The region south of the Five Ridges in Guangdong is commonly referred to as “South of the Ridges,” or Lingnan (嶺南). In the late Qing dynasty, the opening of Guangzhou as a trading port and other external developments led to a turning point for revolutionary change in the practice of art in the Lingnan area, which was accompanied by the appearance of many promising and talented painters. The fame of Lingnan artists quickly spread to equal those in Shanghai and the Beijing-Tianjin area, forming a triumvirate with them. Painters in Lingnan leapt to the forefront of art circles to form a core group in southern China.
The innovations in modern Lingnan painting can be traced to two progenitors, the cousins Ju Chao (居巢, 1811–1865) and Ju Lian (居廉, 1828–1904). Both natives of Geshan Village in Panyu, Guangdong, their painting style continued in the “boneless” tradition of color washes employed by the early Qing painter Yun Shouping ( 惲壽平, 1633–1690), but in terms of subject matter and methods of expression, they branched out on their own. They specialized in the techniques of adding water and powder to still-drying washes, demonstrating full command of various changes to the subjects depicted. Gao Jianfu (高劍父, 1879–1951), Gao Qifeng (高奇峰, 1889–1933), and Chen Shuren (陳樹人, 1884–1948) were their most famous followers, becoming known as the “Three Masters of Lingnan” and being considered as the official founders of the Lingnan School. All three traveled to Japan and studied art there, selecting from the realism and bright colors prevalent in Japanese painting at the time. After returning to China, they took up the revolutionary slogan of “Balancing Chinese and foreign, blending ancient and modern (折衷中外、融會古今)” in the early Republican era, confronting traditional art that laid emphasis on imitating the ancients.
The second-generation followers of the Lingnan School include artists such as Zhao Shao’ang (趙少昂, 1905–1998), Li Xiongcai (黎雄才, 1910–2001), and Guan Shanyue (關山月, 1912–2000). Together, they represent the rich variety of artistic expression found in the Lingnan School. The impact of the Lingnan School’s “new Chinese painting” on contemporary art circles, however, was not limited to Guangzhou, but also spread to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, where many followers emerged and continue to the present day.