The Grandeur of the Qing | Asia for Educators

II. Lesson Plans

How to Read a Chinese Hand Scroll:
the Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour

Christine Naitove, The Chapin School, New York, New York


The Orthodox School of Painting

The so-called Orthodox School of the Qing era was dedicated to venerating and imitating the landscape painting styles of the Song and Yuan dynasties centuries earlier. During the Song period, painting was elevated to an elite status, along with poetry and calligraphy. Its practitioners were erudite scholars, hence it became known as "literati painting." It embodied an amateur ideal of personal expression that was considered superior to mere technical skill. The literati painters were among the economic and cultural elite and painted to please themselves, not for pay. During the Yuan dynasty of the Mongols (1368-1644), this sense of aloofness intensified when Confucian scholar officials were exiled from the Mongol court and retreated far from the center of political influence in Beijing. They pursued their personal, lyrical styles of art and scorned the professional, commercial artists who served the Yuan court. Their works embodied a mix of religious and philosophical traditions. They drew the viewer into grand vistas of space, amplified by ambiguous passages of mist and empty space. Giving the viewer the experience of becoming lost in the flow of nature had long been an ideal of Chinese painting, drawing on Daoist and Chan Buddhist traditions. Further, the looming craggy mountains were described by literati poet/painters as the "lords" of the world, surrounded by lesser hills and landscape features, conveying a sense that Confucian hierarchy ordered both the natural and human worlds. Another Daoist concept—qi, or life force—was evident in landscapes. According to Daoist tradition, where a stream emerges at the base of a mountain represents a concentration of qi and therefore the perfect place for a scholar to live and contemplate.

Orthodox Painters under the Qing
Three hundred years later, when a second group of Northern invaders, the Manchu, took over China in 1644, the elites were at first horrified but later were relieved to see that the Manchu (Qing) emperors respected Chinese tradition and culture, which they had already largely adopted. The Qing emperors patronized the Orthodox artists who sought to revive earlier styles.

Ironically, the Qing Orthodox painters reversed the roles of literati and commercial/professional painters of Song and Yuan times. While the preceding literati painters were individualists who shunned commerce or—in the Yuan period—passive rebels who withdrew from the money and glamour of court painting, the new Orthodox painters were deliberate imitators of the past who were supported by imperial patronage. (In fact, the anti-commercial rebels of the Qing era were known as the "Individualist" painters.)

Scroll Paintings
The artists of the period produced hanging scrolls, which portrayed a single view in a vertical format, as well as hand scrolls, which required a continuously changing perspective as ever-changing scenes are revealed to the viewer. Hand scrolls were viewed by unrolling sections a few feet wide, progressing from right to left. Passages of poetry, called colophons, were often added to the scrolls by painters, indicating the close association of the two forms of art. Owners of the scrolls often added additional passages of poetry and their personal hand seals.

Wang Hui
The most renown Orthodox master of the 17th century, Wang Hui, was the chief artist of the Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Tour scrolls. He populated the scrolls with the traditional repertoire of mountains, waterfalls, rivers, trees, rocks, temples, pavilions, bridges, boats, huts, wandering scholars, and fishermen. The Nanxuntu scrolls were documentary and official in nature, and therefore perhaps not conducive to flights of originality. Their style is somewhat dry and literal. Such tendencies can be seen in other works by Wang Hui, including his well known hanging scroll, "A Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines" of 1693. It shows great technical virtuosity, but lacks the emotional poignancy of the literati originals.