Ancient China covered a vast and ever-changing geopolitical landscape, and the art it produced over three millennia is, unsurprisingly, just as varied. Still, despite continuous indigenous technical developments, changes in materials and tastes, and the influence of foreign ideas, there are certain qualities inherent in Chinese art which make it possible to describe in general terms and recognise no matter where or when it was produced and for what purpose. These essential qualities include a love of nature, a belief in the moral and educative capacity of art, an admiration of simplicity, an appreciation of accomplished brushwork, an interest in viewing the subject from various perspectives, and a loyalty to much-used motifs and designs from lotus leaves to dragons. Chinese art would influence tremendously that of its neighbours in East Asia, and the worldwide appreciation of its accomplishments, especially in ceramics, painting, and jade work continue to this day.
An important difference between China and many other ancient cultures is that a large proportion of Chinese artists were not professionals but gentlemen amateurs (and a few ladies) who were also scholars. Students of Confucius and its sober principles, they were often men of literature who published poetry. Art was, for them and their audience, a means to capture and present the philosophical approach to life which they valued. For this reason, the art they produced is often minimal and without artifice, perhaps sometimes even a little austere to western eyes. Art, throughout most of China’s history, was meant to express the artist’s good character and not merely be an exposition of his practical artistic skills. Such Confucian principles as propriety or li were looked for by many of those who produced and consumed art.
Naturally, there were professional artists too, employed by the Imperial court or wealthy patrons to decorate the walls and interiors of their fine buildings and tombs. Of course, there were, too, thousands of craftsmen working precious materials into objects of art for the few who could afford them, but these were not regarded as artists in the modern sense. The real arts of merit in China were calligraphy and painting. If the art world today is troubled by a certain snobbishness, then the Chinese were perhaps the first to succumb to questions of what is and what is not art.
There grew up in China a connoisseurship of art so that more and more people became collectors of it. Texts were printed to guide people on the history of Chinese art with helpful rankings of the various merits of past artists. In a certain way, art became somewhat standardised with conventions to be adhered to. Artists were expected to study the great masters, copying their works as part of their training. One of the most famous and long-lasting sources of advice on judging art is the six-point list of the 6th century CE art critic and historian Xie He, originally published in his now lost Old Record of the Classifications of Painters. When considering the merits of a painting the viewer should assess the following (with point 1 the most important and essential):
- Spirit Resonance, which means vitality.
- Bone Method, which means using the brush.
- Correspondence to the object, which means depicting the forms.
- Suitability to type, which has to do with laying on of colour.
- Division and planning, that is, placing and arranging.
- Transmission by copying, that is, the copying of models. (Tregear, 94)
These relatively rigid rules of art creation and appreciation were, then, largely due to the belief that art should somehow benefit the viewer. The idea, or better, the acceptance that art could and should express the feelings of the artists themselves would only arrive in more modern times. Still, that is not to say there were not, just as in any art anywhere in the world, eccentrics who ignored the conventions and created works in their own inimitable way. There are cases in China of artists who painted to music not even looking at the picture, one who only painted when drunk and used his cap instead of a brush, those who used their fingers or toes to paint, and even one action artist who splashed ink on the silk spread out on his studio floor and then dragged an assistant over it. Sadly, the results of these innovations have not survived to be enjoyed today in the world’s museums of Asiatic art.