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.

Motifs and Functions of Early Painting in China

Painting already existed in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BCE until the latter half of the fifth century BCE), but it was more of a decorative than artistic nature. Pictures were mostly applied to ritual objects or executed as wall and mural paintings. Topics included mythical animals, ghosts and spirits, but also human figures. Since ancient cultures in China lived mostly in agricultural societies, the ambition of understanding nature and living in harmony with it directly influenced the choice of painting motifs. The belief that nature was the manifestation of omnipresent higher forces caused painting to become a way to show understanding of those powers. It also had ethical functions – portraits had the purpose of expressing the benevolence and virtues of rulers, to disgrace enemies, and strengthen the moral of people. Particularly since the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 BCE), when Confucianism principles became the foundation of society, pictures with Confucian themes served as moral and ethical reminders.

The Introduction of Reality into Early Chinese Painting

Painting did still very much borrow from calligraphy: due to the closeness of painting and calligraphy in materials and exertion, lines and strokes of Zhou paintings have a “calligraphic” character to them. The most profound change in art was the beginning of representative painting, that is, the illustration of real events. Whereas earlier cultures like the Shang (1523 – 1027 BCE) had depicted heavenly creatures or only decorative patterns, the Zhou artists started to illustrate actual happenings – archery contests, ceremonies or agricultural scenes. In terms of landscape painting, elements of nature were depicted on lacquer vessels or bronzes, but only in the background, still being far away from serving as an independent topic.