The human figure as a subject in Chinese painting has a much longer history than flowers-and-birds or landscape painting. Engravings of figures on rocks dated back to the Neolithic period (c 6500-1600 BCE). Early figure paintings have been found on rocks, cave walls, tomb walls, coffins, pottery, wood, lacquer wares, and silk. They provide us with pictures of deities of the ancient belief or folk religion, hunting scenes, court ceremonies, processions, and war chariots.  The figure paintings were mostly drawn in profile of linear design without shadows or perspective. Archaeological discoveries offer a glimpse at the development of figure painting from the Warring States (403-221 BC) periods, to the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), then the Wei and Jin era (265-420) and beyond.

The following attempts to show the development of Chinese figure painting in the last 2000 years. The paintings are arranged in chronological order of the year of birth of the painters.

 

Neolithic Period (新石器時代) (c 6500 – 1600 BC)

Human faced fish decoration pottery basin (人面、魚紋陶盆) Yangshao Culture (仰韶文化), Banpo Archaeological site (半坡遺址) (5000-4000 BC), Shaanxi (陝西). Capital Museum, Beijing (首都博物館)

 

 

Engraved rock dated back to Neolithic period (c 6500 – 1600 BC)

 

 

Warring States (戰國) Period (465 BC -221 BC)

This Female Figure, Dragon and Phoenix painting (人物龍鳳帛画is believed to be one of the most ancient figure paintings on silk survived today.

 

Warring States (戰國) (481 BC to 403 BC) Female Figure, Dragon and Phoenix painting (人物龍鳳帛画), 31.2 x 23.2 cm, Hunan Provincial Museum (湖南省博物館)

 

Warring States (戰國) (481 BC to 403 BC) Painted lacquer toilet box (彩漆奩-車馬出向圖漆繪) , diameter 27.9 cm, height 10.8 cm, unearthed from Baoshan tomb Number 2, Jiangling (荊門市包山2號墓), Hubei Provincial Museum (湖北省博物館)
A small section of the painting on the box, height 5.2 cm, length 87 cm.

 

Han (漢) Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD)

The subject of figure painting has been greatly influenced by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Court ladies, kings and emperors, virtuous scholars, hermits, Taoist deities, fairies, Buddhist deities, luohans, and guanyin are common subjects for painting.

 

A section of a Chinese Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD) fresco of 9 chariots, 50 horses, and over 70 men, from a tomb in Luoyang, China, which was once the capital of the Eastern Han. (Photo credit: Professor Gary Lee Todd)

Two sections of mural painting in a tomb in Luoyang, Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD) 東漢 鴻門宴圖壁画, 23 x 193 cm,  Luoyang Ancient Tombs Museum (洛陽古墓博物館)

The Confucians set up the literary ideal. The virtuous people and scholars, not soldiers, were their role models. The people were taught to be loyal to the emperors.

Rubbings of two engraved stone slab of the ancient kings and virtuous people from ‘Wu Family Shrines’ Pictorial Stones (漢代武氏祠畫像拓片) erected in AD 151, Eastern Han Dynasty at Jiaxiang in Shandong Province (山東省嘉祥縣)

Jin (晋) Dynasty (265 AD – 420 AD) 

 

Rubbing of the two sections of the bricks lining a fourth-century tomb excavated near Nanjing, Jiangsu province 磚印壁画 Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove  (竹林七賢) , 80 x 240 cm) x2, Nanjing Museum (南京博物院)

 

The next development was the paintings that gave a narrative of stories.  There were illustrations that depicted stories. Not merely for serving decorative and aesthetic purposes, some paintings conveyed an educational purpose. For instance, Gu Kaizhi (顧愷之)(c344-406) painted The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies (女史箴圖with the text  of Zhang Hua (張華) to reprimand Empress Jia (賈后) and to provide advice to the women in the imperial court.

 

Attributed to Gu Kaizhi (顧愷之) (344-406) The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies (女史箴圖), long scroll, ink and colour on silk, 24.8 x 348.2 cm, British Museum. (Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gu_Kaizhi)
A small section of the above scroll

 

Attributed to Gu Kaizhi (顧愷之) (344-406) Nymph of the Luo River (洛神賦圖卷) (Copy in Sung Dynasty 宋摹本), long scroll 27.1 x 572.8 cm, The Palace Museum of Bejing (故宫博物院).  (Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gu_Kaizhi)
A small section of the above scroll

 

 

The Northern and Southern Dynasties (南北朝)(420–589 AD)

Buddhism was very popular in the Northern and Southern Dynasties (南北朝).  People donated substantial amount of money to build temples. Mural or fresco paintings in temples might have been very abundant at that time. Time and persecution have obliterated the art works.  Owing to the remoteness and dryness of the Gobi Desert, a large collection of fresco paintings survived in the cave monasteries at Dunhuang (敦煌). The majority of the fresco paintings were created in the Tang Dynasty.

Mural Painting of Dunhuang Caves, number 275 (敦煌第275)窟, Past Life of King Pí léng jié lí (毗楞竭梨王本生圖)

 

Tang (唐) Dynasty  (618-907 AD)

Mural paintings in cave monasteries at Dunhuang (敦煌) are the masterpieces of Tang figure painting. The murals are extensive, covering an area of 46,000 square metres. The fully painted caves have paintings all over the walls and ceilings, with geometrical or plant decoration filling the spaces not taken by figurative images, most prominently of the Buddha.

Mural Paintings of The Mogao Caves (Dunhuang)  Musicians and Dancers (敦煌莫高窟第112窟的樂舞圖)
Detail of the above mural painting showing a musician playing the pipa in an unusual way

Attributed to Yan Liben (閻本立)(c. 600-673) Figures of Ancient Emperors (歷代帝王圖) or The Thirteen Emperors (copy in Tang Dynasty 唐摹本), long scroll, ink and colours on silk, 51.3 x 531 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts (Photo credit: https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%8F%A4%E5%B8%9D%E7%8E%8B%E5%9B%BE)
Detail of the above scroll

 

Wu Daozi (吳道子)(c680-c740) created about 300 paintings in the temples of Luoyang and Chang’an. His brushwork was full of sweeping power and he painted chiefly in ink, leaving the colouring to his assistants. Wu was famous for the three-dimensional, sculptural effect he achieved with the ink line alone. Unfortunately his wall paintings have vanished and only a few of his sketches on silk and paper for the wall paintings survived.

 

Attributed to Wu Daozi (吴道子) (c680-c740) The Heavenly King of Sending Sons (送子天王圖), ink on paper scroll, 35.6 width , Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, Japan

 

 

Zhang Xuan (張萱) (c713 – c755 AD) and Zhou fang (周昉) (c 730-c800 AD) are two of the most famous painters in the Tang Dynasty. They specialized in court lady paintings.

Attributed to Zhang Xuan (張萱) (c713 – c755 AD) Dailin Tu (Court Ladies Preparing Silk)(搗練圖), (a copy of Sung Dynasty), a section of a long scroll, ink and colours on silk, 37.1 x 145 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

Attributed to Zhou fang (周昉) (c 730-c800 AD) Court ladies adorning their hair with flowers (簪花仕女圖), a section of a long scroll, ink and colours on silk, 46.2 x 180 cm, Liaoning Provincial Museum (遼寧省博物館)
A section of the above scroll

 

Sun Wei (孫位) (active around 881 AD) Picture of Learned Men (高逸圖), a section of a long scroll, ink and colours on silk, 45.2 x 168.7 cm, Shanghai Museum (上海博物館)

 

Anonymous, eighth century (?) from Tun-huang, The Paradise of Amitabha Buddha, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, 137.2 x 101.6 cm, British Museum, London

Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (五代十國)(907 -960 AD)

Imperial Painting Academy or Hanlin Painting Academy (翰林圖畫院) was established in Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.  It was under the direct administration of the imperial government. Painters of the academy enjoyed the same treatment as literary officials in courts. The academy gathered the most excellent painters in the country.

Zhou Wenju (周文矩) (917-975 AD) Playing Chess in front of Double Screens (重屏會棋圖), (replica in Sung Dynasty), ink and colours on silk, 40.3 x 70.4 cm, Palace Museum, Beijing

 

Gu Hongzhong (顧閎中) (937 – 975) was both an artist and a detective. The Emperor asked him to spy on Han Xizai’s lifestyle and Gu painted a long scroll Night Revels of Han Xizai  (韓熙載夜宴) depicting the night party of Han showing that Han indulged himself with music and dancing.

Gu Hongzhong (顧閎中)(937 – 975 AD), Night Revels of Han Xizai (韓熙載夜宴圖), ink and colours on silk, 28.7 x 335.5 cm, Palace Museum, Beijing

In the late Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms more adventurous brush technique was developed by such painters as Shi Ke (石恪) who developed ‘splashed ink’ (潑墨) or ‘ink and wash’ (水墨) painting. This style is also referred to as ‘xieyi’ (寫意), freehand style or literati painting (文人畫).

Shi Ke (石恪)(10th century, around Five Dynasties period), Two Patriarchs Harmonizing Their Minds (二祖調心圖), pair of hanging scroll, ink on paper, 35.6 x 64.4 cm each, Tokyo National Museum

 

 

Song (宋) Dynasty (960-1279 AD)

The Song Dynasty united China again in 960 and expanded the Imperial Painting Academy.  It gathered the great painters from the Five Dynasties. The skill of painting further developed and refined. Many masterpieces especially flower-and-bird paintings were produced in the Academy.

The Imperial Painting Academy reached its peak during the period from Emperor Huizong’s (徽宗宋) to Emperor Xiaozong’s (宋孝宗) of the Southern Song Dynasty.

 

Wu Zongyuan (武宗元)(early 11th century) Procession of Immortals Paying Homage to the Primordial (朝元仙仗圖), ink on silk, 44.3 × 580 cm, private collection. (Photo credit: http://jsl641124.blog.163.com/blog/static/177025143201182924636551/)

 

A section of the above scroll

 

Chao Buzhi (晁補之) (1053-1110 AD) Laotzu Riding on a Buffalo (老子騎牛圖), hanging scroll, ink and light colours on paper.

Li Tang (李唐) (c1066-c1150) Picking Osmund (采薇圖), handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 27.2 x 90.5 cm, The Palace Museum of Beijing

 

Zhang Zeduan (張擇端)(1085-1145), Northern Sung Dynasty, Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival (清明上河圖), two sections of a long scroll 24.8 x 528.7 cm, ink and light colours on silk, Palace Museum, Beijing

 

 

Su Hanchen (蘇漢臣)(1101-1161 AD) Acrobat and Children (雜技戲嬰圖), ink and colours on silk, 25.2 x 26.7 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts

 

Zhou Jichang (周季常) (active around 1178—1200 AD) 500 Arhats Bestowing Alms upon Beggars (五百羅漢圖 -佈施餓鬼), ink and colours on silk, 111.5 x 53.1 cm, The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts

 

 

Liang Kai (梁楷) of the Song Dynasty was also famous for his ‘splashed ink’ (潑墨) or ‘ink and wash’ (水墨) painting.

Liang Kai (梁楷)(died 1210 AD) Han Shan and Shi De (寒山拾得圖), ink on paper, 81.2 x 33.1 cm, The MOA Museum of Art , Atami, Japan

 

 

Li Song (李嵩) (c1166-c1243 AD) The Toy Hawker and Children (市擔嬰戲圖頁), ink on silk, 25.8 x 27.6 cm, The National Palace Museum (國立故宫博物院)

 

Yuan (元) Dynasty (1271-1368 AD)

Liu Guando (劉貫道) was one of the famous artists in the Yuan Dynasty. Yan Hui (顏輝) and his followers painted both Buddhist and Daoist subjects in the traditional Song manner.

Liu Guando (劉貫道)(c1258-c1336) Khublai Khan on a Hunt (元世祖出獵圖), 1280, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, 182.9 x 104.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei

 

Liu Guandao (劉貫道)(c1258-c1336) Whiling Away the Summer (消夏圖), handscroll, ink and colours on silk, 30.5 x 71.1 cm, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

 

Yan Hui (顏輝)(late 13th century) Hanshan and Shide (寒山拾符得圖), pair of hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, 127.8 x 41.7 cm each, Tokyo National Museum

 

Ming (明) Dynasty (1368-1644 AD)

Tang Yin (唐寅) and Qiu Ying (仇英) were two of the most important artists in the Ming Dynasty. They followed the traditional Song manner. Chen Hongshou (陳洪綬) was skilled in painting peculiar human figures, landscapes, flower-and-bird. He utilized profound brushwork and precise colours, creating a new style in figure painting.

Tang Yin (唐寅) (1470-1523) Court Ladies of the Former Shu (孟蜀宫妓圖), hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 124.7 x 63.6 cm,  Palace Museum, Beijing (北京故宫博物院)

 

Qiu Ying (仇英)(1494-1552) Escaping the Summer Heat in the Shade of a Banana Tree (蕉陰結夏), ink and colour on paper, a section of the hanging scroll,
Chen Hongshou (陳洪綬 )(1598-1652), Children Venerating Guanyin (童子拜觀音圖), hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, private collection

 

Qing (清) Dynasty (1644-1912 AD)

Figure painting was heavily influenced by western techniques brought by missionaries, in particular Giuseppe Castiglione (郎世寧)(1688-1766). Castiglione’s style was based on the emphasis on colour, perspective, and light found in Italian Renaissance art.

The subjects of the paintings included the ordinary people, not only court ladies, scholars, hermits, and emperors.

Gao Qipei (高其佩) (1660-1734) Beggar (finger painting) (指画乞兒圖軸), hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 90.5 x 45.4 cm, 美國綠韵軒5.4 cm, 美國綠韵軒

 

Huang Shen(黄慎) (1687-1772) Fisherman and His Wife (漁翁漁婦圖軸), hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 118.4 x 65.2 cm, Nanjing Museum (南京市博物館)

 

Giuseppe Castiglione (郎世寧)(1688-1766)  Píng ān chūn xìn tú (平安春信圖), (hanging scroll, ink and colours on paper, 68.8 x 40.8 cm, Imperial Palace Museum, Beijing (a depiction of Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝) at mid and young age together)

 

 

Yao Wenhan (姚文瀚) (active around 1752-1761) Selling Porridge (賣漿圖), 59.3 x 108 cm The National Palace Museum (國立故宫博物院)

 

Ren Bonian (任伯年) (1840-1896) Laotze teaching (老子授經圖) , hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 142.7 x 34.4 cm, Nanjing Museum (南京博物院)

 

 

 

The Recent 100 Years

In the modern era, many painters learn western painting and developed new painting style based on a fusion of Western realism and traditional brushwork. Among these are Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻) and Fu Baoshi (傅抱石).

The subject matters are rich. The working class, beggars,  even nude figures are being painted.

Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻) (1895-1953), The Foolish Old Man Who Moved Mountains (公移山), 1940, handscroll, ink and colour on paper, 144 x 421 cm, Xu Beihong Memmorial Hall, Beijing
Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻) (1895-1953), The Mountain Goddess (山鬼), 1943, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 111 x 63 cm

 

 

Lin Fengmin (林風眠)   (1900-1991), Nude (婐女), ink and colour on paper, 32 x 32.5 cm, private collection

 

Huang Shaoqiang (黄少强) (1900-1942) The Blind Female Singer (盲歌女圖軸), hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper 88.8 x 44.4 cm, The Guangdong Museum (廣東省博物館)

 

Paintings for political propaganda are common in Mainland China. Many of the paintings were cleverly executed with striking effect.

Xie Zhiguang (謝之光) (1900-1976) Listen to Lei Feng Telling Stories (聽雷鋒講故事圖軸), hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 157 x 81 cm

 

Fu Baoshi (傅抱石)(1904-1965) On the trail of Shānyīn (山陰道上) , hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 75.4 x 36 cm , Nanjing Museum (南京博物館)
Szeto Ki (司徒奇) (1904-1997) The Date After Sunset (月上柳梢頭), 1941, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 172 x 80 cm, private collection

 

Li Keran (李可染)(1907-1989) The Crescent Moon Shining on Jiuzhou (月兒彎彎照九州), hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 68.2 x 45.5 cm

 

People of the ethnic minority groups are also the subject of modern figure paintings.

Huáng Zhòu (黄冑) (1925-1997) Tajik Female Teacher (塔吉克女教師), hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 133 x 69 cm

 

Wang Jianquan (王建權) (b1937) Peking Opera female performer (京劇女演員), 2014, ink and colours on paper, private collection
Wang Jianquan (王建權) (b1937) Peking Opera female performer (京劇女演員), 2014, ink and colours on paper, private collection

 

Please click for more information of nianhua in my website.

https://patricksiu.wordpress.com/nianhua-%E5%B9%B4%E7%95%AB-paintings-for-cny-part-1-religious-pictures/

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https://patricksiu.wordpress.com/nianhua-%E5%B9%B4%E7%95%AB-cny-part-3-celebrations-of-the-new-year/

 

Acknowledgements:

I would like to thank Professor Peter Lam most sincerely for his kind guidance and advice on my webpages.

 

Bibliography

纪江红龚勋贾宝花 (2004) Chinese Portrait Paintings (中国传世人物画) 上,中,下三册 北京出版社 ISBN 7200056758, 9787200056754

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/End_of_the_Han_dynasty

http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~icgzmod/qingming.html

http://museum.sinica.edu.tw/exhibition_detail.php?id=14&lang=zh-tw

http://www.shanghaidaily.com/sunday/now-and-then/EightySeven-Celestials/shdaily.shtml

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mogao_Caves

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Year_picture

 

 

 

 

 

 

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