Cultural Treasures of China – Gongbi & Shuimo Painting

Anyone living in or visiting China has seen beautiful artworks, even if only a copy hanging in a restaurant! But while it is common to see the same few famous pieces again and again, the breadth and depth of the history, cultural knowledge and technical skill put into Chinese paintings is equal to the beauty they so often portray.

The earliest Chinese ‘paintings’ are geometric patterns found on pottery, and it was only during the Warring States Period (475-221BC) that paintings began to represent the world around the artist. From the Eastern Jin dynasty (266-420) onwards, painting became highly appreciated and being able to paint well was considered essential for any well-educated scholar or aristocrat. Up to the Tang dynasty (618-907), there was a focus on painting the human figure, but after this time landscapes became more popular, including the famous ‘Shanshui’ 山水 paintings.  

Changes in society were often reflected in changing painting styles and themes, for example, in the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) paintings often focused on small details, which tied in with the dynasty’s focus on societal reform on the small scale. However, since the majority of paintings that would have been produced throughout Chinese history were on silk or paper, the archaeological record is quite limited, which the majority of our knowledge of early painting styles coming from tomb paintings.  

Students learned by copying their master up to the point where movements became effortless. Only after this process could they add in their own style or motifs. The ‘Four Treasures of the Study’ were the main tools used for both calligraphy and painting (in fact, traditionally the two went hand in hand, and the influence of calligraphic techniques can be seen in many ‘Shuimo’ 水墨 paintings). They are the brush, usually made of animal hair, the ink, made of soot mixed with glue, paper (or sometimes silk) and an inkstone, which the dry ink was ground on and mixed with water.

The traditional style of painting is called ‘Guohua’ 国画 (‘national paintings’) to distinguish it from Western styles of painting such as oil painting. There are two main types of Guohua: ‘Gongbi’ 工筆, which uses colour ink in small amounts and is extremely detailed with fine brushwork; and ‘Shuimo’ 水墨, which uses either black ink in various concentrations or coloured ink and is usually done in a freer style, using few brush strokes and details but conveying the essence of the subject instead. An example of the Gongbi technique can be seen above, two examples of Shuimo below.

Both styles commonly depict animals, flowers or figures, with landscapes considered the highest form of painting. Other features common to Chinese paintings that you may view in a museum or online are: poetry and text in addition to the image;  ‘kongbai’ 空白 (literally ‘empty white’ – white space that serves to enhance the painting); a meaning behind the literal objects depicted (many painters included symbolism in their works); and a profusion of inscriptions and seals that have been added after the original painting was made in order to show appreciation by subsequent owners. In fact, viewing a Chinese painting is called ‘duhua 读画’ – to ‘read a painting’ – for the very reason that you need a huge amount of background knowledge, both historical and cultural, to truly understand what you’re looking at. In spite of that, for those of us not well-versed in Chinese history and classical literature, we can still appreciate the timeless beauty and spirit of these paintings when we hang on or two on our walls!


Detail from ‘Spring Morning in the Han Palace’ by Qiu Ying (1494-1552)

Detail from ‘Emperor Taizong Receiving the Tibetan Envoy’ byYan Liben (600-673)

“Cicada’ by Qi Baishi (1864-1957) & ‘Galloping Horse’ by Xu Beihong (1895-1953)

Detail from “Along the River During the Qingming Festival’ by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145)

“Autumn Colours on the Que and Hua Mountains’ by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322)

Fancy trying your hand at traditional Chinese painting? Then why not join us on August 26th for our Traditional Chinese Art Taster? Learn not only painting techniques, but have a go at dumpling making and papercutting too!

In this class, students will learn the style of shuimo, as described above. The teacher will introduce the history of the style, the ‘Four Treasures of the Study’, as well as the essential techniques necessary to start creating your own works of art. After that, a few sample illustrations will be taught, before attendees are invited to work on their own designs under the tutors expert guidance. And of course, at the end of the day, you get to take your masterpieces home to impress friends and colleagues!

Alternatively, if you would like to book a private class for your friends or colleagues, feel free to contact us and let us know how we can help! In either case, we look forward to seeing you here soon!

The Cultural Treasures of China blog is dedicated to introducing the cultural heritage of China. Be sure to check back often for our latest posts and learn about all the most interesting and exciting aspects of Chinese culture! If you would like us to write about a particular topic you’re interested in, or had any questions about the article, please feel to contact us at [email protected] We’d love to hear from you!

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Are you interested in learning more about the traditional culture of China, and perhaps experiencing it for yourself?  Since 2013, Cultural Keys Chinese Culture Centre has been helping people doing exactly that.

Through our provision of content, classes, information and services, Cultural Keys helps people access, understand and experience the traditional culture of China, from kung fu to calligraphy, feng shui to painting. Click here to read more about Cultural Keys and what we can do for you, your school, company or organisation to help you get more out of your time in China.

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