In the Literati Tradition
19th and 20th Century Chinese Paintings

Foreword by K. Y. Ng

The literati tradition is the theme of our second exhibition. The first one, 'Metamorphosis', showed various styles of young and middle-aged painters, focusing on their innovations in adapting to new eras. In this exhibition, we present artists working in the literati manner, the majority of them being twentieth century painters with some from the late nineteenth. The exhibits are mainly landscapes, which have always been a favourite subject for past literati painters. Nature in its myriad aspects - mountains and valleys ever changing, drifting clouds and mists, wind sighing in the pine grove, the moon reflected in water, verdant forests and slender bamboo - is the perfect vehicle for expressing the artist's longing for a tranquil life and his pursuit of an Utopian ideal.

I should like to talk about literati painting very briefly here as it is more fully discussed in Mr. Ip Wing Chi's essay. Chen Hengke (1876-1923) considered four qualities as essential for a literati painter: moral quality, learning, intellect and thought. 1 From the aesthetic point of view, moral quality could be omitted, leaving art to confine itself to the appreciation of beauty. The scholarly tradition serves to express the artist's personal vision through the deft use of brush and ink and stresses the ultimate attainment of 'qiyun' or spirit. In the past, literati painters paid equal heed to four art forms, namely poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal-carving, but such all-round accomplishments are rare today, nor are they necessarily appropriate to the times. 'Learning' however remains a prerequisite, being the means of improving one's mind; as for themes - the most favourite is the landscape, followed by birds, prunus, orchids, bamboo, rocks, .... etc.

Several artists in the early twentieth century such as Pu Ru, Zhang Daqian, Wu Hufan and Huang Binhong are representative painters of the literati tradition. Their works display elegance, gentleness and scholarly taste. They stress not only painting, but also literature, calligraphy and seal-carving. Contemporary painters who are proficient in both painting and calligraphy are Xie Zhiliu, Lu Yanshao and Li Koran.

Unique to this catalogue is the appendix of the impressions of the seals used by the artists. Seal-carving is an art in its own right. The intricately carved characters and red colour of the vermillion harmonize and enhance the beauty of the painting. What is more, seals are a significant additional element apart from calligraphy, paper and inscriptions for authentication and should by no means be overlooked; since they represent not only names or aliases of the painters, but also literary quotations or revelations of their sentiments and aspirations, we therefore decipher all the seal impressions to provide more information to readers.

Aside from including references, we have also provided unpublished data to facilitate further studies. On display are three paintings by Ning Fucheng, a little known Beijing artist who was well versed in calligraphy, seal-carving and painting. Among the three works illustrated here, Pumpkin and Bamboo Shoots (No. 41) is signed with 'fuchen heshang' and stamped with two seals of 'fuchen heshang' and 'laoning'. Both seals cannot be found in A Selection of Calligraphy and Seal-carvings by Ning Fucheng. 2 However, the 'laoning' seal is found on the painting titled Chickens with the signature of 'fucheng' (No. 39). Since the handwriting on both paintings conform and the two works are both finger paintings, we can reasonably conclude that the hitherto undocumented seal of 'fucheng heshang' is one of his many aliases. On the bird and flower fan painting by Gao Qifeng (No. 17) there is a seal 'modengxian bailiaoshaoniantou' (Time and tide wait for no man). The same seal appears in The Art of Gao Jianfu. 3 There are two possibilities for this anomaly: either the seal did belong to Gao Qifeng, or it was used by both men who were brothers.

Finally, I would like to thank my many friends for making this exhibition possible. In particular, I would like to extend my gratitude and sincere thanks to Mr. Ip Wing Chi for contributing an essay, Laurence Lee for co-ordinating the entire exhibition and Simon Leung for his excellent photography.


K. Y. Ng



  1. Dictionary of Chinese Fine Arts, Shanghai Dictionary Publication, Shanghai, 1987, p. 4, Wenrenhua
  2. A Selection of Calligraphy and Seal-carvings by Ning Fucheng, People's Art Publication, Beijing, 1984.
  3. The Art of Gao Jianfu, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Urban Council, Hong Kong Government, 1978, p. 117, pl. 63
Foreword by K. Y. Ng
In the Literati Tradition
Online Catalogue