In 221 BC the ruler of the feudal Qin state united all of China under himself as Qin Shihuangdi (“First Sovereign Emperor of Qin”) and laid the foundation for the long stability and prosperity of the succeeding Han dynasty.
Literature and poetry indicate that the walls of palaces, mansions, and ancestral halls of the Han dynasty were plastered and painted. Surviving Han paintings include chiefly tomb paintings and painted objects in clay and lacquer.
The Six Dynasties period is a collective term referring to the Three Kingdoms period (220–280), Jin Dynasty (265–420), and Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420–589).
During this time, calligraphy and painting in China were the most appreciated arts in court circles and were produced almost exclusively by amateurs, usually aristocrats and scholar-officials, who had the leisure time necessary to perfect the technique and sensibility necessary for great brushwork. Calligraphy was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting. During the Jin dynasty, people began to appreciate painting for its own beauty and to write about art. From this time individual artists, such as Gu Kaizhi, started to emerge.
Most of the Tang artists outlined figures with fine black lines and used brilliant color and elaborate detail. However, one Tang artist, the master Wu Daozi, used only black ink and freely painted brushstrokes to create ink paintings that were so exciting that crowds gathered to watch him work. From his time on, ink paintings were no longer thought to be preliminary sketches or outlines to be filled in with color. Instead they were valued as finished works of art.
Beginning in the Tang dynasty, more and more paintings were landscapes, or shanshui hua (山水畫, mountain-water paintings). Two major styles of landscape paintings emerged. One is known as qinglü shanshui (“blue-green landscape”) or jinbi shanshui (“gold-blue-green landscape”), in which mineral colors were applied to a composition carefully executed in fine line to produce a richly colored effect. The other is painted in monochrome ink. In these ink-wash paintings, the purpose was not to reproduce exactly the appearance of nature (realism) but rather to grasp an emotion or atmosphere so as to catch the “rhythm” of nature.
In the 10th century, many painters in northern China painted monumental landscapes with meticulous brushwork, while those in the south painted the soft-rolling hills of the Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River) region in a more relaxed and spontaneous manner.
Towards the end of the Northern Song period (960–1127), the poet Su Shi and the scholar-officials in his circle became serious amateur painters. They approached painting with an objective of expressing themselves. From their time onward, many painters strove to freely express their feelings and to capture the inner spirit of their subject instead of describing its outward appearance.
The northern Song emperors were enthusiastic patrons of the arts. Huizong, perhaps the most knowledgeable of all Chinese emperors about the arts, was himself an accomplished calligrapher and a painter chiefly of birds and flowers in the realistic tradition.
At the beginning of the Southern Song period (1127–1279), historical figure painting regained its earlier dominance at court. Later the primacy of landscape painting was reasserted and turned in an increasingly romantic and dreamlike direction,court painters such as Ma Yuan and Xia Gui used strong brushstrokes to sketch trees and rocks and pale washes to suggest misty space.
During the Yuan dynasty, the ruling Mongols distrusted the Chinese intelligentsia. The restriction of the scholars’ opportunities at court and the choice of many of them to withdraw into seclusion rather than serve the Mongols created a heightened sense of class identity and individual purpose, which in turn inspired their art. The ideals of the retired scholars may be summed up as individuality of expression, brushwork more revealing of the inner spirit of the subject—or of the artist himself—than of outward appearance, and suppression of the realistic and decorative in favor of an intentional plainness, understatement, and even awkwardness (zhuo, 拙), which marks the integrity of the gentleman suspicious of too much skill. The Four Masters of the Yuan, all greatly influenced by Zhao Mengfu, came to be regarded as the foremost exponents of this philosophy of painting in the Yuan period.
The restoration of a native dynasty made China once again a great power. Early Ming court painters such as Bian Wenjin and his follower Lü Ji carried forward the bird-and-flower painting tradition of the Northern Song. Gradually, however, the Southern Song styles of landscape painting came to hold sway, represented by Zhe school artists such as Dai Jin.
The Wu district of Jiangsu, in which Suzhou lies, gave its name to the Wu school of landscape painting, dominated in the late 15th century by Shen Zhou and Wen Zhengming. In contrast to the Zhe school, the Wu school artists lived far from the court and followed the tradition of the Four Masters of Yuan. Shen Zhou also became the first to establish among the literati painters a flower painting tradition.
The dual attraction of the Manchu rulers to unbridled decoration and to orthodox academicism characterized their patronage at court. In regard to the former, they favored artists such as Yuan Jiang and Lang Shining. At the same time, Manchu emperors saw to it that conservative works in the scholar-amateur style by the Four Wangs were also well represented at court.
On the other hand, painters known as Individualists rebelled against many of the traditional rules of painting and found ways to express themselves more directly through free brushwork. The most outstanding of them is a group of Four Monks. Later in the 18th and 19th centuries, great commercial cities such as Yangzhou and Shanghai became art centers where wealthy merchant-patrons encouraged artists to produce bold new works.
Painting in China, as with all the arts of China since 1912, has reflected the effects of modernization, the impact of Western art, and the political, military, and economic struggles of the period, including the war with Japan (1937–45), the civil war that ended in the establishment in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China, and the rapid economic changes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
The first Chinese artists to respond to international developments in modern art were those who had visited Japan. Gao Qifeng and others inaugurated a “New National Painting” movement, which in turn gave rise to a Cantonese, or Lingnan, regional style that incorporated Euro-Japanese characteristics.
Increasingly, by the mid-1920s, young Chinese artists were attracted not just to Japan but also to Paris and German art centers. A trio of these artists brought back some understanding of the essential contemporary European traditions and movements. Liu Haisu was first attracted to Impressionist art, while Lin Fengmian was inspired by the experiments in color and pattern of Henri Matisse and the Fauves. Xu Beihong eschewed European Modernist movements in favor of more conservative Parisian academic styles.
Throughout the 1950s, as Socialist Realist standards were gradually implemented. While the early 1960s provided a moment of political relaxation for Chinese artists, the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76 brought unprecedented hardships.
The passing of Mao and Maoism after 1976 brought a new and sometimes refreshing chapter in the arts under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. In the 1980s a resurgence of traditional Chinese painting occurred, featuring the return of formerly disgraced artists, including Li Keran and Huang Yongyu, and the emergence of such fresh talents as Wu Guanzhong and Jia Youfu. Chinese artists began to experiment with new subjects and techniques in their attempt to bring Chinese painting to a new height.