A Brief History of Chinese Brush Painting

Note-- This is brief according to book standards, but might be quite long according to internet standards.

As far as seven thousand years ago in China, flowers, fish, and geometry designs were made on cave walls and on clay pottery. Confucius (500 BC) said, "The kind man delights in [likes] mountains and the wise man delights in [likes] water." Taoist masters also promoted the beauty of nature. Thus appreciation for flowers, birds, landscapes, etc. formed the central theme in poetry essays and in paintings. Since Chinese writing required the use of brushes, ink, and water (tools of the scholar), painting became a scholarly pursuit and was intertwined with calligraphy and poetry. Brush strokes in calligraphy were applied in painting, expanding in high levels of expressiveness, and exploiting the movement of the brush in gradations of ink and color. 

Painting has been a popular art form throughout Chinese history - the start of the heightened growth took place in the Sung Dynasty (10th century AD). At one time, the Sung palace had an art school for painters. Since the capital was in the North, the landscape paintings reflected the terrain of high cliffs, large rocks, and old tree trunks typical of the area. Painting peonies, lotuses, narcissus, and chrysanthemums were popular. Su Shi's bamboo (sometimes in red) and Li Kung-Lin's horse are well known works. In the late Sung period, some artists somewhat simplified their work with fewer strokes. Mu Ku's "Six Persimmons" show the fruits in varying gradations of shades - this resembles modern art and is perhaps the precedent of modern Chinese painting. 

In the Yuan Dynasty (13th and 14th centuries), the Mongolians ruled. Many artist scholars were exiled. While living in remote areas like hermits, they expressed their thoughts on their artwork and poetry - sometimes in subtle ways. Wu Chen's "Fishing on the Autumn River" used dark ink and many details. Simplicity and white blank space were sometimes used. Bamboo was popular and has been painted as old leaves, new leaves, bamboo in the wind, bamboo in the rain, etc. Flowers, birds, and plum were done in outline and dark strokes. 

The Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) saw continued development in art. Artists entered court or palace life again. Some of the most famous works are Shen Chou's landscape, "Walking with a Stick", Lin Liang's "Bamboo and Magpies", and Wang Wen's "Making Tea" depicting a a bearded man in his robe sitting on a carpet boiling water. 

The Ching Dynasty (1644 - 1911) saw a big movement to return to antiquity. Some artists, loyal to Ming, did not like to be under Ching (Manchurian) rulership. They went to remote mountains and became monks and hermits while doing traditional painting. At the same time, the Ching court readily adopted and promoted the Han Chinese culture. Several European countries sent missionary-artists to China. They introduced Western painting styles and learned to do Chinese paintings. The result was a new form of painting introducing perspective and light shades. 

Up to this point, around 1800 or so, colored paint was made from natural substances such as minerals, plants, ground up flower petals, etc. as well as black ink from grinding on the ink stone. With the introduction of new paint-making technology, colors were brilliant and readily available. Paintings were brighter in color. Traditional paintings, as in landscapes and flowers, were still being done. But more artists depicted everyday living - people weaving and farming. Some artists produced portraits. Some artists took on the modern technique by going outdoors to capture the light and shadows of plants and flowers. Huei Sho-Ping's "Peonies" avoided using outlines, forming shapes with color. The Chinese tradition of copying from the old masters was not done often. The technique of "pour-ink" was practiced. Painters would splash ink on paper, allowing it to soak and run. Lines and enhancements were added to the ink splashes to form images.

Modern painting saw the work of Chang Ta-Chien's landscapes, often monumental and detailed. Hsu Bei Hung's horses were comprised of bold and free sweeps of the brush, and Chi Bei Shih's fruit, shrimp, crab, and still life paintings are very simple, contemporary, and extremely effective. Chinese art history spans thousands of years. The number of artists and the historical accounts can fill a whole library.

This is just a summary covering a few slivers in time. As the art form continues to evolve and grow, it is retaining its uniqueness, simplicity, and beauty. The appreciation of Chinese brush paintings as well as the creation of them will bring much pleasure, tranquility, and peace of mind to people everywhere. 

References: Whitefield, Roderick, "In Pursuit of Antiquity", Princeton University Museum; Ho Lien Kwei, "Chinese Cultural Art Treasures", National Palace Museum, Taipei; Wong Yu Ting, "Chinese Painting", Kung Tung Publishing, Taipei