HomeBiographyArtworksSealsArticlesPublicationsReviewsConversationColumnNewsChinese PaintingContact



Republic of China
Chronology of China


V. The Song, Liao and Jin Dynasties

Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival, Zhang Zeduan

The Song Dynasty (960-1276) ended the disunited situation of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. From then on, the basic characteristics of Song Dynasty, its policy of valuing culture above military force, and governing the empire with scholar-officials, led the Song Dynasty to a respectively stable status both in economics and politics, and avoided disasters like eunuch grabbing all the power or rival principalities separatism; yet, despite the political and economic strengths, it also made the Song Dynasty face the long-term threats from its powerful northern neighbors such as Liao, Jin, and Western Xia. As for art, numerous types of art flourished - not only because the royal families and nobles in Song Dynasty as well as the literati loved painting and calligraphy, but also because the citizen classes were wealthier and became avid collectors of works of art and antiquities. Important art phenomena of this period included the prosperity of imperial academy painting, and the formation of the thoughts of literati painting.

In Chinese history the emperors of the Song Dynasty were not famous for their wisdom, but famous for their outstanding contribution to art. The founder Emperor Taizong of Song, personal name Zhao Kuangyin, attaches so much importance to painting and calligraphy that every time after he conquered a district, he would bring the local court painters and art collections back to the capital Bianjing. After the founding of Song, Emperor Taizong established the Imperial Painting Academy and successively built the palace buildings such as Chunhua, Tianzhang, Longtu, and Baowen as the collecting houses of paintings. Besides, he ordered his officials to collected both ancient and contemporary masterpieces from around China. When officials brought paintings back to the palace, Emperor Taizong usually selected and kept some of them, and returned the rest as a reward to the official, which also virtually encouraged the private collections among the gentry and noble class. Painter Huang Jucai, (the son of Huang Quan) and Gao Wen were responsible for the collation and authenticating of these works. Emperor Taizong even compiled a painterly biography called "The Judgment on Masterpieces", in which following the tradition of Tang Dynasty, 103 painters was recorded. Unfortunately this book hasn't survived today. Another ruler Zhao Ji, the Emperor Huizong of Song Dynasty, was a great painter and calligrapher in the Chinese art history. He invented the "Slender Gold" style of calligraphy, whose name "Slender Gold" came from the fact that the emperor's writing resembled gold filament, twisted and turned. As in calligraphy, Emperor Huizong was also very talented in painting, and is even considered to be one of the greatest Chinese artists of all time. Such person ascending the throne was a misfortune for both the empire and himself. The flourishing of the painting academy in the Song Dynasty was largely due to Emperor Huizong's interest and support.

Plums, Stones, Steams and Birds,  Ma Yuan 


In the third year of Chongning (1104), the entry examination for the painting academy was included in the imperial civil service examination system, which later assembled an entourage of painters that were first pre-screened in an examination to enter as official artists of the imperial court. In addition, Emperor Huizong even took charge of the Imperial Painting Academy himself. Painters of the academies enjoyed the same treatment as literary officials in courts, wore fish bag (fish bag was a kind of amulet that only officials could wear) and purple official suits (purple was a cloth color that only officials higher than the 4th rank in the bureaucratic 9 ranks system could wear) if they were outstanding, and received good salaries from the imperial government. The social status of painters was improved unprecedentedly in Song Dynasty.

The Emperor Huizong often went to the academy to discuss painting with court painters, and instructed the students there how to paint. He also played an active role in collecting and classifying art heritages, as well as editing several calligraphy and painting books of his royal collection, such as "Xuanhe Royal Collection", "Xuanhe Painting Collection", "Xuanhe Calligraphy Collection", and "Xuanhe Antique Collection", which initiated the tradition of compiling the records of royal collection from then on, and kept important documents for studying the ancient paintings. Works by Emperor Huizong include figure painting "Ting Qin Tu" (Listening to the Qin), landscape painting "Returning Fishing Boats on a Snowy River", flower-and-bird painting "Golden Pheasant and Cotton Rose Flowers", "Four Birds", and "The Picture of Willow, Crow, Reed and Wild Gooses", but the style of his works is not consistent. Therefore, in spite of Huizong's signature and stamps on these paintings, it is generally believed that many of them had a ghost painter in the Imperial Painting Academy. During Emperor Huizong's reign, the Imperial Painting Academy reached its peak of development, and after that, another emperor who stepped into his shoes was the Emperor Gaozong, personal name Zhao Gou. He was the ninth son of Emperor Huizong. After the Jingkang Incident. Emperors Huizong and Qinzong were taken prisoner by the Jurchens, while Zhao Gou managed to escape to southern China, where he rebuilt the Imperial Painting Academy. In an age of division and conflict, Emperor Gaozong spared no effort in searching for calligraphies and paintings. His main strategy was to recollect the ancient and contemporary paintings and calligraphies which were lost in the war back again, including purchasing lost paintings of Northern Song Dynasty from the Jurchens in the Que markets (a market place set on the border of Song, Liao, Jin and Yuan for foreign trading). Although this is one of the blamed emperors in the Chinese history, he was still credited in the art history with continuing and developing the imperial collection and painting after the war. In general, the main expression style of imperial painting includes the neat and refined brushstrokes, the heavy and gorgeous color, and the meticulous and strict composition. As a whole the imperial painting was delicate and soft, nevertheless, outstanding painters could always break through taboos and create their own unique style. In the early Song Dynasty, most of the painters in the Imperial Painting Academy came from various imperial painting academies in different kingdoms of the Five Dynasties, especially the imperial painting academy of Western Sichuan, which tremendously influenced the style of Imperial Painting Academy in the Northern Song Dynasty. In the later period of Song, most of court painters came from the private sector, including a group of distinguished artists such as Guo Xi, Cui Bai, Zhang Zeduan, Wang Ximeng, Li Tang, Li Song, Ma Yuan, Xia Gui, Liang Kai, Chen Rong, etc. 

Literati painting reached a new level in the Song Dynasty. The reform of imperial civil service examination system allowed more impoverished scholars and intellectuals from commoner families having the opportunity to enter into the royal government and become literati official - a new elite group.

What set these literati officials apart from their aristocratic peers in previous dynasties was not their way of life, which was as extravagant, but their spirit. Spiritually, literati officials pursued an artistic taste of a chaste and sober life which was indifferent to fame and wealth. They loved calligraphy and painting, counting them as an important part of culture and refinement. Many of them were collectors, critics and painters. They had a fancy of ink bamboo, ink plum blossoms, ink orchid, and cold lonely scenery, which caused the rise of "ink play" (freehand brushwork with spontaneous style) as well. The literati painters were usually erudite scholars who were good at painting and writing poems, and the most famous literati painters include Su Shi, Wen Tong, Mi Fu, and Li Gonglin. Young Children Playing in a Courtyard in Autumn, Su Hanchen  


Su Shi was the most major propagandist for literati painting, as well as the first personality who bought forward the concept of "literati painting", which was the opposite to the artisan painting at that time. He was also the first to establish Wang Wei's status as a painter theoretically by saying, "although Wu (Wu Daozi) was brilliant, his was still an artisan, while Wang Wei could grasp the feature beyond the subjects' outer appearance". He thought the value of literati painting was higher than artisan painting, because the artisan painting could only achieve "resemblance in form", but literati painting could achieve "resemblance in spirit". The more important is his viewpoint on the purpose of painting creation. Being different from the traditional "moral education", Su Shi thought the painting should be painted to amuse oneself, and this opinion has a long influence in technique and form of painting in later dynasties. As a typical literati painter, Su Shi was specialized in painting bamboos and stones. The "Painting of Dead Wood and Weird Rock" collected in Japan can be taken as a reference of his style.

Wen Tong was famous for his ink bamboos. Su Shi used to praise Wen Tong, one of his elder cousins, for his unique skills in poetry, painting, and cursive calligraphy. When Wen Tong painted bamboos, he could hold two brushes dipped with different black ink in one hand and, by coloring the different darkness, depicted the distance and dimension of two bamboos simultaneously. Painter Mi Fu said that Wen Tong initiated a fresh progress in ink bamboo painting by "using darker ink as the front and using the lighter ink as the back." One Chinese idiom in relation to Wen Tong goes to "there are whole bamboos in his heart" (Xiong You Cheng Zhu), meaning that one has a well-thought-out plan in his mind. The reason Wen Tong liked to paint bamboo was for it noble character that "has reserved space in heart (Xu Xin, which means modest in Chinese), but is stronger than ordinary woods". Su Shi expressed the similar thoughts by saying "people are vulgar without bamboo". There are four pieces of Wen Tong's bamboo handed down.

Mi Fu, known as "the Mad Mi" or "the Crazy Mi", had an unconventional personality. He was a famous calligrapher, painter, as well as a cunning collector and connoisseur. He painted landscapes in an "ink play" attitude, and his brushstrokes were derived from cursive calligraphy. The so called "Mi style mountain", or "Mi's cloudy mountain", was his innovation to express the misty, humid and rainy Jiangnan landscape. He and his son Mi Youren, who was as famous as his father, were called "Two Mi". From Mi Youren's existing work "the Xiao and Xiang Spectacle" we can see the father and son's style.

Born in the middle of Northern Song Dynasty, Li Gonglin was good at poetry, calligraphy, authenticating antique and painting. His saddle-and-horse painting was especially famous. Li's contribution in the art history is that he developed Fen Ben (preliminary sketch, or line drawing painting) to a level of with independent aesthetic value. His works include "Five Horses" (collected in Japan) and "A Copy of Wei Yan's Painting of Herds" (collected by the Palace Museum in Beijing). Du Fu used to describe Han Gan in his "Dan Qing Yin" (A Song of A Painting) as "Gan only paints the flesh but not the bone", criticizing the horse Han Gan Painted was too fat. However, in Li Gonglin's opinion, "whether a horse painting is good should not be covered by its fleshes", and is not related to its fat or thin appearance as well, but lies in whether the spirit of a horse is expressed.

The literati painters were usually erudite, sophisticated, and capable of many things other than painting, which made it easier for them to put forward theories than their predecessor painters. They were equipped with theory as well as practices, and the constant communications between them made them consolidate and spread their opinions easily. The Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty used to command the painter and official Yan Liben to bend over in front of all the other officials on the bank of a pond, to paint a strange bird, while Yan's peers of the same rank were sitting by and writing poetry casually, which embarrassed the painter a lot. The emergence of literati painting and viewpoints of the literati painters more or less changed such situation. Painting was no longer just a skill, but became part of the cultivation.

In Song Dynasty, the meticulous method with heavy color in flower-and-bird painting, which was bought into the imperial painting academy by Huang Quan, was still adopted and, the style was even more neat, delicate, and luxurious.

A Copy of Wei Yan's Painting of Herds, Li GonglinA Copy of Wei Yan's Painting of Herds, Li Gonglin

Li Di and Lin Chun were the representative painters. In the meantime, the ink plum blossoms, ink orchid, ink bamboo, ink Chrysanthemum and so on which was pioneered by Su Shi and Wen Tong won more and more audience and gradually became the most popular subjects of literati painting in later dynasties.


In the field of landscape painting, Li Cheng, Fan Kuan, and Guo Xi, known as "the three masters in the Northern Song Dynasty", mostly continued the Jing Hao and Guan Tong's style of Northern School in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Li Cheng was a descendant of imperial clan of the Tang Dynasty. He was good at painting smoky mountains and waters with clearly layered ink color, which makes the painting full of a desolated atmosphere and gives the appearance of being in a foggy dream. Both Emperor Shenzong and Huizong loved his works and collect his works deliberately; after his death, his family also paid a high price to purchase his works back, and therefore caused a lot of fakes at that time; the genuine was so rare that Mi Fu even described it as "there is no Li Cheng's works in the world". His works include "Reading the Memorial Stele" (collected in Japan) and "The Cold Forest and Plain". Fan Kuan was a landscape painter whose subjects were mostly the magnificent northern mountains. With brushstrokes as strong as iron wire and inking as dark as walking in mountains at night, such as in his representative works "Travelers among Mountains and Streams", "Desolate Temple in Snowy Mountains", and "Snowy Forest", Fan Kuan's landscape is usually powerful and imposing. Su Shi evaluated Fan's works was "slightly vulgar", and Mi Fu said "there is no difference between his earth and stones", however, the later painters thought highly of Fan's painting, and his existing works have been treasure of treasures in China. Born from civilians, Guo Xi's painting expresses the subtle difference of various regions and different seasons. The text entitled "the spring hill is mild and pleasant as if it is smiling, the summer hill is verdant and lush and very juicy, the autumn hill is bright and clean as the delicate makeup, the winter hill is bleak and gloomy as if it is sleeping" is attributed to him. Another outstanding landscape painter Wang Ximeng in the Northern Song Dynasty was a student in the Imperial Painting Academy during Emperor Huizong's reign, and had received Huizong's personal instruction there. Wang Ximeng was a rare prodigy in the Chinese art history since he was only eighteen when he had accomplished the masterpiece "A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains", and not long after, he passed away. As his only surviving work, the "A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains" is a nearly 12 meters long scroll of magnificent scale, all like nature itself. And with both the brushstroke and vision showing the maturity beyond the painter's years, this painting was later hailed as "unmatched in a thousand years".

In the Southern Song Dynasty, the style of landscape painting suddenly changed, from the panoramic composition prevailing in the Northern Song Dynasty, to the one-corner composition to depict the leftover rivers and remains of mountains, which also coincided with the political and social situation of the Southern Song. The representative painters of this period are Ma Yuan and Xia Gui, who were both good at tailoring the scenery to condense the most suitable objects into their paintings, and the objects in their painting were usually drawn in a corner or a side in the painting. For this special one-corner composition, they were called "one-corner Ma and one-side Xia".

Immortal in Splashed Ink, Liang Kai

The "Plums, Stones, Steams and Birds" by Ma Yuan has the distinct characteristics of the painter, in which the sticks and stones seem not a mimic copy of the nature, but twisted and bent following the feeling and emotion. His "Water Album" captured various postures of waters, including twelve paintings. Ma Yuan and Xia Gui's paintings are usually regarded by the westerners as the representative of the Chinese landscape painting, because they have obvious particularity which was seldom found in the western traditional art, as well as the same powerful visual and emotional appeal.

Figure painting is not a strong point in the Song Dynasty. Along with the decrease of the Buddhist caves and temples, the number of religious figure murals also reduced. According to "The Record of Illustration and Traditional Chinese Painting - The Figure Painting", 53 painters of this period were recorded. Unfortunately their murals didn't survive, and these painters disappeared in the art history as well. There are not many figure scroll paintings of the Song Dynasty kept today, among which part of the Buddhist and Taoist paintings were left without their creators' names, and for some other paintings, the painter's name was recorded, such as Wu Zongyuan. Wu Zongyuan's "Chaoyuan Celestial Cane" and its copy "the Eighty-seven Immortals" were a manuscript for murals painted in Yuqing Zhaoying Palace during the Emperor Zhenzong's reign. Meanwhile, the genre painting broke through the limitation of taking the religion or noble's life as its main content, to depict the real life of ordinary people and reflect the ordinary people's desire and aesthetic needs. The genre painting, including peddler painting, children-at-play painting, pasture painting, travelling painting, secular life painting and so on, represents a new level of figure painting in the Song Dynasty. In this genre, painter Zhang Zeduan was second to none for his masterpiece "Along the River During the Qingming Festival". This painting captures the daily life of people and the landscape of the capital, Bianjing, today's Kaifeng, from the Northern Song period. Successive scenes reveal the lifestyle of all levels of the society from rich to poor as well as different economic activities in rural areas and the city, and offer glimpses of period clothing and architecture. It has become a treasure in the Chinese art history. Due to its high artistic reputation, it has inspired many imitation copies from the end of Ming Dynasty to the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, however, none of them can compare to the original no matter in the form, the content, or in the vigour. In the Imperial Painting Academy of Southern Song, both Su Chanchen and Li Song were famous for their genre painting on the subject of women and children, and both of them created "The Knick-Knack Peddler" which survives today, nevertheless, they are substantially different in style. In Su Hanchen's "The Knick-Knack Peddler" and "Children at Play", what the painter depicted were figures from the imperial or noble family, who wore gorgeous dresses on the background of nice garden, and the goods on the peddler's carrying pole were sumptuous. Ye in Li Song's "The Knick-Knack Peddler", the figures were common folks and rustic villagers. The carrying pole carried only normal goods, while the toys that children played were ordinary. People who wore normal clothes acted rough in manner, such as when children were messing around each other, or woman exposed her breast to feed the baby. Liang Kai was awarded the rank of Painter-in-Attendance at the court of Jia Tai (1201-1204 CE, Southern Song Dynasty) where he was known for mastery in painting and his alcohol addiction. People called him "the mad Liang", partly because he was once bestowed with the honored Golden Belt, but he refused to accept it and left the court with the belt hanging on the academy wall. He created a technique of with minimal use of brushstrokes to finish a painting; it requires a profound mastery of painting technique and perfect concentration, but also allows for the beauty of accidental effects; his existing works are most Buddhist figure paintings, in which his seemingly hasty style was applied on his typical eccentric figures, such as in the "Immortal in Splashed Ink" (collected by the National Palace Museum in Taipei), "The Sixth Patriarch (Hui Neng) Chopping the Bamboo"(collected by Tokyo National Museum), "The Sixth Patriarch (Hui Neng) Tearing up the Sutra" (collection of Mitsui Memorial Museum in Tokyo) and so on. With only a few brushstrokes, Liang Kai vividly captured the expression of the figure. However, this is not the only style that Liang Kai was expert in. According to "Tu Hui Bao Jian" (comments on paintings), "painters in the academy all admired his subtle and refined brushstrokes, but only his rough and simple works were handed down". Liang Kai has a profound and long influence on Japanese monk painting, bringing him a reputation of "Zen painting" in Japan.

The northern nomadic tribes had always been a threat to the Song Dynasty, but not until in 1127 when the Jurchen (Jin) conquered Bianliang, the capital of Northern Song, the Emperor Huizong of Song lifted his eyes from his beloved calligraphy and painting. Emperor Huizong and his son were taken prisoners by Jurchen to the northeast, so were many painters from the Northern Song. Chinese culture had always been influential in the northern nomadic tribes as well, for example, the Liao, who held the power of the northern grassland before Jurchen, used to have painters like Hu Gui and Yelu Bei (Yelu Bei was the eldest son of Yelu Abaoji, the Emperor Taizi of Liang. In 931, he turned to the Later Tang, and was given a Chinese name Li Zanhua by the Emperor Mingzong of Later Tang.) Like Liao, the royal family of Jin also loved to collect painting and calligraphy. They set up a special painting institution, and the Emperor Zhangzong of Jin liked to stamped, signed and inscribed on famous paintings just like Emperor Huizong of Song did. Both the "Six Horses of Zhaoling" painted by Jin Dynasty painter Zhao Lin and the "Lady Wenji Returning to Han Dynasty" painted by Zhang Yu reflect the characteristics of northern nomadic paintings: the brushstrokes and format are derived from Chinese culture, while the artistic conception is totally rooted in the nomadic culture. Emperor Huizong of Song died in Jurchen's prison in 1135, however, the regime who annexed the central China was from another nation.  


A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, Wang XimengA Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, Wang Ximeng


















<- Previous Page


 Next Page ->