I fell in love with traditional Chinese painting during an extended trip to the People’s Republic more than 15 years ago now. My arrival in Beijing more or less coincided with the outbreak of the SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic which caused flights all over Asia to be cancelled as countries instituted strict quarantine controls on any aircraft arriving from mainland China. I was stuck there so I made the most of things by walking the nearly deserted city (public gathering places such as movie theatres and parks were closed to Chinese nationals in an effort to prevent the spread of the illness). I often felt that I was the only tourist remaining and have fond memories of exploring the Forbidden City (Palace Museum) and climbing the Great Wall at Badaling without another soul in site other than the occasional cleaner.
The few people I met, other than the occasional nurse or doctor taking my temperature as another hedge against SARS, was invariably an artist or art student wishing to practice their English as well as selling a few of their paintings. I was always drawn to the ink and watercolor style of paintings as seen in the images accompanying this article and featured on a beautiful set of four stamps released by the Republic of China ( 中華民國 — Zhōnghuá Mínguó in Mandarin), better known as Taiwan (臺灣). By the time I returned to the United States (via a circuitous route encompassing non-quarantining countries and including my first — very brief — landing on Thai soil), I had quite a collection of paintings and calligraphy to hang upon my walls.
Chinese painting is one of the oldest continuous artistic traditions in the world. Painting in the traditional style is known today in Chinese as guóhuà (国画), meaning “national” or “native painting”, as opposed to Western styles of art which became popular in China in the 20th century. Traditional painting involves essentially the same techniques as calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black ink or colored pigments; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made are paper and silk. The finished work can be mounted on scrolls, such as hanging scrolls or handscrolls. Traditional painting can also be done on album sheets, walls, lacquerware, folding screens, and other media.
The two main techniques in Chinese painting are:
- Gongbi (工筆), meaning “meticulous”, uses highly detailed brushstrokes that delimits details very precisely. It is often highly colored and usually depicts figural or narrative subjects. It is often practiced by artists working for the royal court or in independent workshops.
- Ink and wash painting, in Chinese shui-mo (水墨, “water and ink”) also loosely termed watercolor or brush painting, and also known as “literati painting”, as it was one of the “Four Arts” of the Chinese Scholar-official class. In theory this was an art practiced by gentlemen, a distinction that begins to be made in writings on art from the Song dynasty, though in fact the careers of leading exponents could benefit considerably. This style is also referred to as xieyi (寫意) or freehand style.
Landscape painting was regarded as the highest form of Chinese painting, and generally still is. The time from the Five Dynasties period to the Northern Song period (907–1127) is known as the “Great age of Chinese landscape”. In the north, artists such as Jing Hao, Li Cheng, Fan Kuan, and Guo Xi painted pictures of towering mountains, using strong black lines, ink wash, and sharp, dotted brushstrokes to suggest rough stone. In the south, Dong Yuan, Juran, and other artists painted the rolling hills and rivers of their native countryside in peaceful scenes done with softer, rubbed brushwork. These two kinds of scenes and techniques became the classical styles of Chinese landscape painting.
Chinese painting and calligraphy distinguish themselves from other cultures’ arts by emphasis on motion and change with dynamic life. The practice is traditionally first learned by rote, in which the master shows the “right way” to draw items. The apprentice must copy these items strictly and continuously until the movements become instinctive. In contemporary times, debate emerged on the limits of this copyist tradition within modern art scenes where innovation is the rule. Changing lifestyles, tools, and colors are also influencing new waves of masters.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese painters were increasingly exposed to Western art. Some artists who studied in Europe rejected Chinese painting; others tried to combine the best of both traditions. Among the most beloved modern painters was Qi Baishi, who began life as a poor peasant and became a great master. His best-known works depict flowers and small animals.
Beginning with the New Culture Movement, Chinese artists started to adopt using Western techniques. Prominent Chinese artists who studied Western painting include Li Tiefu, Yan Wenliang, Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, Fang Ganmin and Liu Haisu.
In the early years of the People’s Republic of China, artists were encouraged to employ socialist realism. Some Soviet Union socialist realism was imported without modification, and painters were assigned subjects and expected to mass-produce paintings. This regimen was considerably relaxed in 1953, and after the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956–57, traditional Chinese painting experienced a significant revival. Along with these developments in professional art circles, there was a proliferation of peasant art depicting everyday life in the rural areas on wall murals and in open-air painting exhibitions.
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), art schools were closed, and publication of art journals and major art exhibitions ceased. Major destruction was also carried out as part of the elimination of Four Olds campaign.
Following the Cultural Revolution, art schools and professional organizations were reinstated. Exchanges were set up with groups of foreign artists, and Chinese artists began to experiment with new subjects and techniques. One particular case of freehand style (xieyi hua) may be noted in the work of the child prodigy Wang Yani (born 1975) who started painting at age 3 and has since considerably contributed to the exercise of the style in contemporary artwork.
After Chinese economic reform, more and more artists boldly conducted innovations in Chinese Painting. The innovations include: development of new brushing skill such as vertical direction splash water and ink, with representative artist Tiancheng Xie, creation of new style by integration traditional Chinese and Western painting techniques such as Heaven Style Painting, with representative artist Shaoqiang Chen, and new styles that express contemporary theme and typical nature scene of certain regions such as Lijiang Painting Style, with representative artist Gesheng Huang. A 2008 set of paintings by Cai Jin, most well-known for her use of psychedelic colors, showed influences of both Western and traditional Chinese sources, though the paintings were organic abstractions.
On September 6, 2017, Chunghwa Post Ltd. of Taiwan released a set of four stamps portraying Republican-era ink-wash paintings from the collection of the National Palace Museum (国立故宫博物院) in Taipei (Michel #4188-4191). Termed “special stamps”, they were designed by Up Creative Advertising and Design Corporation and offset-printed by Cardon Enterprise Co., Ltd. in sheets of 18, perforated 13½ x 12½. The 5 New Taiwanese dollar (NT$5) stamp features Xu Beihong’s “Magpie” (Michel #4188), “Macaque” by Gao Qifeng is on the NT$12 denomination (Scott #4189), Huang Chun-pi’s “A Secluded Scene of Remote Mountains” is portrayed on the NT$15 value (Michel #4190), and the NT$25 stamp pictures Qi Baishi’s “Pumpkin Vines of Abundant Growth” (Michel #4191).
Gao Qifeng is acclaimed as one of the “Three Masters of the Lingnan School” of painting. Gao successfully combined the poetic element of Chinese painting, Japanese pleinair painting and Western techniques to develop a unique personal style. In the painting featured on Michel #4189, a macaque, a kind of monkey, sitting on the trunk of a pine tree apparently staring into the distance. The trunk was rendered with brushwork and washes of ink and colors. The hues of the macaque’s fur are beautiful with haloes of colors ranging from light to dark to create the effect of light and shadow. Its face is rendered with ink and colors for a three-dimensional effect, while the eyes, nose, ears and mouth along with the fingers are outlined with ink to emphasize a source of light. The artist’s signature appears at the lower left, while in the lower right is an impression for “Seal of the Dingjing Hall” belonging to Mr. Lin Tsung-yi, who later donated this work to the National Palace Museum.
A native of Panyu in Guangdong Province, Gao Qifeng (1889-1933) was the younger brother of Gao Jianfu (1879-1951), with whom he learned painting in his early years before also going to Japan , in 1907, to study under Tanaka Raisho (1868-1940). In 1912, after the overthrow of the Manchus, Gao Qifeng and his brother moved to Shanghai and began publishing a journal titled Zhen xiang huabao (The True Record). It featured articles on art and politics, as well as published essays promoting a new, modernized national art in China. Although it ran for only a year, the journal was one of the first to bring art to the public. The brothers advocated government support of the arts and opened the nation’s first public galleries for the exhibit and sale of art works, the Aesthetic Bookstore. Jianfu and Qifeng stayed in Shanghai until 1918. By 1923, the brothers established the Spring Awakening Art Academy in Canton.
The Lingnan (嶺南畫派) school of painting, also called the Cantonese school of painting, is a style of painting from the Guangdong or Lingnan region of China. This school reflects a style of painting founded in the 19th century in Gwongdung province by Two Gous and one Chan — Gou Jiangu, Gou Qifeng and Chan Syu-yan, also known as “The three greats of Lingnan” (嶺南三傑). The Lingnan style of painting was revolutionary and innovative compared to traditional Chinese painting, influenced by Western European visual arts and by the early Qing painter, Yun Shouping ( 惲壽平, 1633–1690).
In the late 19th century, scholars in China broke through entrenched conservative thoughts and began to actively seek to create and promote new schools and styles of art. This not only cultivated a large amount of ideological progress among social elites but also gave birth to the “eclectic fusion of the Han Chinese and Western style, ancient and modern” Lingnan school. The Lingnan school advocates the introduction of Western painting styles with the integration of Han Chinese and Western paintings, in the spirit of revolution of Oriental arts, while maintaining traditional Han Chinese painting techniques.
This school of painting enjoys considerable fame among Han Chinese peoples. Along with Cantonese opera and Cantonese music, they are known as the “three fineries of Lingnan” (嶺南三秀). Meanwhile, the Lingnan school is listed along with Beijing and Tianjin painting school and Shanghai school as the three pillars of modern Chinese painting.
The Lingnan school is characterized by:
- Blank space focus: Lingnan paintings, in line with traditional Han Chinese painting styles, are focused on the “presence of both the real and the surreal”, and “paying attention to the places without ink” — inheriting the traditional techniques of ink wash paintings.
- Strokes focus: Lingnan school’s strokes are complex and anti-tradition, with the goal of achieving magnificence and vividness.
- Bright coloring: Influenced by impressionism, Lingnan paintings focus on the light performance. Most of the colors are very bright, in stark contrast to the traditional ink wash painting, which in turn is pale, stressing “With paleness comes the soul of pens and ink”.
- Rendering of background colors: Since Tang Empire’s Wang Wei put forward the idea that ink wash was superior, In general, Han Chinese painting styles focus on the use of ink wash and abstain from coloring. Lingnan school does the opposite.
Of the four artists whose works are portrayed on these stamps, Gao Qifeng and Huang Chun-pi are not as well-known as Xu Beihong and Qi Baishi in Mainland China due to political reasons. Among the two well-known, Qi Baishi is almost synonymous with modern Chinese art, especially his ink-wash paintings of everyday subjects such as shrimp, vegetables, flowers, and insects. Xu Beihong was most famous for his horse paintings, as he combines western techniques with traditional oriental philosophy. Works of them are highly sought after by collectors and often fetch astronomical prices at auctions.