The origins of traditional Chinese painting reach far back into China's distant history. Generally speaking, works dating from before the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) are mainly line drawings of people engaged in various activities. This was the "golden age" of human figure drawing. By the mid Tang Dynasty, landscape and flower-and-bird paintings began their rise to prominence. Paintings of mountains, forests, fields and gardens have the ability to transport one away from the vexations of the material world into a peaceful, carefree realm. Because of this, landscape paintings have always been highly regarded by China's literati and officialdom. The flowers, grass, trees, stones, birds and other animals depicted in the lively and energetic flower-and-bird paintings are also widely admired. Thus, the landscape and flower-and-bird types of painting, together with the earlier human figure painting, comprise the three main categories of traditional Chinese painting.
The ruling and elite classes of the Tang and Song (960-1279 AD) Dynasties were major supporters of Chinese painting. The creative aim behind artistic works produced in this period was more serious and had political and educational significance. In style, the works tended to be elaborate and ornate. The Song Dynasty court established a fairly well systematized academy of painting. Song Emperor Hui Zong, a lover of fine art and painting and an accomplished artist in his own right, granted special patronage to the painters in this academy and sponsored the training of promising painters. The academy of painting reached the zenith of its activity in this period.
However, due to gradual social, economic, and cultural changes, more and more men of letters began to take up painting and literature came to exercise an ever-increasing influence on painting. By the time of the famous Song poet Su Shi (1036-1101 AD), better known as Su Dongpo), the school of "literati painting" had already emerged. By the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD), there was no longer a formal painting academy organization within the imperial palace so the court style of painting declined. At this point, the "literati" school of painting entered the mainstream and the leadership in Chinese paintingcircles fell into the hands of literati painters.
Whether Chinese painting is "realistic" is the object of frequent debate. Some may feel that it is not realistic but such an answer tells only part of the story. Realism in Chinese painting reached its climax in the painting of the Tang and Song Dynasties. However, the kind of "realism" sought in Chinese painting is not an objective reflection of the existence of an object as perceived through the sense of sight, but rather is an expression of a subjective kind of recognition or insight.
For example, no overt effort is made to represent the shadows cast by a particular type of lighting at a certain place and time in the clothing on people depicted in the Song Dynasty painting Che Kan Tu and for this reason, the painting does not have a clear three-dimensional effect. After the painter set the lines down on paper, he used watercolor wash techniques to achieve a chiaroscuro effect of light and dark, representing the forces of "yin" and "yang" to express his grasp of the eternal quintessential nature of his subject. A square planter painted according to the objective principles of perspective should in theory appear longer in front and be foreshortened in back, reflecting the perceived decrease in relative size of more distant objects. But the front and back edges of a real planter are equal in length and this knowledge of the physical world is incorporated into the image the painter of the Che K'an T'u created. The planter is represented as a flat surface with sides that are equal in length.
The fundamental component of Chinese painting is the line, as it is in Chinese calligraphy. Because of this shared feature, these two arts have had, beginning from a very early time, a close mutual relationship. By the time that "literati" painting had become popular in the Yuan Dynasty, men of letters who painted put even more conscious effort into reaffirming the link to Chinese calligraphy and actively led a trend to fuse calligraphy and painting.
The close relationship between poetry and painting was formed under the strong influence of literature on painting. Scholar-statesmen and literati led the melding of poetry and painting and this eventually spread to the academy of painting. The Song Emperor Hui Zong is known to have used poetry to test painters on their ability to express with ink and paper the enchanted world created in written verse.