What are the Common Motifs in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

Foreword to Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting Motifs

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.

The Motif of Bird and Flower in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

One category that is often mentioned when talking about Chinese painting is the so-called “bird and flower” painting (花鸟鱼虫hua niao yu chong). That title is misleading. Although bird and flower painting does include birds and flowers, it is not narrowed to those subjects, but also covers natural topics such as fish, insects, and little animals. The animals often have symbolic meanings – mandarin ducks, for example, stand for marital fidelity, because they are monogamic animals. Pictures of mandarin duck couples were popular gift for newlyweds.

Birds of prey, such as hawks, falcons or eagles, stand for power. Bird and Flower Painting became popular under Emperor Huizong in the Song Dynasty, who favored this subject and painted a lot of Bird and Flower pictures himself.Qi Baishi, one of the modern ink and wash painters, particularly excelled in the skilful rendition of crabs, lobster and other sea animals.

What are the Most Common Plant Motifs in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

 Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting Motifs – Bamboo

Bamboo is one of the most important subjects in Chinese painting. Being surrounded by bamboo every day, with bamboo being one of the most versatile plants ever, and the graceful appearance of the plant itself, it is not surprising that it plays an important role in Chinese painting. Bamboo combines strength, solidness and flexibility and thus turned to be a symbol for the ideals of the literati– the straight stems symbolize sincerity; its green color stands for integrity and reliability. Because bamboo doesn’t wilt in winter, it is a symbol for durability. And, last but not least, because it can become very old, it stands for longevity. Regarding all the named symbolisms, it is not surprising that many literati painters produced bamboo pictures. Due to the straight shapes, it is relatively easy to paint, even for beginners, because it needs only a few well-placed strokes to depict a plant.

Literati who were skilled in calligraphy could smoothly paint a bamboo without putting much effort into the painting process. Legend says that bamboo painting was invented in the 10th century, when Lady Li of Shu sat in her room at night and practiced her calligraphy. When she heard something rustling, she turned around and saw the moonlight shining through the bamboo plants in front of her house, casting shadows on the paper window. She took her ink-loaded brush and traced the shadows on the paper – bamboo painting was born.


 Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting Motifs – Pine Tree

The pine tree is another subject which is important in ink and wash painting, although it is seldom depicted alone, but in combination with plum and bamboo, forming the “Three Friends of Winter”. The pine tree is usually connected to old age and longevity. With its impressive, rugged shapes, the ability to even grow in the most barren places, and due to staying green in winter, it is a classical symbol for endurance and strength.

What are the Most Common Flower Motifs in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting?

 Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting Flower Motifs – Chrysanthemum

The chrysanthemum is a flower which keeps on appearing in Chinese ink and wash painting. It symbolizes autumn and is a sign of noble seclusion. The chrysanthemum is mostly connected to poet Tao Yuanming, whose favorite flowers were chrysanthemums. Tao retired from official duties and retreated from the world. In one of his poems, he describes a scene in which his children welcome him at the eastern fence of his property, where Tao picks a chrysanthemum.

 Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting Flower Motifs – Lotus Flower

The lotus flower derives from Buddhism, representing Buddha himself and symbol for purity. A lotus flower can grow in the muddiest waters, water rolls off its leaves, keeping it pure and clean. The color of a lotus flower can range from a pale white to an intense pink on the tip of the petals. Lotus flowers are either depicted as the main subject or as attributes of figures from the Buddhist pantheon. Furthermore, it is sometimes not only solely the blooming lotus flower that is depicted, but also the stems, leaves, or buds with their characteristic appearance.


Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting Flower Motifs – Cherry Blossom

It is rather Japan than China where the cherry blossom plays an important role in art. Cherry blossom motifs can be found on numerous genres, be it textiles, metalwork, prints or painting. The popularity of the cherry blossom comes from the beauty of the trees blooming in spring, when the cherry blossom petals rain down like clouds. The flower therefore symbolizes beauty and purity, but also represents Japan itself. Because cherry blossoms bloom beautifully, but only for a short time, they also stand for the ephemeral nature of life.


Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting Flower Motifs – Peony

Peonies are flowers you will stumble over every now and then when engaging in ink and wash painting. They are distinguishable through their large size and layered petals. Peonies have been cultivated in Chinese gardens since over 1000 years and come in numerous colors such as red, white, yellow or deep purple. Peonies are plants which can grow and bloom on the same spot for many years, which might be the reason for its popularity in China, apart from its beautiful look. They symbolize wealth and elegance.

Combination Motifs in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

Popular subjects in Chinese ink painting are the so-called “Four Gentlemen”: plum , orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum, symbolizing the four seasons and things such as wealth or refinement. The “Three Friends of Winter” – plum, bamboo and pine tree – are winter symbols. All of them are hardy plants, which makes them symbols of permanence and durability.

The Motif of Figures in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

When it comes to figure painting, ink and wash painters draw most inspiration of figures from Chan Buddhism, such as famous masters like Bodhidharma. He is said to be the founder of the Chan School, and is often depicted in portrait form, as a man with a big nose and intense stare. This iconography derives from the story that Bodhidharma was an Indian monk (and thus looked “foreign”) who tore off his eyelids when he threatened to fall asleep during meditation. Other popular motifs are Bodhidharma’s followers, the Chan patriarchs, who were famous teachers who continued the Chan tradition laid out by Bodhidharma. In their depiction, painters often reproduce little anecdotes from their life.

Since ink and wash painters in China were well-educated men, they were familiar with classic writings of famous poets and calligraphers. Many of those well-known masters, whose works had been read and quoted over the centuries, became subjects for ink and wash painting themselves. They were often associated with Confucian ideals, with virtue and diligence, and portraits of them became a constant element in art. A good example for this is a picture by Liang Kai which illustrates the famous calligrapher Wang Xi Zhi, who helped an old lady to sell fans by providing them with his calligraphy.

Landscape Motifs in Ink and Wash / Sumi-e Painting

The Chinese word for landscape painting, shan shui hua (山水画), contains the Chinese characters for “mountain” and “water” and thus names the two most important elements that are to be found in every landscape painting. Landscapes always were a popular motif in ink and wash painting and have been depicted ever since, although the sceneries illustrated hardly ever truly exist. The pictures are often idealized versions of the environment, with elements such as rocks, trees and streams put together in the most ideal way. It were the Literati painters in particular who created paintings of towering mountains or misty hills according to their aesthetic preference. Landscape painting bloomed in the Song Dynasty, although there are differences between the paintings of the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties. The former often depict monumental, impressing mountains in large formats, whereas the latter are smaller, more intimate sceneries, with a more lyrical expression.