by Jung Ying Tsao
Adapted from Tsao, Jung Ying, Chinese Paintings of the Middle Qing Dynasty, Introduction. San Francisco: San Francisco Graphic Society, in association with the University of Washington Press, 1987.
The quest for beauty is a universal human endeavor. Whether manifested in our natural surroundings; harmonious personal relationships; or sounds, words, or visual forms arranged so as to illuminate some aspect of human experience, beauty attracts us and arouses in us a deep love and reverence for human life. It has the power to relieve the strain of everyday living, to dispel sorrow and despair, to kindle in us hope for the future and confidence in the value of our very existence. Of fundamental importance to all societies, then, are man-made products possessing the quality of beauty; such works are what we call art.
The potential of art to enrich our lives is realized only through the beholder’s capacity to respond to and penetrate beyond a work’s subject matter or formal beauty and focus on the pure energies within. Such energies are the distillation of the forces behind civilization; thus art embodies the essence of the culture from which it springs.
Chinese art has evolved over five millennia, and out of each stage of its unfolding have emerged creations of fresh vitality. With such a rich heritage, it is little wonder that the Chinese revere their ancestors, value time-honored customs, and treasure native artifacts of past ages. This vivid awareness of their cultural origins has instilled in China’s people a strong sense of identity, which has continuously directed them toward goals and ideals first voiced by their forbears thousands of years ago.
One of the earliest important concepts in the development of the Chinese worldview was dao [the “way” of nature, or the great cosmic order]. As the spiritual principle behind all concrete matter, dao is the supreme objective of Chinese art, surpassing mere decorative or didactic purposes. Revelation of dao through creative expression cannot be attained unless the artist is attuned to dao. So consideration of the artist’s moral and spiritual cultivation is just as essential as technical skill in measuring the extent of his artistic achievement.
The aim of Chinese art has never been simply to copy the appearance of things. Patterned decorations on ceramics from the late Neolithic Yangshao culture testify to an early appreciation for abstract form. Shang bronzes bear linear designs remarkable for their balanced rhythms and stately grace. In these ancient societies, pictures used to record events were gradually transformed into conventionalized graphs, culminating in the sophisticated writing system that China still uses today.
Meanwhile, pictorial art advanced toward realism. By Han times, painting had come into its own as an art form, and the power of the painted image to influence thought was exploited for didactic purposes. Depictions of figures enacting righteous deeds, such as Gu Kaizhi’s “Admonitions of the Instructress to the Palace Ladies,” inculcated members of the nobility with prescribed rules of morality and propriety; and portraits of deities and illustrations of sacred stories propagated the teachings of Buddhism. Over the next few centuries subject matter broadened to include flowers and animals, while landscapes, previously appearing as background in figure paintings, began to blossom as an independent theme, starting around the time of Zong Bing (375-443). The social function of art also expanded to include paintings created by and for the enjoyment of scholars. Poetry inspired the landscapes of Wang Wei, the learned official and poet of the Tang period who is esteemed as the forefather of the literati tradition of painting.
“As the spiritual principle behind all concrete matter, dao is the supreme objective of Chinese art.”
The brilliant achievement of painting from the 10th to 13th centuries may be largely credited to the Song emperors’ personal devotion to aesthetic activities. Imperial sponsorship of an art academy was not unique to this dynasty, but the rigorous scholastic standard required for entrance into the academy, and the high honors and rewards bestowed upon painters of merit, stimulated artistic production of unprecedented magnitude and range. The elevation of the painter’s educational level and therefore social standing was a major turning point in Chinese art history, for it raised painting (both professional and amateur) above the category of craft once and for all, and placed it on a par with poetry and calligraphy, where it has remained through modern times.
In addition to their literary pursuits and official duties, Song scholars practiced “ink play” in pictures that were meant to be “read” much like a poem. This approach was taken up by artists employed in the service of the court, who in turn influenced the amateurs. During this era, religious and narrative themes, now classed under the general category of figure painting, took on a more decorative quality. The rise of rationalistic Neo-Confucian thought, with its inquiry into the universal principle (li) in all things, exalted landscape as a symbol of the all-pervasive dao. It also fostered interest in a broader variety of subjects, including rocks and various plants, such as bamboo and orchids, which signified certain moral ideals. Buddhist monk artists, too, enlarged the scope of their imagery to embrace these motifs. Northern Song landscapists paid homage to the majesty of the natural world in awe-inspiring panoramas wherein man was but a tiny part. Advancements in brush technique and ink effects characterize Southern Song art, but its crowning accomplishment lives in the prominent place accorded to unpainted portions of the silk or paper, both as an atmospheric device and as an evocation of eternity.
The sweeping changes imposed on Chinese society by the conquering Mongol regime of the Yuan Dynasty initially dealt a harsh blow to the flourishing artistic tradition of the Song. The art academy was abandoned, while scholars bemoaned their demotion to the lowest ranks of the populace. Either declining to serve in the administration of their foreign rulers or retiring after a short term in office, many intellectuals retreated to the countryside where they immersed themselves in literature and art. For them, painting was an outlet for personal feelings, a leisurely pastime, and a vehicle for communication with other sensitive minds.
“The aim of Chinese art has never been simply to copy the appearance of things.”
Whereas the Song emphasis on objective observation of the world had retained a strong thread of realism in painting, the more subjective attitude of the Yuan artists had an abstracting effect on their images. Besides conveying the painter’s relationship with nature, art now also presented his interpretation of culture; and the free exploration of the plentiful possibilities implicit in this mode generated a high point in quality. Inscribing a verse or comments in addition to a signature on pictures became common practice during the Yuan Dynasty. This firmly established the integration of poetry, calligraphy, and painting into an aesthetic whole as a distinctively Chinese form of creative expression.
The revival of the painting academy by the Ming Dynasty was politically rather than humanistically motivated. Under the strictures of an imperial patronage that favored Song styles and held innovation in suspicion, court art sank into empty formalism. Independent artists of various schools, drawing on their proficiency in calligraphy, concentrated on brush technique. Many sought to impart a sense of inner tranquility and scholarly refinement in depictions of gardens as well as of nature in the wild.
Political corruption and social decay plagued late Ming China, with extensive criticism launched against the idle philosophical deliberations in which intellectuals indulged. In art circles, interest in reassessing historical developments and categorizing past styles and schools spawned diverse theories, each prescribing a particular approach to painting. Of these, the ideas and artistic creations of Dong Qichang (1555-1636) had the greatest influence on later generations, supplying the theoretical basis for the supreme achievements of both the Orthodox and Individualist masters of the 17th century.
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Art historians frequently divide the Qing period into three stages, the first spanning the inception of Manchu rule in China through the death of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662-1723), and the third proceeding from the Opium War (1839-1842) until the close of the dynasty. The second stage commenced, after a transitional interval during the short-lived but harsh reign of Yongzheng (r. 1723-1736), with the ascendency to the throne of Qianlong (r. 1737-1796), and continued to the beginning of the Xianfeng (r. 1851-1862) period. It is the painting of this “middle Qing” epoch with which this book is concerned.
“Inscribing a verse or comments in addition to a signature on pictures became common practice during the Yuan Dynasty.”
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An outstanding achievement of the middle Qing period derived from the focus on antiquity that was prompted by textual research [kaoju, an inductive method of historical study]. This was in the field of beixue or the “study of stone tablets.” Supplementing the books and other documents on silk or paper used as sources of data in textual research were inscriptions carved in stone or wood, or modeled in brick or pottery. These inscriptions appeared in the form of commemorative tablets and monuments such as tombstones, steles, and the celebrated ten Stone Drums (8th-3rd century B.C.), and also tiles and other architectural fixtures … Interest in beixue inspired a revival of the archaic seal and official styles of writing in the middle Qing period. As it brought calligraphy full circle back to its historical beginnings, the creative force of writing as an art form was thus recharged … The fresh naiveté of bei writings and their freedom from self-conscious effort were features that were admired by middle Qing viewers … The study and appreciation of the inscriptions as well as artistic designs on metal and stone objects, falling under the heading jinshixue (“study of metal and stone”), gained momentum in the Qianlong era and reached a peak of interest in the 19th century. The new aesthetic taste which developed out of jinshixue stimulated a new phase in the art of seal carving while it exerted a transforming influence on styles of both calligraphy and painting.
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By the middle Qing period, China’s artistic tradition spanned a long history replete with diverse schools and methods. The student of painting had always been expected to acquire a certain level of proficiency in the gamut of previousmasters’ accomplishments before embarking on a personal style. However, to the 18th century novice, the past presented a corpus of art that was awesome in volume, breadth, and achievement. Technique was transmitted from one generation to another in several ways: by painters’ taking of pupils, by first-hand observation of masterpieces, and by viewing hand-painted copies of masterworks. One more means of study was the use of the woodblock print copy. Based on the idea of an engraved seal, the woodblock printing process was first employed in the Tang Dynasty for the purpose of disseminating Buddhist doctrine. Printing technology advanced a step in the Song period with the advent of movable type. Illustrated books of various sorts circulated at this time, and in the late Song and Yuan, painting manuals such as the Catalogue of Plum Blossoms (Meipu) and Catalogue of Bamboo (Zhupu) were published. The Catalogue of Painting from the Studio of Ten Bamboos (Shizhuzhai huapu), the first edition of which dates to the end of the Ming Dynasty, had a considerable effect on painting, as did the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Jieziyuan huazhuan), produced in the Qing.
The arts of printing and wood engraving meshed especially during the 17th century, when a number of inventive painters designed pictures meant for reproduction by the woodblock method. Printing activities were stimulated in the middle Qing by the popular demand for illustrated novels and the imperial obsession with massive compilation projects. Not only did widespread distribution of painting manuals and printed reproductions do much to simplify the beginning artist’s training, it also exposed the whole of China to specialties of technique and approach that had formerly been confined to certain regions. The printed picture brought art to all levels of society. People from every walk of life now tried their hand at painting, while the rising merchant class joined the ranks of art collectors, once the exclusive domain of scholars and nobility. With such a broad-based patronage, artists enjoyed relative ease in making a living with the brush. Moreover, the abundance of leisure time afforded by a healthy economy and stable government, along with easy access to printed copies of paintings and art handbooks, enabled painters to achieve a high degree of technical skill and versatility.
“To the 18th century novice, the past presented a corpus of art that was awesome in volume, breadth, and achievement.”
But the creative impact of woodblock prints on painting in the previous century was replaced in the 1700s by the effects of popularization and commercialization. The limitations inherent in using printed materials to learn the intricacies of handling brush and ink, compounded by the emphasis of many teachers on conventional methods, led many artists into the dead end of formalism. Intent on following all the rules and mastering all the styles presented in their manuals or by their instructors, aspiring painters often received little direction in realizing their potential for inventing something new. Even those who might have surmounted this obstacle were discouraged from openly transgressing the bounds of convention by the looming threat of imperial inquisitions. In addition to the veneration in which they held antiquity, the prevailing political climate was an important factor in the middle Qing artists’ adherence to earlier modes. Painters had acknowledged ancient masters as their source of inspiration in their paintings’ self-inscriptions for centuries; however, in this period the practice became more common than ever. For, by crediting the deceased with masterminding the overall concept of their work, painters of this age shed all personal responsibility for any content that might be interpreted as offensive to the ruling powers.
Notwithstanding these strong forces which suppressed innovation in painting in the middle Qing, individual expression did make itself known, if only to the cultivated eye of the connoisseur. Screened behind a façade of unnoticeable brushwork and preconceived compositions, the artist’s unique statement could be detected in his modulation of ink values, in the nuances of his brushstrokes, in his unobtrusive departures from established designs. This concentration on the fine points of an art work had contemporary parallels in the preoccupation with detail in textural research as well as in the trends of connoisseurship in calligraphy, beixue, and antiques of all types. Half-concealed inner qualities were admired in all things and even in people; overt expression was considered immodest and uncultured. A term often used to praise paintings and human personalities alike was pingdan – literally, “bland” or “plain.”
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Because calligraphy and painting were inextricably linked, the Chinese viewer could rely on certain common grounds for judging both art forms. The free movement and evocative distribution of lines in space constitute the fundamental objective of calligraphic aesthetics. Any work of writing is evaluated first on the basis of the structure and proportion of each individual character, then on the balance and continuum achieved in the relation of one character to another, and finally, on the unity and creative vision perceivable in the whole.
Although paintings are not strictly segmented into separate components as is calligraphy, they nevertheless may be appreciated for the same qualities. This was especially true in the middle Qing period when the major substance of a painter’s expression was invested in his calligraphic brushwork. The novice calligrapher began his training with kaishu, the most conventionalized of the six basic scripts, and gradually familiarized himself with the others until his competence afforded him the means to evolve an individual style. The education of the painter followed a parallel pattern: only after mastering the accurate representation of form in the precisive gongbi or fine brush method could he qualify to reveal his own personality in more abstract terms such as the xieyi mode.
“A painting in ink alone has always been considered as chromatically complete as one employing colors.”
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Along with paper, brush, and inkstone, ink is one of the four treasures of the scholar’s studio. A painting in ink alone has always been considered as chromatically complete as one employing colors, for ink has traditionally been said to possess five colors in itself. The tonal scale of ink in painting narrowed somewhat after the end of the 17th century. This was due to the influence of bei rubbings as well as textual research with its finely drawn distinctions, and reflects the middle Qing scholar’s preference for plainness in art. At the same time, critics of this period enumerated not five but six colors in a successful monochrome ink painting, pointing out that their predecessors had neglected to mention the vitally important unpainted portions as a positive element and therefore “color” in a picture. The new emphasis on unfilled areas of a painting revived the eloquent spatial effects achieved by Song artists, and followed the Individualists of the 17th century with their bold juxtapositions of solid and void.
Artists’ signatures were rarely presented conspicuously on paintings until after the close of the Song Dynasty. Many painters of early periods did not excel in calligraphy and so did not wish to mar their pictures with poorly written inscriptions. Those who did sign their name hid the small characters within the contours of a tree trunk or in the crack of a rock. Zhao Mengfu [1254-1322] was among the first to accord a prominent place to his signature on most of his works. He sometimes recorded a title, date, or commentary as well, appending the whole with one or more seals. After later Yuan literati painters, all of them expert calligraphers, confidently embellished their art with similar texts and seals, Ming artists followed suit – and in the process refined the close relationship between the arts of painting, calligraphy, and poetry. But from the Song through the early 17th century, painters as a rule used a single script type consistently in their self-inscriptions, imprinting their seals directly below their signature at the end. Moreover, the written text was added as an afterthought, and was usually blocked out in the form of a neat square or rectangle in an unpainted corner of the composition.
Shitao (1641-ca. 1717) may be credited with revolutionizing a primary aspect of painting: his original conception of his creations encompassed the inscription and seals as integral parts of the whole design. The immediate heirs to this approach, the Yangzhou masters, often constructed their text into an irregular shape so as to relate it dynamically to the pictorial image. Subsequently, artists of the modern Jinshi School took this idea to its logical conclusion by also using seals as a compositional device. Along with the spread to other regions outside Yangzhou of this new flexibility in the spatial arrangement of calligraphy on paintings, middle Qing art is also characterized by the appearance of a variety of script styles within an individual artist’s oeuvre. Again, this is derived from the art of Shitao.
“ The middle Qing emerges as an important transitional stage during which past achievements were explored anew and the seeds for later developments were sown.”
The poems, poetic essays, and explanatory remarks that make up the main body of middle Qing inscriptions are notable for their lack of profundity. This is understandable, given the tight parameters set on the written word by the scourge of repeated literary inquisitions. To avoid risking punishment for seditious statements, the average artist was content to dwell on harmless flowery images and nostalgic sentiments in his self-inscriptions.
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Despite the splendor or Qianlong’s golden era, painting of the 18th and early 19th centuries is not usually considered outstanding for either creative brilliance or technological strides within the greater scheme of China’s artistic heritage. However, understood within the context of historical factors peculiar to the time and as but one brief episode in a venerable chronology of aesthetic production, the middle Qing emerges as an important transitional stage during which past achievements were explored anew and the seeds for later developments were sown. In the pages that follow, examples of the works of 62 artists are presented. These are meant to constitute not a comprehensive survey of the approximately 125 years that spanned the reigns of Qianlong through Xianfeng, but only a brief introduction to the painting of this period. Besides serving as portraits of the individual personalities that fashioned them, these images are indicators of the human values that prevailed during the middle Qing. Linking aged traditions with modern innovations in creative expression, they also disclose essential insights into Chinese civilization as a whole.