An important part of the country's cultural heritage, the traditional Chinese painting is distinguished from Western art in that it is executed on xuan paper (or silk) with the Chinese brush, Chinese ink and mineral and vegetable pigments.
To attain proficiency in this branch of art calls for assiduous exercise, a good control of the brush, and a feel and knowledge of the qualities of xuan paper and Chinese ink.
Before setting a brush to paper, the painter must conceive a well-composed draft in his mind, drawing on his imagination and store of experience, Once he starts to paint, he will normally have to complete the work at one go, denied the possibility of any alteration of wrong strokes.
Xuan paper, as discussed in a previous article, is most suitable for Chinese painting. It is of the right texture to allow the writing brush wet with Chinese ink and held in a trained hand, to move freely on it, making strokes varying from dark to light, from solid to hollow. These soon turn out to be human figures, plants and flowers, birds, fish and insects, full of interest and life.
Many a Chinese painter is at the same time a poet and calligrapher. He will often add a poem in his own hand on the painting, which invariably carries an impression of his seal. The resulting piece of work is usually an integrated whole of four branches of Chinese art-- poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal-cutting.
Chinese paintings are divided into two major categories: free hand brushwork (xieyi) and detailed brushwork (gongbi) . The former is characterized by simple and bold strokes intended to represent the exaggerated likenesses of the objects, while the latter by fine brushwork and close attention to detail. Employing different techniques , the two schools try to achieve the same end, the creation of beauty.
It is difficult to tell how long the art of painting has existed in China. Pots of 5,000-6,000 years ago were painted in colour with patterns of plants, fabrics, and animals, reflecting various aspects of the life of primitive clan communities. These may be considered the beginnings of Chinese painting.
China entered the slave society about 2000 B.C. Though no paintings of that period have ever come to light, that society witnessed the emergence of a magnificent bronze culture, and bronzes can only be taken as a composite art of painting and sculpture.
In 1949 from a tomb of the Warring States Period (475-221 B. C.) was unearthed a painting on silk of human figures, dragons and phoenixes. The earliest work on silk ever discovered in China, it measures about 30 cm long by 20 cm wide.
From this and other early paintings on silk it may be easily seen that the ancients were already familiar with the art of the writing or painting brush, for the strokes show vigour or elegance whichever was desired. Paintings of this period are strongly religious or mythological in themes.
Paintings on paper appeared much later than those on silk for the simple reason that the invention of silk preceded that of paper by a long historical period.
In 1964, when a tomb dating to the Jin Dynasty (265- 420 A. D) was excavated at Astana in Turpan, Xinjiang, a coloured painting on paper was discovered. It shows, on top, the sun, the moon and the Big Dipper and, below, the owner of fan in his hand. A portrayal in vivid lines of the life of a feudal land-owner, measuring 106.5 cm long 47 cm high, it is the only known painting on paper of such antiquity in China.