ or ‘life force’. It is a concept that goes far back into Chinese thought. The writer Cao Bi wrote:

    文以气为主,气之清浊有体, 不可力强而致。
    Qi is the most important element of literature. Its form can be pure or impure, it cannot be achieved by effort.

    – Cao Bi

    Naturalness and sponteneity

    Naturalness (自然 [zírán]), or ‘spontaneity’, is a concept linked to overcoming self-consciousness in Chinese art.

    It is very similar to the term xinshou (信手 [xìn shǒu]) which translates literally as ‘trust hand’ and figuratively as ‘casualness’ or ‘spontaneous’.

    These specific terms, and the essential concept behind them, have been used many times through the centuries.

    The famous Song dynasty calligrapher Su Shi (1037 – 1101) (see below) once wrote:

    高人岂学书? 用笔乃其天。
    Why should a high-minded man study painting? The use of the brush comes naturally to him.

    – Su Shi

    The Way

    Dao (道 [dào]) (which is often also translated as tao), which means ‘way’, is one of the central concepts in all Chinese thought. Confucius often talked of its importance, as too did the daoists.

    In fact, the ‘way’ means slightly different things to Confucians and Daoists. However, many Chinese people – including painters – have long held a hybrid set of beliefs encompassing and uniting elements of multiple versions of the dao.

    Scrolls and moving paintings…

    Like brushes and ink, scrolls play a central role in the development of Chinese painting.

    Many (but not all) Chinese paintings were done on scrolls, some as long as 80ft (24 metres). There are two main types of scroll: the hanging scroll and the rolled up scroll (or hand scroll).

    This latter group would be opened up, viewed and then put away again like books. This meant that they often featured scenes that moved in time and space.

    To achieve this, they often used methods such as a high perspective to give a broader view. Or they left background details obscure so that the focus remained on the action taking place in the foreground.

    The painter and poet Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD) once wrote about the effect this had:

    In the landscape of a cloudy scene scene by Dong Yuan in my collection, when one unrolls the whole scroll, the structure of the clouds is hidden and revealed, the branches of trees emerge and disappear, and the mood is lofty and antique.

    – Mi Fu

    Printing books with folded up leaves began in the Tang dynasty and then became more widespread in the Song dynasty.

    A brief timeline of Chinese painting

    Palaeolithic period (? – 10,000 BC) period

    Chinese painting technically started in the Palaeolithic (or old stone ageperiod over 11,000 years ago, with paintings discovered in caves and on cliffs.

    Thereafter, it appeared on pottery and walls of buildings. Archeologists have found many examples of this across China.

    Eastern Zhou period (770 – 256 BC)

    The Eastern Zhou period is divided into two main parts: the Spring and Autumn period (770 BC – 481 BC) and theWarring states period (ca. 481 – ~401 BC).

    Some of China’s most influential figures appeared during this time, including Laozi, Confucius, Zhuangzi and Mencius. And the latter period was the first – brief – unified dynasty in China’s long history.

    A recognisably Chinese culture existed in several competing and warring states during this time.

    One example of a painting from this time is A Gentleman Riding a Dragon (人物御龙画 [rénwù yù lóng huà]) by an unknown artist, painted on silk banners some time during the 3rd century BC.

    A Gentleman Riding a Dragon  by unknown artist
    A Gentleman Riding a Dragon (3rd century BC) by unknown artist, ink on silk. 37.5 x 28cm. Hunan Provincial Museum. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    It was likely used a likeness of a deceased person used at their funeral (other paintings have been found at burial sites).

    It’s style is now noted as being of the ‘floating silk threads from antiquity‘ (高古游丝描 [gāo gǔ yóusī miáo]). This is a subtle, elegant style that often featured people in profile with flowing silk gowns.

    Qin dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC) to the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD)

    The Qin dynasty only lasted 15 years, but it set a landmark precedent as the first unified dynasty in Chinese history.

    There were 10 different dynasties between the Qin and the Tang dynasty. During this time, Chinese culture developed in many ways.

    One example of painting from this period was a mural found in a tomb the city of Jiuquan, Gansu Prince from the 4th or 5th century.

    Detail from Ascending to Heaven Chinese tomb painting
    Detail from Ascending to Heaven (4th to 5th century AD) by unknown artist, ceiling mural in Dingjiazha Tomb 5 in Jiuquan, Gansu Province. 145 x 270 cm. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    In the sixth century, painter and art historian Xiu He also recorded his famous ‘six principles for judging paintings‘.

    The Tang dynasty is still regarded by many as one of the high points of Chinese culture, especially poetry. During this period, many of China’s greatest poets lived, including Wang Wei (699 – 761 AD), Li Bai (701 – 762), and Du Fu (712 – 770 AD).

    Wang Wei was both a painter and a poet. Su Shi (1036 – 1101 AD) famously remarked:

    In every poem by Wang Wei, the is a painting; and in every one of his paintings, there is poem.”

    – Su Shi

    Unfortunately, there are no known authentic surviving paintings by Wang Wei. 

    However, descriptions of them and their influence on other paintings lives on. And, of course, we have many (over 300) of his painting-like poems left:

    In the empty hills no one can be seen,
    there is just the echoes of human voices.
    Sunlight enters the deep wood,
    shining on the green moss.

    – ‘Deer Park’ by Wang Wei

    Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD)

    During the Song dynasty, China’s artistic culture flourished. It was during this time, for example, that literati painting and many other distinct features and philosophies of Chinese painting emerged.

    It can be divided into two main periods:

    The Northern Song period (960 – 1127)

    During the Northern Song period, the Song dynasty ruled most of the traditional Chinese empire.

    This period is marked by the surge in popularity and status painting achieved. 6,387 paintings from this era have been recorded.

    The list of great artists from this period is too long to place here. But Li Cheng, Fan Kuan, Su Shi, Wang Shen, and Yan Wengui are just a few examples. And Landscape painting, figure painting, and architectural painting styles all evolved, too.

    Painting is generally seen to have reached the level of importance its sister arts (calligraphy and poetry) had achieved, too. The first recorded evidence of this can be found in words written by the scholar Zhang Shunmin (1034? – 1100):

    When the ancients were seeing off a traveller, they presented him with words; When Master Li [Li Gonglin] gives a parting gift, he also gives a painting.

    – Zhang Shunmin

    Here is perhaps one of the greatest paintings from that period by Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD), A Solitary Temple by Amid Clearing Peaks (晴朗萧寺 [Qínglǎng xiàosī]).

    The sense of layered perspective and detail in this work help it attain a certain level of harmony that many Chinese paintings seek.

    Southern Song period (1127 – 1279)

    The Song royal court moved south when Northern Jurchen forces established their Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD) over much of Northern China.

    The Song still ruled most of China south of the Huai river, until the Mongol invasion that established the Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368 AD).

    It was a period of great political turmoil. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, not much innovation is noted to have taken place. However, great artists and painting still appeared.

    Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368)

    The Yuan dynasty was a Mongol-run dynasty. It is one of many Chinese dynasties over the past millennia that was run by non-Chinese peoples.

    The Mongols (originally led by the great Khubilai Khan) justified their rule by stating that they had in fact united factored Chinese territories.

    Despite resistance (both physical and ‘spiritual’ for want of a better phrase) from some, many Chinese still participated in the empire and maintained their culture. One of these was Zicong, Khubilai’s trusted Chinese advisor.

    Artists were no different. The Mongol rulers were naturally less interested in Chinese art than Song dynasty emperors had been. However, some Chinese artists began to work with them, whilst others relied on patronage from fellow Chinese elites or former elites.

    Three Friends of the Cold Season

    Subtle resistance themes emerged in the latter groups’ work. Subjects such as bamboo were commonly chosen to symbolise the artist’s feelings about resistance and perseverance. (Bamboo is known for its strength and flexibility).

    These themes could easily be displayed in plain sight in paintings of peaceful scenes of rolling hills…

    One example is a painting by Zhao Mengjian (1199 – 1295 AD): Three friends of the Cold Season (岁寒三友 [suì hàn sān yǒu])These ‘three friends’ (pine, bamboo, and blossoming plum) represented or symbolised survival during harsh (winter) conditions.

    Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644)

    China’s Ming dynasty was a return of Chinese rule over the empire. It was a remarkable period of cultural, commercial and population growth.

    Like the Song, the Ming promoted Chinese painting, calligraphy and culture. Court artists painted for the imperial court, and even some emperors themselves painted.

    Literati painting continued to develop, too. And as the late Ming state lost its grip, literati painting style become more prestigious than professional painting. Many innovative new schools (i.e., groups or movements) of painting emerged.

    The Zhe School

    The Zhe School (the ‘Zhe’ of Zhejiang province) of painting was founded by the artist Dai Jin (1388 – 1462 AD). The philosophy behind the school was to revive and develop Song dynasty art style.

    Most of the painters from this movement were from Zhejiang and Fujian. They were inspired by Song dynasty painting and favoured relatively fragmented images as well as simple and easy-to-understand ones.

    Other famous Zhe School painters included Wu Wei (1459 – 1509 AD) and Chen Hongshou (1598 – 1652). The school’s painting style also influenced Choson dynasty (1392 – 1910 AD) artists in Korea and Muromachi period (1393 – 1573 AD) artists in Japan. 

    Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911)

    The Qing dynasty was, like the Yuan, ruled by non-Chinese: the Manchus (formerly known as the Jurchens). Qing rulers had taken over China shortly after the Chinese rebel Li Zecheng had toppled the Ming dynasty. 

    The last Ming emperor, the Chongzhen Emporer (1627 – 1644 AD), hanged himself in April 1644 in the Imperial Garden just outside the imperial palace (the Forbidden City) in Beijing. 

    It is said that just before, he had rung a bell to summon his ministers for advice on what to do about the rebels that had entered the city, but no one had arrived. 

    During the early Qing dynasty, remnants of the Ming royal court controlled parts of Southern China. Some Ming loyalists, including many intellectuals (called leftover subjects’ [移民 yímín]), followed them, others quietly withdrew from society more quietly or adapted to being Qing subjects.

    Despite draconian rules on Chinese society, such as forcing Chinese men to shave the front of their hair and tie the back into a queue (a pig-tail), the Qing elite soon became enthusiastic patrons and even participants in many aspects of Chinese culture.

    The Kangxi Emperor (1654 – 1722), for example, was a keen scholar of Chinese classics, painting and calligraphy.

    It was during this time that Chinese artists become increasingly familiar with western painting. But the influence went the other way, too. Here, for example, is a painting of the Qianlong Emperor (1711 – 1799 AD) by Jesuit court painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688 – 1766 AD).


    Traditional Chinese paintings can be classified into two styles and a hybrid category. 

    Gongbi painting is meticulous, detailing landscapes and busy scenes, while also depicting intricate, closeup subjects like flowers or birds. 

    Xieyi painting uses a freehand style for a loose, expressive representation of a subject rather than a realistic one.

    There are professional painters and literati painters. Professional painters, though not highly regarded socially, began their craft early and often sought patronage from officials. 

    Their painting technique is generally more accomplished than literati painting, despite the latter being the work of the educated elite with a profound understanding of the Chinese classics.

    The literati often accompanied their work with elegant poetry or prose. They advocated for paintings reflecting an artist’s inner self over superficial appearances.

    Traditional Chinese paintings typically revolve around three subjects:

    • Landscapes, particularly featuring mountains and rivers. 
    • Nature, focusing on close-ups of birds, flowers, and trees
    • Figures – studies of individuals or groups

    Chinese art history should be approached just like Western art history – by enthusiastically following your own tastes and interests.