What we can learn from Chinese painting

An analysis of the artistic tradition of Chinese painting.

Most people in the West rarely encounter art from other cultures and continents. We are often preoccupied with art from our own culture, even though there is a ton of good art to be found elsewhere. Because of this, we risk developing a one-sided culture and world view, not to mention that we miss out on a lot of meaningful, important art.

One of the oldest artistic traditions in the world can be found in China. Throughout Chinese history, art has been of great importance and is treasured dearly. There painting is one of the most valued art forms, especially landscape painting. Many paintings depict the towering mountains, rolling hills and twisting rivers of the Chinese landscape.

In China, unlike the West, painting—and all of the arts—is tightly bound to philosophy. Thus, paintings are not only a way of portraying objects, but also a way of communicating ideals, principles and valuable life lessons.

There are two main techniques of Chinese painting: gongbi and xieyi.
Gongbi—which means ”meticulous”—is a technique aimed at depicting a motif, usually nature, as realistically as possible. It uses many small, highly detailed brushstrokes, seeking delicacy and precision. The philosophy behind gongbi painting is the idea that there are very specific perceived ideals within nature, and the duty of the artist is to pay homage to these ideals using a rigid pre-set visual language.


Whereas gongbi leaves little room for the artist’s own personal artistic expression, xieyi painting is more free and spontaneous. Xieyi means ”to write an idea”, and the purpose of xieyi painting is not mainly to reproduce the appearance of something, but to capture its spirit. To paint a flower, there would be no need to copy its petals and colors, but it would be essential to convey its liveliness and fragrance.


Moreover, painting and poetry also has a close relationship in China, so close they are nearly inseparable. There is a practice of inscribing poems on paintings, either written by the painter himself or by a later owner or connoisseur. This tradition of integrating poetry and painting is referred to as the ”three perfections”, where the perfections are the three arts of painting, poetry, and calligraphy. The purpose of this practice is to enhance the elegance of the artwork. The poem might expand the imagery of the painting or convey its message. It is to evoke the sensation of how one might experience a painting with sound, sight, smell, touch, and emotions.

There are a great many things we can learn from Chinese painting. Such as the connection between art and philosophy; that art can teach us valuable lessons about life and the world. In a time where art in the West tend to have no specific meaning, simply being ”art for arts sake,” it’s important to recognize that art can be a remedy and moral guide for us.

Moreover, just like Chinese art usually blend painting and poetry, we should recognize that the arts are intertwined. We do not need to categorize the arts or put some forms above others, because they all touch on the same subject and stem from the same source of creativity, and they all have different abilities to convey emotions and messages, thus we should appreciate art in all forms and see how they complete each other instead of seeing them as different things in opposition or comparison to each other.

Chinese painting is only one of the fantastic artistic traditions that we rarely encounter in the West. We should expand our art consumption to explore art from different countries and cultures. There is a lot of good art to be found outside the West, if we only leave our comfort zone and take time to delve.