The Infinite Palette
Modern Chinese Painting

The Palette of Chinese Painting

Like most other artistic developments, the palette of Chinese painting also began with primitive naivety, and gained sophistication as it evolved, then swung back to simplicity after reaching the peak of resplendence. Archaeological evidence has revealed that pottery painted mainly in black and sometimes red and white were produced during the Neolithic period (c.5000-2000BC). Colour, aside from decoration, also served to lodge people's sentiments.

Owing to the lack of sufficient historical data, the use of colours in the pre-historical period can hardly be explored further. However, in the early stages of historical China , people already established their code of colours. It is recorded in the Rituals of the Zhou Dynasty that paintings were executed in the "five colours" of black, white, blue, red and yellow with various icons assigned to each combination of two colours. The Classic of Documents also mentioned the application of "five colours" on clothing. Later, the palette became so dazzling that the great Daoist master Laozi claimed that "The five colours make people blind"; the Classic of Changes and Liu She's Commentary on Literary Writings also contained the message, simplicity is something to be valued.

Here we see how the palette's pendulum swings from simplicity to complexity, keeping pace with the ever-complicated cultural developments and social institutions. The elaborately painted handicrafts made for the Shang (c.1600-1100BC) and Zhou (c.1100-770BC) nobles were already an alarm to some sages who never had the chance to realize that more exuberant colours were to bloom in the next millennium.

Since then, we have seen the brightly painted terra-cotta of the Qin (221-206BC) Mausoleum, the gorgeously coloured silk painting of the Han (206BC-AD220) tomb of Mawangdui and the luxuriously tinged painting of the extravagant and effeminate Six Dynasties (265-589). Consequently, one of the six canons of Chinese painting suggested by the Southern Dynasty (420-589) aesthete Xie He is, "Colour the objects as they appear to be naturally". The famous painting, Goddess of River Luo and Admonition of Ladies, works said to be produced by the Jin (265-420) painter Gu Kaizhi, were also richly coloured. It was clearly stipulated in his miscellany Hua Yuntaishan ji that the sky and water should be in blue, the rocks in purple and the clothing in all kinds of bright hues.

The eastward expedition of Buddhism into China brought fascinating religious sculptures and paintings decorated with the most brilliant colours. But with the increasing demand of monastic wall paintings during the Tang period (618-907), most famous painters would only work out cartoons known as "white sketches" and leave the application of colour to the craftsmen. The Buddhist ideal of attaining spiritual enlightenment and its philosophy of "all images and colours are just illusions" began to change people's view of life. The impact was especially vital to Buddhist inclined artists like Wang Wei who considered ink painting the most elegant form of painting and the best means of capturing the verve of nature. Artists began to look for something simplicity to release the pressure they received from living in a comparatively chaotic society towards the second half of the Tang Dynasty. The rising of the Chan sect of Buddhism further persuaded them to leave behind all complications and to strive for instant enlightenment. It was against such a backdrop that the brilliantly coloured "gold and green landscape" of Li Sixun and Li Chaodao gave way to the ink painted landscapes with abbreviated brushwork produced by Wu Daozi and other masters.

Gradually, all the colours on the palette except black and its infinite shade slost their significance. Monochrome painting using ink as the only media was to predominate. The fun of ink painting can be seen from a passage taken from the book Tangchao minghua lu (Famous Tang Paintings) describing how the painter Wang Mo produced his ink landscapes: "Whenever he wanted to paint, he would get himself half drunk first, then dance around splashing the ink frantically onto the silk, spreading it out freely with his hands or sweeping it with a brush to obtain different intensities. The shapes of the ink splashes were to suggest what objects they were going to be: a mountain or apiece of rock, a stretch of water or a piece of cloud. Every movement was free and improvised. The result was fascinating and highly dramatic." Traditional painting techniques were no longer applicable and colours except for black and its numerous gradations became unnecessary. In this respect, Chinese painting shared the same essence with the wild cursive scripts produced by the famous calligraphers Zhang Xu and Huai Su.

With the predominance of Neo-Confucianism thinking in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the literati became more philosophical and found immense pleasure in working with brush and ink. Painting, calligraphy and poetry were considered as the "three essences". It was from this point that Chinese painting began to diversify into the different styles of literati and academy. In fact, academy painters were adopting a subtle and simple palette catering to the general aesthetic taste. Thus, with the exception of most religious works which still clung to resplendent colours, paintings from late Tang onward were largely monochrome. Prominent artists like Wu Zongyuan, Li Gonglin and Liang Kai favoured ink painting. Lu Hong, Zhao Gan, Dong Yuan, Ju Ran, Li Cheng, Guo Xi, Fan Kuan, Mi Fei and Mi Youren of the Five Dynasties (907-979) and Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), academy paintersLi Tang, Liu Songnian, Ma Yuan and Xia Gui of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) all produced landscapes in ink. An exception was the "blue and green landscape" favoured by the Song emperors. As for bird-and-flower, the palette remained rich from Tang to the Five Dynasties with Bian Luan and Huang Quan producing the most vividly coloured paintings. Those produced by Song academy artists were mostly coloured ones which were highly naturalistic and decorative while other painters looked for innovation. For instance, Xu Xi of the Five Dynasties flickered ink onto his works to create additional enchantment while the monk painter Fachang painted in a much freer and expressive style. Painters noted for depicting ink bamboos brought about the practice of painting flowers in ink during the Yuan period.

Throughout the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) Dynasties, ink painting with its simple elegance remained the most preferred form of painting. Even coloured pieces were intentionally reduced their brilliance, as seen in works by Zhao Mengfu, Qian Xuan and other Yuan Masters Huang Gongwang, Wang Meng and Ni Zan. The "light reddish-brown landscape" of Huang and Wang were in fact ink painting with pale colour wash while only a few coloured works were produced by Ni. It was during the Yuan period that the ink flower was first introduced by Wang Yuan. Amongst the Four Ming Masters, Tang Yin and Qiu Ying were more inclined toward coloured works while Shen Zhou and Wen Zhengming favoured ink painting although they could all master colours. Lin Liang, Chen Chun, Xu Wei and the four monks Kuncan, Shitao, Bada Shanren and Jianjiang also had very limited palettes aside from ink. The coloured works of Chen Hongshou of late Ming was archaic in tone yet most elegant in style, which provided much inspiration for the late Qing painters Ren Xiong and Ren Yi. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Yun Shouping and Ma Yuanyu's palettes were unadorned yet elegant; those of the masters of the Yangzhou School , Jin Nong and Luo Ping were characterized by an archaic flavour with a sense of simplicity while the Shanghai painters were noted for their carefree and enchanted treatment of colours. The realm of court style, orthodox painters such as Wang Shiming, Wang Jian, Wang Hui and Wang Yuanqi produced mainly "light reddish-brown landscapes" in the style of Dong Wenmin and the Four Yuan Masters while academy-style bird-and-flower remained decorative.

The change of aesthetic interest during the Tang period had led to the emergence of monochrome works as a substitute for a rich palette. Ink landscape first came to light during the Tang Dynasty and later, ink figures, birds and flowers were adopted by Song painters. Resplendent colours were mainly reserved for use by professional artists including the academy painters. The belittling of coloured works by most literati had subsequently hindered the development of coloured paintings in general.

Light and shade have never been of any great significance to pre-Han paintings; colours were put down with no variation in tone. With the introduction of Buddhist art at the end of the Han Dynasty, Chinese painters began to learn that appropriate shading could improve the solidity of an object. The Six Dynasties painter Zhang Sengyao was particularly eminent in using the wash technique to enhance the solidity of flowers. Textural wrinkling strokes and wash techniques widely used in future landscapes were probably influenced by them. From late Ming onward, China was in more frequent contact with Western art. The religious paintings brought by the Jesuits and the life drawings of the court painters Castiglione and Sickeltartne were only a mild start. By the end of the 19th century, Western art concepts and techniques were more readily accepted with the emergence of the Westernization Movement and also art lessons were introduced into the school curriculum. The 20th century has been an epoch of tremendous changes for Chinese painting and our painters can broadly be classified into three groups according to their artistic routes.


Traditional Painters

This assembly of painters include Wu Changshuo whose works, boldly executed with calligraphic elegance and modestly coloured, were a great contrast to the creations of the Shanghai School; Chen Shizeng, a student of Wu from a literati family, showed his devotion to literati painting by writing the book Study of Chinese Literati Painting; Qi Baishi, a carpenter in his early years and later studied under Chen Shizeng and Xu Beihong, who produced extremely vivid works of flowers and aquatic creatures by using bold strokes and sometimes elementary colours; Huang Binhong, a distinguished landscape painter, who was especially eminent in the handling of ink and colour in his old age; Wu Hufan whose elegantly coloured works are highly original; Zhang Daqian whose colour-splash works produced during his later days were to have a tremendous impact on contemporary Chinese painting; Yu Fei'an, writer of the classical book Study of Colour in Chinese Painting, who was a distinguished painter of birds and flowers in the fine-line style; and many more including Pan Tianshou, Zheng Wuchang, Pu Ru, Li Yanshan, Huang Junbi, Xie Zhiliu, Jiang Hanting, Wang Xuetao and Tang Yun etc., all proficient in handling the conventional Chinese palette.


Academy Painters

Since the end of the Qing Dynasty, artists returning from overseas, especially from France and Japan , would usually devote themselves to the nurturing of young artists by teaching in art academies. The most prominent of them were Lin Fengmian of the West Lake National Academy of Fine Arts and Xu Beihong of the Beijing Academy of Fine Arts, both known for their bold adaptation of the Western mode of artistic training and invitation of artists from different schools to give lessons. Despite their training in Western art, some painters among this group still find the brush works and colour concepts of traditional Chinese paintings practical and fascinating, especially in the depiction of figures, trees, birds and flowers. The opera figures and landscapes painted by Lin Fengmian in watercolour and pastels are strongly Western yet very unique with the presence of folk touches. The captivating landscapes of Fu Baoshi and Li Keran, the figure sketches of Jiang Shaohe and Ye Qianyu combined their close observation of nature with the brush techniques of traditional Chinese painting. Works by these academy painters are all eminent paintings to be treasured by art connoisseurs.

Also included in this group are the Lingnan School painters Gao Jianfu, Gao Qifeng, Chen Shuren and Bao Shaoyou, who initiated the "eclectic style" by applying the techniques and mood of Japanese art. The Spring Slumber Studio and Tianfenglou Studio were established in Guangzhou by the Gao brothers. Guan Shanyue, Li Xiongcai and Zhao Shao'ang were among their students. Bao Shaoyou established his own academy in Hong Kong fostering young artists. Their influence on the painting style in these two cities has been remarkable.


Overseas Painters

A considerable number of painters left China after the 1940's and the impact of Western art is even more obvious in their works. Wang Jiqian, a student of Wu Hufan and presently a painter in USA , combines traditional Chinese brush techniques with skills adapted from Western prints producing the effect of textural wrinkles. Zhang Daqian, with failing eye-sight in his later years, successfully merged Western abstract art with the ink-splash of Tang painting resulting in the exotic colour-splash technique which inspired the works of other contemporary artists such as Liu Haisu, Xie Zhiliu and Song Wenzhi. The zen paintings of Lu Shoukun are highly philosophical with only abstract images built up by simple dots, lines and patches in red and black. Picasso's ink painted sketch "Bull-fighting" of the 1950's has urged Western artists to explore the monochrome world of ink painting. In France , Zhao Wuji and Zhu Dequn produced similar creation in the 1970's. The simple palette of ink painting is once again being treasured for its freshness amongst the vast sea of coloured works.

"The Infinite Palette" exhibition to be held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre is the most recent in a series of exhibitions presented by Luen Chai Curios Store. Nearly a hundred paintings from over eighty distinguished painters have been selected to give a comprehensive palette of twentieth-century Chinese painting. Some of the exhibits are remarkably traditional while others show distinctive characteristics of the academy or overseas artists. Certainly this is one of the most significant painting exhibitions in Hong Kong recently.


Lee Yun-won July, 1993
Chinese University of Hong Kong

*Condensed translation from the original Chinese article.


Biography of Lee Yun-won

1941 - Born in Hong Kong
1964 - B.A., Fine Arts Department, CUHK.
1972 - M.Phil.(Chinese Art), HKU.
1976 until now - Lecturer of the Fine Arts Department, CUHK, and currently the head of this Department.
1979 - Award winner of the "Chinese painting category" in the Contemporary Hong Kong Art Biennual held by the Urban Council, Hong Kong .
1981 - Award winner of the "Chinese calligraphy category" in the Contemporary Hong Kong Art Biennual held by the Urban Council, Hong Kong .


Painting Album of Lee Yun-won
Chinese Painting for Beginners (co-author)
Ni Tsan (Ni Zan) - A Study of the Life of a Yuan Poet Artist
A Study of the Calligraphy of Ni Zan
Questions about the Extant Paintings and Calligraphies of Ni Zan
The Derivation of Shen Zhou's Painting and Related Questions
The Essence and Route of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy

Preface by K.Y. Ng
The Palette of Chinese Painting
The Palette of Twentieth-Century Chinese Painting
Online Catalogue