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The earliest forms of Chinese painting that we have date from the last centuries BCE. During the period of fragmentation of the late Zhou (771-221 BCE), the many different feudal courts of China employed all sorts of artisans, and many rulers lavished attention on court painters. Even during this early period, painting in China is very much a "calligraphic" art. "Calligraphy" means the art of writing words, and in traditional China, all writing was done with brushes, rather than with a "stylus" (pen-like point). The paint lines of early Chinese paintings were made much the way that people brushed the strokes of the characters they wrote in composing letters and other records. Naturally, the fact that all literate people were accomplished in using an ink brush contributed to widespread skills useful for painting. Although much of the earliest painting we have is of human figures, the great skill of early artists in subtle application of a "calligraphic" line of black ink is already visible. An example is a section of a wall painting, reproduced at left below, from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). The painting depicts two Confucian scholars, and the detail in the middle shows the very fine brush control that allowed the artist to create lifelike expressions with only a few quick strokes of ink. For comparison, note the brush strokes in the calligraphy at right, which comes from a bamboo text inscribed about a century before the Han era.
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