General East Asia survey course materials - R. Eno   

Traditions of Chinese Literati Painting

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The literati ideal in traditional China held that educated gentlemen aspiring to government service should be poets of accomplishment. In this series of pages we will explore another aspect of that ideal: that literati were expected to show accomplishment in the art of brush calligraphy and, for some, the art of painting as well. Not every literatus had the talent or time to devote himself to painting, though some men famous for social and political accomplishments did. But by looking at the way that the members of the governing elite approached the art of painting, we can gain some further insight into the way in which they conceived and tried to live up to the ideal of the fully cultivated literatus.

The key division that we will emphasize here, one made between classes of painters rather than among literati, distinguishes men who were called "academic" painters and those who were seen as painters in the literati tradition. What's the difference? Academic painters were highly skilled craftsmen, who aimed to achieved marvelous effects through their use of colors, realistic or highly conventional representations of people or things, spectacular detail, applications of shiny gold leaf, and so forth. The Imperial court employed many such men, and others made their way in the world by selling their paintings to wealthy patrons and customers. "Academic painters" were professionals, both in their virtuoso skills, and in the fact that they depended on permanent employment as painters, or on selling their paintings to live. While many of these men were educated to some degree, few possessed the literary background of a literatus, and none made their way in life fulfilling the Confucian ideal of governmental service. "Literati painters," on the other hand, were amateurs -- they painted as a means of self-expression, much the same way they wrote poetry; both forms were inheritances from the Neo-Daoist era of the Six Dynasties. While many fewer literati were accomplished painters than were poets (and painting was never an aspect of the exams), in every major place in China there were always many literati who either painted on the side, while playing the role of scholar-officials, or who, through wealth, could afford to devote themselves fully to the art of painting.

Literati painting was conceived as mode through which the Confucian junzi (noble person) expressed his ethical personality. It was much less concerned with technical showiness. Literati painters specialized in plain ink paintings, sometimes with minimal color. They lay great emphasis on the idea that the style with which a painter controlled his brush conveyed the inner style of his character -- brushstrokes were seen as expressions of the spirit more than were matters of composition or skill in realistic depiction. 

While literati poetry developed fully during the Tang Dynasty on the basis of long Six Dynasties preparation, painting did not become central to literati until later. Although we hear of famous poet-painters of the Tang, because their works have not survived it is difficult to know to what degree their art differed from academic painting.  During the late Song, however -- that is, after about 1200 -- literati and academic painting become two distinct streams. Interestingly, although academic paintings were often far more skilled in technique, many felt -- and still feel -- that the "amateur" ink paintings of the literati are the highest form of art in China.

On the pages linked through this page, we will take a look at some representative works of literati painting, and many of these will be central to our Wednesday class. We'll briefly survey here the heights that academic painting reached before the genre of literati painting became fully developed, and then focus on a limited number of painters and paintings. The most important of the painters we will look at is a man named Shen Zhou (1427-1509), who lived during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). We will see in Shen Zhou's approach to his art many key facets of the Confucian-Daoist literati ideal, translated into an approach to painting.

Please bear in mind that this reading, which introduces only a few paintings, in no way represents the spectacular range of Chinese painting of all types and eras that we now possess. Chinese art history is one of the richest fields of cultural exploration, and painting is one of its most complex and beautiful areas. This reading focuses almost solely on landscape paintings, only one among dozens of genres.

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