Famous Ancient Chinese Paintings

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  • 0:03 Painting in China
  • 0:46 Nymph of the Luo River
  • 1:31 Five Oxen
  • 2:13 A Thousand Li of…
  • 3:03 Spring Morning in the…
  • 3:54 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

China has a tradition of painting going back thousands of years. Some of these paintings are especially notable because of their subject matter or the history they leave behind. In this lesson, we'll learn about some of the most famous ancient Chinese paintings.

Painting in China

Most Chinese artists were amateur scholar-painters, or people from other fields who had the patience and skill to paint. They worked in inks and watercolors on delicate silk or paper scrolls. Because the painting mediums are transparent and permanent, one mistake meant the artist had to start over! The scrolls were meant to be unrolled flat on a table on special occasions and viewed in sections. Think about it like reading a story book. This type of method is called scroll painting, and it is unique to this part of the world.

Let's explore four important ancient Chinese paintings in chronological order. We'll see how they represent different types of Chinese painting and why they're viewed as national treasures.

Nymph of the Luo River

Artist and writer Gu Kaizhi painted Nymph of the Luo River on a silk scroll during the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420). It illustrates an early Chinese poem. As is typical for scroll paintings, the narrative runs from right to left. It's a love story that tells of the meeting and then separation of Cao Zhi and the nymph of the Luo River, set against dramatic mountains and a winding river. The same figures appear in the painting more than once, like characters who reoccur in a comic book. You slowly unroll the scroll to see the image, and the story unfolds before your eyes. It's an important early example of narrative scroll, and many scholars believe it represents the beginning of landscape art in China.

Five Oxen

Aristocrat and politician Han Huang painted Five Oxen during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). He's a good example of a Chinese artist who made his living in another profession. This scroll portrays five oxen with different coat colors and individual personalities. These are not just rote images of livestock; each has a wonderful sense of animated behavior, whether it's grazing or ambling toward us. Some scholars suggest that this work expresses Huang's desire for a simpler farm life over the complexity of politics (something we can certainly understand today!) Five Oxen is considered one of the finest depictions of animals in ancient Chinese art.

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