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The Evolution Of Chinese Painting - How An "Old Lotus" Brought Portraits Back In Vogue

17th century portrait of Chinese poet Bai Juyi
17th century portrait of Chinese poet Bai Juyi
Spiritual Mouse Den

BEIJING - In the history of Eastern and Western art, the aesthetic standards for painting have been more or less the same. The most esteemed paintings were large scenes with people in them. They can be broken down into the two categories, of either historical or religious nature.

The classic scene of Christ being taken down from the cross naturally involves a lot of other characters, the Virgin Mary and the repented Mary Magdalene being the most familiar. Where more than one person was depicted, the painting required both more skill and more effort.

In China, religion was relatively less important. Nevertheless, the paintings can be also divided in two categories, depicting either emperors and lords or the religious themes of Buddhism and Taoism.

However, as the Chinese dynasties progressed the way people were depicted in paintings changed. Painted during the Six Dynasties (220-589 AD) – a period of disunity, instability and warfare – the famous “Nymph of the Luo River,” by Gu Kaizhi, shows human figures that are bigger than the mountains and the trees.

But by the High Tang Dynasty (late 7th to mid-8th century), the golden age in which China was at its pinnacle of culture and power, the Shan Shui(“mountain and water”) style of landscape painting in brush and ink had become the prominent art form. The painting “Emperor Ming-huang’s Journey to Shu,” by Li Zhaodao, shows Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (685-762 AD) trapped in the Sichuan province during the Anshi Rebellion. The mountains are towering and majestic whereas the figures are tiny in comparison. The emperor, even though he is riding a horse, is almost too small to be seen. If one were not careful he might be overlooked entirely.

If an emperor was depicted this way in paintings, one can imagine what it was like for ordinary people. Those who painted human portraits were considered to be “craftsmen” by the landscape painters.

The three major factions of painters during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) were all Shan Shui artists.

During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), apart from Liu Song Lian, who was a painter of Buddhist and Taoist themes, the four major factions of painters also mainly painted landscapes.

In the Yuan or Mongol Dynasty (1279-1368), ink monochrome landscapes were the only standard for valued painters. Ni Zan (1301-1374), one of the “Four Masters of Yuan,” never represented people, deeming that they would “sully” the painting.

Dong Qichang (1555-1636), a prominent Ming Dynasty painter as well as calligrapher, was a typical follower of Ni Zan. He rarely represented people, and when he did, they were depicted in hasty and cursory brushwork, the eyebrow and moustache blurred together without any detail.

It was the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) masters who put an end to the suppression of human depictions in painting, which had lasted a thousand years. They rejuvenated portrait painting. These masters included Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), along with his contemporaries Tang Bohu (1470-1524) and Qiu Ying (1495-1552) all from the city of Suzhou, in the province of Jiangsu in Eastern China.

The impact of Old Lotus

But it was Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), known under the sobriquet Chen Laolian ("laolian" means “old lotus”), who undoubtedly possessed the greatest skill, making the greatest impact and having the finest style.

Unlike the relaxed brushstrokes of his paintings – solid and long – the Old Lotus only lived to be 54. According to the history books, he had offended an important official and was killed. This wouldn’t be at all surprising in the chaotic times of the Ming Dynasty.

Extremely lecherous as he advanced in years, the Old Lotus more or less lived in brothels. Money did not mean much to him, but sponsoring him with the gift of a fine lady was the way to get him to work right away. One can only imagine the extraordinary vitality that he had!

The Ming Dynasty had a retro atmosphere. In art, the yardstick of aesthetics was to copy the ancient masters. Particular attention was paid not just to the appearance on the surface, but it had also to be skin deep and authentic. Old Lotus was the master of this. His paintings had the charm of the Qin and the Tang Dynasties, imprinted with the strangeness of line and elegance.

By the mid-Ching Dynasty, Chinese portrait painters were gradually released from the pressure to produce landscape paintings. And from the late-Ching Dynasty through the Nationalist period and Communist China, basically all of the Southern Chinese figure painters have absorbed their artistic nutrition from the Old Lotus.

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Parenthood And The Pressure Of Always Having To Be Doing Better

As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

Ignacio Pereyra*


When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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