Lost in history

The Chinese art of ink painting has a very long history. How long exactly? There are three possible answers to that question.

  1. The 9th century art historian Zhang Yanyuan wrote that in the old days, painting and writing were united. It was not until the 3rd century that artists with a definite individual character appeared. Four painters in particular, active between the middle of the third and the end of the fifth century are credited as the founders of the art of painting in China; Cao Buxing, Gu Kaizhi, Lu Tanwei and Wei Hsieh. These were the first fully accomplished masters, ‘their pictures expressed simple ideas in an unaffected way, they were beautiful and true.’
  2. There is ample archaeological evidence of ink being fabricated and used, brushes, and remnants of colour on ceramic vessels, bones, etc. Such evidence goes back some 6.000 years in time. Some kind of ink painting existed, but it might have been quite different from what later appeared and it does not really contradict Zhang Yanyuans recount of how painting emerged 4.000 years later.
  3. An album in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul contains a double page anonymous painting of a horse with grooms and it is identified as a Chinese painting. It was probably painted in the 15th century. However, it is the earliest known example of a painting being identified as Chinese. Those who painted in China obviously did not describe their painting as Chinese, it took an outsider to distinguish it as such. This observation by Craig Clunas in ‘Chinese Painting and its Audiences’ does not comment on the origins of painting in China, but on the origins of knowledge about Chinese painting outside China.



Anonymous, Horse with Chinese Grooms, 15th Century, Colour on Silk. Bahram Mirza Album, Topkapi Museum, Istanbul.