Gallery Guide: Chinese Arts of the Brush

Bamboo in the Wind
by Wu Zhen (1280–1354)
China, Yuan dynasty, 1350
Hanging scroll; ink on paper
109.0 x 32.6 cm (43 x 13 in.)

Long before the Chinese invented paper in the first century B.C.E., they devised the round brush, which is used for both writing and painting. The unique versatility of the Chinese brush lies in its tapered tip, which is composed of a careful grouping of chosen animal hairs. Through this resilient tip flow the ever-changing linear qualities of the twin arts of the brush: calligraphy and painting.
Since painting and calligraphy share many of the same materials and techniques, the relationship between the two art forms has always been a close one in China. The earliest examples of brushwork are writings found on the so-called “oracle bones,” the bones of certain animals used for divination during the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.E.), when the origin of systematic writing in China began. Over the next two thousand years, five major script types—seal, clerical, standard, running, and cursive— developed. Though the basic evolution of the Chinese writing system was complete by the fourth century C.E., calligraphy continued to develop as an artistic medium until the present day. Similarly, while the earliest known brush paintings on silk were excavated from tombs of the Warring States Period (480–221 B.C.E.), painting as an art of personal expression also began its early formative period around the fourth century C.E. and has steadily evolved over the following centuries.


Toward the end of the fifth century, the art critic Xie He (active 479–502) proposed the so-called Six Principles as the essential criteria for judging the quality of Chinese painting, and the aesthetic values and concerns he enunciated in his essay exerted a profound influence on later generations. The first and most important of these principles, called “spiritual resonance and lifelike motion” (qiyun shengdong), or a sense of inner liveliness, subsequently became the most constant and fundamental feature of all great Chinese works of the brush.
Of Wang Wei (701–761), the renowned poet-painter of the Tang dynasty (618–907), it was said that “there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings,” one of the earliest statements conceptually linking the verbal art of poetry and the visual arts of painting and calligraphy as parallel and interrelated modes of expression. Together they became known as the Three Perfections. It was not until the late Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), however, that the rising class of literati painters came to believe that a universal principle inextricably united painting, calligraphy, and poetry, and began to define the relationship between poetry and painting by saying that “poems are formless paintings, while paintings are poetry with form.” After this time, a great literati painter was expected to present all Three Perfections in a single work.


F1931.4, Sheep and Goat 二羊圖
Sheep and Goat
by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322)
China, Yuan dynasty, early 14th century
Handscroll; ink on paper
25.2 x 48.4 cm (10 x 19 in.)
Purchase F1931.4
The inscription reads: “I have painted horses before, but have never painted sheep [or goats], so when Zhongxin requested a painting, I playfully drew these for him from life. Though I cannot get close to the ancient masters, I have managed somewhat to capture their essential spirit.”
In addition to using common materials, calligraphy and painting have long been thought of as springing from the same creative source and requiring the same technical skills in execution, an idea concisely expressed by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), a leading master of the early Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), in his famous poetic dictum describing identical technical approaches to writing and painting:

Do the rocks in flying-white, the trees in ancient seal script,
And render bamboo as if writing in clerical characters:
Only if one is truly able to comprehend this, will he realize
That calligraphy and painting are essentially the same.


While Zhao was an enthusiastic advocate of synthesizing the spirit of the ancient masters into one’s own work, in the historical development of the arts of the brush, he was surpassed as a theorist by the great calligrapher, painter, and connoisseur Dong Qichang (1555–1636) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Dong expressed his ultimate realization of the relationship of art to nature in the following philosophical statement:

If one considers the wonders of nature, then painting does
not equal landscape. But if one considers the wonders of
brushwork, then landscape does not equal painting.

Nymph of the Luo River
Traditionally attributed to Gu Kaizhi, ca. 345–406
China, Southern Song dynasty, 12th–13th century
Handscroll; ink and color on silk
310.0 x 24.0 cm (122 1/16 x 9 1/2 in.)
Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1914.53

While recognizing nature as the ultimate spiritual wellspring, this statement implicitly acknowledges that Chinese artists have always sought inspiration more from the history of their own artistic tradition than directly from nature, and have primarily pursued and realized their individual vision through the reinterpretation of that tradition rather than by inventing new and different ways to depict nature.