Analytical Essay on Chinese Painting and Ritual

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Dark Romantics

There are many types of art in China such as tea ceremonies, calligraphy, dance, poetry, music and painting. They are practiced ritualistically with great discipline aimed for perfection. These arts are still practiced traditionally with remarkable patience. Among the most treasured arts of China, is ink painting. It is a ritual that must be practiced with perfect mind and intention. Chinese painting has been practiced in China since 4000 BC. It is still practiced and highly regarded among the elites and people of China today.

To someone who is unfamiliar to Chinese painting, they may merely see a few broad brush strokes. These seemingly simple brush strokes played important parts in the history of China. Painting influenced Chinese propaganda and Dynasties. Artists in China would periodically use a painting to reveal a hidden story. Oftentimes a poem would frame the outer edge of a painting. The poem exposed political corruption, scandalous rumors heard within the palace walls or simply the changing of seasons.

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Wu Zhen (Chinese, 1280–1354)

Handscroll; ink on paper

12 1/4 × 21 3/16 in. (31.1 × 53.8 cm)


To attain the precision of Chinese painting ritual there are six vital principles. Collectively, they are what is called Xie He or Hseih Ho, and for over 14 centuries have been accepted as building blocks for the traditional way of painting in China.

These six principles should be practiced to ultimate perfection before one is considered ready to express themselves through the art of ink painting in China.

The first Hsieh Ho is called, The Spirit of Painting and Rhythmic Vitality. What the artist uses convey his emotion is extremely important. Each brush stroke is intentional and should reflect the artist’s vitality. The “Chi’ Of the artists’ inner state, will be conveyed through the painting. By evoking perfect movement and intention, it is only then we can properly interpret the artists painting. The vitality in painting will be captured once the artist has studied the subject very carefully, and when they begin to paint the strokes, color and composition will represent the subject well. Only with much time and practice, an artist may be able to convey this (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 95-104) .

The second Hsieh Ho is, Natural Form and Structure, and the Brush Technique Employed. This focuses on the dance of the brush. Each brush stroke is planned with intention. Pressure is applied and relieved, there are turns, and aggressive or passive paths are made across the paper. There are different types of hair brushes that are used in Chinese painting, and whatever the artist chooses it must be practiced. Each weight of the brush and absorption of ink will vary among brushes.

The third is Depiction of a Subject According to Its Nature, and the Brush and Ink Application. When deciding on a subject to paint, the artist must decide what parts of it to paint and what parts to leave out, to avoid unnecessary brushstrokes. This will leave the artist with the most precise possible composition.

The fourth is Color and its Application. The color should convey the object in its likeness. Using a suggestion of color or bold applications of color as a statement. It should enhance the composition and be appealing to the eye in subtly and grace.

The fifth principle is Composition and the Section of Subjects. Composition and subject placement varies upon each object selected to paint. Most traditional paintings are painted upon oblong rice paper or silk. There is a dominant subject while other details achieve unity. Paintings mustn’t be overly complex, but have a rhythm and simplicity about them.

The final and sixth Hsieh Ho is Studying Classic Paintings and Copying a Master’s Work. When training to paint an artist must ritually copy a master’s work, as close to the original as possible. Copying a well established artist helps an artist acquire mistakes and inherently develop their own style (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 95-104).

The ritualistic tools utilized for Chinese painting are used for very specific reasons and are in a tradition in themselves. A stiff brush is produced from leopard or wolf hair. These brushes typically come in three sizes long, medium and short for thin lines and dots. A soft brush is made from goat or sheep’s hair. Soft brushes are used for pedals, stout branches, fill ins for rocks, water or cloud shapes. Once technical brush skills are acquired by the artist; they are able to manipulate the brushes in such a way, that they have the ability to achieve different lines to be either broad, sharp or thin (Chinese Brush Painting Workstation).

Inkstick is made by permeating animal glue with ash. It comes in a mold of various elongated shapes. Grinding your inkstick against your inkstick makes a loose powder. The inkstone is usually made from slate. You add a little water at a time onto your inkstone to create the consistency of ink that you would like. The more water you add, the lighter the ink color.

Paper used in traditional Chinese painting is often referred to as rice paper but it is made of sandal wood. Chinese paintings owned by the historical elites were painted on silk scrolls. Once the ink is dry it becomes permanent so many old pieces of artwork are still in great condition today. The thinner the rice paper, the more absorbent. The artist has to create the right consistency of ink for the paper being used, or it will bleed (Chinese Brush Painting Workstation).

There are two types of Chinese painting. The first style of Chinese painting is Gongbi. Gongbi painting that provides a narrative. It’s highly precise, detailed and includes various washes of color that represent the subject well. The second type of Chinese painting is called shui-mo. Shui-mo is a loose painting style that resembles calligraphy. It represents a distinct subject, and with every brush stroke the artist has the opportunity to express themselves in a direct and purposeful way.

One of the most recognized rituals in Chinese painting is the red ink seal. Seals are custom made for the artist and can be made from various materials such as stone, jade, wood, ivory and metal. The first seals were a bronze heirloom seal, passed through many dynasties and used by the emperor. These types of the seals were various in fonts and information depending upon the documents being signed. They became more accessible for painters and poets to use to complete their work with a personal touch. Some seals were brief poems only of a couple of words. The seal can be various fonts, coming in a circular or rectangular shape. Over time, as a painting is handed down and bought by a new collector, a new seal would be printed upon the piece. This produces a clear timeline we can follow, and it increases value exponentially. We can see many seals on paintings like the example in the beginning of the text titled Whu Zen.

Chinese Painting Tools


The aesthetics that goes into Chinese landscaping is ritualized. Everything is built to specific standards and is aimed for perfection. Thus, a perfect utopia is created that serves as a direct link to the cosmos. I feel that to understand the aesthetic of Chinese gardens we must understand the elements.These aesthetics are tightly bound together and relate to one another.

The five elements of Chinese gardens are stone, water, plants, architecture and literature arts. These elements are also included in Chinese painting. Stone, “Taihu Rocks” are a limestone rock that is produced from the foot of Dongting Mountain. It’s porous and coarse, with many holes, and creates interesting shapes and serves as an abstract sculpture. These rocks represent mystical islands and mountains of the immortals. They create depth and distance and by taking just a few steps through, you can experience a spiritual journey through a micro world of the heavens.

Water is something of a practical need. It drops the temperature in gardens that are built in mild or temperate climates. In addition, the aesthetic is a very strong contrast of rocky planes compared to a flat and glassy surface. Like Chinese paintings, gardens are designed to create the illusion of unlimited space. Water disappears under bridges, and is never met by a wall, giving it a sense of depth and immeasurable space (example below).

Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland Oregon.


Plants in Chinese gardens can be used in a symbolic manner or to cultivate for gardening. A peach blossom in a painting could represent fertility, virginity or birth celebration of an elite. Bamboo can represent strength and the ability to bend without breaking. Plum blossoms represent the turning of seasons and natural death. In a Chinese garden it’s important that there are consistent blossoms, so you will discover various plants blooming throughout each season. Each plant can represent various things such as longevity, good fortune and resilience.

Literature arts are a critical part of Chinese gardens and landscaping. There are social and economic dimensions to a scholar’s garden. Including elements such as writing, inscribing scrolls, observation, music, painting, study and meditation. Poetry in painting is a fantastic art in itself. It is to capture a simple moment in time and the purpose of this is, is to bring us back into ourselves and forget our suffering. Poems are short and can be between two to eight lines. These poems were taken very seriously and would take months to a few years to compose.

A Mountain Path in Spring (山徑春行圖), Ma Yuan (馬遠, c.1160-1225), Song Dynasty (960-1279) .Album leaf, ink and color on silk, 27.4 x 43.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei. (

“Emperor Ningzong’s poem inscribed in the upper right corner reads, The wild flowers dance when brushed by my sleeves. Reclusive birds make no sound as they shun the presence of people (觸袖野花多自舞,避人幽鳥不成啼). The calligraphy is direct yet beautifully elegant. On the lower left is the signature of Ma Yuan, a court painter in the reigns of Emperors Guangzong (r. 1190-1194) and Ningzong (r. 1195-1224),” (China Online Museum). In this painting there is a contemplative scholar, staring into the endless void of nature. The birds that are in this scene are distrubed by the interactions of humans in their prence and take flight into the air. The scholar here, playing with whose long white beard, deep in thought and possibly composing a poem. He patiently awaits his servant to bring him his equipment to compose at the water’s edge, immersed in nature. This painting shows all themes of traditional Chinese painting. Water, rocks, mountains, animals, flowers, man, and literature. There are various tones of ink, broad and thick brush strokes and elegantly wild branches reaching down to the water’s edge.

  1. Lancaster, Clay. “Keys to the Understanding of Indian and Chinese Painting: The ‘Six Limbs’ of Yaṣoḍhara and the ‘Six Principles’ of Hsieh Ho.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 11, no. 2, 1952, pp. 95–104. JSTOR, Accessed 4 Mar. 2020.
  2. I-Ching, and Michele Rogers. Chinese Brush Painting Workstation. Design Eye, 1993, pp. 1-48.
  3. “Ma Yuan – Song Dynasty.” Ma Yuan Paintings | Chinese Art Gallery | China Online Museum,


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