When we talk about painting in the People’s Republic of China we can start the historical review at the neolithic period, that is with the bowls of the neolithic Yangshao culture (5000-3000 BCE),as well as the Majiayao culture (3000-1900 BCE). Bowls found at the sites of these cultures are decorated with geometric patterns drawn with confident brushstrokes that tell us about the extraordinary art of painting of our neolithic craftsmen.

In general, the history of painting in the People’s Republic of China is extremely rich with testimonies about the master painters from the distant past. The murals found in tombs from the times of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 AD) testify on their confident brush strokes, but, unfortunately, a large part of the paintings from the early dynasties perished because the material on which they were made did not withstood the passing of time. Nevertheless, today we know a lot about the rich history of the early dynasty painting due to a vast written material which has survived: the oldest surviving treatises on painting and painters together with the anthology of painters’ categorization and descriptions of their work date from the 4th century. From this material we can learn the names of several masters, where they lived and how some of their paintings looked. Plenty of paintings came to us in the form of copies. Copying the old masters had more than a didactic function, by copying them one approached not so much the aesthetic sample as did the moral ideal.

The term guohua denotes the traditional Chinese painting. Two major subspecies of guohua painting refer to two techniques that were profiled during the Traditional China (221 BCE – 1911 AD) – gongbi and shue. Gongbi is the name of a painting technique used mainly at the imperial court’s workshops, in which painters painted meticulous strokes of colours on silk, on paintings used to decorate the royal chambers. In this technique all members of the imperial family tried painting. Shue painting emerged from the practice of literati painting – educated people during the Traditional China who mainly worked in the administration from the 11th century onwards and took paintings of landscapes with no desire to sell or show their work to anyone other than their friends. Since being highly educated, and some of them are extremely talented, they founded one of the most beautiful painting genres shanshui or landscape painting of the literati. They painted using the material found in their daily administrative work – indian ink and a soft brush made of animal hair on porous paper, making this type of painting directly associated with Chinese calligraphy. Today when we say wenrenhua, we mean the painting of the literati.

When complained that what they were doing was not real painting because they were not trained as painters, they would have just replied that they did not have to learn how to paint because they had already known how to use a brush because they had used it daily in their work. They tried to avoid the use of colour and a simple allure of the silk as a base, and they preferred the porous rice paper as a surface of their work. Their priority was not to create an authentic copy of a given geographical areas, but to see what kind of man was the one who had painted the work. They said they were just ‘borrowing’ natural forms to express their feelings. Over time the thematic elements and motives in paintings, based on individual stroke of the brush on a rice paper, became other than landscape. At first it was the motive of ‘birds and flowers’, but today when we talk about shuimo painting we think, in the first place, of the technique because the number of painterly motifs is practically unlimited. The most important figure among the literati painters was Su Shi, who lived in the formative period of the Song Dynasty (960 AD to 1279 AD). Su Shi was an imperial administrator, a poet, calligrapher and a painter. Unfortunately, today we have preserved only one painting that is assumed it could be his.

The educated people (the literati) in the Traditional China sought to develop all of their talents. This way one and the same person tended to be a talented painter, writer and a calligrapher. For those who achieved this it would have been said to possess the “three perfections”, or sanjue. Testimony to such talents was presented in the form of a landscape painting on which poetry would be calligraphically inscribed. All from the same author. The poetry has always had a connection with the motif of the painting and the mood of the author at the time it was made.The earliest such work known to us dates from the Yuan Dynasty (1279 AD -1368 AD), and the author of the work is Zhao Mengfu.
Dong Qichang (1555 AD -1636 AD), a painter, calligrapher and an art theorist, concluded in the 17th century that the landscape painting could be divided into the North and the South School. He described the characteristics specified to both schools, and the differentiator being art, not a geographical or temporal element. When we talk about the traditional Chinese landscape painting we use these divisions even today. However, the most interesting among the traditional painters are the, so called, individualists. They have developed a unique and distinctive style and escape labeling. Once seen, their paintings are impossible to forget, and their characteristic ‘handwriting’ will be recognized even in the case of paintings that the viewer has not seen before. The most important among the individualistic painters were Bada Shanren (Zhu Da) (about 1626 AD – l705 AD), the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368 AD -1644 AD) and the early Qing Dynasty (1644 AD -1911 AD), together with Qi Baishi (1864 AD -1957 AD) from the early 20th century.

There is so much we can say about the historical development of Chinese painting, but still escape the hidden essence of what the Chinese themselves value in their traditional paintings. Given that the most valued kind of the Chinese traditional painting developed from the Chinese calligraphy, what attracts the attention of an observer the most are the strokes. The strokes, or the moves, are, in fact, the main theme of the painting. Direct, unique, incorrigible ‘touch’ of which testifies the indian ink on porous surfaces, will give us the information (or maybe just an illusion) of what the artist’s intention were, why a picture needed to be painted (or it might tell us more about ourselves). Such perception of a painting is significantly different than ours. In the European painting tradition the way the brush was used, with respect to the most common medium – oil painting – was usually not that important. In the foreground was the credibility of the presented forms taking into account the colour of light and the shadow. This is still used today by many professionals, mostly when it comes to research about the authenticity of a work.

Artists in China are using all sorts of possible materials and art forms, and they are often more imaginative than their colleagues in Europe and America. Today art academies in China offer two different directions of study to its students: painting in the European tradition, where the program is not different from art academies we know, and the Chinese traditional painting where the techniques of the traditional Chinese painting and the Chinese calligraphy are taught.