Mountains of the Mind in Chinese Art


Chinese art is original and unique. It is strikingly different from all other world cultures, primarily due to centuries of history.

The path of development of Chinese art is a harmonious fusion of ancient performance techniques with new styles that emerge as the country develops. The main theme of Chinese art is often nature, harmony and balance, which is an excellent example of the values ​​that are kept to this day in China.

As the ancient Chinese landscape painter Guo Xi once said, “Painting is poetry in shape.” Chinese painting as a form of fine art has its own unique traditions and history. It is believed that the origin of Chinese painting dates back to the Zhang Guo (Warring States) period.

However, the main canons of traditional Chinese art were laid much later in the 5th-8th centuries. In particular, it was during this period that Chinese artists switched to the use of ink. During this period, various trends in painting appeared: the portrait genre, natural landscapes, as well as the image of animals and birds.

Chinese artists often painted their paintings on silk or special scrolls made of special paper, which could be either vertical (for decorating walls) or horizontal.
Linear drawing is the basis of Chinese painting. This feature is directly related to traditional Chinese calligraphy, which is also a piece of Chinese art in its own way.

Chinese philosophical teachings have not bypassed the fine arts either. So the images of water symbolize various variations of divine providence in the paintings, and stones symbolize the world of spirits. There is a tradition of depicting plants and trees. Bamboo, which is associated with Confucian and Taoist philosophies, enjoys special reverence.

Traditional Chinese art is very symbolic. Each element carries a certain meaning that the author put into it. However, the main idea of ​​all the paintings as a whole is the harmony of mind and feelings, man and nature.

We want to talk about three painters who are considered the “founding fathers” of traditional Chinese painting – Gu Kaizhi, Zhang Sengyao, Lu Tanwei and Wu Daozi. Alas, the originals of their paintings have not come down to us, but the foundations of painting that they laid, as we will see later, are also used by modern artists.

Gu Kaizhi 顧愷之 (c. 345-406)

Only copies of Gu Kaizhi’s works have come down to us, the most famous of them are The Fairy of the Luo River and Instructions to Court Women. “The Fairy of the Lo River” is known in three copies: two of them are in China, one more – in the United States. The painting is based on the poems of the poet Cao Zhi and is divided into several fragments, each of which illustrates a separate episode.

Gu Kaizhi, Luo River Fairy, Fragment of a copy from the Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. Source:

The painting “Instructions to the Ladies of the Court” has survived to this day in a copy of the 6th century, stored in the British Museum (London). The piece of ancient Chinese art consists of 9 (or, according to another version, 12) fragments, each of which tells an instructive story.

Gu Kaizhi, Instructions to the Ladies of the Court, fragment, British Museum, London. Source:

Zhang Sengyao 张僧繇 (c. 500-550)

The manner in which Zhang Sengyao painted is often called “Indian” (it was believed that the technique came to China from there). He achieved the illusion of volume with the help of polychrome painting techniques. He did not depict objects in landscapes with black ink.

Zhang Sengyao, “Five Planets and Twenty-Eight Constellations”, Abe Collection, Osaka. Source:

Wu Daozi 吴道子 (c. 680-740)

The most famous painting attributed to Wu Daozi is the Taoist Triptych depicting Taoist deities. The piece of traditional Chinese art is painted with ink, water colors and gold on silk. The Triptych depicts three officials who, according to Taoist mythology, control the forces of Heaven, Earth and Water and carry out the decrees of the Jade Emperor, the supreme deity of the Taoist pantheon.

Wu Daozi, “Taoist Triptych”, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Source:


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