Since its first arrival in China in the Han, Buddhism has put down deep roots in Chinese society. Although Buddhism did not originate in China, to say that it is a ‘foreign’ religion is to disregard the majority of Chinese history, in which Buddhism played a major role. Moreover, the Buddhism that evolved in China is different from any other iteration of the religion, and must be considered in its cultural and societal context, according to its own characteristics. In general, Chinese Buddhism has emphasized meditation and monasticism above scripture and doctrine: the pursuit of enlightenment is achieved through casting aside the ‘illusions’ of text and even the physical sensations of the world.
Chinese painting draws from a lot of inspiration from nature, religion and history. When examining Chinese ink and wash paintings, one will realize that there are a number of motifs which are repeated over and over again. There is a broad canon of numerous painting subjects – too many to be listed here. The following text shall give you a brief overview about the most important subjects in Chinese ink and wash painting.
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 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.