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Traditional Chinese Painting: History, Styles, Examples

What do belief, history, and a moment in time have to do with Chinese traditional painting? Everything!

Consider these three important ideas that help make Chinese painting what it is:

  • The past is the foundation of the present and future, and demands respect. Painters learn their craft by copying earlier masters.
  • As humans, we are but a small speck in the breadth of space and time.
  • That said, a good painting reveals the artist's character, which in turn contributes to the meaning of the painting. To really understand a piece, it helps to learn about the artist and the times in which he or she lived.

As a result, pieces of art that range from 200 BC all the way through to contemporary works can be considered traditional Chinese painting! Chinese painting is done on paper or silk, using a variety of brushes, ink and dye. Subjects vary, including: portrait, landscape, flowers, birds, animals, and insects.

From Meticulous to Freehand: Painting Techniques

Chinese paintingCopy of a galloping horse portrait originally by Xu Beihong (1895-1953)

Like calligraphy, traditional Chinese painting, or guohua (国画 /gwor-hwaa/), is done using a brush dipped in black ink or colored pigments, usually on paper or silk. The finished work can be mounted on scrolls and hung. Traditional painting has also been done on walls, porcelain and lacquer ware.

There are two main techniques in Chinese painting:

  • Gongbi (工笔 /gong-bee/), literally 'working pen', is a meticulous style, rich in color and detailed brush strokes. It is often used for portraits or narrative subjects.
  • Xieyi (写意 /sshyeah-ee/ 'writing' ), meaning "freehand", is a looser style of painting, and usually used in landscapes. Xieyi often features exaggerated forms, and expresses the artist's feelings. It is also called shuimo (水墨 /shway-mor/ 'water-ink'), meaning 'watercolor and ink'.

History in a Nutshell

From the Han (206 BC - 220 AD) to Tang (618-907) dynasties, artists painted many detailed, elaborate portraits of the royal court. Some of the ancient works depicting court lives of emperors, their ladies, and imperial horses have been preserved in tombs and burial sites. Tang Dynasty also saw the beginning of landscape paintings, often referred to as shanshui (山水 /shan-shway/ 'mountain-water') paintings. These are less precise and allowed for individual freedom in interpreting the subjects.

Chinese painting

The time from the Five Dynasties period (907-960) to the Northern Song period (960-1127) is known as the "Golden Age of Chinese Landscape Painting". Using bold strokes and black lines, artists depicted rolling hills, rivers and stones. Others used softer brushwork to paint peaceful scenes of nature, birds and animals.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), landscape paintings almost attained a mythical quality with blurred outlines of mountains and mists.

During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), painters began adding poetry and calligraphy to their works to express their thoughts and feelings.

Color printing techniques were perfected during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which was a huge advancement. This made it possible to create illustrated books and manuals on the techniques of Chinese painting.

In the 1700s and 1800s, wealthy patrons nurtured and encouraged new works by promising artists. Some large cities such as Shanghai and Yangzhou became art centers.

Western art exerted its influence on China in the late 1800s and 1900s. Some painters, after studying abroad, returned to their homeland and incorporated the best of both cultures in their art.

Landscapes That Grace Chinese Paintings


Do you want to see some of the landscapes that Grace Chinese art?

Hongcun in the Yellow Mountains is still frequented to this day by artists, and you may be able to watch them as they the blend of pools, willows, and ancient architecture with their brushes! If you want a hand painted fan as a souvenir, consider visiting the "hometown of paper fans"-Fuli. Fuli is also one of the best-preserved ancient towns in Guilin, with more than 1,000 years of history. Landscape masterpiece paintings can also be found in Guilin.

Related Tours

The Yellow Mountains (Huangshan in Chinese)

HuangshanThe Yellow Mountains

If you are planning a tour to the Yellow Mountains, please see our recommendations for inspiration:

  • China Ancient Cities and Celebrated Mountains Tour (15 days): Explore the breathtaking scenery of the legendary mountains and towns, which has inspired generations of artists and poets. This tour also takes you to Shanghai, where you can visit the Shanghai Museum of Pen and Ink.
  • Huangshan Photography Tour (4 days): Imaginatively named pines, oddly-shaped rocks, the sea of clouds, and winter snowcaps furnish marvelous painting themes.
  • Essence of Huangshan Tour (3 days): See the highlights of the Yellow Mountains and ancient villages.
  • Trekking in the Yellow Mountains (4 days): Hike down to the less-traveled paths to appreciate the undisturbed beauty away from the tourists.


GuilinEnjoy peaceful scenery in Guilin

Thinking of Guilin instead? Consider these popular tours for inspiration:

  • Guilin Scenic and Ethnic Discovery (4 days): Soak in the beauty of traditional life, from walks along small rice terrace paths to making a visit to a local ethnic family home.
  • Essence of Guilin (3 days): Enjoy the timeless countryside from a river cruise, take in panoramic views from the karst hills, and explore Guilin's best caves.
  • Guilin, Longsheng, Yangshuo Relaxation (6 days): Enjoy the peaceful scenery, countryside, and traditional ethnic cultures of Guilin, Yangshuo and the Longsheng Longji Rice Terraces at a relaxing pace.

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