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Xie He’s Six Principles of Chinese Painting

    Xie He was an Chinese painter and art historian living in the Liu Song and Southern Qi dynasties (6th century AD).

    He wrote his Classified Record of Ancient Painters (古画品录 [gǔ huà pǐn lù]) in around the year 550 AD.

    It it, he famously included six principles of painting (or the six points to consider when judging a painting). These were used to rank 27 artists from the 3rd to the 5th century AD.

    These principles had a long and lasting impact on Chinese art history.

    Below, I have listed these principles and a brief explanation of each.

    But first, let’s briefly put them into context.

    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)

    Are the six principles of Chinese painting essential?

    No, the six principles are not essential for judging Chinese paintings.

    They are simply Xiu He’s suggestion, and were not followed by all painters who came after him.

    In fact, many painters who came after believed that art should be less formalised than Xie He prescribed here. And the history and variety of Chinese painting is too complex to be contained with these principles.

    Furthermore, the six principles have been interpreted differently many times over the years.

    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)

    The six principles

    1. Spirit consonance (气韵 [qìyùn])

    This is the essential spirit of the artist which is said to carry over into paintings. Someone’s spirit resonating in a painting is an almost indescribable sensation that viewers inherently comprehend. Only successful true artists manage to convey it.

    is a very important concept in Chinese philosophy and thought more generally. It has naturally carried over into art, where many artists throughout the centuries have discussed it at length.

    2. Bone method (骨法 [gǔfǎ])

    This refers to the artists brushwork, both its texture and its style. Artists all have their own personality, which can be sensed in their very strokes of ink. Learning to distinguish subtle aspects of the aesthetic appeal of different masters’ painting styles helped one develop in this area.

    3. Correspondence to object (应物 [yìng wù])

    The resemblance objects had to reality. It can also be translated as ‘form likeness’. This is a good example of a principle that was not seen as central later on, when many artists and art critics began to focus more on capturing a sense of innate expression over direct representation.

    4. Suitability to type (随类 [suí lèi])

    The colour, tone, and layers of a painting. This also covers areas such as the seasons and symbols depicted.

    5. Division and planning (经营 [jīngyíng])

    The general sense of space and the connectedness of different sections of a painting. This includes placement of primary and secondary areas of focus by the artist.

    6. Transmission by copying (传移 [chuán yí])

    This refers to the practice of copying past masters in order to take on aspects of their style. It was common for many early painters to learn their craft this way.

    Jing Hao’s six principles

    Mount Kuanglu by Jing Hao
    Mount Kuanglu (ca. 900) by Jing Hao, hanging scroll, ink and light colour on silk. 185.8 x 106.8 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Several centuries after Xie He’s lifetime, the innovate landscape painter and art theorist Jing Hao (ca. 855 – ca. 930) listed his own six principles (or ‘six musts’ [六要]) of painting:

    1. Vital force (or life force) (气 [])
    2. Rhyme (or charm) (韵 [yùn])
    3. Thought (思 [])
    4. Views (or scenery) (景 [jǐng])
    5. Brush (笔 [])
    6. Ink (墨 [])

    Jing’s principles implied an alternative to Xie He’s. In the centuries that followed, Jing’s principles would be adopted by many painters.

    The clearest point of difference between Xie and Jing’s principles lies in ‘correspondence to object’/‘form-likeness’ (i.e., realistic depiction of what is being painted).

    Jing conspicuously did not include this in his list. And many Chinese painters during his lifetime and later similarly stressed the unimportance of this point.