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Chronology of China


VII. Ming Dynasty


Emperor Taizu of the Ming Dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang came across as an extremely clever, capable, and cold-blooded ruler who took care of every single thing personally. There are few such as the Ming Dynasty in Chinese history that profoundly influenced by the personality of the founder. Emperor Taizu established imperial guards Jinyiwei, a secret police that served the emperors of the Ming dynasty to arrest, interrogate and punish anyone, and took direct responsibility of it. To prevent any attempt to rebel, he executed more than 100,000 people in three political criminal cases. Emperor Taizu was born poor, and before taking control of China, he had been engaged in many industries which looked not so noble in his contemporaries' eyes, therefore after he became an emperor, he had a lot of taboos to be respected. For this reason he initiated many literary inquisitions (official persecution of intellectuals for their writings), making everyone feel insecure and declined to express their opinions. In Ming Dynasty, the imperial examinations were restored, but the standards became Eight-part Essay (or eight-legged essay, a kind of stereotyped writing specially written to pass the imperial examinations); from then on, the preparation for the imperial examinations had parted company with the spiritual life of intellectuals. The restoration of Han Chinese ruling in China became a nightmare to literati and scholars.

Landscape, Dai Jin


Setting Tang Dynasty as a model, the emperors of Ming Dynasty restored the imperial painting academy, which recruited so many artists that the number of court painters during the Xuande, Chenghua and Hongzhi periods had exceeded the total number in Song and Yuan Dynasties. However, because of the paradigm that fettered academic thinking and strangled new voices, especially in the early Ming Dynasty, painters could only completely obey the court to protect themselves, causing the imperial painting academy lost its status as the cultural and art center. In the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (Zhu Zhanji), the academy reached a relative peak. Emperor Xuanzong not only loved painting but also painted himself, and left works behind like "Playing with Ape" and "Stone and Mouse". He was very fond of a court painter called Bian Jingzhao, who inherited the meticulous style with heavy color from the imperial painting academy of Southern Song Dynasty. With accurate modeling, gorgeous color, and conservative style, Bian Jingzhao was considered as one of the most talented artists at that time. During the reign of Emperor Xuanzong, another brilliant court painter proffered his painting "Fishing Alone on A Autumn River" to Emperor Xuanzong, but didn't expect it offended a taboo. The fisher in the painting dressed in red, while in the Ming Dynasty only officials could dress in red when they went to court, therefore, the painter was expelled from the imperial painting academy. The painter's name is Dai Jin.

Dai Jin's ancestral home was Hangzhou. After being expelled from the academy, he had once made a living in Beijing by selling his paintings, and then, in his fifties, Dai Jin returned to Hangzhou selling paintings and teaching there. He inherited the landscape tradition of Guo Xi, Li Tang, Ma Yuan, and Xia Gui. From his quite a few existing works we can find the trace of imperial-court style, as well as the unique style he created which is more relaxed and free. Dai Jin was so influential in Hangzhou that a group of enthusiasts gathered around him gradually, and formed a loose alliance of painters known as the Zhe School. In the early Ming Dynasty, Zhe School was the mainstream with many followers, while Wu Wei was the other outstanding representative of it. Wu Wei used to serve for the court as well, but being different with Dai Jin, Wu Wei had been summoned to the palace for three times; however, his nature was too free to stand the chains in the palace, then he finally left Beijing and went to the south. There are two faces of Wu Wei's painting: one is rough brush ink painting with bold brushstrokes, the other is fine brush line-drawing painting with thin and simple brushstroke. Both Dai Jin and Wu Wei were weighty artists that they basically determined the trend of the art world during the Chenghong years; they made the big-scale landscape painting with rough brushstrokes popular; however, in the late period, the followers of Zhe School only pursue the superficial rough and thus, the Zhe School gradually declined. At the end of the Ming Dynasty, Lan Ying was only excellent painter of the Zhe School that remained.

Ladies in Royal Court, Tang Yin

In the middle of the Ming Dynasty, Suzhou (Wu county) in the Jiangnan area was the center of textile industry, where the business was prospered and the people were rich. Literati and intellectuals also assembled there, sightseeing, drinking, writing poem, and painting to entertain each other. In this period a painting school which followed the literati painting tradition emerged in Suzhou, known as the Wu School. The most famous painters in this school were Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, Tang Ying and Qiu Ying, the so-called "Four Masters in Wu School".

Shen Zhou was born in a wealthy scholar family and his great-grandfather was a friend of Wang Meng. The family's wealth freed Shen Zhou from obligatory careers as Ming officials, allowing him to devote his entire life to artwork and socializing.

He was proficient in appreciation of art, and possessed a large collection of paintings which he and his scholar-painter colleagues used as models. In his early years he learned landscape painting from Wang Meng; in the middle age he studied from Huang Gongwang and the other painters in the Song Dynasty; in his later years, he studied Wu Zhen. Before forty most of his paintings were small scenery; after forty he started to paint large-scale landscape; when he created the "Mountains in Autumn" at eighty-one, he attained perfection in skills. Shen Zhou and his student Wen Zhengming are usually considered as the leading figures of Wu School. Wen Zhengming inherited the tradition of Dong Yuan, Zhao Mengfu, Wang Meng, Wu Zhen and so on. With fine-brush techniques and a steady and gentle atmosphere, Wen Zhengming's landscape painting revealed his characteristics as a literati in Jiangnan area, as well as his living environment. Wen had attend the imperial examinations for ten times, and failed for ten times. When he was fifty-four, he was finally recommended to take an official position in the capital. Four years later he was tired of officialdom, resigned and returned his hometown. His studio became an informal local art academy, from which a lot of outstanding students were cultivated; his great granddaughter was a good painter as well. Later in life Wen Zhengming was superb in wood, bamboo and stone painting; the twisted and gnarled trees reflects the painter's characteristics which was stronger as growing older.

The other two of the "Four Masters in Wu School" are Tang Yin and Qiu Ying, whose manners are quite different from Shen and Wen. First of all, their financial condition was not as good as the previous two, thus painting was not only their interest, but also their source of livelihood; secondly their identity of professional painter unavoidably brought them a habit of artisan, and brought about conflict between the styles of literati painting and court painting in their works; thirdly, the two artists were both Zhou Chen's students, while their technique was originated from Li Tang, Liu Songnian, and influenced by Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming and other painters in the Northern Song Dynasty and Yuan Dynasty. Comparing to Shen and Wen, Tang and Qiu's painting was more gorgeous and delicate. Tang Yin, courtesy name Bohu, was put in jail for a cheating scandal in the imperial examinations when he was thirty, and was banned from a distinguished civil service career forever. After that he became a frequent visitor to brothels and taverns in Suzhou. In his old age, he often wandered around the Buddhist temple and Zen temple outside Suzhou city. Tang Yin's brushstroke is slender, with two different features of court style and literati charm in his landscape painting. For figure painting, "Ladies in Royal Court" is his representative work, in which he used a coloring skill called "three white" to dye the forehead, nose and cheeks of the court ladies white to show their tender and fragile feminine features. Qiu Ying was born in a poor family and used to be a lacquerer in his early years. After he had learned how to paint, he became a superb imitator, and was often hired to imitate ancient masters' works. The well-known wealthy collector Xiang Yuanbian was one of his patrons.


For literati painting in the late Ming Dynasty, the man of the highest position should be the scholar painter Dong Qichang. As a Minister of Rites, Dong Qichang was the leader of "Huating Landscape School", and had a high reputation in the art world. He brought forward a theory of the Southern School and the Northern School (according to painting style rather than geographic areas), considering that Wang Wei in the Tang Dynasty was the founder of the Southern School, all the great literati painters belonged to the Southern School, and he himself was an orthodox Southern School, while the Northern School in his definition, included all the court painters. He called for the conserving, reviving and creating of the Southern tradition, when he was also a practitioner of this idea. There are many similarities between his works and ancient masterpiece. Due to the excessive pursuit of the ancient manner, his compositions were often repeated, with a sense of form and conventional representation, which is nevertheless elegant. Although his opinion of strongly favoring the Southern school while dismissing the Northern school was not always correct, its influence on later critics had lasted for three centuries.

Portrait of Wang Shimin, Zeng Jing

In the late period of the Ming, another China's inherent dynastic cycle reached its tail's end; the bureaucratic system could no longer support the country's operation, while one after another emperor who neglect his duties sped up the whole process; however, for cultural activities, since the autocratic system in the early and mid period of Ming Dynasty was relatively loosen, a group of audacious painters emerged.

 "White Sun and Green Vine School" refers to two representative flower-and-bird painters of freehand brushwork, Chen Chun and Xu Wei. Chen Chun (whose sobriquet is White Sun Hermit) was a student of Wen Zhengming. With precise brushstroke and light inking, his painting was highly appreciated by his contemporary literati and scholars. While another painter Xu Wei (whose sobriquet is Green Vine Lay Buddhist), made fundamental change to the freehand brushwork flower-and-bird painting. Despite his posthumous recognition, Xu was unsuccessful in life and manifestly mentally ill. After murdering his wife and being jailed for seven years because of it, Xu ended his life in poverty and frustration. However, the other side of the coin was his success in art. His painting brushstroke is as free as cursive writing; he boldly broke the limitation of appearance of things, and created images in somewhere between similarity and dissimilarity; he dropped the leisurely and graceful state that previous literati painters usually liked to express, but to paint from one's strong inner feelings and sentiments; he extended the full exertion of brush and ink's expression on the raw Xuan paper to speak his blazing and fevered feelings, so his works are full of impressive artistic appeal. One of his masterpieces, the "Ink Grape", has fully demonstrated his ability of expressing feelings through things. Xu Wei had a great influence on later painters like Zhu Da, Shi Tao in the Qing Dynasty, and Qi Baishi in the modern China.

Watching A Painting, Chen Hongshou


Among the figure painters at the end of the Ming Dynasty, Chen Hongshou was the most outstanding one. His figure painting swept away the gentle and lovely formula which was inherited by followers of Zhe School and Wu School, and brought fresh air into the art world by presenting exaggerated and funny images. He often put his figures in a classical Jiangnan landscaped garden, and made their faces longer than normal, which is easily recognizable. Technically, he liked to use long and cursive lines, giving an elegant and beautiful impression to viewers. And in addition to ink painter, Chen was an excellent woodprint illustrator. In the Ming Dynasty, novels and dramas became popular among the citizens, and as a result, the demand for illustration used in novel and drama books was increased. Qiu Ying had created many illustrations, while Chen Hongshou's "Album of Water Margin" and "The Romance of West Chamber" were more successful and became a model of early Chinese illustration painting. These lively images had so deeply lodged themselves in the public mind, that they even promoted the development of Chinese woodcut thereafter. Another painter at the end of the Ming Dynasty, Cui Zizhong, was good at woodcut illustration as well. His ink painting absorbed the style of folk prints, which can be found in his representative work "Grooming An Elephant". The two eminent figure-painting artists - Chen Hongshou and Cui Zizhong, were called "Chen in South and Cui in North".


At the end of the Ming Dynasty, folk portraits had been well developed and their overall characteristic was neat and realistic. We can find such feature in Zeng Jing's "Portrait of Zhang Qingzi" and "Portrait of Wang Shiming", which depicted and revealed the person's facial features delicately. The perspective techniques used in these portraits seems to imply that the western painting techniques brought by Matteo Ricci and his missionary colleagues had been spread among Chinese professional artists at that time.

Corresponding to Wang Yangming's theory "nothing exists beyond the mind", literati painters in the Ming Dynasty further made painting a carrier of personal feelings and characteristics. In painting genres, there were a lot of art schools which differentiated themselves from each other in region or in style, especial the Zhe school of the early Ming and Wu school of the mid Ming. Breakthrough was made in both flower-and-bird painting and figure painting. For the whole picture, the wide and profound vision in Song and Yuan dynasties had gradually disappeared, and was replaced by a more approachable and easily-imitated style. The Ming government was no longer a reliable patron of culture and art, however, among the people there emerged important collectors such Xiang Yuanbian and Liang Qingbiao. As the background, China in the Ming Dynasty was more content with a close-door policy. While many throne successors of the Ming Dynasty showed their talents and temperaments except for running a country, the bureaucratic group who ruled the country was helpless when they faced many important issues. On the other hand, a real international competition initiated on the other side of the ocean appeared in China.


















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