100 Most Beautiful Chinese Paintings III

Sui and Tang Paintings: Colors of Flourishing Age

Sui and Tang Dynasties together reined the country for over three hundred years, and it was a flourishing age making people feel excited in Chinese history. Because of the large extent of political stability and economic prosperity, culture and art in Sui and Tang Dynasties was also brightened up. For paintings in Sui and Tang Dynasties, if we must sum up their difference with those in previous and later times, it would be their consistent style and a relatively high level in the whole, particularly in figure paintings. Artists and their works during this period greatly surpassed that in Six Dynasties in number; there had not yet appeared division of literati paintings and professional painters during and after Song Dynasty, creating a big gap between different painting styles in the same age. For all works of this period which we can see now, whether it is scroll paintings passed down or underground tomb murals found in borderland, they are more or less similar in style, shape and color in a certain degree, and together form the outlook of paintings in Sui and Tang Dynasties that we recognize. It cannot be imagined in any other times: the paintings from over millions of square kilometers and hundreds of years were unified in style. Only unified regime and strong cultural appeal can achieve this. These paintings with still bright color and life-like figures on them can also lead us to feel the charm of thousand years ago.

During the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, due to continued unrest in the north and wars a year after year, many artists fled to the relatively stable south, and the center of art was also transferred to the south for the first time. Western Shu and Southern Tang where were rich and had superior geographical conditions had kept peace and stability for years among the unrest during Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. Moreover, as the rulers favored culture and art, and became firm supporters and sponsors for art, the two places logically became the center for art during the Five Dynasties era. Famous painters in the Southern Tang include: Zhou Wenju and Gu Hongzhong who were good at painting figures; Xu Xi who was well-known for painting wild flowers and birds, etc.. The famous painter in West Shu should be Huang Quan who excelled in painting flourishing flowers and birds, setting his own painting style and school. Another very important feature of paintings during the period of Five Dynasties was the booming and development of literati landscape painting. The development of landscape painting during the Five Dynasties has been consecutive with that of Song Dynasty. For landscape painting during the Five Dynasties, painters Jing Hao, Guan Tong, Dong Yuan and Jv Ran achieved the greatest accomplishment, and these four painters were later considered as the pioneers of literati landscape painting school.

Spring Outing

Spring Outing is the only extant painting attributed to Zhan Ziqian. The title “Spring Outing by Zhan Ziqian” inscribed by Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) who was also an exceptional painter of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) makes the work even more valuable. The inscription implies that this painting has been attributed to Zhan Ziqian at least since the reign of Emperor Huizong.

This painting is attributed to the well-known Tang Dynasty painter Yan Liben (601-673), who served as Chancellor to the court of Emperor Taizong (598-649). In the widely spread saying of that time “of the two main Chancellors of Emperor Taizong’s court, one is good at defeating enemies while the other excels in painting,” the latter one refers to Yan Liben. His painting skills were so outstanding in the eyes of later generations that they attributed his high rank in the court to his painting talents. This was not true of course as the bureaucratic system of the Tang Dynasty was very complex and one could not have risen to such a high position just because of a single talent.

This painting is based on SongtsanGambo, the King of Tubo (the ancient name for Tibet), dispatching his minister Blon-stong-btsan to Chang’an (modern Xi’an), the Tang capital, to seek the hand in marriage of Princess Wencheng.

The Thirteen Emperors

Thirteen emperors from Emperor Zhaodi (94-74 B.C.) of the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-9 A.D.) to Emperor Yangdi (569-618) of the Sui Dynasty (581-618) were illustrated in the painting. Each emperor is surrounded by several servants, making the total number of characters 46. There are texts next to each group of characters, stating the time span of the emperor’s reign and His Majesty’s attitude towards Confucianism and Taoism.

History of changing hands of this painting has been in official record until it was looted and sold to overseas in the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).

The Thirteen Emperors, Yan Liben, second half of the 7th century A.D., From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more
The Thirteen Emperors, Yan Liben, second half of the 7th century A.D., From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

The Thirteen Emperors by Yan Liben

The Thirteen Emperors (second half of the 7th century A.D.) by Yan LibenChina Modern Contemporary Art Document

Liu Xiu, one of Dong Han Dynasty's emperors

Yu Wenyong, one of North Zhou Dynasty's emperors

Mural of Guest Envoys 

This is a mural in the tomb of Prince Li Xian of Tang Dynasty. In the year 684, Li Xian was forced to commit suicide by Empress Wu Zetian; in the year 706 when Tang Zhongzong restored his throne, he reset Li’s tomb as a Yong Wang (a title for prince) in Qianling. In Tang Dynasty, there were defined burial system regulations; tombs, funerary and even murals shall be in match with the identity and class of the person passed away, so this mural of Guest Envoys is a rare treasure.

This mural depicts the scene of people grieving and lamenting Li Xian’s death when he was buried.

Mural of Guest Envoys, Unknown, 706, From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

Mural of Guest Envoys 

Emperor Xuanzong's Flight to Shu, Li Zhaodao, ca. 907, From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

Emperor Xuanzong's Flight to Shu by Li Zhaodao  

Emperor Xuanzong's Flight to Shu, Li Zhaodao, ca. 907, From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

This work depicts Emperor Xuanzong’s (685-762) hasty escape from the capital to the remote southeast of China to avoid the An-Shi Rebellion (755-763), launched by An Lushan and Shi Siming to topple the central Tang regime. In order to whitewash the embarrassing flight, the painter deliberately embellished the title and the expression of the painting, to make it look like nothing but a sightseeing trip of the emperor.

Picture of Learned Men

The painting was originally called Picture of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, but over the centuries the painting was damaged, and only part of it now survives with just four of the seven characters remain. The four sages, believed to be Shan Tao, Wang Rong, Liu Ling and Ran Ji, are seated comfortably, wearing long robes, on mats. They have had a few drinks, and have loosened their garments. Each of the sages is attended by a child servant. The creator has well illustrated the figures’ facial expressions, body language, and the objects scattered or placed around them. 

According to historical records, Sun had the same temperaments with the seven sages, vigorous, unrestrained and wine-loving. If the wealthy or powerful people who commissioned him to paint treated him even with a little neglect, he would not continue the mission no matter what a high price the clients pay. Maybe that’s one of the reasons that most of Sun’s works are murals in temples. It is said that Picture of Learned Men is the only known surviving scroll painting of his. This painting bears no inscription of the creator, just with a title Sun Wei’s Picture of Learn Men by Emperor Huizhong (1082-1135) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Picture of Learned Men (907) by Sun WeiChina Modern Contemporary Art Document

Picture of Learned Men (left)by Sun Wei

Picture of Learned Men (right)by Sun Wei

Court ladies preparing newly woven silk, Zhang Xuan, 907, From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

Court ladies preparing newly woven silk (section) by Zhang Xuan

Court ladies preparing newly woven silk, Zhang Xuan, 907, From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

Preparing Silk is attributed to Zhang Xuan (birth and death years unknown), a court painter of renown during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The existing specimen housed by Boston Museum of Fine Arts is a replica of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It was once in the collection of the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) but was looted by foreign invaders in 1860 and later bought by the then director of the Asian Division of Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

This painting depicts palace women pounding and pressing white silk. The 12 characters can be roughly divided into four groups in three procedures: pounding, sewing and ironing. What is interesting is that the painting was not intended to show court servants how to work, rather, it was supposed to reveal how boring and tedious women’s life in the court could be.

Lady Guoguo’s Spring Outing, Zhang Xuan, 907, From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

Lady Guoguo’s Spring Outing by Zhang Xuan

Court Ladies Swinging Fans

Most of the figure paintings in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) were centered on a subject and contained narration. The title “Court Ladies Swinging Fans,” depicting the state of certain characters in the painting, were actually given by today’s people. Based on the servant carrying a roll of embroidery in the right half of the work and the framework used tofix the silk or gauze in the left half, the subject of this painting should be ladies embroidering. 

It should be noted that this painting has been repaired and repainted for many times so that part of it has been changed from its original look, the big flowers patterns on the ladies’ garment, for instance, should not have appeared as early as in the Tang Dynasty.

Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers

There has not been an agreed opinion on the time when this painting was created. But what is certain is that this work deserves the recognition as a classic in Chinese figure paintings. It illustrates the lifestyle of five noble women as they view the flowers in the imperial courtyard, just as spring changes into summer, as indicated by their garments made of thin gauze and the blossoming of spring flowers, flos magnolia.

Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers (late 8th-early 9th century A.D.) by Zhou FangChina Modern Contemporary Art Document

Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers (left section) by Zhou Fang

Court Ladies Adorning Their Hair with Flowers (right section) by Zhou Fang

A Lady Playing Chess (Weiqi), Unknown, ca. 8th century A.D., From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

Lady Playing Chess, artist unknown  

This is a fragment of one group screen painting. Screen painting was common furniture in Tang dynasty. Drawing on screen silk is both practical and beautiful. This painting was unearthed in 1972 in No. 187 tomb in Xinjiang Turpan Astana. The owner of the tomb was an official of Anxi frontier command during Empress Wu Zetian’s rein. The folding screen paintings had been crushed when it was unearthed. After repair, the complete images of eleven women and children were roughly reproduced.

Night-Shining White

People in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) were fond of horses, so horses became a favorite subject for paintings during that period. The creator of this painting is Han Gan (app. 706-783), a Tang painter who is known for his exceptional skills of painting horses. Born to an impoverished family, Han had to work in a tavern to support his family when he was very young. But Han’s painting talents were noticed by the influential poet Wang Wei (app. 701-761), who funded him to finally become a master of horse paintings.

Night-Shining White, Han Gan, 907, From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

Night Shining White by Han Gan  

This painting is one of the rare extant paper paintings of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). With a symmetrical composition centered by the face-on portrait of an ox in the middle, the painter revealed five oxen of distinctive features, in terms of either postures or the color of fur. 

The five oxen are full of life just as the famous painter Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) put it, “the painter deserves the title of ‘the rare painting talent’ because of the incomparable techniques he used to bring the energetic spirit of the five oxen on paper.”

This painting is divided by a huge independent folding screen as background, skillfully presenting two scenarios: one is situated in front of the screen, with four noble men playing chess and one male servant standing by; the other scenario is painted on the landscape screen, with an old man resting in a bed on the three-folded screen and four female servants standing by.

The Night Revels of Han Xizai

This painting is a recording of a real banquet in history according to the two inscriptions in the center of this work. Host of the revel is Han Xizai (902-970), a court official of the Southern Tang (937-975). In order to offset the frustration he suffered in the court, Han caroused each night away in an orgy of food, wine and self- indulgence.

Legend has it that the last King of the Southern Tang, Li Yu (937-978), who admired the talents of Han but meanwhile was suspicious of Han 's loyalty, sent the painter Gu Hongzhong (902-970) from the Imperial Painting Academy to sneak into Han’s house and record all that was going on.

Such a gossip-like story was widely circulated, and even developed several versions with different details. In fact, it is quite likely that the story was deduced based on the contents of the painting, as the inscriptions were made much later than the time the painting was created. But viewers of later generations took it for real because of the vividly-illustrated characters which conform with the depiction in the inscription.

Dong Yuan

The deputy principal of Beiyuan in Southern Tang Dynasty, was famous for painting natural scenery of southern China, such as green and lush trees, plentiful waters, peaceful and distant views. Different from the dominant painting style at that time featuring landscape of northern China and depicting magnificent mountains, Dong Yuan’s landscape paintings formed his own unique style. In this painting, lines are almost invisible, showing distant mountains and vegetation by shades and ink dots, creating mountain silhouette with blurred edges and soft textures.

There is no inscription on this work. Dong Qichang, painter and connoisseur in the Ming Dynasty, deemed it as a precious treasure after acquiring this creation. According to the records of Xuanhe Picture Copybook in Northern Song Dynasty, it was named “Image of Xiao Xiang Lake” by the Five Dynasties painter Dong Yuan (ca. 934-62). 

American scholar Mr. Ban Zonghua believed that this work and “Ferries on Mountain Pass in Summer”, another painting said to be the work by Dong Yuan, both belong to the original painting “God of Huanghe River Marrying a Woman” by Dong Yuan.

Jing Hao

Jing Hao was an artist of the Five Dynasties period at the end of Tang Dynasty. As scholar-official, his works depicted high mountains and lofty hills with equal attention to pen and ink, and later he was known as the master of northern landscape painting style.

Image of Mount Lu, Jing Hao (attributed), 960, From the collection of: China Modern Contemporary Art Document
Show lessRead more

Image of Mount Lu by Jing Hao

Sketch of Rare Fowl and Fauna

This piece of work was created by painter Huang Quanin in the Western Shu Dynasty. Huang Quan was in charge of court painting academy at that time. He was skilled in portraying exotic flowers, rare herbs, birds and fowls in court gardens. 

His works are mostly in bright color, rigorous and forming his own style, known as “yellow and wealthy”, with its effect lasting to Northern Song imperial palace. This painting was created by Huang Quan for his son Huang Jubao as his drawing templates.

Credits: Story

Exhibition Commentary—

Xu Yanyan, Ph.D. candidate in Art History of Han and Tang Dynasties, China Central Academy of Fine Arts. She was admitted to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2005, after years of learning her interest gradually focus on ancient Chinese art, especially the early Buddhist art and Funerary arts of the Tang. She began to study grotto arts in Bashu region (covers present Chongqing municipality and most parts of Sichuan province) since she was appointed the Fellow of Southwest Grotto Art Institute, Southwest University for Nationalities in 2013.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Arts of Lunar New Year
Celebrate Lunar New Year with arts and crafts from Asia
View theme
Google apps