Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com on Art


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Chinese Art

Renaissance in China: The Culture And Art of the Song Dynasty by Yuheng Bao, Ben Liao (Edwin Mellen Press) Art historians are much more like horticulturists than government clerks when assigning date to art movement. Events such as births or deaths, treaties, or declarations of hostilities have sufficient witnesses, or evidence, to record not only the year but also the month, the day, even at times, the hour. Whereas the creation of art is a solitary experience that evolves from perception and contemplation.

In a garden, the experienced eye of the gardener may note new shoots and leaves when they first break the earth's surface, but not until the plants are in full bloom and have taken over the plot, can it be known for certain that a new species or mutation has occurred. Not until a new movement of art is in full bloom can it also be established that it is a new type of artistic expression, or the rebirth of a classic one. So dates that are used are usually those of a particular political or philosophic era during which the art movement comes to full flower.

Just as a change in the garden's environment is necessary for the seed to mutate, so too is a change in the environmental components of a civilization, its political, economic, religious and philosophical structures, for a new artistic expression to develop and flourish. This book on the Renaissance in China: The Culture And Art of the Song Dynasty begins with a brief historical survey of the changing conditions that brought that art to its apogee, and recognizes that the seeds were planted and began to take root in earlier dynasties, and were nurtured by five unique emperors. Subsequent chapters deal with landscape painting, flower-and-bird, and figure painting; calligraphy; architecture; sculpture; religious art; ceramics and crafts. There are a prodigious number of biographic sketches of artists, and even a section on art literature and critics. All this is accompanied by over fifty beautiful illustrations.

“If one says that the Renaissance in Europe brought about the rediscovery of the human spirit, then likewise, the Song Period in China through the self-awakening of individuals also rediscovered individuality as the human spirit and respected it as Li. Song Scholar-officials, most of them Neo-Confucians or influenced by NeoConfucianism, obtained their bureaucratic positions through individual efforts. Not able to succeed automatically to the social status of their fathers or grandfathers, they developed a lively, forward-looking class, and a competitive spirit with great respect for individuality. In the Song Dynasty, taste in art changed very much from the previous Six Dynasties and the Tang Dynasty. The Song artists, most of them scholar-officials or students of Neo-Confucianism, good in poetry or/and painting, came to appreciate arts that demonstrated their own individualities. It was during that period of the Song, the art of Chinese painting developed and reached her golden age.”

Although it is easy to find parallels to the Chinese Renaissance in the European Renaissance, it is these exquisite illustrations that remind us of the uniqueness of the Chinese expressions. There are four areas of consideration to which I would like to direct the attention of Western readers. These are the nurturing and training of the Chinese artists, the intertwining of calligraphy, poetry and painting, the Chinese view of man's place in the world, and the socialized form of Chinese painting.

Most kings and potentates of the West were patrons of art during the European Renaissance. But Chinese emperors were not just patrons. Many were accomplished artists themselves, in calligraphy, painting and poetry. Their passion for the arts manifested itself in founding schools and art academies, and in their careful scrutiny examinations of recommended artists before accepting them as court painters. Even among those selected, there was a rigid hierarchy of rank according to their skills. The highest class was the literati painters, the highly educated intellectuals, skilled in politics and government, and a number of other disciplines, as well as the three arts of calligraphy, poetry and painting.

The close relationship between these three arts was due, in part, to the tools and media used and in part, to what these arts engendered. Not only was the same indelible ink and watercolor employed, but the same brush, held in the same perpendicular way was utilized both for writing and for painting. Although Western and Chinese writing each began with pictographs that evolved into symbols, Western alphabets became symbols for sound that expressed ideas; Chinese symbols were actual images of ideas which never lost their pictographic character as they became more complex and conventionalized.

When calligraphy was used for poetry, the connection with painting grew even tighter. As Su Shi, the great literati painter expressed it: "Poetry is invisible painting, and painting is mute poetry" ( a perception also shared by Leonardo da Vince). It was this recognition, first in Su Shi's, then in Leonardo da Vince's time, that finally elevated painting from a craft to a place in the arts, with poetry. In China, the convention of adding a poem to a painting became a distinctive, but natural development.

It could be expected that the Chinese view of man's place in the natural world and universe during the Song Renaissance would be quite different from that held by the Westerners in the European Renaissance. Such views are shaped by the religion and philosophy of the respective cultures. So although there were parallels in ethics and virtues, the basic differences are immediately apparent in their paintings.

Simply put, in the West, mankind was viewed as God's final and best creation set above the other earthy creatures and living things. In China, man was viewed as part of the brotherhood of all living things, no better than any other creature. The individual person was not as important as his family and its continued line of descendants. In Western painting we see portraits of contemporary people, classical and historical personages, and religious figures. Plants, animals and landscapes were worthy of being the subject matter in them. Animals, flowers and birds, as well as trees are portrayed up close and personal. There are portraits of people and divinities, but the preponderance of secular art is of nature.

Another very important distinction for Western readers to understand is that Chinese Song painting was a form of socialized art. Unlike Western painting, which has been individualistic, permitting the artist to choose his subject, media and tools, and to determine the expression and affect of his art, Chinese art, up to the twentieth century, has been one of conventions of subject matter, tools, media, brush strokes and methods of suggesting three dimensional space.

For instance, most Chinese landscapes have high-horizon, panoramic views, as though seen from a high vantage point, or birds' eyes. Space between near and middle distance is a misty wash, with the most distant mountain peaks sharply defined, fading out at lower elevations. Over sixteen conventions, depending on the flora and geology of the mountain range determine how they must be painted, ranging in description from: "raindrop wrinkle", to "horse-tooth wrinkle", to "hemp-fiber wrinkle." Even now, students of Chinese painting need to spend years of observation and technical practice to master the brush strokes.

The last and the very significant fact, as Dr. Bao and Dr. Liao indicate in this book, is the growing urbanization and commercialization begun during the late Tang Dynasty in the ninth century, reached its peak under the Song Dynasty during the eleventh century. During these centuries, commercial and industrial activity, especially in Central and South China, increased enormously. The circulation of metal coins reached a level never equaled before or since, and was supplemented in the eleventh century by extensive issues of the world's first paper currency. A new bourgeois swelled the population of the great cities, which became major centers of administration and trade, as well as of culture and art. The spread of printing brought literacy to a widening sector of the population and fostered the growth of new, popular forms of literature. Qing-ming Shang-he Tu is a true historical document of the urban life of the Song age. Actually what was to begin in Renaissance Europe several centuries later seemed already to be beginning in the Song Dynasty of China, with all the potential changes this implied. But then something happened, or rather failed to happen. The forces that were to lead to capitalism and industrialism in Western Europe failed to achieve ongoing momentum in China. The West was to change into a modern society. China did not. Why should this have occurred? Was it the result of the Mongol invasions? Or the resiliency of the Neo-Confucian bureaucratic state of Song? Or even other factors? These questions need further discussion. But that is another story!


Headline 3

insert content here