Five Things to Know About… Hexi Paintings

When you walk into a palace or temple in Beijing, don’t forget to look up! Ceilings were often painted in wonderful colours and designs! This is Hexi color painting (和玺彩画), also known as Yan Dayi (严大义), and it’s found on palace buildings or buildings related to the royal family. Read on to learn five fascinating facts about this beautiful style of painting!

It developed from the colourful painting style called Caihua (彩画)which is found on wooden buildings all over China.

Caihua developed as a way not only to decorate wooden buildings but to protect them from the elements as well. Hexi is the imperial version of Caihua, and adds imperial symbols such as the dragon, as well as increased use of gold. 

It was used in particular places only

Hexi color paintings are mainly used in important buildings in the outer court of the Forbidden City and in the higher-level palaces of the inner court where the emperors and their consorts lived. In ancient royal palaces, craftsmen would use Hexi color painting to decorate tower pavilions, jade inscriptions, as well as caissons (a special type of ceiling feature above an emperor’s throne; aka spider-web ceilings) and other types of ceilings.

It’s different from Caihua in the use of the dragon symbol…

The Golden Dragon Imperial Seal (金龙和玺) is the highest form of Hexi, and where the name comes from, and the patterns are mainly dragons in various postures. Dragons symbolise nobility, magic, auspiciousness and majesty, so dragon designs could only be used by emperors.

… and the use of gold

Hexi color painting uses a large amount of gold. The main lines and patterns such as dragons, phoenixes, and pearls are all gilded with gold powder. The painters used blue, green and red as the background colours to set off the gold.

There were many rules that the painters had to follow

For example, dragons were always painted on a blue background, and phoenixes on green. The dragon and phoenix are some of the luckiest symbols in China (there’s an idiom 龙凤呈祥: dragon and phoenix bring prosperity). And running dragons had to be painted on beams.  

Where have you seen this type of painting? Do you like it? Let us know in the comments below. We would love hearing your thoughts and insights on traditional Chinese culture! 

Photo Credits
– Jerry Luo and ComerZhao all via Flickr; Cultural Keys

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