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

In the Literati Tradition

On his night trip to the Red Cliff, Su Shi, the famous poet of the Song Dynasty (1037- 1101), asked his friend, "Do you know something about water and the moon? The river flows to the ocean, seemingly gone forever, and yet it keeps flowing all the time; the moon waxes and wanes and yet never changes its size". The favourite subjects of the literati painters are the so-called feng hua xue yue (wind, flower, snow, moon). By nature these are transient and their ethereal beauty moves the hearts of sentimental scholars, providing them with spiritual comfort and inspiration.

My friend, Ng Kai Yuen has organized this exhibition, "In the Literati Tradition", with the aim of showing the varieties of this style and as a result leading us to explore further this interesting topic. Historically, literati painting has confined itself to no particular form or any style and opinion has been divided on both its interpretation and definition.

In the early stage of development, literati painting was considered to be the work of the scholar-official class. Zhang Yanyuan of the Tang Dynasty (ca. 815-875) was the best known advocate of this theory. He said in his book Lidai Minghua Ji (Record of Famous Paintings in Successive Dynasties), "Those proficient in painting have been only people of noble descent, officials, hermits and sages who excel themselves among their contemporaries and later generations and this can never be achieved by village rustics". Apparently, this was a discrimination rooted in ancient feudal society and had persisted since the Wei (220-265) and Jin (265-420) Dynasties, distinguishing the amateur literati painters from professional painters and at the same time giving superiority to the~former; the concept however had still not been defined by that time.

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) was the golden age of Chinese painting. The reign of the Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) saw a rapid growth of academic painting and the gradual formation of a definite concept for literati painting. Su Shi, whom I men- tioned at the beginning of my essay, was a versatile scholar excelling in writing. poetry, painting, calligraphy and connoisseurship, insisted on incorporating literary theory into painting and stressed that naturalism and originality were the binding rules for both poetry and painting and that it was more important to capture the 'sketch spirit' of the subject rather than portraying its 'formal likeness'. "If anyone discusses painting in terms of formal likeness, his understanding is no different from that of a child", he remarked. "The evaluation of paintings can be compared to the selection of horses, the works by a scholar are full of spirit like a prancing horse, while those by an average painter are lifeless, showing only flesh and bone", he further proclaimed. Therefore, spirit is the ultimate goal and the criterion for the appreciation of a painting; the theory has been clarified and a close relationship between literati painting and literary accomplishment was achieved.

Under the rule of the Mongols in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the attitude of scholars underwent a drastic change: they were reluctant to serve the non-indigenous barbarians and therefore turned away from worldly affairs and sought refuge in the solitude of the mountains. Ni Zan, one of the four masters of the Yuan Dynasty, whose landscapes are noted for their simplicity, regarded painting as carefree sketching expressing the untrammelled and leisurely spirit ( Yichi) - this now became the essential theory of literati painting. The belief that "painting reflects one's personality" has from then on related moral quality to painting. At the same time, inscrip- tions and seal-carvings gradually became a means to reveal the artist' emotions and aspirations. Literature, calligraphy and seal-carving are eventually integrated with painting and formed the four key art forms for literati painters.

In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the theories on literati painting were further developed and numerous treatises were written. By late Ming, Dong Qichang (1555-1637) proposed two separate schools, the 'Northern and the Southern', the former specializing in coloured landscape and the latter, ink. He regarded literati painting as the ultimate in Chinese art. yet neither content or aesthetic theory concerned him. Being the leading figure in contemporary art circles and a well-respected painter known for his subtle brush work and use of ink, he influenced the Four Wangs' 1 of the early Qing Dynasty. Shitao (1642-ca. 1718) emphasized the importance of the individuality of the painter and the observation of nature: brush and ink being merely means to express one's feeling. In one of his painting inscriptions, he remarked, "In painting, there are the northern and southern schools; in calligraphy, the style of two Wangs 2 ... now, I would ask the followers of these two schools, 'which school?' I cannot help laughing and say, 'I follow no school but my own desires.' " He also wrote, "Painting is dictated by ink; ink, by the brush; brush, by the wrist; wrist, by the heart". So, brush and ink are the media for transmitting the mind. This view has since become a golden rule for literati painting until today.

The division of lijia and hangjia was prevalent in the Ming Dynasty. Lijia represents the amateur literati painters or 'Sunday painters' as they are referred to in the west. They treat painting as a kind of play using ink and brush, seeking a rough and non-sophisticated style. The hangjia or professional painters were looked down upon for their technically polished style. Chen Hongshou (1768-1822), one of the Eight Masters of Xiling for Seal-carvings' 3 , who was also well-known for his designs of Yixing Zisha (purple clay) teapots once said, "There is no absolute need for perfection in poetry, literature, calligraphy and painting, which obscures the inner spirit".

The affluent society of the Ming and Qing periods gave rise to a specific group of wealthy intellectuals who were also connoisseurs of art. The style of the contemporary professional painters was to a very large extent influenced by their clientele and therefore changed to suit their taste. Take the 'Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou' 4 for example. Their styles were unique and refined, depicting mostly literati subjects which were humanized. Jin Nong (1687-1763) and Lou Pin (1733-1799) were both fond of painting plum blossoms as its fragrance resulted from bitter cold, like a persevering man tolerating any adversity; Zheng Xie (1693-1765) and Li Fangying (1695-1755) liked to paint orchid and bamboo because their loftiness were comparable to a gentleman who stood aloof in solitude. The Shanghai School in the late Qing Dynasty was another example whereby the works of professional painters were in typical literati style; Wu Changshuo, Wu Hufan, Feng Chaoran, Wu Zheng, Xu Gu and Qi Baishi are representative painters of this school.

In conclusion, literati painting, initially the monopoly of the scholar-official class, evolved in the Ming and Qing Dynasties to become the pursuit of the free and personal expression of beauty; with no defined style or meaning but revealing the soul and free spirit of its creators, it nevertheless represents the essence of Chinese art. Perhaps the superiority complex, the monopoly of knowledge by a few people and the increasing accumulation of ideas propounded by generations of painters account for this art of the elite which we should continue to treasure, develop and pass on to future generations.

Nowadays, Chinese painting has become more rich and varied. 'Modern literati painting' is perhaps not a nostalgic term 'And painters need no longer be bound by tradition: they are not required to be well-versed in the four art forms as mentioned earlier, nor are they necessarily divided into groups of amateurs and professionals, Northern and Southern schools; nor are individuality and the pursuit of tradition any longer the criteria for judgment. The revelation we gain from literati painting is of the artist himself as portrayed by his observation of the objective world which he transforms into a work of art, be it literature or painting. He aims at a perfect communication between himself and the viewer; one cannot but be moved by this.


Ip Wing Chi



  1. Four Wangs - Wang Shimin (1592-1680), Wang Jian (1598-1677), Wang Hui (1652-1717), Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715)
  2. Two Wangs - Wang Xizhi (ca. 307- ca . 365). Wang Xianzhi (344-386)
  3. The Eight Masters of Xiling- Ding Jing (1695-1765), Hnang Yi (1744- ca. 1802), Jiang Ren (1743-1795), Xi Gang (1746-1803), Chen Yuzhong (1762-1806). Chen Hongshou (1768-1822), Zhao Zhichen (1781-l860), Qian Song (1818-1860)
  4. The Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou - apart from the four that immediately follow, the other four Eccentrics are Wang Shishen (1686- ca . 1762), Huang Shen (1687- ca . 1770), Gao Xiang (1688-1753), Li Shan (1686-1762)
Foreword by K. Y. Ng
In the Literati Tradition
Online Catalogue