Chinese traditional painting dates back to the Neolithic Period about six thousand years ago. The coloured pottery with painted animals, fish, deer, and frogs excavated in the 1920s indicate that during the Neolithic Period the Chinese had already started to use brushes to paint. Chinese traditional painting is highly regarded throughout the world for its theory, expression, and techniques. According to the means of expression, Chinese painting can be divided into two categories: the xieyi school and the gongbi school. The xieyi school is marked by exaggerated forms and freehand brush work. The gongbi school is characterized by close attention to detail and fine brush work.
Xieyi, however, is the fundamental approach to Chinese painting. It constitues an aesthetic theory which, above all, emphasizes the sentiments. Even in ancient times, Chinese artists were unwilling to be restrained by reality. A famous artist of the Jin Dynasty Gu Kaizhi (c. 345-406) was the first to put forward the theory of "making the form show the spirit". In his opinion a painting should serve as a means to convey not only the appearance of an object, but express how the artist looks at it. Gu's views were followed by theories such as "likeness in spirit resides in unlikeness" and "a painting should be something between likeness and unlikeness". Guided by these theories, Chinese artists disregard the limitations of proportion, perspective, and light. Take Qi Baishi, the modern painter, for example. He does not paint shrimps, insects, birds, and flowers as they are in nature; only their essence has shown as a result of the artist's long-term observation and profound understanding of the subjects.
Different from Western paintings, a Chinese painting is not restricted by the focal point in its perspective. The artist may paint on a long and narrow piece of paper or silk all the scenes along the Yangtse River. It can be said that the adoption of shifting perspective is one of the characteristics of Chinese painting. Why do the Chinese artists emphasize the shifting perspective? They want to break away from the restrictions of time and space and to include in their pictures both things which are far and things which are near. Also, the artists find that in life people view their surroundings from a mobile focal point. As one walks along a river or in a garden, one sees everything on the way. The shifting perspective enables the artist to express freely what he wants.
Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting are closely related because lines are used in both. Chinese people have turned simple lines into a highly-developed form of art. Lines are used not only to draw contours but to express the artist's concepts and feelings. For different subjects and different purposes a variety of lines are used. They may be straight or curved, hard or soft, thick or thin, pale or dark, and the ink may be dry or running. The use of lines and strokes is one of the elements that give Chinese painting its unique qualities.
Traditional Chinese painting is a combination in the same picture of the arts of poetry, calligraphy, painting, and seal engraving. In ancient times most artists were poets and calligraphers. Su Dongpo (1037-1101), Ni Yunlin (1306-1374), and Dong Qichang (1555-1636) were such artists. To the Chinese, "painting in poetry and poetry in painting" has been one of the criteria for excellent works of art. Inscriptions and seal impressions help to explain the painter's ideas and sentiments and also add decorative beauty to the painting. Ancient artists liked to paint pines, bamboo, and plum blossoms. When inscriptions like "Exemplary conduct and nobility of character" were made, those plants were meant to embody the qualities of people who were upright and were ready to help each other under hard conditions. For Chinese graphic art, poetry, calligraphy, painting, and seal engraving are necessary parts, which supplement and enrich one another.
Since the turn of the century, China has experienced great political, economic, and cultural changes, and the art of painting is no exception. While traditional Chinese painting still occupies an important place in the life of modern Chinese, many painters now desire to express their experience of new times. By combining new modes of expression with traditional Chinese painting techniques, they are opening up a vast, new world of artistic expression.