Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

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Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

Chinese culture is one of the oldest in the world. It put down roots few thousand years ago and has been developing on a single territory since those times. Chinese art had its rise and decline stages, due to the historical destiny that the country faced in the process of its development. New types and genres of art have been emerging during the last five thousand years: from the earliest periods of Chinese history known to mankind till nowadays. A lot of them left at that stage, or drastically changed, preparing the way for the development of the new phenomenon. However, every historical period, even obscure and dark one, made a significant contribution to the history of the Chinese art. Indeed, a hallmark of Chinese culture was the fact that none of the major events passed without leaving a trace in its history. All of them, creating and modifying each other, formed like a long chain of complex parts, extremely different and at the same time welded together. The painting and calligraphy are two parts of Chinese soul forms the basis and background of Chinese art. For this reason, they are worth to be researched and examined in historical and modern aspects.

Chinese painting and calligraphy are harmonically linked and called sisters because of common features and using lines, which transform into highly developed art forms, and represent not only the contours, but also express the vision and feelings of the artist. Developing a stylistic unity, they are interconnected to each other and move forward. Different lines are used for reaching various effects and describing diverse subjects. This suggests that the basis of Chinese fine art is a line. Chinese painters and calligraphers could use the simplest lines for creating works of high art (Zhuzhong & Desheng, n.d.). They may be straight or curved, hard or soft, thick or thin, pale or dark, and the paint itself may be dry or current. Using lines and strokes is one of the elements that give Chinese painting its unique qualities.

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Traditional painting unites such traditional arts as poetry, calligraphy, painting, engraving and printing in the same picture. In ancient time masters were educated in calligraphy traditions and knew its sacrificial meaning as well as poetry. “Painting in poetry and poetry in painting” is one of the criteria for recognizing masterpiece of art. Inscriptions and seal impressions help to explain the idea and the sentiments of the painter or calligrapher, and add also a decorative beauty to the Chinese painting. In ancient period of time the most skillful artists often depicted pines, bamboo and plums. Such drawings were accompanied by the inscription “exemplary behavior and nobility of character,” the plants were attributed to of people’s characters and were designed to implement them. All kinds of Chinese art – poetry, calligraphy, painting, engraving and printing – complement and enrich each other.

Calligraphies of different nations have similar features. For example, Chinese calligraphy has different styles as well as Arabic one, which types have been developed in certain forms during the centuries. Each style had a distinctive shape and was created for a specific purpose. Some of them are still used for writing the Koran, others – for official documents. Different regions influenced the development of particular font styles (Waterman, 2009). The most important regions were the following: the Arab world (from Morocco to Iraq), the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey and surrounding areas) and Persia (Iran and neighboring lands). Both calligraphies possess sacral meaning, but in Arabic culture, which is closely connected with alphabet, it has more religion context, whiles the Chinese calligraphy, based on hieroglyphs’ painting tradition, has more philosophic roots.

As well as Arabic Calligraphy, Chinese one (Asian Art Museum, 2012) is the special art, which is adopted by people earlier than any other kind of art in China. Teaching to read, a child is encouraged to begin the calligraphy practice, not only for facilitating the process of learning difficulties and numerous of hieroglyphs, but also for laying the foundations of aesthetic taste, for awaking the ability to perceive art and independent creativity. Cultural “baggage”, which is learned in childhood, could serve a man during all his life.

Calligraphy is called non-objective painting and soundless music. It is a dance without the performer, architecture without a designer and building materials.

Zhang Xu. Detail of the work in kuantsao style. “Four Ancient Poems”

(Zhang Xu. Detail of the work in kuantsao style. “Four Ancient Poems”)

Calligraphy by its external form and internal properties, combinations and methods of overlay features both objectively and abstractly, reflects such important attributes of beauty as balance, proportion, varying in height and size, connectivity, parallelism, movement and stasis, variability, harmony, and others. That’s why it is the key to many other related arts, which by appealing to calligraphy draw their inspiration in it.

Rhythm is the main attribute of both: music and calligraphy. In terms of the hieroglyph density and pallor of ink can vary that in its turn creates a vivid rhythmic pattern similar to the pulsating rhythm of the music. Calligraphy, as well as music, can convey strong emotional author’s or artist’s experiences. Not surprisingly that at all times the calligraphic work was compared with the “play of songs” or “enchanting melody, born by musician’s fingers.” Calligraphy as a dance form requires the beauty and movement. Both of them have the characteristics of spatial and temporal arts. We admit that these kinds of art mutually complement each other. A striking example is the work of Tang calligrapher Zhang Xu, peerless master kuantsao cursive, which is simply overwhelmed by wild imagination and movement.

The Chinese Guohua painting appeared in antiquity. It is distinguished by great originality and quite differs in material, technique and artistic means to European painting.

Chinese paintings are written by ink, mineral and vegetable dyes such as watercolor on silk (sometimes cotton, etc.) or on special paper, which is made of soft and thin fibers. They have a form of scrolls: horizontal (for examining them on the table) and vertical (for decorating the walls).

The artists use the same materials and tools for painting and calligraphy: brush, soft bamboo or hemp fiber porous paper and Chinese ink. Chinese reached the highest perfection in the manufacture of ink for writing and drawing. Working with the color, a master remembers a golden rule, which says that the ink should not stand in the way of color, and the color should not stand in the way of ink.

The images of Chinese painting are often embodied deep philosophical mentality. They were given the symbolic values associated with the ideas of ancient cosmogony. Heaven and Earth as the key images determine the structure and dynamics of the picture. Dualistic structure of the world, approved in ancient times, appeared as visibly embodied in heaven and earth two opposite principles of the universe: male power – [yang] and feminine force – [yin]. The interaction of these forces gives rise to the five elements: water, fire, wood, metal and earth, which are formed by the real world.

The annual cycle embodies two everlasting natural processes of birth and death. “The Four Seasons” is a favorite motive of Chinese artists. The culmination of this cycle is the winter solstice, when the power of Yang experiences the greatest stress and the sacrament merging of Heaven and Earth is being accomplished, when the light springs from the depths of darkness. Therefore, winter snowy landscape is considered the best form to express the essence of being.

In Chinese landscapes, mountains are considered the personification of the masculine yang bright start, and water is female dark Yin. According to the ancient beliefs their combination causes the universe’s rise. Mountains are the bones of the Earth and Water flows, like the veins, containing throbbing blood, carrying life and movement. The artist is considered to  convey the essence, world harmony, and rhythm, which underlie phenomena of nature. So he is still opposite naturalism and pursuit of external similarity.

Researching the Chinese painting and calligraphy history, we can better understand the way of its emerging and developing,

Jin Dynasty (265-420). Calligraphy and painting in China at the beginning of the imperial times were highly appreciated behind courts’ walls and were produced almost exclusively by amateurs.  It was unusual “hobby” for scholar-officials and aristocrats, who were not ready to spend enough time for improving the manner and enough spirituality for understanding sensitiveness of great brushwork. Calligraphy was considered to be the perfect form of painting. Nevertheless, people got a new vision and began to appreciate painting for its own beauty during the Jin Dynasty. From this time individual artists, such as Gu Kaizhi, raised as a new kind of painters. They tried to create graceful figures on their pictures.

Tang Dynasty (618-907). During the next period of history, figure painting was focused on the royal court. Zhou Fang as well as other masters showed the splendor of court life, representing the magnificent ladies, redoubtable emperors and their bloodstock. The elegant realism was highly appreciated in the art of the court of Southern Tang (937-975). Most of the Tang artists outlined figures with traditional black lines and concentrated attention on brilliant color, for elaborating aspects and detail. The famous ancient master Wu Daozi preferred only black ink and bravely painted brushstrokes. He created ink paintings, which were so amazing that crowds gathered to observe him working. Times changed and ink painting couldn’t serve any more as the basis for colored picture. Instead of that, they were valued as the finished works of art.

There were a lot of landscape, often shanshui (山水, “mountain water”), paintings in the Tang Dynasty era.

The main goal of painting such landscapes was not the description of nature appearance (realism), but focusing on the atmosphere, and gasping the emotion, feeling the “rhythm” of the outworld. This style is known as shuimo-hua.

Song and Yuan Dynasties (960-1368). This period is characterized by enriching landscapes with more subtle expression. The distances between natural objects were conveyed through the use of blurred. Outlines of the mountains were hidden by the mist, and impressionistic vision influenced natural phenomena. Taoist and Buddhist concepts emphasized spiritual qualities of the artists and abilities of impressing inner harmony and sacral connection between man and nature. One of the most respected painters of that epoch, Zhang Zeduan, was famous as the artist of Along the River During the Qingming Festival. Besides him, Yi Yuanji achieved a high level of realism fauna painting, and devoted his works to gibbons and monkeys (Classical Art of China: Painting, 2008).

During the Southern Song period (1127-1279), such divinely gifted masters as Ma Yuan and Xia Gui took strong black brushstrokes for marking trees and rocks, unlike pale washes, which were used for painting misty space.

Different groups of painters determined very specific goals.  Some of them were involved in attempting to create three-dimensional objects on the paper and to reach the illusion of space.  Others, as the poet Su Shi and the scholar-officials of the end of Northern Song period, become serious fancier painters, who promoted a new type of art, which demanded the skills in calligraphy (beautiful writing) for ink paintings. The greatest desire of the Northern Song period masters was an opportunity to express the strong feelings and to shape the inner spirit of the describing objects, instead of simple and common appearance.

 During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), painters combined the arts of painting, poetry, and calligraphy. The whole poems were written on their masterpieces. Three significant arts, united together, could express the painter’s feelings and materialize their thoughts more completely than separate type of art.

The period of Late Imperial China (1368-1911) puts the beginning of traditional admiring with simple subjects: several fruits on the table, a few trees, or one or two animals. Narrative painting, with a wider color spectrum and a much difficult composition than Song’s paintings, was excessively popular during the Ming (1368-1644) governing. The members of the Wu School supported the heritage of the Yuan scholar-painters and were inspired by the artist Shen Zhou. In contrast, the Zhe School followers, promoted the transformation of the Song court types of painting.

The early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) is characterized by emerging and rising of Individualism, which challenged the traditional painting rituals. The new cast of artists searched for the ways of expressing themselves through independent brushwork. In the 1700s and 1800s, such famous commercial cities as Yangzhou and Shanghai became influential centers of developing totally new approaches in creating paintings.

In the late 1800s and 1900s, Chinese painters were inspired by the Western culture. Some artists who were lucky to visit Europe refused from Chinese painting; others tried to unite the best of both traditions.

Modern Chinese Painting

“Chinese national painting” remains the most popular destination in the contemporary visual arts in China. It is a special system in the world of art and includes such genres as painting landscapes, portraits, images of flowers and fruits, animals and insects.

Visual techniques in this direction are varied: coloring, blur ink and other types of equipment. The main methods of applying ink drawing lines are touching, painting, heavy or light pressure, dry or wet effect, perspective, clarity, density and void. These terms experts use to describe the methods of imaging.

Contemporary Chinese painting is developed through the continuation of national traditions and the development of foreign countries’ new technologies. In XIX-XX centuries China became famous with the following artists and calligraphers: Xu Beihong, Qi Bai Shi and Pan Tyanshou (Hearn & Smith, 2001).

Xu Beihong (1895-1953) acted at the forefront of regeneration and renewal of the Chinese national painting. His works united national traditional means of artistic expression and experience of contemporary realist art. The artist became the creator of a new direction that combined classical traditions with realistic achievements of European art. Xu Beihong is famous as cultural “ambassador”, who conducted a dialogue between East and West. His creativity and social position are used and enjoyed by the constant sympathy of progressive cultures and arts, not only in China, but also in other Asian countries, as well as in Europe.

Xu Beihong “Galloping Hourse”. Ink.

Xu Beihong “Galloping Hourse”. Ink.

Qi Baishi (1863-1957) was well-known and beloved painter, who began his lifeway as a poverty-stricken peasant and became the famous master. His best known works were devoted to the flora and small animals. He combined the simplicity of his work with the immediacy of folk art. This painting trend emerged in the X-XII centuries and became particularly prevalent in the XVI-XVII centuries, united artists, who didn’t recognize themselves as professionals, but mainly by collectors. Qi Baishi offered to lead the analysis of national painting phenomenon in several dimensions: 1) in the context of modern Chinese life, its specific social, religious and ethical systems; and 2) in the context of the Chinese philosophers, artists and critics statement, about the “Chinese national painting.” Chinese painting almost never was “art for art’s sake”, but always contained the task of the moral perfection of the viewer.

Qi Baishi “Shrimps”. Ink.

Qi Baishi “Shrimps”. Ink.

Many artists in China were able to combine the art features with the Confucian, and Taoist-Buddhist tendencies. The creativity of Qi Baishi could serve as the most striking example synthesis example of these trends.

Pan Tyanshou (1897-1965). Is was not so easy to combine the desire of keeping up with the life and at the same time follow the “reclusive” view of medieval masters’ lifestyle and form of upholding the personality, which became a path to monasticism and renunciation of social activity. Pan Tyanshou showed finest synthesis of old and new traditions, achieved by following an aesthetic concept of medieval traditions and keeping a special social instinct. His temperament was in tune with the needs of the time. He was more limited, selective, and generally more traditional in his choice of subjects, focusing attention included on a small number of objects and phenomena.

Pan Tyanshou “Rushing Junks”. Ink.

Pan Tyanshou “Rushing Junks”. Ink.

Chinese Art and Society Today

In the age of rapid Internet the word cannot follow the idea fast enough. The Word is no longer written by beautiful handwriting, honoring certain rules and state of soul… it mindlessly typed on the keyboard. And when a modern person begins to write something by hand, “old-fashioned”, he is surprised that completely unfamiliar with his own handwriting. Computers and printers unceremoniously joined to the subtle energy system “soul-heart-hand-paper”. Thus, there is no wonder that we are losing the spiritual meaning of many concepts, which need calm, meditative concentration and contemplation. Day by day it becomes harder to fight against these new rules of the game. Sometimes, it is impossible to look around and capture a particular moment, saving it deep in the soul. The Chinese found out the unique method of helping one’s soul be calligraphy. Today, Chinese painting and calligraphy serve not only for reflecting and shaping the ideas of artists, but also for relaxing and introducing the mass the culture based on old traditions.

Attaching a sacred meaning of calligraphy, the Chinese certainly could not but use its spiritual and energy potential in the art of Feng Shui, based on thinly prescribed image characters with a certain value. These calligraphic characters are able to activate the zone of Feng Shui, as well as bring some positive changes into its professor’s life.

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Hieroglyphics in the system of Feng Shui are clearly directed towards person’s harmony with the world and itself. Modern society believes that it leads to a better whole living situation, objectives achievement, harmonizing relations with colleagues and beloved ones, protecting against negative, attracting events and influences, which contribute to the material and spiritual growth.

Hieroglyph “Health”

Hieroglyph “Health”  

Hieroglyph “Fulfillment of Desires”

Hieroglyph “Fulfillment of Desires”

In conclusion, Chinese painting is not only an art. It is also a science, which is focused on the philosophy, aesthetics, history, literature and poetry, calligraphy and engraving. Chinese painting contains not only the problems of artistic expression skills, but most importantly, related to the various theories and knowledge of the life. Chinese painting and calligraphy have been forming its customs throughout the long process of history. This traditional art, consisted of two types, expressing the aesthetic people’s needs, in the course of history, has been strengthened by discoveries, innovations, and breeding. China painting is an important part of ancient and modern Chinese life and the priceless treasure of the Chinese nation with its long history and glorious traditions in the world art.