Little painting remains from the early periods except for that on ceramics and lacquer and tiles, and tomb decorations in Manchuria and N Korea. It is only from the 5th cent. A.D. that a clear historical development can be traced. Near Dunhuang more than a hundred caves (called the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas) contain Buddhist wall paintings and scrolls dating mainly from the late 5th to the 8th cent. They show first, simple hieratic forms of Buddha and of the bodhisattvas and later, crowded scenes of paradise. The elegant decorative motifs and certain figural elements reveal a Western influence.
A highly organized system of representing objects in space was evolved, quite different from Western post-Renaissance perspective. Rendering of natural effects of light and shade is almost wholly absent in this art, the greatest strength of which is its incomparable mastery of line and silhouette. One of the earliest artists about whom anything is known is the 4th-century master Ku K'ai-chih, who is said to have excelled in portraiture.
The art of figure painting reached a peak of excellence in the T'ang dynasty (618–906). Historical subjects and scenes of courtly life were popular, and the human figure was portrayed with a robustness and monumentality unequaled in Chinese painting. Animal subjects were also frequently represented. The 8th-century artist Han Kan is famous for his painting of horses. The T'ang dynasty also saw the rise of the great art of Chinese landscape painting. Lofty and craggy peaks were depicted, with streams, rocks, and trees carefully detailed in brilliant mineral pigments of green and blue. These paintings were usually executed as brush drawings with color washes. Little if anything remains of the work of such famous masters as Yen Li-pen, Wu Tao-tzu, Wang Wei, and Tung Yuan of the Five Dynasties.
In the Sung dynasty (960–1279) landscape painting reached its greatest expression. A vast yet orderly scheme of nature was conceived, reflecting contemporary Taoist and Confucian views. Sharply diminished in scale, the human figure did not intrude upon the magnitude of nature. The technique of ink monochrome was developed with great skill; with the utmost economy of pictorial means, suggestion of mood, misty atmosphere, depth, and distance were created. During the Sung dynasty the monumental detail began to emerge. A single bamboo shoot, flower, or bird provided the subject for a painting. Among those who excelled in flower painting was the Emperor Hui-tsung, who founded the imperial academy. Hundreds of painters contributed to its glory, including Li T'ang, Hsia Kuei, and Ma Yüan. Members of the Ch'an (Zen) sect of Buddhism executed paintings, often sparked by an intuitive vision. With rapid brushstrokes and ink splashes, they created works of vigor and spontaneity.
With the ascendance of the Yüan dynasty (1260–1368) painting reached a new level of achievement, and under Mongol rule many aspects cultivated in Sung art were brought to culmination. The human figure assumed greater importance, and landscape painting acquired a new vitality. The surface of the paintings, especially the style and variety of brushstrokes, became important. Still-life compositions came into greater prominence, especially bamboo painting. During this time, much painting was produced by the literati, gentlemen scholars who painted for their own enjoyment and self-improvement.
Under some of the emperors of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) a revival of learning and of older artistic traditions was encouraged and connoisseurship was developed. We are indebted to the Ming art collectors for the preservation of many paintings that have survived into our times. Bird and flower pictures exhibited the superb decorative qualities so familiar to the West. Shen Chou, Tai Chin, Wen Cheng-ming, T'ang Yin, and Tung Ch'i-ch'ang are but a few of the many great masters of this period.
Under the Ch'ing dynasty (1644–1912) a high level of technical competence was maintained, particularly in the applied arts, until the 19th cent., when the output became much more limited. The famous four Wangs imitated the great Yüan masters. Among painters of less orthodoxy, Shih-T'ao and Chu Ta were outstanding as artists of remarkable personal vision. However, there was little innovation in painting. Throughout the history of Chinese painting one characteristic has prevailed—the consummate handling of the brushstroke. Paintings were executed in a dry or wet-brush technique, with an incredible versatility ranging from swirling patterns to staccato dots.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.