Cultural Sources of Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting – The Influence of Confucianism on Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

 

What is Confucianism?

Confucianism is not a religion, but a philosophy which was and still is immensely important for the political and ethical system of China. It is rooted in the teachings of Confucius and is together with Daoism and Buddhism one of the three great philosophies of China. It was developed around 500 BCE and influences Chinese society and culture until today.

The main aspect of Confucianism is humanism, meaning that every individual of the society should strive for virtue, moral improvement and maintenance of ethics. Confucianism builds on several principles, the main one being the keeping of a social order through the respect for other beings and for the ancestors. The Five Virtues (五常/wu chang), which every individual should possess, are humaneness, justice, etiquette, knowledge and integrity. They form the body of Confucian thought. The Five Virtues are accompanied by other principles, such as loyalty (忠 /zhong) or filial piety (孝/ xiao), which define an individual’sduties in society. Confucianism is thus not a religion, but a system of philosophical and social-politic ideas and moral concepts.

What are the Confucian Connections to Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

The Confucian influence painting is most likely seen in the attitude of the painters themselves. The literati painters of the Song Dynasty were strongly influenced by Confucianism. They were statesmen, officials and politicians who were deeply involved in the Confucian state structure of the time and strived to serve the Emperor according to the system. Above that, their ambition was that of being morally and ethically impeccable. It was commonly believed that one could see a man’s character through his painting style. Painting was there a method to relax from official work, but also for self-cultivation and self-education – it served as a way to train themselves in brushwork and character.

In a broader sense, Confucian thought can be detected in some motifs that are connected to Confucian ideals, such as painting of the “Four Gentlemen” or the “Three Friends of Winter”. Those plants all stand for virtues such as endurance, sincereness or durability, thus being the perfect representatives for the literati. Confucius himself is sometimes depicted together with Buddha and Laozi, the founder of Daoism, all three representing the three main religions and philosophies of China.