Painting in China has a long and colorful history which can be traced back as far as 3000 BC, although practically no paintings of this time still exist. It was not until the Han Dynasty (210 – 220 BCE) that painting was accepted as an independent art form, but archaeological discoveries from a tomb in Changsha, Hunan province, from the Chu culture included a piece painting on silk, showing the deceased riding on a dragon. This is an evidence of early Chinese painting, and proves that silk as a painting material was used as early as in the 7th century BC. By the 1st century CE, silk was slowly substituted by the more durable and cheaper paper, although it never completely vanished.
The Art and Painting in China During the Shang Dynasty
Painting in China did not become independent until the 4th century CE, but the history of Chinese art is much older. The Shang Dynasty was the first dynasty in which contemporary written documents were composed, mostly in form of oracle texts on bones or tortoise shells. Besides this development in the field of script, the Shang Dynasty is known for its achievements on the field of bronze casting and pottery. As for bronze casting, the pieces created were weapons and ritual vessels, with characteristic ornaments. The vessels were used to ceremonial purposes and contained either liquids or food for offerings, depending on their shape. The outside of the vessels are often decorated with ornaments such as the taotie-mask, birds, snakes, dragons or zoomorphic creatures. In the field of pottery, Shang Dynasty potters managed to raise the temperature during the firing process, which resulted in now water proof ceramics with a hard body. Designs were carved or pressed, mostly in geometric shapes which cover the complete surface of the vessel. Furthermore, the first glazes appeared – potters of earlier dynasties had only painted their ceramics after firing. The application of a greenish, slightly yellow glaze is another development in Shang ceramic art.
The Impact of Secular Developments on Chinese Painting: The Han Dynasty
Until the Han Dynasty (210 – 220 BCE) painting were mostly of religious nature and showed either Daoist scenes, rituals connected to ancestor worship, or illustrations of Confucian moral themes. These religious or philosophic motifs were not abandoned in the Han Dynasty – mural paintings in particular include depictions of higher beings such as guardian spirits. These pictures are often executed on tiles or bricks; contemporary documents also state that the walls of palaces, halls and houses were covered with paintings. The growing economical expansion and contacts to foreign travelers through the Silk Road caused artists to depict scenes from daily life in this flourishing period merchants, artisans, even slaves and soldiers were illustrated in figure paintings. This variety in themes and motifs was not only limited to painting, but other kind of art as well, such as pottery or lacquerware.
Becoming independent: Chinese Art and Painting in the Jin and Wei Dynasty
Most of the paintings that were created in the Jin and Wei Dynasties show Buddhist themes, mostly as wall paintings, in a style that still followed Indian ones. It was also in the 4th century when painting became an independent art form and was appreciated for its artistic and aesthetic qualities. Painters started to sign their works – Gu Kaizhi’s “The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies” is the first picture to bear a signature. Texts about painting, such as the “The Record of the Classification of Old Painters” by Xie He, in which he named the “Six principles of Chinese Painting”, formed the theoretic basement for paintings and painters alike. The Wei Dynasty also saw a first separation between professional and amateur artists, of whom the latter were far better remembered in later times. Dai Kui is said to have been the painter who founded the tradition amateur painting. This division would become even more meaningful in the Song Dynasty, when amateurs, the so-called literati painters, produced mainly landscape paintings. In the Wei Dynasty, however, the members of the courtier class, who painted on a non-professional level, depicted Buddhist and Daoist themes.
First Maturation – Accumulation of Subjects and Styles
The Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) saw a vast growth in painting techniques and motifs. A much admired painting subject were horses, who played an important role in the Tang dynasty expansion, and were thus a common subject. Figure painting was another renowned topic and included not only religious motifs, but also depictions of historical events or narrative illustrations. Pictures of beautiful women, especially court ladies, were common in the Tang dynasty, glorifying their beauty and praising their virtues. The 8th century, however, saw a growing trend towards birds, flowers and landscapes. Especially scholar painters, who painted in their free time, wanted to distinguish themselves from court painters, who worked for money and whose main works included figures or portraits. Thus, topics as flowers or landscapes became popular among scholar painters, although figure painting was never completely abandoned.