History of Sumi-e – The Beginnings and Early Forms of Chinese Painting


The Beginnings of Painting in China

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.

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History of Sumi-e – Art and Painting in China During in the Jin and Wei Dynasty


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.

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