A masterpiece of Chinese art calls out to the viewer so directly that all sense of time and language seem to drop away. Indeed, the art of China is actually the merging of the artist's personality with the oneness of the natural universe. But those who would like to understand Chinese art must face certain obstacles. First, there is the unfamiliar language, made more difficult by a number of different systems of spelling Chinese words in our alphabet. Second, is the bewildering number of Chinese dynasties that span Chinese art history. Third, and perhaps most serious, is the symbolism that is deeply woven throughout the arts of China.
In Chinese art, a dragon is not just a dragon, but rather a symbol of the emperor, a sign of the zodiac or a folk-tale favorite. To a follower of Taoism, the dragon might be viewed as the Tao (universe) itself, while a follower of Ch'an Buddhism might view a painting of a dragon emerging from the clouds as a mystical vision of the Buddha nature. To add to the confusion for an outsider of Chinese art, almost every animal has its own symbolism. And sometimes what seems like a simple work of Chinese artistry, such as the still life, Six Persimmons is actually a religious work of art type almost unbeknownst to Western viewers.
In approaching Chinese art, one must be careful in weighing artistic value. For example, in China, the physical size of a work is not important, whereas in the West it usually is. As another example, Chinese art is often private and contemplative while Western art is public and declamatory. To go on, in the arts of China, the human figure plays a minor role and nudity is virtually unseen, while Western art shows a great deal of nudity and is derived from classical Greek thinking that man is the center of all things.
Still other differences exist between Chinese and Western art, which makes the former difficult to grasp and appreciate by outsiders. Generally, Western art holds the opposite philosophy of the following points:
As we contemplate the richness of Chinese art and its many forms, it will help us to keep the preceding thoughts in mind. In this way we might see past our cultural beliefs and glean a look at the way the Chinese mind views Chinese art. Perhaps then we can finally gain an elevated sense of the exquisite and rich nature of the arts of Chinese culture.
Chinese painting has a long history going back several millennia. The earliest Chinese paintings were done on silk, but by the 6th century paper was in popular use. Most early Chinese painting was monochromatic, utilizing black ink in different consistencies; colored inks were also used on occasion. Chinese painters were very ingenious and used various formats for their art.
The hanging scroll painting was one format, of which a scroll of paper was suspended from a rod at each end and was rolled up after viewing. Chinese hand scroll paintings were viewed horizontally and not intended to been seen all at one time - only one section of a time in a story-like fashion. Fans were also used for Chinese paintings, and could be folded or rigid, and sometimes mounted in albums. In the albums, each page could be turned to show another painted Chinese image.
But the most popular part of Chinese art may have been Chinese landscape paintings. Landscape paintings in China offered a perspective entirely different than Western scientific perspective. The objects in Chinese paintings are represented in a flat manner with almost no regard for depth and distance. This is partly due to the immediacy of working in ink versus oils. In the West, a painter could go back and rework part of an image - not so in Chinese landscape painting. Ink paintings just do not allow for such flexibility.
Another difference between Chinese ink paintings and Western art is that the former captures the mood of the painter, rather than the exact representation of the objects or scenes, as in Western art. Chinese artists learned by copying the works of master painters. These copies often include identical reproductions of the master artist's original work, including signature and seal.