Up Timeline and Maps


We know from textual and archaeological sources that painting was practiced in China from very early times and in a variety of media.  Wall paintings were produced in great numbers in the early period of China's history, but because so little early architecture in China remained intact over the centuries, few of these large-scale paintings have survived.  Paintings were also often done on screens, which served in a sense as portable walls, but these too have not survived.    From the Song dynasty onwards, paintings in a variety of other more portable formats, such as the hanging scroll and the handscroll, were collected and passed on to later generations in significant quantities.  In their details of everyday life and social customs, these paintings often provide information unavailable from written texts.  Many paintings are especially interesting to historians because they can help us imagine what life looked like in earlier periods.  Furthermore, because paintings of this period have come to be viewed as one of the highest cultural achievements in China's history, they provide valuable insight into aesthetic values and tastes that would have lasting impact on later artists and connoisseurs.


In this unit we will look at two distinct aspects of painting during the Song and Yuan dynasties.  Because many painters created highly detailed scenes of daily life, we can look at paintings for the information they provide about social life during this period.  Painting as an art form also reached a very high standard of quality during the Song , which is considered by many to be a high point in the development of the fine arts in China.  Landscape themes began to dominate painting during this period, and would continue to be a favorite subject of artists up into the modern period.


For those unfamiliar with the special features of Chinese paintings such as seals and colophons, or the various formats and materials, it will be helpful to begin with the section on Technical Aspects of Chinese Painting before viewing the rest of the unit.


As you go through this unit, try to keep the following questions in mind:


What are the strengths and weaknesses of paintings as sources for what life was like in the past ?

What social inferences can you draw from the representation of human activities in paintings?

Why was painting taken up by the literati as an art form of personal expression?

What aspects of Song and Yuan culture influenced the development of painting, in either the styles used or the subjects depicted?






Painting as a Social Record



Painting as a Fine Art



Technical Aspects of Chinese Painting