Prof. Dusan Pajin, Arts University, Belgrade, Yugoslavia



 - Through differences and opposites                                          


         On one occasion an art student asked: Is there a history of Chinese art? When I watch Chinese art all pieces seem to me all alike. Did Chinese art develop and produce various styles during its history?

         Yes, it did, I said. The history of Chinese art is very long and rich. However, instead of attending  a long and specialized  course, there is a more simple way to reach a primary understanding of some main differences present in Chinese art.  When you meet Chinese people, in  the beginning  they all seem to you very much alike, as if they were each others' relatives. After a while you begin to notice differences. Finally, after some time, they look to you quite different individually, just like Europeans. Now I will help you to notice and understand differences in Chinese art - without having to go through the long history of Chinese art - just by pinpointing the differences and opposites, which I will set up in pairs: large and small, full and empty, etc.

         So when you encounter a piece of Chinese art, you will know that beside being typically “Chinese” there are varieties and different examples that can belong to the opposite extreme. Also, you will understand that in Chinese art there is no "essence" related to one of those extremes, because  quite different examples also exist. After that, Chinese art for you will not be "all alike" as if it were made up of various copies of the same mold.



         When they need an example of grandiosity, various authors use as an example the Chinese wall - the greatest building enterprise of all times and cultures. It was started in the 3-rd century B.C. and, with lapses in between, it was built until the 17-th century A.D. (altogether 2000 years). It is some 2500 kilometers long, and follows the old borderline between China and Mongolia. The Chinese wall is an example of restructuring the environment, of separating a big piece of land from the outer vicious surroundings.

          In another example, of a miniature garden-like arrangement, made in a bowl, that can be seen on a painting from Ch’ing dynasty (18th c), "The New Year Splendor" painted by Ch’en Shu, we see a different extreme - delineating and setting an ambiance in a very small space. Thus in two examples - one is a big empire, the other a bowl-garden - we see the same principle of bordering, of defining an environment: a large, and a small one. A wall is determining the border of an empire and helps in defending it against intrusion. A bowl serves as a space of a landscape simulacrum.

          One of the remarkable pairs of extremes in Chinese art is large and small - a need to express, or depict, something in a gigantic, or miniature form. This gigantic 71 m. Buddha from Le-shan, was carved from a hillside, during the 7th century. To compare, one of the seven miracles of the ancient world in the West, was Colossus from Rhodos (one of the Greek islands), who was supposedly 34 meters high. The Colossus inspired another gigantic figure in modern times - the Statue of Liberty on Ellis island (46 m. high; 92 m. with the pedestal), mounted in 1886, while heads of the four USA presidents, (carved in the Rushmore mountain, between 1927-1941), are 18 m. high.     

         Opposite to the gigantic Buddha from Le-shan, is the miniaturization created by Ch’en Tsu-chang in 1737. He carved in an olive-stone (17x34 mm.) a boat with eight figures. Inside the boat are the poet Su Tung-p’o and his friends. On the outside bottom of the boat Ch’en carved the text of Su’s poem, which describes how the poet enjoyed the boat ride with his friends, on a full moon night. Ch’en created a miniature monument to the poet, and a powerful metaphor - a boat as a symbol of seclusion, which can hold man safely on top of life, and water. In various times people have taken refuge in a boat until the great flood receded and it was possible to come out again. However, this case is different, related to happy moments of life.



         In China there was a division between private (inner), and public (outer), exemplified in various contexts. In architecture there was a division between the inner and outer part of the house, and in gardens one can find inner and outer parts. This can be seen in the Forbidden city, the Summer palace, and garden complexes from Shanxi, and Zhejiang.

         Experience from communal life and in meditation sharpened the awareness of difference between the dynamics of inner thoughts and feelings, and their relatedness to the outer reality, and awareness of the inner, hidden personality, and the exposed, public personality.

         In visual arts the difference between the outer, and inner, as general ideas, is present in two types of landscapes: the one with the open, and one with the closed horizon. These landscapes actually exist in China, as in other parts of the world. Various artists in various periods preferred and have chosen for their paintings either of these landscapes, as most suitable to express their feelings and moods.

         The landscape with a closed horizon (for example “Traveling among Streams and Mountains” by Fan Kuan, 990-1040) is suggesting intimacy, recollection and unexpressed feelings. The spiritual sequence of this landscape starts from the furthest and highest point and leads to the lowest and most close part of the painting. In these paintings sometimes small figures of animals and men are inserted into the big landscape, like needles in a hay-stack. In some cases the painting "brings us back to ourselves" - this is suggested by water streams, or water-falls that flow toward the spectator. It is as if the water, or the whole landscape is streaming toward the spectator, suggesting a special receptive state of mind, and unity with nature and its powers.

         In the painting "Waiting for the Guests," by Ma Lin (from Sung dynasty), the intimate scene of the interior is contrasted against the twilight surrounding of the landscape. The landscape leads and focuses us gradually toward the lit scene inside the house - host waiting for guests. The relationship of the host and guest is important in China as in some other countries. Guest-host relationship was also a metaphor in art and meditative experience. In Buddhism the relativity of guest-host relationship was utilized and articulated in meditation (mind as host, world as guest - world as host, mind as guest).

         Situating the interior into a landscape is an opposite strategy in comparison to the "borrowed scenery" (chieh-ching). Chinese garden designers used to “borrow” part of the exterior (landscape scenery behind a wall), for the interior of the garden space and spectators who were inside the wall, and making it look like a 3-D painting on the wall.

         In Europe the Renaissance painters introduced the outside landscape through an opening into the interior scene. This can be seen, for example, in "The Annunciation", painted by Botticelli (1489). In China "borrowed scenery" was a recognized strategy in the interior, and garden design. Designers used to set up openings in which the outside landscape would appear as a painting in a frame. They did in reality what was done in the Renaissance on paintings, combining the exterior and interior, inner and outer, far-away and close-by image. The difference was that Renaissance painters created a painted illusion, while Chinese designers created an opposite illusion - turning landscape into and illusion of a wall painting.

         The painting of a landscape with an open horizon (for example “A Pure and Remote View of Rivers and Mountains,” by Hsian Kuei, 1190-1230) depicts a view into distant parts, usually from a high point. Sometimes, such a painting was made in a "cinemascope" fashion - on a long horizontal scroll, that could not be seen totally in one glance, but unwinded in succession, from right to left, sequence by sequence.

         The landscape painting sometimes contained a short note by the author, and connoisseurs of later generations - poets, scholars, etc. - who would express their impressions and admiration in new notes. So after few generations it contained as a memorandum the experiences of various people related to the painting.



         The Chinese tradition was familiar with withdrawal into the cave, or going into the mountain and losing oneself amidst clouds, searching for contemplation and the ultimate attainment (in Taoist, or Buddhist terms).

         A legend related with Ta Mo (who supposedly brought Ch’an Buddhism to China) says that he has spent nine years gazing in front of a wall. Approximately at the same time (during the 6th century) in caves of Tung-huang, and in similar grottoes in other places in China, Buddhists made their sanctuaries. In Tung-huang caves we find interesting wall paintings, a transformation of landscape in inner experience. In these closed, secluded places they created bright landscapes with exquisite sense of rhythm, with gazelles, and horses in hunting scenes, with flying heavenly maidens and draperies whirling around them, great gatherings accompanied by musicians, etc. They recreated a complete universe inside these grottoes with rhythm and dynamic that suggest delight, freedom from gravity, and tectonics.

         Records of contemplation of landscape in open space can be found in paintings of Ma Yüan and Ma Lin (from Sung dynasty). That experience can be related to aesthetic contemplation of certain aspects of nature (as presented in the painting "Listening to the Wind in Pines," by Ma Lin, in 1246), or with the general experience of landscape. We also see that in the Renaissance, Bellini (in 1485) shows us St. Francis coming out of his cave, with his Canticle to the Brother Sun, on one sunny day, while in his "Tempest", Giorgone (1505) brings mother and child into the landscape.     



         Deepest insights in China combine the inner and outer, close and remote, host and guest. Number five is related to the center and four directions leading to remote periphery. The character "chung" designated the middle. The imperial dragon with its centered power and volatileness to the four directions expresses the relationship of the center and periphery, and the power of the emperor, who stays in the capital, while governing the far-away provinces. A person mastering t’ai-chi ch’uan keeps his balance and power centered, but ready to move into any of the four directions. The sage in Lao-tzu (ch. 10) holds fast to the unity, but follows everything; concentrates his breath but is flexible; clears his vision of the mystery, but does not close his eyes; he is kind to people, but does not lay claim on them. He can even fall asleep on a tiger, like the Ch’an master on a painting by Shih K’o (10th c.). A man immersed deeply in meditation is far-away from the uproar of the world, but completely awake; composed, but ready to act.

         On a painting by Chou Ch’en, "Dreaming of Immortality in a Thatched Cottage" (16th century), we see a man in a cottage on the edge of a hill, while his immortal double is levitating in free space. The painting brings together seclusion, and open space, closeness and remoteness, introversion and extroversion. The sage and hermit sometimes leave the world, and go to the mountain or cave, into remote natural ambiance, away from the uproar of cities, and competition in society. After a while they come back, to share with others some peace and light.



         Lao Tzu says that tao is like space between heaven and earth: empty, but ten thousand beings abide in it. The visual arts utilize full and empty, moving in-between. Some works are full to the brim, while others are empty, or almost empty, and sometimes displaying decoration type based on dripping and leak, which was used in the West much later, after action painting - as on bottles from the 10th c. Some vases are decorated leaving no empty space (like the one depicting tributes to the Emperor, from the 18th c.) , while others are just plain. Most people in the West are more familiar with the first type.       

         In different periods art moves from full to empty, or from empty to increasingly full. However, full seem to suit better the taste of most people. In the 18th century, when the Chinese art became popular in Europe, especially in France (chinoiserie), the governing taste preferred this type of vases, mostly from the Ch’ing dynasty.

         Works of artist who preferred emptiness are less known, and attracted wider attention later, in the second half of the 20th century, when Ch’an Buddhism and its art were better known. These artists did not fill the available surface to the brim, but tried to attained maximum using minimum, like Chu Ta (1625-1705). They gave up color, using only black ink, and with few strokes suggested the whole scene (a person, a landscape, or an animal). Sometimes the main figure is moved to one side, or corner, and the middle is occupied by empty space.  

         In architecture and visual arts the Chinese combined symmetry and asymmetry. Many palaces (see Main entrance to the Forbidden City, in Beijing, and its Main Hall with the Emperors throne), pagodas, temples (see the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, in Summer Palace), and environments, are symmetric. Certain gardens, landscape designs, paintings, etc., are governed by asymmetry. Symmetry is based on expected. Asymmetry is related to surprise and wonder.



         An artist tries to attain perfection and order, to realize his intentions fully, but at the same time he is aware that accident, chance, spontaneity, and disorder significantly contribute to the outcome and result of his work. He knows that the work of art completely subjected to the first, can lack naturalness and spirit, can be boring and flat. Back in the times of T’ang dynasty, aesthetics of spontaneous natural forms was developed in relation to garden rocks. These rocks were formed by the chaotic interplay of water and stone, and favorite pieces were picked up from lake T’ai. There were brought to gardens, and courtyards, and put on prominent places, like statues in European gardens.

         For the same reason artists-carvers searched for pieces of wood or jade, and started their work only after seeing in their natural pattern the forms they wanted to cut out. In this way they connected chance and intention, spontaneity and skill, order and naturalness, natural form and art form. In painting artists would sometimes start from a spontaneous stroke or spattering, and then with few intentional strokes bring forth a landscape, or human figures, like Yü-chien in his “Mountain Village” (13th c.).

         Some paintings are made by invisible strokes - one cannot see how thick was the brush, and in which direction it moved. In some paintings the stroke is intentionally visible, it is a non-verbal calligraphy, especially with Ch’an painters. Later it was taken over and developed as an independent style, by painters like Hsü Wei (1521-1593 - for example in “Four Seasons”), and Chang Feng (1654-1673).

          In certain periods we could find in the tradition of Ch’an examples of both kinds of painting: with visible and invisible stroke. Both are works of anonymous authors, from the thirteenth century. One is a portrait of Ch'an master Wu-chun, and the other is a copy by an anon. painter, of Shih K'o’s pair of hanging scrolls, with patriarchs harmonizing their minds.

         Many paintings, or decorations on snuff bottles, are done with invisible strokes, depicting birds, hyper-realistic flowers, or cats in a garden (Mao I, 12th c.: “Cat and Kittens”). Some embroideries on silk are done with imperceptible stitches.

         In ceramics, smooth glazes were a Chinese specialty for thousands of years. However, the Chinese were also the first who became bored by perfectly smooth glazes. There are different stories concerning various inventions in this field. However, cracked glaze was probably not discovered on purpose, but by chance. What was a mistake soon became a fashion and style, and various types of non-smooth types of glaze were discovered and named, according to their resemblance, as "ice-flake," "eel's blood," "hundred shards," "worms track," "orange-peel," "hare's fur."

         We hope this will help you to understand diversities of Chinese art, choose your favorites, and focus your attention, according to your taste and interest.   


1. Chinese wall (2500 km., built between 3rd c. B.C.-17th c. A.D.). - 1a. Chinese wall at night

2. Ch’en Shu: "The New Year Splendor" (Ch’ing dynasty - 18th c.)

3. Buddha - Le shan mountain (71 m.- 7th c.)

4. Colossus from Rhodos (supposedly 34 m.)

5. The Statue of Liberty, New York harbour, Ellis island (1886 - 46 m.; 92 m. with the pedestal)

6. Gutzon Borglum: USA presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Lincoln (Rushmore mountain, cca. 20 m. - carved between 1927-1941).

7. Ch’en Tsu-chang (1737): Su Tung-p’o with Friends in a Boat (17x34 mm.)

8. Fan Kuan (990-1040): “Traveling among Streams and Mountains”

9. Ma Lin (mid 13th c.): "Waiting for the Guests"

10. Borrowed scenery in a garden wall (17th. c.)

11. A bottle with drip and leak decoration, and orange-peel glaze (10th .c)

12. Hsia Kuei (1190-1230): “A Pure and Remote View of Rivers and Mountains”

13. Musicians - wall painting in Tung-hung cave sanctuary (6th c.)

14. Ma Lin (1246): "Listening to the Wind in Pines"

15. Bellini (1485): “St. Francis Coming out of his Cave”

16. Dragon on a bowl (Ming dynasty)

17. Shih K’o (10th c.): “Ch’an Master Sleeping on a Tiger”

18. Chou Ch’en: "Dreaming of Immortality in a Thatched Cottage" (16th c.)

19. Chu Ta (1625-1705): “Bird on a Lotus”

20. Garden rocks (16th c.)

21. Yü-chien (13th c.): “Mountain Village in Fog”

22. Mao I (12th c.): “Cat and Kittens”

23. Hsü Wei (1521-1593) - leaf of a set of four, in “Four Seasons”

24. Ch'an master Wu-chun (Anon. - 1238)

25. Types of glazes on ceramics

26. Vase depicting tribute bearers to the Emperor (Ch’ing dynasty - 18th c.)

27. Sandro Botticelli (1489): "The Annunciation"

28. Giorgone (1505): "Tempest"

29. The Temple of Buddhist Virtue, in the Summer Palace complex

30. The Main Hall with Emperor's throne (Forbidden City, Beijing) - 30a. Main entrance to the Forbidden City