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Chinese Ink Painting: A Look at the Profound Beauty of This Ancient Art

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The classical style of Chinese ink painting flourished in the Tang Dynasty. With the simple tools of brush, ink, and paper, China’s scholars and artists brought out “the beauty between resemblance and non-resemblance,” according to Xiu Yitang, a painter carrying on the tradition today.

Chinese ink painting doesn’t emphasize visual perspective like Western painting does. Instead, the artists focus on the aesthetics of the brush strokes and composition to bring out the essence of the subject and connect to the viewer’s heart.

Artists throughout Chinese history have drawn inspiration from Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism for thousands of years. Whether the paintings are landscapes, flowers, birds, people, or architecture, they reflect an understanding of nature and the human condition based on the wisdom of their spiritual traditions.

Chinese ink painting
A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains by Ximeng Wang of the Song Dynasty.

The beauty of lines

A defining trait of Chinese ink painting is the use of lines, as opposed to the Western tradition’s use of light and shadow. The strength and softness of the brush strokes can have a sense of movement, of calmness or vigour; the thickness, lightness, dryness, wetness, and burnt colours of the ink can create a vivid landscape or depict a lively conversation among literati.

The straightness and curves of the lines are interdependent and combine like a symphony on paper. The intentions of the painter interweave with the story of the painting like the melodies and rhythms of music.

Regarding the use of lines, Xiu uses an anecdote from his days studying painting to illustrate the concept. “I had been learning Chinese ink painting for a long time. I was outstanding in my class and often praised by my teachers and classmates. My works were even hung on the wall of our classroom. However, one day a new teacher came to our class for the first time and talked about some common problems of Chinese painting—using my work as examples of the shortcomings one by one.”

Chinese ink painting
Water Map (one of a series of 12 paintings) by Yuan Ma of the Southern Song Dynasty.

Just when Xiu felt the most frustrated, the teacher went straight to his desk and picked up the brush to demonstrate his method for line drawing. “I suddenly became enlightened, and my understanding of lines made a qualitative leap. It was that line which really brought me into the realm of Chinese painting.”

Now, many years after that transformative line at school, Xiu continues to refine his technique.

“The lines of Chinese ink painting are very flexible, which is the biggest feature of Chinese ink painting. You can create a complete painting without any colour. Using just lines, it can still have form, spirit, and meaning. The beauty of lines in Chinese painting is not unitary. It has different textures and spiritual characteristics.”

Xiu gives as an example the painting Travellers Among Mountains and Streams by painter Kuan Fan of the Northern Song Dynasty. He says the lines of the mountains reflect the beauty in strength, showing the majesty of the northern mountains. To show a more feminine beauty, Xiu references Water Map by Yuan Ma of the Southern Song Dynasty, which is a series of paintings showing water in various stages of motion.

Travellers Among Mountains and Streams by painter Kuan Fan of the Northern Song Dynasty.

Xiu says he prefers the aesthetics of Song Dynasty paintings. He likes the tranquility, calmness, and innocence, along with the elegance and integrity of the age. The literati of the Song Dynasty had a profound impact on future generations, and their works are still popular all over the world.

It was during the Song Dynasty that the Chinese concept of the four elegances came to prominence: painting, flower arranging, incense, and tea. Much of today’s Japanese style and minimalist zen furniture reflects the aesthetics of the Song Dynasty. If you carefully appreciate the painting Literary Gathering by Emperor Huizong, you’ll find furniture that would fit even in modern homes.

Artistic conception

When comparing Chinese and Western paintings, some might say that the Chinese style is less systematic and realistic.

Xiu, who has studied both Western and Chinese painting techniques, has his own opinion. “In addition to the lines, the composition of Chinese painting utilizes a multi-vanishing-point perspective and blank space. It has the advantages of multiple perspectives, multiple dimensions, simplicity as well as vividness, and clear themes.”

Without the multi-vanishing-point perspective of Chinese painting, we would lose the impact of paintings such as A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains by Ximeng Wang and Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Zeduan Zhang.

Xiu believes that in place of realism, Chinese painting focuses on a broader concept of “portrayal.” He says that “at least half of its focus is on the expression of the soul. Just like people have both soul and body, the focus of Chinese culture is on the soul, and the expression of the soul is the true and immortal.”

Because of the emphasis on expressing deeper concepts, Chinese artists manipulate their subjects and use negative space in ways that Western painting cannot.

“Traditional Chinese painting has its poetic beauty in artistic conception,” Tian says. “There’s an old saying that ‘paintings are like tangible poetry.’ Generally, a good Chinese painting has this poetic beauty, which is so meaningful for our lives. Without it, there may be only cooking and routine work left for us every day, and we will lack an appreciation for life. The world seems to have no colour, dimmed, being terrifying and boring.”

In Xiu’s view, the beauty in Chinese paintings comes from the artistic conception, which should stem from the artist’s understanding of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and other traditional cultural thoughts. Another feature of Chinese painting tied to those ancient concepts is the use of blank space, which goes beyond the scope of aesthetics to create a genuine sense of tranquility.

Left: In Plum Blossoms, Xiu Yitang uses a tall and powerful posture to express the perseverance of the plum blossoms, and the texture of the flowers shows their freshness, as well as the inner strength it takes to take pleasure in hardship. Right: Return of the Soul, by Xiu Yitang. In ancient China, the wild goose symbolizes the homesickness people feel when they’re far away from home. The creative technique of using objects to express one’s emotions is common in traditional Chinese art and literature.

Chinese ink painting for today

“People today live in restlessness, and their minds are full of various complicated things,” he says. “They cannot be peaceful for even a moment. Over time, it will be detrimental to their physical and mental health. If you don’t know how to delete the complicated things, just keep it simple and properly reserve some blank space. If you don’t, you will easily get lost in such a rush and let beautiful things slip away in life.”

Since 2018, Xiu has been working on an extensive essay titled The Original Theory of Chinese Painting. In the essay, he systematically summarizes his years of research and understanding of Chinese paintings, and he also puts forward his own new viewpoints. Tian says he wrote the essay with the encouragement of his friends and some painters who persevere in their traditional painting styles.

“Becoming a painter requires a pure heart and patience, as well as an attitude of reverence for the traditional orthodox culture,” he says. “When I learned that the ancient monarchs, ministers, and scholars all believed in gods and Buddha, I began to understand the respect in their paintings. It shows the profound meaning of an ancient saying, ‘Skills can bring you closer to the Tao, and art can connect you to the gods.’”

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 105

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