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The Ma Family Painters (Ma Yuan, Ma Lin, etc.)

    The Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) produced a wealth of brilliant culture during its 319 years.

    All of the major Chinese arts flourished during it – especially painting, and landscape painting in particular.

    In some cases, painting even became a family enterprise…

    Generations of artists would pass on their knowledge to their children, who in turn could support the family with their earnings.

    Perhaps the most famous family of painters were the Ma family

    They passed on their art for five generations. Their most well-known member was Ma Yuan, but he is only one part of the wider picture…

    Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring by Ma Yuan
    Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring (ca. 1200 AD) by Ma Yuan, album leaf, ink and light colours on silk, 27 x 43 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    1. Ma Fen (11th century)

    Ma Fen began the Ma family painting lineage. Not a lot is known about him. 

    However, he was likely working during the 10th century. By this point, landscape painting was established as the pre-eminent genre of painting in the Song court. 

    The Academy of Painting, though not as distinguished as the Song dynasty’s Academy of Calligraphy, was still highly prominent.

    Painters such as Guo Xi (c. 1001 – 1090 AD) decorated the most important government buildings with landscape scenery.

    And thanks to famous literati, perhaps best represented by the intellectual and artistic genius Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD), painting’s prestige continued to grow outside and inside the Academy.

    Mass printing had made books and calligraphy more accessible, but paintings still had to be viewed directly in private collections. 

    There was a high demand for paintings from court officials and wealthy merchants. This meant that successful artists could make a living from their work inside or outside of the Academy.

    2. Ma Xingzu (late Northern Song period)

    Ma Xingzu (马兴祖 [Mǎ Xìngzǔ]) spent most – if not all – of his career during the late Northern Song period (960 – 1127 AD)

    During this period, China’s most famous artistic emperorHuizong (r. 1100 – 1125 AD) reigned. 

    Huizong himself was a beneficiary of his ancestors’ emphasis on the arts. He built up a large collection of paintings and calligraphy, two arts that he himself practiced (well).

    Landscape painting had been popular throughout the dynasty, and during Huizong’s reign things were no different.

    3. Ma Shirong (active ca. 1131 – 1162 AD)

    Ma Shirong (马世荣 [Mǎ Shìróng]) was an attendant at the Academy of Painting during the early Southern Song period. 

    Not a lot is known about him, except that he received the status of ‘the Golden belt’ and wrote a book on art: Examining Treasured Pictures (图绘宝鉴).

    Southern Song court landscape styles

    Ma Shirong’s career took place during the establishment of the Southern Song Academy of Painting. The leading artist during this period was Li Tang (1066 – 1150 AD)

    Li established what became the dominant Southern Song court style of painting. It was part of the Fan Kuan (active ca. 1023 – 1031 AD) linage of painting.

    Fan’s style was famously contrasted with that of Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD), as being the bold ‘martial’ (武) stylein contrast to Li’s more refined ‘civil’ (文) style.

    Either way, Li’s style and lineage had dominated the Northern Song court. Now Fan’s (via Li Tang) came to prominence.

    4. Ma Yuan (active before 1189 – after 1225)

    Snowscape by Ma Yuan,
    Snowscape (ca. 1200) by Ma Yuan, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 256.3 x 101.7 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Ma Yuan (马远 [Mǎ Yuǎn]) is the most famous painter in the Ma family linage. 

    Like his father and (possibly) his grandfather and great-grandfather, he began painting at a young age.

    He appears to have painted a version of Wang Hong’s poetic Eight Views of Xiaoxiang (c. 1160) before he became a court painter. 

    Ma’s original version doesn’t survive, but copies/interpretations of it by later artists do.

    Turbulent times and a strong patron

    He was appointed as a court painter in the 1190s, where were turbulent times in Song politics…

    Emperor Guangzong (r. 1189 – 1194 AD) caused a succession crisis by refusing to comply with court ritual. He was replaced by the Emperor Ningzong (r. 1194 – 1224 AD). And political persecutions led by Han Touzhou (1152 – 2017 AD) destabilised the government.

    (Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 AD)one of Chinese history’s greatest philosophers, was one of the most famous victims of these purges.)

    Han’s eventual downfall was particularly violent: he was arrested and then dragged into the royal Jade Ford Garden where he was flogged to death.

    Fortunately for Ma, he was tin with the winning side of these struggles. He was favourite painter of the woman said to have organised Han’s death, the Empress Yang (1162 – 1233 AD)

    Yang is seen by many historians as the de facto ruler of the dynasty for three decades, despite her husband, the Emperor Ningzong, being on the throne for most of that.

    Banquet by Lantern Light (c. 1200)

    Banquet by Lantern Light by Ma Yuan
    Banquet by Lantern Light (ca. 1200) by Ma Yuan, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 111.9 x 53.5 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Ma’s Banquet by Lantern Light features Ningzong, Yang, and three of Yang’s family members together inside a building. Outside, musicians play for them. 

    Above the painting is a poem, possibly written by Empress Yang if not likely approved by her, celebrating the banquet it was based on. 

    Both the poem and painting likely served a purpose in promoting Yang and her family’s standing with the emperor – and therefore their political power.

    One Corner Ma

    Ma’s nickname is widely known to this day: ‘One Corner Ma (马一角). He gained this from his almost minimalist style of only painting small areas of paintings.

    The large, blank spaces this left across paintings gave them a distinctly dreamlike and poetic atmosphere. 

    This worked well with his noted ability to capture the meaning of couplets given to him by the empress, which he turned into poems.


    Another prominent Southern Song court painter active at the same time as Ma Yuan was Xia Gui (active early 13th century).

    Ma and Xia did not directly collaborate, but they have been linked together for centuries, their styles grouped collectively as the ‘Ma-Xia Painting School’ (马夏画派).

    In fact, not much is known about their interactions. However, it is highly likely they knew each other’s work. 

    The Ma-Xia style has since come to epitomise landscape painting of the late Southern Song. 

    The Four Great Southern Song Masters

    Ma YuanXia GuiLi Tang (ca 1066 – 1150 AD) and Liu Songnian (? – 1225 AD), were retrospectively labelled the ‘Four Great Southern Song Masters [of painting]’ (南宋四家).

    Influence of Li Tang

    The Ma-Xia style carried on the tradition of the most influential (predominantly) Southern Song painterLi Tang (1066 – 1150 AD).

    Before Ma and Xia’s careers (and perhaps lifetimes), Li had began the move towards more minimalist and ethereal scenes that Ma and Tang pushed even further.

    Li himself was of the early Northern Song landscape painter Fan Kuan’s (active 1023 – 1031 AD) linage. His position as head of the Academy of Painting helped increase his work’s influence.

    Northern vs. Southern style painting

    Despite being of Fan’s lineage, Li promoted a more southern style of painting. 

    During the Five Dynasties period (906 – 960 AD) that immediately preceded the Song dynasty, landscape painting had developed distinctly northern and southern styles

    However, once the Song united the empire, paintings and artists from across the empire arrived in the Northern Song court. 

    Here the Northern style of Li Cheng was adopted as essentially an official court style. And even a southern landscape painter such as Juran (active ca. 960 – 985 AD) (originally from Jiangning – today a district of Nanjing), adapted to this northern style.

    In short, the northern landscape style (sometimes described as ‘stony mountain’ (石山 [shíshān]) generally featured more rugged, stark scenes. 

    Many of its most celebrated paintings are awe-inspiring and create a sense of nature’s vastness. This generally reflects the harsher, colder northern Chinese climate. 

    By contrast, the southern landscape style (often described as earthen (土山 [tǔshān]) style) reflects the warmer, waterway-filled lush style of Southern China’s scenery. More rolling hills softer outlines.

    Of course, a big part of the reason for the resurgence of the southern style was also simply the fact that the court was now in southern China.

    5. Ma Lin (active early to mid-13th Century)

    One story has it that Ma Yuan was so determined for his son Ma Lin (马麟 [Mǎ Lín]) to succeed, that he would sometimes sign his own paintings in his son’s name.

    Whether this is true or not, we can’t be sure. However, he needn’t have worried: Ma Lin would grow up to be a great painter in his own right.

    He entered the Academy of Painting, where he specialised in specialised in a landscapes, figures, birth and flower painting. 

    And his patron was the 14th Song dynasty emperor, Lizong (r. 1225 – 1264 AD). The 18th and final Song emperor, Emperor Bing (r. 1278 – 1279 AD), leap to his death from a cliff just thirteen years later, when the Mongols took over China.

    This means that Lin quite possibly lived to see the end of the Song dynasty. Either way, his work is infused with an intensely poetic and poignant atmosphere. 

    Two of his most famous poems are direct references to two of the greatest Tang poets, both of whom lived through similarly perilous times (the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763 AD)).

    Waiting For Guests By Lamplight

    Waiting For Guests By Lamplight (mid 13th century) by Ma Lin
    Waiting For Guests By Lamplight (mid 13th century) by Ma Lin, album leaf, ink and colours on silk, 24.7 x 25.1 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    The art historian James Cahill (1926 – 2014) remarked that it is “belongs among the most exquisite of all Southern Song creations in the idyllc mode.”

    It is based on Li Bai’s (701 – 762 AD) ‘Drinking Alone Under Moonlight Four Poems: Part 1’ (月下独酌四首·其一):

    Amongst the flowers with a pot of wine, no friends around [so I’m] drinking alone.
    I raise my cup in invitation to the moonlight and my shadow to join me.
    The moon can’t drink and my shadow [evasively] shifts about me.
    [But] For now I will accompany them both and enjoy the spring [weather].
    The moon listens attentively to my song, as I dance my shadow chaotically moves about.
    Whilst I’m clear-headed, we three happily get; once [I’m] drunk, we separate. 
    Travelling forever with these emotionless things, together to dim distant wonderlands.

    – Li Bai, Drinking Alone Under Moonlight Four Poems: Part 1’

    Waiting For Guests By lamplight (mid-13th century) by Ma Lin, album leaf, ink and colours on silk, 24 x 25 cm. Palace Museum Collection, Taichung.

    Autumn Sunset

    Sunset Landscape by Ma Lin
    Sunset Landscape (1254) by Ma Lin, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 51.5 x 27 cm. Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo. (Image source: Alamy)

    Autumn Sunset (夕阳秋色图) is an almost spartan landscape painting. In its background it depicts far away mountain peaks that look almost like islands in the sk. In the foreground four swallows are flying.

    It prominently displays lines adapted from the Tang poet Liu Zhangqing’s (709 – 786 AD). Liu’s original lines are:

    The mountain holds autumn colours close, birds cross the setting sun.

    – Liu Zhanqing, Accompanying County Magistrate Wang on a Raft’ (陪王明府泛舟)

    Ma has changed this to:

    The mountain holds autumn colours close, swallows cross the setting sun

    Ma has changed bird () for swallow (). And 度 [cross] in Liu’s original, and 渡 [cross] in Ma’s painting, are essentially interchangeable here.

    Richard M. Barnheart pointed out that the painting:

    seems almost to be an elegy for his dynasty, so preoccupied it is with vision and light.

    – Richard M. Barnheart, Three Thousand years of Chinese Painting by Yang Xin, Richard M. Barnheart, Nie Chongzheng, James Cahill, Land Shaojun, and Wu Hung (New Haven & London; Beijing: Yale University Press and Foreign Language Press, 1997), p. 133

    He adds:

    Oddly, many scholars have noted the melancholy in the art of Ma Lin. He often seems to focus his art upon a moment of intense beauty in the process of disappearing as we see it with him.

    – Ibid.

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