When viewing Chinese paintings and calligraphies, especially for the first time, you may have many questions about what you are seeing. In this feature, you will be able to look closely at seven Chinese paintings and calligraphies from the Asian art collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and find answers to questions that viewers often have about Chinese paintings in general.
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What materials did the artist use to create this painting?
What materials did the artist use to create this painting?

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Why din't the artist use any color in this painting?
Why din't the artist use any color in this painting?

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Why did the artist choose this shape for this painting?
Why did the artist choose this shape for this painting?

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How is nature depicted in Chinese landscape painting?
How is nature depicted in Chinese landscape painting?

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Why is there only writing in this image?
Why is there only writing in this image?

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What is this image about?
What is this image about?

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Why are red stamps placed all over this painting?
Why are red stamps placed all over this painting?

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Details have been extracted from all of the paintings to serve as links below. After selecting a painting, roll your cursor over the image to explore details in greater depth. If your Internet browser does not support this technology, simply select one of the detail links beneath the image to access the same details. Underlined words in the text link to a glossary of key terms. Related art-making and writing activities are also suggested, to illuminate these works of art from a practitioner's perspective.

Back to Introduction
Glossary of Key Terms

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Detail 1

Wang Xizhi Watching Geese
Qian Xuan (ca. 1235–before 1307)
Handscroll; ink, color, and gold on paper; 9 1/8 x 36 1/2 in. (23.2 x 92.7 cm)
Ex coll.: C. C. Wang Family
Gift of The Dillon Fund, 1973 (1973.120.6)

What materials did the artist use to create this painting?
The artist used brush, ink, and color pigments on paper to create this handscroll. Ink, whether applied to silk or paper, cannot be altered once the brush touches the painting surface. By adjusting the amount of water mixed with the ink, and by handling the brush lightly, the artist can create a variety of tones, from light to dark.
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Wang Xizhi Watching Geese (detail)
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What materials did the artist use to create this painting?
Qian Xuan's use of bright green and blue pigments is a visual reference to a painting palette popular during the earlier Tang dynasty. This artistic device reinforces the antique theme of the painting—a depiction of China's great Sage of Calligraphy Wang Xizhi (ca. 303–361), who brought a new personal expressiveness to calligraphy. Wang is shown in this painting observing the movements of a pair of geese, which, according to legend, deeply influenced his writing style.

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Detail 2 · Detail 1

Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu, 1372
Ni Zan (1306–1374)
Hanging scroll; ink on paper; 37 1/2 x 14 1/8 in. (94.3 x 35.9 cm)
Ex. coll.: C. C. Wang Family
Gift of The Dillon Fund, 1973 (1973.120.8)
Why didn't the artist use any color in this painting?
To understand the lack of color in many Chinese landscape paintings, one must fully appreciate the interrelationship of calligraphy and painting.
Calligraphy and painting use the same formats and tools (brush, ink, paper, and silk). The basic methods of handling a brush and ink to create the individual strokes of a Chinese character can also be used to create descriptive lines and textures in painting.
It was during the Tang dynasty that the full expressive potential of ink was realized, as suggested in this quote from the ninth-century art historian, Zhang Yanyuan:

Grasses and trees may display their glory without the use of reds and greens; clouds and snow may swirl and float aloft without the use of white color; mountains may show greenness without the use of blues and greens; and a phoenix may look colorful without the use of the five colors. For this reason a painter may use ink alone and yet all five colors may seem present in his painting.

In this hanging scroll, entitled Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu, by the artist Ni Zan (1306–1374), the correspondence between calligraphy and painting becomes apparent. It is a sparse, seemingly simple landscape devoid of human presence.

Western paintings, like photographs, tend to present images of landscapes from a fixed point of view with a mathematically constructed illusion of recession, or perspective, which makes space appear to recede toward a single "vanishing point." Chinese landscape paintings use a moving perspective based on the notion of three distances (near, middle, and far) which allows the eye to move between various pictorial elements without being limited to one fixed, static point of view. Thus, the viewer is encouraged to ramble through the landscape image.

Ni Zan, using abstract brushstrokes to suggest three-dimensional forms, exploits the tension between surface pattern and the illusion of recession to animate his composition. In this painting, where the bottom section acts as the foreground while the top acts as the background, a series of diagonal forms draws the viewer's focus upward across the picture surface as well as deeper into the represented space.
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Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu (detail)
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Why didn't the artist use any color in this painting?

The forms of mountains, rocks, and trees were created by building up layers of dry ink tones and brushstrokes. These natural forms are simple and almost abstract. The foliage of the trees is reduced to a repetition of dashes. Contrasting dark ink dots, called moss dots, enliven and unify the overall surface. The elegant, modulated brushstrokes of the artist's calligraphy in his poem on the upper right echo the horizontal emphasis of the moss dots and the tonal variations of the texturing used within the landscape.

Ni Zan's celebratory poem, on the upper right, contains many literary and historical references:

Chen Fan once prepared a bed
When Xu Ru(zi) came to visit.
How sweet is the water from Yan Ziyou's well.
Yet Yuzhong's shrine is neglected and desolate.
We watch the clouds and daub with our brushes;
We drink wine and write poems.
The joyful feelings of this day
Will linger long after we have parted.

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Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu (detail)
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Why didn't the artist use any color in this painting?

At the bottom of this scroll, the foreground contains textural details of the side and top of the rocky shoreline, while the trees are presented from a level, or frontal, perspective. The water (the unpainted paper surface) and the less detailed, smaller-scale rocks and trees in the middle ground suggest receding space. The large mountain in the upper section of the scroll is shown as if the viewer were looking up at it. The smaller, pale hills to its right convey the massive size of this mountain and create a sense of deeper distance within the painting.

Though born into wealth, Ni Zan abandoned his home and gave away his possessions, including a vast collection of paintings and antiques, to avoid the heavy taxes imposed by the Yuan government. He began an itinerant life on a houseboat with his family, stopping at homes of friends along the waterways around Lake Tai, known as China's "Great Lake," near the city of Suzhou. Yet Ni Zan always yearned for his home.
An isolated cluster of trees by the shore of a lake was a motif that he repeated over and over in his paintings. These upright trees of various kinds became symbols of himself and his friends, isolated along the water from the social and political upheavals of the last years of the Mongol-run Yuan government. Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu was painted in 1372 to commemorate a visit with a friend only a few years after the Chinese had regained political control and established the Ming dynasty.
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**Detail 1**

Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight
Ma Yuan (active ca. 1190–1225)
Fan mounted as an album leaf; ink and color on silk; 9 7/8 x 10 1/2 in. (25.1 x 26.7 cm)
Gift of John M. Crawford Jr., in honor of Alfreda Murck, 1986 (1986.493.2)
Why did the artist choose this shape for this painting?
This oval-shaped painting is an example of one of the two fan formats used in Chinese painting. This round or oval fan type is made of silk and was originally mounted on a rigid frame. Often this type of fan would have a poem on one side and a related painting on the reverse. (//Quatrain on Late Spring// and //Couplet on Pond Scenery// are examples of such poems.) Fans, as in the case of this one, were often removed from their frames and mounted onto pages or leaves in a book-like format called an album. The fan format challenges the artist to create a small painting within a curved composition.
This painting, Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight by Ma Yuan (active ca. 1190–1225), is well suited to the highly focused composition of the fan format, and exemplifies the intimate and contemplative vision of a small corner of the natural world. Here, a gentleman is shown meditating on the short-lived and fragile plum blossoms set against a moonlit sky.

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Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight (detail)
Why did the artist choose this shape for this painting?
A scholar sits on a rock ledge gazing at the moon through the gnarled plum branches, while a boy, holding a musical instrument called a //qin,// stands behind him. The strong brushwork of the twisted plum tree contrasts with the soft, light ink washes of the cliffs and misty trees in the distance. The scholar, looking away from the viewer, draws our focus to the misty, empty space above the plum tree. The transient quality of life, as represented by the short-lived plum blossoms, and the release from all worldly desires and suffering, as represented by the emptiness found in this composition, are related to enlightenment in Buddhist philosophy. This image is a visual metaphor for the concept of spiritual enlightenment gained through meditation, as the scholar's thoughts and our vision are projected into the empty void of this timeless painting.
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Detail 3 · Detail 2 · Detail 1
Summer Mountains
Attributed to Qu Ding (active ca. 1023–ca. 1056)
Handscroll; ink and light color on silk; 17 7/8 x 45 3/8 in. (45.3 x 115.2 cm)
Ex coll.: C. C. Wang Family
Gift of The Dillon Fund, 1973 (1973.120.1)
How is nature depicted in Chinese landscape painting?

Summer Mountains, attributed to the mid-eleventh century artist Qu Ding, a court painter employed by Emperor Renzong (r. 1023–63), presents a vast, panoramic landscape of a summer evening following a rain shower. By juxtaposing immeasurably high mountains with minute details of human activities, the artist conveys the Daoist belief of the primary importance of nature, and of man's small yet harmonious existence within this orderly universe. The contrast of the dark, velvety ink washes and brushstrokes that define the mountains and trees with the empty, unpainted areas that suggest clouds, mists, and water is a visual reference to the rhythmic flow of the opposing forces of yin and yang (dark/light and wet/dry) found in nature.

The concept of traveling through time and space in one's imagination is exemplified in this painting. Beginning at the right, imagine unrolling this handscroll slowly toward the left about a foot or so at a time, identifying with the tiny human figures in the landscape so that you can walk along its pathways and relax in its pavilions and temples. In this way you focus on small sections in sequence, creating a visual journey through the dense wet foliage and mountain passes on this summer evening.

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Summer Mountains (detail)

Detail 3 · Detail 2 · Detail 1 ||
How is nature depicted in Chinese landscape painting?
Beginning in the right foreground, a fishing village, with boats moored for the night and tiny, lightly clothed figures relaxing after a long day's work, sets the tone for this narrative landscape. As geese fly in formation toward the distant hills, two small figures make their way to a partially hidden temple complex. The trees are in full leaf and evening mists can be seen rising above the water.

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Summer Mountains (detail)
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How is nature depicted in Chinese landscape painting?
Boats are moored for the night beside a fishing village.
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Summer Mountains (detail)
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Two small figures, one riding a mule, make their way to a partially hidden temple complex.



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Poem Written in a Boat on the Wu River (detail)
Mi Fu (1052–1107)
Handscroll; ink on paper; 12 5/16 x 220 1/4 in. (31.3 x 559.8 cm)
Gift of John M. Crawford Jr., in honor of Profesor Wen Fong, 1984
Ex coll.: John M. Crawford, Jr. (1984.174)

Why is there only writing in this image?

The same tools (brush, ink, silk, and paper) are used for both writing and painting. Chinese is traditionally written in columns from top to bottom and right to left. There are strict rules about the order and execution of individual brushstrokes to form characters. But like the painter, the calligrapher is allowed the freedom to express his thoughts and feelings by the choice of calligraphic style he uses to write his characters, as seen in this handscroll.
In China, calligraphy is considered a higher or purer form of artistic expression than painting. Both verbal and visual communication can be achieved with a single Chinese character. By looking at the character for mountain, which resembles one central peak surrounded by two smaller peaks, one can see the visual relationship of the characters to their meaning. Similarly, the flowing nature of water is suggested visually in the character for water.

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Pear Blossoms, ca. 1280
Qian Xuan (ca. 1235–before 1307)
Handscroll; ink and color on paper; 12 1/4 x 37 1/2 in. (31.1 x 95.3 cm)
Ex coll.: Sir Percival David
Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1977 (1977.79)

What is this image about?

Although this painting of a branch of pear tree blossoms resembles the beautiful bird and flower paintings of the preceding Song era, here the composition carries a more complicated message. These flowers were painted to express the artist's sorrow over the fall of the Song dynasty to the Mongol invaders.

This painting, datable to about 1280, was completed after the Mongols had successfully destroyed the Southern Song government and taken control of China to form the Yuan dynasty in 1279. For the first time in Chinese history, all of China was under foreign rule. The traditional governmental careers of many Chinese scholar-officials ended. The Mongol-run Yuan government threw many Chinese officials out of office, while other Chinese scholars, such as Qian Xuan, simply refused to cooperate with the newly formed Yuan government and chose retirement out of loyalty to the destroyed Song government.
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Detail 3 · Detail 2 · Detail 1
Night-Shining White
Attributed to Han Gan (active ca. 742–56)
Handscroll; ink on paper; 12 1/8 x 13 3/8 in. (30.8 x 34 cm)
Ex coll.: Sir Percival David
Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1977 (1977.78)

Why are red stamps placed all over this painting?

These red stamps, called seals, are the impressions made from stones and other materials that have first been pressed into red seal paste. Seals are marks of authorship or ownership, belonging either to the artist or to later collectors.
Though seals have been used on documents in China since the late Zhou and Qin dynasties, it was not until the Tang dynasty that imperial seals appeared on works of art registered in the imperial collections. Painters began applying their own seals, in addition to their signatures, on works of art during the Song dynasty.
The seals, colophons, and inscriptions by later collectors and admirers of a painting are not considered external or damaging but rather lend honor and value to the work of art. These later collectors also carefully considered the placement of their seal impressions. The seals of well-known artists, critics, and personalities from the past applied on a painting provide a deep sense of enjoyment and a feeling of connection with the past.
Seals can tell the history of ownership of a painting, and can help modern scholars and art historians determine who saw it and which later artists may have been directly influenced by it.

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Night-Shining White (detail)
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Why are red stamps placed all over this painting?

In the case of this painting, the presence of inscriptions and seals reveals very important facts. The inscription on the right edge of the paper reads "Han Gan's painting of Night-Shining White," known from historical records to be one of the prized steeds of the Tang emperor Xuanzong's (r. 712–56) stables. Han Gan (active ca. 742–56), a court painter employed by Emperor Xuanzong, was famous for his depictions of horses. The accompanying seal indicates that this inscription was written by Li Yu (r. 940–56), an emperor of the Southern Tang dynasty, and that the painting was included in the imperial collection.
As one of the most celebrated horse portraits in Chinese art, this painting contains more than twenty inscriptions and seals from the ninth to the twentieth century. Scholars have also identified the seals of other important owners, including Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736–95) of the Qing dynasty, noted art collectors Jia Sidao (d. 1275), Xiang Yuanbian (1525–1595), Geng Zhaozhong (1640–1686), and An Qi (1633–after 1742), the ninth-century art historian Zhang Yanyuan, and the Song artist and calligrapher Mi Fu (1052–1107).

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Night-Shining White (detail)
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Why are red stamps placed all over this painting?
Collectors' seals became such an integral part of the appreciation of paintings that they often competed with the image itself—filling up all of the available space in the composition. Some collectors, particularly Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736–95), who inscribed this handscroll four times (a portion of one of his inscriptions is visible in the upper left corner of this detail), are now considered excessive in their use of seals and inscriptions.

In spite of the seals, we can still see the beauty of the original painting. This prized imperial horse represents one of the admired Arabian and Central Asian warhorses sent to China along the extensive Tang dynasty trade routes. Often given as tribute gifts to the emperor by distant rulers, these horses symbolized the respect and loyalty commanded by the reigning Chinese ruler.
Tethered to a post, the wild eyes, flaring nostrils, flying mane, and prancing hooves radiate the fiery temperament of this stallion. In a technique known as baihua, or "white painting," the artist's thick and thin modulated brush line, with small touches of ink shading along its contours, not only defines this steed's powerful, muscular body, but also captures its untamed beauty.

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Night-Shining White (detail)
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Why are red stamps placed all over this painting?

This seal, stamped in black rather than red, shows that this owner or admirer of the painting was in mourning.