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Discovering the Heart of the Literati Legacy

How amateurs in the Song Dynasty changed Chinese art forever


Discovering the Heart of the Literati Legacy

How amateurs in the Song Dynasty changed Chinese art forever


It is not often spoken of, but much of China’s art history comes from amateurs, a privileged few who took their knowledge to paper to express emotions and transcendental ideas that were then hindered by craftsmanship and accuracy. There are, of course, professional painters, but there are also the “Literati” (文人画) to consider—a loose brand of erudite artists whose intellectual ancestors paved the way for emotion and expression in Chines art.

Generally, Song Dynasty (960-1279) paintings are as the greatest works of Chinese art, along with the Six Dynasty calligraphy and Tang Dynasty poetry. Song paintings owe their greatness to the advancement of ink wash painting as a technique widely practiced in the age’s prominent Shan Shui (山水画) style, which triggered a new interpretive age in ink-wash painting for artists and art lovers alike.


‘Industrial Pollution’, Yong Liangyang, 2009 [edgeneocha.com]

Shan Shui painting, popular from the Tang Dynasty on, mainly features mountains and water—fitting as a literal translation for the Chinese name is “mountain water”. Compared with the previously dominant style of painting portraits, by the age of Tang poems, from those like Du Fu and Li Po, a sacredness is given to the natural surroundings while the characters in the painting take on a fragile impermanence. This spiritually demanding form of art is done with the tools of calligraphy—namely, ink and brush.

Interestingly, this aesthetic pursuit of nature’s invisible beauty was more often practiced by non-painters—whose works were called shidafuhua (士大夫画)—than by professional painters employed by the Imperial courts. The professional artists had sophisticated skills to depict objects realistically and with elegant use of colors, whereas this new, amateur literati seemed to delve more deeply into the soul of the subject matter.

Amateur painters like the famous Su Shi (苏轼) of the literati enjoyed their art as self-expression in their spare time, almost always highly-educated scholars in the fields of poetry and calligraphy. Those amateurs were, perhaps, in a better frame of mind to advance the cause of art in ancient China, with their more thorough understanding of ancient Chinese philosophies such as Confucianism and Buddhism.

As such, the ‘amateur’ painters picked the style of Shan Shui. American scholar James Cahill explains in his literati theory that “The quality of expression in a picture is principally determined by the personal qualities of the man who creates it and the circumstances under which he creates it.”

The literati painting began to reach maturity as an art form, requiring painters to be both artist and human being.


‘Rock and Old Tree (古木怪石图)’, Su Shi, 11th century [indiana.edu]

Ming artist Dong Qichang (董其昌) in the 16th century clarified a defining division between the literati painters and court painters; Dong coined the term Southern School, distinguishing the literati painters from the professional craftsmen (Northern School).


‘Snowy Stream (雪溪图)’,Wan Wei, 8th century [chinaonlinemuseum.com]

The famous literati masters include the Five Dynasties period’s Dong Yuan (董源) and Juran (巨然), whose paintings largely influenced two of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty (元四家), Huang Gongwang (黃公望) and Wu Zhen (吴镇).

dong yuan

‘Dongtian Mountain Hall (洞天山堂)’, Dong Yuan, 10th century [chinaonlinemuseum.com]


‘Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (富春山居圖)’, Huan Gongwang, 1348-1350[chinaonlinemuseum.com]

In the Ming era, the Wu school was established to inherit the tradition of the literati paintings, while the Zhe school succeeded the formal style of those court painters.

In the broad realm of Chinese art, the literati paintings are just one example of ink wash painting, which vary with region and influences.

The literati may have begun as amateurs, but they ended up becoming known as masters in their own right and created a new outlet of expression for artists for years to come.


Well…this is art too..I guess…

Cover Image from Wikimedia