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Republic of China
Chronology of China


III. Paintings of the Sui and Tang Dynasties

The Sui unified China and terminated the division between north and south which had lasted for more than 300 years. The cessation of war and the stability of society ensured the development of art. When the royal family constructed large-scare palaces, revived Buddhism, built temples and Buddhist caves, magnificent murals were flourished at the same time; the more than 70 caves of Sui Dynasty at Mogao Grottoes can be taken as a proof of how popular the Buddhist murals were. The unification of the country attracted famous painters such as Zhan Ziqian, Yang Zihua, Dong Boren to the Sui's capital Luoyang, among whom Zhan Ziqian was the most outstanding one. Zhan was good at Taoist and Buddhist painting, figure painting, landscape painting, and so on. His "Spring Excursion" (collected in the Palace Museum in Beijing) is the earliest existing scroll painting, from which we can learn how the independent landscape painting was like in its early stage.


Spring Excursion, Zhan Ziqian

Tang Dynasty is regarded as a high point in Chinese feudal society, a period of prosperity and progress, and a golden age welcoming various innovations. Chang'an and Luoyang became two very cosmopolitan cities which witnessed the collision and communication between diverse cultures; nobles and scholars had adequate nutrition to research all types of knowledge, and engage themselves in all kinds of arts. The Tang Dynasty painting, based on inheriting the excellent tradition of the Six Dynasties since Han and Wei, had presented an unprecedented new look in terms of absorbing foreign artistic nourishment, subject, style, and technique. Figure painting was still the mainstream in Tang Dynasty, whose subjects include political events, nobles and court ladies, saddle-and-horse, and pastoral scenery; the figure painting turned away from previous stylized look and conceptual mode by emphasizing on the depiction of characteristics; the ingenious elaborate brushstrokes as well as the magnificent powerful style both breathed the spirit of the Tang Dynasty. Landscape painting, as an independent art genre and occupying a more important position in Chinese painting history, had developed into two systems, the blue and green landscape painting (a decoratively colored landscape style) and the ink landscape. Flower-and-bird painting had become an independent painting genre as well; modes of expression like meticulous coloring, inking with light colors, and boneless skill appeared. Buddhist painting that arose in the six dynasties reached its peak in Tang Dynasty. In general, the Tang Dynasty painting achieved more than the previous dynasties and, with its almost matured painting genres and its influence spread over the oriental countries, reached a peak in the history of Chinese painting.

Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy, Yan Liben


Li Shimin, the Emperor Taizong of Tang, who learned lessons well from the successes and failures of the past dynasties, put emphasis on cultural policies. He required painters to fully support the needs of political reign, for example, to paint the country's major political events or the life of nobles. Thus, almost all of the famous existing Tang Dynasty paintings are related to the royal and nobilities. Yan Liben and his father Yan Pi, his brother Yan Lide were all outstanding painters at that time. Yan Liben's "Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy" depicts a political event happened in the fifteenth year of the Tang Dynasty Zhenguan Period (641 AD) when the Emperor Taizong of Tang met Gar Tongtsen Yülsung, the envoy of Tubo (present-day Tibet), who came to Chang'an to accompany the princess Wencheng back to Tibet. In this painting the Emperor Taizong of Tang looks elegant and poised, while the envoy of Tubo stands aside and holds the emperor in awe, which mirrors the relationship between China and the northern nations at that time as well.

Another example is the imitated copy of Yan Liben's "Portraits of the Emperors", in these paintings subtly defined characters has been imbued in each emperor and made them look different. What is worth mentioning is that the size of the figures does not accord to the actual people's size, but to their rank and social position. This tradition of figure painting has been followed by Chinese painters generation after generation until the end of the feudal era. Yan Liben became acting You Xiang -- the head of the examination bureau of government and a post considered one for a chancellor, and was well-known as "the famous You Xiang painter".

During the Kaiyuan years Wu Daozi was summoned by the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang and appointed as a deputy fifth-rank official at court for his painting skills. He was a all-rounder in painting whose talent was shown in a wide range of subjects including figure, bird-and-beast, plants, ghosts and gods, landscapes, buildings and palaces, thus he was called "Hua Sheng" (the painting sage). When painting figures, Wu used dry ink to outline the figure first, and then put only thin wash of color on subject's clothes, to achieve a delicate and graceful effect, which was called the "Wu's wear"; the wrinkle he painted was so smooth with the shape of orchid leaf or water shield, as if it was blowing in the wind, so-called "Wu's belt floating in wind"; the style and format he created in Buddhist and Taoist painting was so popular that people named the style "the Wu School". The "Chaoyuan Celestial Cane" (collected by a private collector in USA) was thought to be an imitated copy of Wu Daozi's "Five Saints of Chaoyuan", from which we can capture Wu's feature. Literati Su Shi appraise Wu highly, "Wu Daozi exhausted all the possibilities of painting in the history".

The court lady painting genre boomed during the Tang Dynasty, and Zhang Xuan and Zhou Fang were the masters of it. Zhang Xuan was an expert in painting court lady, saddle-and-horse, screen and curtain, palace and garden. When he painted court ladies, he liked to dye the basal part of his subject's ears with vermilion color; the women he painted were rounded and splendid; his strokes was delicate and his colors was balanced; he's the forerunner of Zhou Fang's painting of court ladies, and influenced the painting style of the Late Tang and Five Dynasties; he was famous for integrating lifelikeness and rich in cadence when painting life scenes of noble family.

Such style can be found in the existing imitated copy of Zhang Xuan's "Lady of Guo on A Spring Tour" and "Court Ladies Preparing Newly-Woven Silk". Zhou Fang came from a noble background and was the next painter who's famous for his court lady painting after Zhang Xuan. He vividly presented the disengaged manner of court ladies, such as his representative works "Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers" and "Court Ladies Swinging Fans". The format Zhou Fang created, known as "Zhou School", had influenced the later painters.

Court Ladies Preparing Newly-Woven Silk, Zhang Xuan


The blue and green landscape painting was the mainstream of landscape painting in Tang Dynasty. As a representative painter of this genre, Li Sixun painted in a highly decorative, colorful, meticulous and neat fashion, employing the precise line technique derived from earlier artists Zhan Ziqian (Sui Dynasty). He liked to draw immortals from fairy tales on the mountains to make the landscape more dramatic, and his style was followed by his later peers in a long time. The "Sail, River and Pavilion" collected by Taipei Palace Museum is one of the masterpieces of early landscape painting. His son, Li Zhaodao, was also a famous painter. The "Emperor Ming-huang of Tang Traveling to Sichuan" is regarded as Li Sixun's work, but some scholars believe this is a faithful copy of an original by a Song Dynasty artist. The painting depicts the story when Emperor Ming-huang of Tang fled the capital and sought refuge in Sichuan during the An Lushan Rebellion. In this painting the mountain and forest have a quirky looking, while people and horses are very small and seem bogged down in the nature, seemingly implying a disordered world that the travelers were in. Both Li Sixun and Li Zhaodao were given a rank of general in court, and thus the father is sometimes called Big General Li and the son Little General Li. Another famous landscape painter in this period was poet Wang Wei, who has historically been regarded as the founder of the Southern School of Chinese landscape art, a school which was characterized by strong brushstrokes contrasted with light ink washes. In Wang Wei's old age, he lived in seclusion at Wangchuan villa in Lantian county, where he painted the "Wangchuan Villa", "Rivers and Mountains after Snow", "Fu Sheng Transmitting the Book of Buddhism" and so on. Su Shi said he "has painting in his poetry, as well as poetry in his painting", referring to the artistic conception and lingering charm in Wang Wei's painting. At the end of Tang Dynasty, the splashed-ink landscape as a break with tradition and an innovation in the panting technique had emerged (Wang Mo was a painter who adopted the technique at that time), but not until the end of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), this kind of free sketch skill became popular.

Horse was the most important means of transport in the Tang Dynasty, and it was also one of the most important contents of people's life. Poet Du Fu once wrote a poem "Dan Qing Yin" (A Song of A Painting) as a gift to the famous horse painter Cao Ba. The poem came down the ages but unfortunately, all Cao Ba's paintings have not passed down. Han Gan was the most famous disciple of Cao Ba. The horses painted by Han Gan were mostly rayal horses, which were strong, fat, well-trained, and full of energy. Among them, a horse called Night-Shining White is permanently captured by Han Gan's brushstroke and kept until today. The painting "Night-Shining White" (collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art) which depicts the moment that the famous horse lifted its hoofs and seemed ready to run or jump vigorously has becomes a world masterpiece. Painter Wei Yan liked to put horses in a natural environment to embody their dynamic state. From the later copy of his "Herds" (a copy by Li Gongling, AD1049-1106, collected by the Palace Museum in Beijing), we can see Wei Yan's good understanding of different attitudes of horses, and his ability to control a complicated composition. Han Huang is one of the few painter who was famous for his bull painting in the art history. Han's most renowned painting is a scroll of "Five Bulls".

Along with the development of the court art, the decorative flower-and-bird painting played a more important role in Tang Dynasty as well. Bian Luan was a remarkable painter in this field. His painting is subtle, colorful and lifelike, representing a new level of flower-and-bird painting in Tang Dynasty.

Both in Sui and Tang Dynasties, the rulers' attitude towards religion was tolerant and encouraging, especially to Buddhism. The Buddhist art was prosperous than ever in the two dynasties, and the Mogao Grottoes in the Dunhuang area remarkably shows the fluctuation with more than half of the extant caves are Sui and Tang grottoes. The murals in Sui and Tang grottoes are not only a stereotyped imitation of foreign Buddhist art, as what happened in the period of the Wei and Jin Dynasties, but more vivid with more fleshy and healthy human figures, and more secular scenes. Most of the paintings were no longer limited to the Buddhist jataka story, but a visual representation of sutra stories or donors figures. Thus, there are a lot of scenes of dancing, traveling, marriage and farming, which have become the important resources to research the painting and social conditions in Tang Dynasty in today.


    Night-Shining White, Han Gan    












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