History of Sumi-e – The Yuan Dynasty (元朝/Yuan Chao/Yuan Ch’ao): Retirement and Protest of Chinese Painting

The Introduction of Personality into Chinese Painting

When the Song Dynasty came to an end in 1279 and foreign Mongol rulers took over the throne, many Chinese officials found themselves banned from court, not being able to make a career as statesmen. Others declined serving under the Yuan rulers (1271-1368 CE) and chose to retreat. Those “yi min” (移民), the “ones left behind”, expressed their protest against this treatment by retiring completely form official business and dedicating themselves to artistic activities. Some painters consciously retreated from social life and obligations and turned to studying Daoism or Buddhism. It was in the Yuan Dynasty when a painter’s own style became more and more important, because it was believed that one could see a man’s character through his brushwork. A painter’s personal style and the flow of his brush were called “xin yin” (心印), “impression of the heart”, referring to an artist’s distinctive style and served as an expression of his character and personality. The main goal for a painter was to express his inner character through painting, taking over elements and techniques from calligraphy. The Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty are seen as the four artists who were responsible for the change in Chinese painting during the Yuan Dynasty. Although their styles are very different, their way of rhythmically composting lighter and darker washes, combining calligraphic brushwork with simplified depictions of mountains, rocks and trees and playing with different tonalities of ink heavily influenced painters of later generations. If landscapes of the later Song Dynasty were lyrical and romantic, those of the Yuan Dynasty were more subjective and personal, even melancholic, often being representative for the painter’s inner emotions.

The growing importance of texture strokes, “cun” (皴), with which the surface of rocks and mountains were illustrated, led to the development of a tight canon of painting techniques. Nevertheless, the ambition for depicting a motif as realistic as possible completely vanished. Another addition to pictures were inscriptions like poems or information about the depicted scene. Those calligraphic elements often covered large parts of the painting.