Ming Dynasty to Republic

Philosophies of Chinese Traditional Painting,
The Mustard Seed Garden Manual and Later Movements

by: Lorena O. Allen, M.Ed., Fine Art & Antique Appraiser

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Summer/Fall 2008

Chinese painting is based on three philosophies which all have in common a reverence of nature: Confucianism, whereby the study of I Ching and the Cosmic Order is represented; Buddhism, a sect which encourages individualism in the pursuit of nirvana, a state of enlightenment. Taoism, a belief in man’s withdrawal is the most closely related to Chinese painting as it encourages the artist to meditate with nature. In this regard, the artist may retreat from human society to commune with nature in preparation for painting. It may take months before the artist returns to his studio to initiate a work of art from his imagination.


The “Mustard Seed Manual of Chinese Painting” sets forth the canons of Chinese painting. According to the Manual, painting is not a pastime to be indulged in lightly, without dutiful self-preparation and proper respect for tools and materials. In traditional painting, first the artist would burn incense while he prepared his desk with proper tools including brushes, ink, inkstone, water bowl and bamboo wristrest. Only once he had calmed his spirit and thoughts would the artist begin to paint, usually from memory of a particular landscape envisioned in his past experience or an imaginary one.


Early dynasty paintings were painted with ink rendered in monochromatic hues on silk supports (vertical scrolls) and mounted with surrounding brocade fabric with a stave at the top and wood or ivory roller anchoring the base. These paintings were known as “shen shu” or water-mountain landscapes, recurrent themes of the isolated artist/scholar sitting on a rocky ledge in the wilderness, contemplating the majestic nature surrounding him. (See Illustration #1). This contrast of the vast landscape with the small figure of the scholar and his hut reflects the artist’s reverence for nature. In later compositions man’s presence becomes more overt and additional color added.



As important as the preparation for a painting was the mastering of techniques to convey atmosphere, perspective and tonal qualities. Paintings of a season were depicted as other worldly landscapes meant to portray an inner reality rather than an outward likeness. (See Illustration #2). In this painting a series of steps leading upward through the mountainous landscape conveys space. The use of atmospheric qualities such as mist and haze give depth; meandering white clouds drift downward from the top of the composition and the greenish/blue pigment becomes lighter in the background.


The Chinese consider painting, poetry and calligraphy “The Three Perfections”, managing to combine all three in a work of art. An integral part of Chinese painting is the addition of seals and chops, the vermilion blocks of color on paintings placed by the artist or later collectors. Colophons may be poems, dedications or a written statement by the artist. They are considered aesthetic forms in their own right, lending beauty to paintings. Calligraphic inscriptions include several styles, the most artistic being the grass script, a spontaneous, flowing script, popular with artists and scholars. The calligrapher holds the brush vertically with two fingers; the key with the brush technique is to be quick and decisive.

Left: Illustration #1

Above: Illustration #3



Toward the end of the Ch’ing Dynasty and once the political climate of the Cultural Revolution became evident, Chinese painting reflected Chairman Mao’s political agendas. The painting entitled “Marching Through Luhan Pass” (See illustration #3) although a traditional landscape, its political message is apparent. It combines a traditional style imbued with iconographic imagery. . The line of red soldiers holding red flags marches upward through the mountain pass, further emphasized by the hazy white clouds and overall tonality.

Once Socialist Realm become official, Chinese artists dealt with “Propaganda Art” which aimed to educate the masses through art. Mao’s “little red book” states “there is no art for arts sake”. Although the painting entitled “Girl Riding a Tractor” (See illustration above) is realistically rendered with a smiling girl seated on a tractor as well as cute farm animals, the painting is not a true reflection of the suffering of the people during the Cultural Revolution; a time of forced labor and oppression of artists and scholars. These artists eventually rebelled and toward the end of Chairman Mao’s reign were creating satirical paintings mocking the image of their leader and the policies of the Cultural Revolution.

Illustration 1


Circa late 1970’s the China Ministry of Culture designated certain Chinese provinces “Homes of Painting” and thus began a new movement at the grass roots level of folk art created by and for the people reflecting their new freedoms in the happy genre scenes rendered in bright colors using tempera paint.

Twentieth century Chinese artists have developed new techniques while still including the traditional ink medium. An artist that has greatly influenced Chinese abstract painting is Chang Dai-Chien (1899-1983). Dai-Chien’s nickname was “the gibbon” not only because he used images of gibbons in his art; he evoked an image of the spirited gibbon as well. He was one of the few twentieth century artists to weave together the Three Perfections of painting, calligraphy and poetry. Known as the Picasso of Chinese painters, Dai-Chien inspired the new abstraction with his “flung ink” technique. “Spring Landscape In Splashed Color” Circa 1968 (See illustration below) is an example whereby splashes of ink and color create an alpine snowscape.

Chinese contemporary artists are growing in number and have acquired status in the international marketplace, combining innovation and tradition as well as abstraction for a universal dialogue of East/West. The market for both traditional and contemporary Chinese painting has created record sales at international auction galleries. Not surprisingly, included among the collectors are the Chinese, due to China’s new economic status and a desire to reclaim their heritage.

About the author: Lorena O. Allen, M.Ed., President of L. Allen Appraisal Studios, Inc., is a fine art appraiser/consultant in Winter Park, Florida and a certified member of Appraisers Association of America and International Society of Appraisers. She includes among her clients, museums, attorneys, and insurance companies as well as collectors of fine art and antiques. Address: P.O. Box 2543, Winter Park, Florida 32790. Tel: 407-671-1139,

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