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.
“Shi dai fu hua (士大夫画) “ – “scholar painting”, or “Wen ren hua” (文人画) “literati painting”, describe the painting of amateurs, the literati. The origins of the literati class date back much further, but both terms generally describe paintings executed by scholars in the Song (960-1279 CE) and Yuan Dynasties (1271-1368 CE). Literati were – to put it bluntly – scholars who painted as a hobby; statesmen, politicians or civil servants, who used painting as a way of self-cultivation and compensation for every day’s work. As opposed to court painters or craftsmen, who earned their money by producing portraits and the like, scholar painters never sold their works. They saw the use of brush and ink as a way to convey their inner thoughts, be it through calligraphy or painting.
When Ni Zan (1301–1374) was born at the beginning of the 14th century, the Mongol rulers had been occupying the Chinese throne for about twenty years. Being suspicious about Chinese officials, they rather employed their own people for high-ranking positions. Many Chinese either refused to serve under the foreign rulers or wouldn’t even get the chance to do so. As for Ni Zan, the latter was the case. He was born into a wealthy family and enjoyed an extensive Confucian education, but never had the opportunity to get a position at court. Contemporary writings describe him as being arrogant, eccentric and over-sensitive, with constant fear of germs and the like. How much of this is true and how much made up rests unknown. In the 1340s, when a disastrous flood caused famines and the Mongol rulers imposed oppressive taxes, Ni Zan gave up his possessions to live on a houseboat and dedicate himself to painting.
Art Becomes Classic – Blurring of Boundaries Between Academic and Amateur Painting in China
The end of Mongol rule and the re-establishment of an indigenous Chinese emperor in 1368 led to a revival of the Imperial Academy and the painting styles of the Southern Song (960-1279 CE) and the Yuan (1271-1368 CE) Dynasties. Some painters picked up the painting style of the Southern Song Dynasty, especially that of the Ma-Xia-School. Others continued the tradition of bird-and-flower painting from the times of Emperor Huizong. Other artists brought colors back into picture and revived the blue-and-green painting style of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). Since most of the Academy painters came from the Zhejiang province, they were named the “Zhe school”. The most notable painter of the Zhe School was Dai Jin. Their counterpart, literati painters from the Wu region in Suzhou, continued in the more expressive and individual styles of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty. They are known as the “Wu school”, of whom Shen Zhou is best known for his eclecticism and ability to paint in the styles of former masters. Although this two main currents in painting existed, the boundaries between academic and amateur painters blurred – not in stylistic terms, but in attitude, mostly when some literati, who had devoted themselves to nothing else but painting, started to accept money for their works, which had been not the case in earlier centuries.