early as the Neolithic age, the prehistoric inhabitants of
China began to paint on the ceramic vessels they made. Their
creations ranged in features from lively to sedate as well
as from free to restrained. During the Hsia, Shang, and Chou
dynasties (20th to 3rd centuries BC) of early China, artisans
revealed considerable skill in producing an amazing variety
of designs and images on bronzes, jades, ceramics, and textiles.
During the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), pictorial art was
rendered on stone, walls, and silk. Bold representations of
figures, birds, and animals formed the main subject matter,
and the solemn style was suited to the didactic notion then
of art as a medium to "instruct and moralize."
the 3rd to 6th century, the concept of "art for art's sake"
gradually arose. Figure painting was imbued with an air of
elegance and refined beauty that was also sometimes free and
unchecked by convention. As Buddhism took hold in China, monasteries
and temples increasingly dotted the landscape. Combined with
the Taoist affinity for Nature and the Confucian ideal of
reclusion after serving society, artists increasingly turned
their attention to the land as inspiration for conveying the
idea of spiritual freedom among mountains and rivers.
repertoire of subject matter expanded in the T'ang dynasty
(618-907) as figure painting flourished and reached a high
point in the history of Chinese art. Landscape as a genre
matured; forms were carefully drawn with rich colors, hence
the term "gold and blue-and-green landscapes." The technique
of applying washes of monochrome ink also developed in which
images were captured with abbreviated, suggestive forms. The
rise of monochrome ink painting formed the basis for the later
distinction between the Northern (fine lines and colors) and
Southern (expressive ink strokes) Schools. During the late
T'ang and Five Dynasties period (907-960), great advances
were made in bird-and-flower and animal painting. Two major
schools also formed in bird-and-flower painting; a rich and
opulent style versus an untrammeled mode of representing natural
(960-1279) artists continued to pursue the beauty of the
landscape. Whether it be the rugged peaks of northern China
or the misty rolling hills of the south, painters created
scenes in which viewers could travel, gaze, wander, and
dwell. In bird-and-flower, animal, and figure painting,
artists not only accurately rendered outer forms but also
captured the essence of the spirit, forming an underlying
principle for the period style.
the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), painters turned even further
to ideas in art. Scholar-artists led the way with their
expressive use of brush and ink, and they were well-suited
to transmitting ideas and feelings with their calligraphic
manner. Their style is often characterized by simplicity,
understatement, and transcendent elegance.
the founding of the Ming (1368-1644), the Yuan scholar style
continued, but the manner of ink-wash painting practiced
at the Sung court became popular. By the middle of the Ming,
the elegance of Yuan scholar painting was again admired.
the late Ming and early Ch'ing (1644-1911), scholar painting
flourished even more as two approaches arose. One involved
artists learning to paint through careful copying of ancient
models, while the other involved abandoning models in favor
of individual creativity. By the middle Ch'ing, the latter
gained popularity. In the late Ch'ing, research on ancient
inscriptions in stone and bronze influenced painting, further
instilling it with renewed vigor.