The Ancient Art of Shan Shui

  The earliest painting in China can be traced back to about 10,000 years ago, when primitive artists first painted on rocks or on the walls of caves. Before the Zhou Dynasty (256 BC), paintings were just tools for decorating pottery. The earliest extant painting in Chinese art history, which was painted on silk and so regarded as a “real” painting, is known as Dragon, Phoenix, and a Lady, found in an ancient tomb (State of Chu, in Warring States Period) in Hunan province, Mainland China, and dates to this period.

  Gu Kai-zhi, who lived in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, was the first artist to sign his painting (Admonitions of the Instructress to the Palace Ladies). He was also the artist that first used mountain and streams as his subject, which is now known as shan shui (lit: mountain water), a school of Chinese landscape painting. He is famous as “the originator of shan shui.

  In the Chin and Han Dynasties (221 BC - 220 AD), painting was used by the emperors to spread political thinking and teach people manners. Over the next 4 centuries, from the late Han Dynasty to the time of the Southern and Northern Kingdoms (220 - 581 AD), China suffered innumerable wars and social horrors. During this period, Buddhism began its spread from India to China. In order to lead an escape from the ugliness of real life, some artists started to accent their works with religious themes and subjects. They tended to focus on people rather than objects, and there was limited depiction of the natural world.

  The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was one of the most prosperous periods in Chinese history, and some consider Chinese painting to have reached its highest peak during this time. Shan shui painting developed along two different paths. One was “the southern faction”, and the founder was Wang Wei. He was a great poet, and also a great artist. Seeing one of his paintings is as an emotional experience as reading a well-crafted poem, and when reading his poems, one can easily visualize the gorgeous landscapes of his paintings.

  The other path of shan shui was “the northern faction”, the founder of which was Li Si-xun, an esteemed artist employed in the palace. He pioneered a flamboyant style using gold-coloured paint with bright green and blue.

  In the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the emperor established the Hanlin Academy of Painting. Because the emperor valued painting very much, he declared the Song Dynasty to be the golden era in the history of Chinese painting. The themes varied, from characters, birds and flowers, to shan shui, and the works were of very high quality.

  The most important masterpieces currently housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Travelers among Mountains and Streams, by Fan Kuan, Early Spring, by Kuo His, and Wind through the Pine Valleys by Li Tang, were all created during the Song Dynasty.

  However, in the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols subjugated the ethnic Han Chinese, and closed the Hanlin Academy of Painting. Artists took refuge in the mountains and forests far from the capital, and took nature as their subject. They started experimenting with different ways of enjoying painting; instead of depicting every little detail as realistically as possible, they tried to portray their inner emotions on the canvas. However, what they added emotional content, they lost in technical skill. This had a profound effect on painting through the Ming and Ching Dynasties.

  In Ming and Ching Dynasties (1368-1644 and 1644-1911, respectively), the main trend was to imitate the ancient artists. But, in the Ching Dynasty, artists also began to look back at their more immediate past during the Ming Dynasty, and to lament the annihilation of their homeland. They started presenting their feelings in the painting, like Shi Tao, who created a new way of Chinese painting. There were also several artists who lived in Yang Chou, known as “Yang chou Ba Quai (the Eight Eccentrics of Yang Chou)”, whose calligraphy was not rigid, but very wild and unique. Their influence spread to Shanghai, where it gradually became very popular in the late Ching Dynasty. Even now, it holds great sway over Chinese artists.

  Early twentieth century Chinese artists sampled from Western techniques for presenting light and shadow, color, and perspective. After this evolution, artists could establish their own style. I hope more Chinese artists can share their works with the world, and let more people know the beauty of Chinese paintings.