Lecture Sixteen

Art and the Way

Scope: The Northern Song dynasty was also a great age of change in art. In this lecture, we will look back to the development of painting and calligraphy in earlier times and consider the emergence of landscape painting and the rise of art historical discourse in the 11th century. The changes taking place in painting reflected new ideas about the place of man in the universe, and these in turn, became manifest in the new philosophical trend of Daoxue, or the “Learning of the Way,” which would soon become the official version of Confucianism approved by the imperial state.


I. Painting and calligraphy had a long history in China before the Song.

A. The earliest images of people or objects go back to Neolithic pottery decoration. Animal totems and geometric designs predominated.

B. By the Han dynasty, tomb decoration became important.

1. Wall paintings and painted fabrics have been found with images of people and animals, both naturalistic and fantastic.

2. There was also a desire to illustrate ideas of the afterlife.

C. During the period from Han through Tang, painting took on new forms and styles, and calligraphy developed as a graphic art form.

1. With the invention of paper and less expensive techniques for silk production, paintings became cheaper to produce and more affordable to own.

2. Paintings as illustrations of moral tales or popular stories, such as Gu Kaizhi’s Admonitions of the River Spirit, grew more common.

3. In the Southern Dynasties, during the period of cultural anxiety related to the presence of Turkic-dominated states in northern China, calligraphy developed as a significant art form.

4. Calligraphy emphasized the structural beauty of Chinese writing and posited a link between the aesthetic values of writing characters and the moral qualities of the writer.

D. Throughout these periods, painting and calligraphy were seen as essentially narrative and didactic, as illustrative art forms.

II. In the 10th century, new ideas about painting and the representation of the world began to develop.

A. Central to this was a reevaluation of the place of human activity in the universe.

1. Painting and calligraphy had been seen as part of the overall realm of wen and had basically served to illustrate literary concepts.

2. New ideas about li, the inherent patterns in things, caused some people to see the world in different ways.

3. Northern Song landscape painting began to present human life as merely one element in a much larger natural or cosmic order.

4. Monumental landscape paintings, such as Fan Kuan’s Travelers in the Mountains, emphasized the massive physical structure of the land and placed tiny human figures in peripheral settings.

5. Fan’s painting reveals the natural patterns of the landscape and situates human activity in a clearly subordinate role.

6. Basic compositional elements include the distant mass of mountains, more detail in the foreground, and the winding path (in Chinese, the same word, Dao, means “the Way”) along which the travelers pass.

B. Landscape painting became the mainstream of Chinese graphic art.

1. In the Northern Song, down to the 1120s, monumental landscape dominated, though genre paintings of daily life at court and bird-and-flower painting were also significant.

2. In the Southern Song, landscapes became somewhat smaller in scale and more concerned with misty views of distant peaks, perhaps reflecting a nostalgia for the lost territories of northern China, which we will discuss in the next lecture.

3. In both styles, the place of human beings is clearly subordinate to, although part of, a larger order.

III. The concept of li became central to the emergence of the Learning of the Way (Daoxue).

A. As we saw in the discussion of 11th-century thought, the cosmological thinkers emphasized li and the idea of natural principles as the basis for moral order.

1. The “good” was thought of as that which was in harmony with natural principle, and that which deviated from this was evil.

2. Although this kind of philosophy emphasized seeking values in the inherent patterns of nature, it did not entirely turn away from the heritage of Confucian learning.

B. In the 12th century, Daoxue ideas were developed and consolidated and became a powerful force in Chinese intellectual culture.

1. The changes in intellectual and cultural life, however, need to be seen in the context of other changes taking place in the economy and in political life.

2. We will examine the ideas of Zhu Xi, the preeminent Daoxue thinker of the Southern Song, in a later lecture.

3. First, we need to consider the impact of non-Chinese invaders during the course of the Song and the dynamic development of economic forces in the 11th through 13th centuries, which we will look at in the next two lectures.

Essential Reading:

Wen Fong, ed., Beyond Representation.

Supplemental Reading:

Amy McNair, The Upright Brash.

Questions to Consider:

1. Painting had been considered a craft, which was largely practiced by artisans at court until the Song dynasty. What was the connection between the changes in artistic theory and practice and the transformation of the social-political elite in the early Song?

2. Why were painting and calligraphy thought to reveal a man’s character more clearly than his words?

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