The line image—the origin and formation of the Chinese painting Author:Luo Ying Date: 2013-08-20 Size:
From the origin of painting art, the line drawing has been a chief method of visual expression, such as the primitive rock paintings in Yinshan, China (Graphic 1) and the rock paintings of Altamira Cave in Europe (Graphic 2), both of which used lines to express the animals’ images. But line drawings in Western rock paintings aimed to reflect the accuracy of animals’ structure while Chinese rock paintings paid more attention to the beauty of the line than the likeness of images. It indicates that the line is important even from the beginning and is the chief method to shape images in traditional Chinese paintings.

  Chapter 1 Introduction

  1. the origin and connotations of line image

  From the origin of painting art, the line drawing has been a chief method of visual expression, such as the primitive rock paintings in Yinshan, China (Graphic 1) and the rock paintings of Altamira Cave in Europe (Graphic 2), both of which used lines to express the animals’ images. But line drawings in Western rock paintings aimed to reflect the accuracy of animals’ structure while Chinese rock paintings paid more attention to the beauty of the line than the likeness of images. It indicates that the line is important even from the beginning and is the chief method to shape images in traditional Chinese paintings. The line serves as the aesthetic purpose and evaluative standard of Chinese painting art, which is unique in the art of all nations. I, therefore will put forward the concept of line image to interpret the origin and formation of Chinese painting from the perspective of the image and line.

  The line image is the visual art image that contains the Chinese cultural connotation expressed by the Chinese brush. It is a research perspective on painting theory and a expression method in painting, arising from the incorporation of the line and image. So it is necessary to clarify the line and image before I expound the line image.

  The image is the representation of a visual object, and a concrete shape or appearance that can stimulate people’s association or emotions. As regards the line, it is defined according to the Modern Chinese Dictionary as a figure formed as a dot moves along in geometry including straight lines and curves. In practice, the shaping of a line will necessarily bring with it people’s subjective purpose, whatever straight lines or curves. To summarize, a line image must first of all give rise to people’s imagination or feelings through its concrete shape or appearance. Second, the line is formed by continuously and freely moving dots, which means that line image is a dynamic product. Traditional Chinese painting stresses the process of line drawing, in which we can feel how the line is formed and the painter’s hand movement. That is to say, the Chinese painting lays stress on the artistic work as well as the process in which it is formed.

  2. The line image and hand painting

  The line image is an artistic imaged created by hand. So there would be no line and its concept if not out of people’s actual needs and participation. When one’s hand moves on some physical medium, the mark of a line image will take on meanings from two respects. First, the individual character of the hand painting as in the well-known left hand line in Da Vinci's sketch (Graphic 3) and the incredible whirling touch in Van Gogh’s oil paintings (Graphic 4), which are irreplaceable and unmatched; in terms of Chinese paintings, the restrained lines of Li Gonglin’s line drawings in traditional ink and brush style (Graphic 5) and unrestrained and simple lines in Liang Kai’s stick drawings (Graphic 6) are unique hand paintings in visual art.

  Second, the suitable technique for the specific material where each hand painting is done. The occurrence of the technique means there will be restraint on the hand movement. From the two perspectives, it is be inferred that the aesthetic value of a visual art image is a compromise between unregulated individual expression and regulated technique.

  In painting line images, the traditional Chinese painting emphasizes the role of hands in creating artistic images. The hand movement in drawing line images is manifested through the use of brush: the way to hold and move the brush and the relative positions of the hand, brush and paper, all of which are strictly defined and specified. A line image is good when it is drawn in the proper way. A painting is good when it is made up of line images drawn in the right method as well as carries the Chinese people’s emotions and thoughts. And only such a painting can conform to the aesthetic standard of the traditional Chinese painting and become an artistic work.


  Chapter 2 The origin of visual culture

  The origin of the line image is closely related to that of humans. As a visual art, it was a necessary outcome of human development.

  1. Evolution—man’s origin

  In nature, everything competes for survival. Each species takes advantage of its traits to adapt to the environment.

  Humans originated in an era when the area of forests decreased and the available food on the trees became less and less. Some anthropoids began to come down for food on the ground, whose thinking ability developed in their constant struggle with the natural environment and their socialized skill in cooperation as well as their skill to work by hand enabled them to evolve into a new species-- Homo sapiens (man’s earliest direct ancestors). Although homo sapiens took a long time to evolve into a man in a real sense, their intellectual brains helped them to take over from other species. Another important factor that contributed to the shift was that the homo sapiens began to stand upright with their forelegs turning to the hand. The evolution of the hand greatly fostered their cognitive ability and the ability to express the emotions. Take tool-making as an example: suppose a homo sapien wanted to have a stone tool. So he must hit one stone against another, which was likely to get reduced to pieces. To make a good tool, it was important to control the force and movement in the hand, which arose from their experience of working by hand. In addition, the evolution of the hand enhanced their communicative ability in that they learned to communicate in gestures, touch one another and used their hand to know nature. All the experience was brand new and profound to them and made them more and more skillful in exchanging with others.

  We can thus arrive at a conclusion that the evolution of the brain and hand enhanced not only man’s intellectual development but also gave rise to the birth of his emotions. It can be ascribed to greater brain capacity and the hand which realized the brain’s desire that man became what he is today.

  2. Animism worship—the origin of culture

  The outcome of the primitives’ evolution was that their brain was more developed and they began to fear death. They came to know what was death but nothing about the world after death, which gave rise to their instinct to fear it. They hoped to remove the mental pressure but considering their cognitive ability, it was highly impossible. They were obsessed with mental pressure such as fear of death and physiological pressure like want of food. It could be imagined how much pressure they were under then. So as children look for adults’ protection in pain, they wanted desperately to find spiritual solace to escape from or transfer their mental pressure for survival and development.

  Primitives began to endow what was intangible or horrible with a spirit so as to get close to the supernatural spirit in illusion. Their illusion about the spirit could be satisfied in various forms and rituals—it might be a spirit appearing in someone’s dream and making a request, or primitives asking to be enchanted by a magic spirit, or making a prophecy or sacrifice, the purpose of which was to be familiar with spirits or win their favor. After a long period of practice and development, the rituals and forms gradually took on the outward form of primitive religion—animism worship.

  Out of fear of death, primitives put their mental pain at the hands of spirits and hoped the supernatural power could remove the pain. So animism worship was the necessary choice they made in getting rid of mental trouble. In other words, they needed supernatural power to soothe the mental pressure in real life. The dependence on the supernatural power was the social and cultural root of primitive spiritual worship and praying for the protection of supernatural power in way of rituals marked the beginning of primitive animism worship. Each culture type in social superstructure after it developed from it including the line image .


  3. The origin of images

  (1) Images originating from primitive worship

  Almost all the primitive worship revolved around certain image or idol. Why? According to the research, the development of their thinking ability is similar to that of children. A one-month-old baby was first able to see and hear things and their main social activity was to look at the other people. As for the primitives who tried to stand upright, they used their eyes to observe the objects (specific images) in the surroundings and made judgements according to what they saw. Whatever children or primitives, their image thinking was more developed than the abstract thinking. So it was highly possible for primitives to use visual images to meet their spiritual needs, which might account for idol (totem) worship in nearly all primitive animism worship.

  There was still another reason why primitive worship needed the image. At the early period, primitives could reach spirit in dreams or fantasies, but dreams were subconscious, and couldn’t satisfy their spiritual needs. They needed to reach the spirit whenever they liked, which gave rise to idol worship. It was a necessary outcome of the primitive cultural development that primitives used images as their idol in their worshipping activity. However, different people had different ideas of the images in their mind. For example, the images of the sun god were different in different regions (Graphics 7-8). Even in the same area, the images of the spirit might vary from one person to another in primitives’ mind. Different images for the same spirit might weaken the power of the god and did no good to primitives’ spiritual life. So it was necessary to create a visual image (totem) to represent the god, which explained the image needs in primitive worship.

  (2 )Image creation being the necessary outcome of human cultural development

  Primitives used images (totems) to link spirit and their real life. At first the images might be things from nature such as the sun, the hill, the river, or even some wild animals. They might also be man-made objects such as a weapon or tool. Due to low productivity at that time, primitives would not make a point of carving or drawing a totem image simply for totem worship because it took a lot of energy and time to do it. So it might be easier to use the manmade objects.

  With the development of human society, primitives gradually began creating images. They were doing this because they needed to do it and had the ability to create images. The images of spirits created by primitives brought them greater solace than images in nature such as the sun. It was like although primitives could use raw stones as tools, they kept on making stone tools. Although the creation took a lot of energy or time, it was good for the development of primitive groups. When primitives could create vivid totem images, totems became the indispensable way to meet people’s spiritual needs.

  Primitives had to create images for another reason, which was with social development, many tribes began to merge and expand. After their merging, social progress held a higher expectation of visual images. To solve the problem, primitives began re-creating images and the new totem became more powerful, for example, the image of the Chinese dragon was created by merging many tribe’s totems (Graphics 11 and 12). It should be claimed that such image creation was a big progress in human culture, for it showed humans were clever and powerful enough to overcome the natural threat.

  Chapter 3 The origin of line images

  1. Line images being the outcome of image creation

  (1) Line images developing from dot images

  What image did primitives prefer to use at the beginning? I think they used dots as chief images and there were two justifications for this: first, from the perspective of tool-making. It is known that primitive society began with Old Stone Age and later developed into Neolithic Age. In Old Stone Age, all tools were made out of hitting stones. Primitives kept doing one movement in making tools—hitting stones downward. We will know the movement conforms to mechanical principles as long as we have a try, which left dot marks on the stones. So it was natural for primitives to use dots as images in the initial image creation.

  Second, in the light of existent primitive sites. According to archaeological study, rock paintings in Old Stone Age were characterized by small dented dot-like holes as seen in the rock painting sites such as Ulam Hatta, Inner Mongolia, Bohuslän, Sweden (Graphic 13) and Wanshan, Taiwan (Graphic 14). It proved that the dot as a chief image was a pervasive phenomenon in early man’s image creation.

  However, dot images were too simple and crude to represent the real objects and it was of necessity in primitive image development to improve on dot images. Then how? . Kandinsky once said: ‘countless moving dots constitute a line’, which our ancestors should have known long time ago. For example, in our observation of Wanshan rock paintings in Taiwan (Graphic 14) or Jucishan rock paintings of Henan (Graphic 15), we have a strong feeling of efforts made by primitives to improve the visual image by linking dots into a line. So it might be a good method to put dots closely together so that they looked like a line (Graphics 15 and 17). In other words, dot images would turn into line images in time.

  (2)The development and maturing of line images in practice

  Image creation is a process of development. From the perspective of visual art history, early image creation underwent a development from the abstract, crude and fuzzy dot to the specific, vivid and clear line. Primitives needed images in their animism worship and began creating images. When fuzzy and crude dot images failed to meet the needs of primitives, line image evolved out of it and became the chief means in primitive image creation. For instance, we can clearly see from the hitting marks in Graphic 17 that line images developed from dot images. Line images were simple and expressive enough to become popular in primitive image creation.

  It should be said in the early primitive painting, nothing could be more effective than moving the painting tool in any direction (the basic method to draw a line). So the line image is a natural outcome of primitives’ image needs and drawing materials (earth, stones or branches). From the prehistoric sites we already know, line images should have become early man’s important means of image creation long time ago. Line images satisfied primitives’ image needs and developed with human image creation ability.

  So image creation was the purpose of primitive shaping activity and the line the means to express the images in shaping practice. With their increasingly skillful shaping technique, primitives could create images they desired, which soothed their fear of death. The mental satisfaction stimulated primitives to like and keep creating images, thus promoting the birth and development of human visual art and incorporation of the line (means) and image (purpose) into the line image.


  2. line images being the creation of man in surprise

  There was once a TV series named Radical Changes depicting the history of early human development, one episode of which was about the birth of the line image: when the chief of a tribe believing in deer worship put their idol—the head of a deer beside a bonfire, firelight cast the shadow of the deer’s head onto the stone wall. The sorcerer was surprised that spirit should appear, so he drew lines along the shadow and it was the spirit—a deer’s image on the stone wall. The instance of line image drawing—although it is but an episode of a TV program, offered us a postulation about the birth of the line image.

  Why did the sorcerer draw the first line image in human history? If only for the shadow of the spirit on the wall, he could have knelt down and poured out his admiration.

  So why did he choose an unfamiliar way—drawing a line image to reach the spirit? I think he was motivated by a instinct ---surprise.

  Surprise was the root of human aesthetic behaviour, without which there would be no aesthetics (including the creation of line images). Thus Hegel stated: ‘we might quote an old remark in dealing with the birth of image art in terms of subjects: artistic contemplation, religious contemplation (or rather, the union of the two) and even scientific study came out of surprise’. Man’s surprise, once inspired, will give rise to an impulse too strong to be repressed, which will lead to powerful creativity. When people found it convenient to draw images in way of line, and in doing that, their creative impulse was fulfilled, the line image was brought into existence.

  It can be conceived that the primitive sorcerer had a great surprise when he accidentally saw the holy spirit on the stone wall. It was so strong that he was keen on creating the image, but of all the creation means available, the line was the most convenient and feasible, hence the birth of the line image.

  3. The Line image being the outcome of hand evolution

  With the evolution of hand, tools were no longer made by hitting stones but by rubbing them, which marked the transition from the Old Stone Age to Neolithic Age. Accordingly hand movements in making the tools became different. For the former, primitives hit stones in making tools which left dots in image creation. For the latter, tools were made by rubbing the stones and the corresponding hand movement brought about the line image .

  Human development brought with it image development. The question is: is it the case that primitives could draw the line image that satisfied their spiritual needs as long as they possessed line-drawing abilities? The answer is: not necessarily. It’s because the painting technique is not a born ability and even after a long period of practice, different people will draw different images, an indication that there is no absolute coordination between the brain and the hand. So long-term practice in hand skill is necessary in order to achieve the maximum coordination of the two. This contributes to the individual character of hand paintings, which is where the value of visual art creation lies. So different people create different works and different works will contribute to varieties in culture. Line images in visual art came into being when people in their cultural environment took up aesthetic activities typical of that culture.

  Chapter 4 The origin of the line image in the Chinese painting

  1. The evidence of its early origin

  The same cause motivated the painting images all over the world, and they were quite similar. For example, rock paintings all over the world in the Stone Age had dented dot-like holes in them. The earliest colored pottery in the world possessed a wide red stripe along the top, which was the universal feature of colored pottery. The two instances showed the images of all nations roughly originated with the same image pattern.

  The line image is created by hand and attached to people’s thoughts and emotions, mirroring their cognition, imagination, creation and feelings. It is influenced by people’s living environment, social progress, culture or customs. As a part of the whole cultural system, it must conform to and be restrained by culture. Likewise, the Chinese painting and its line image creation are also defined and conditioned by the whole Chinese culture.

  Then what is Chinese culture like that defines and restrains Chinese visual art and how did it come into being?

  (1) Xihoudu Site and the line image

  The early human society could be divided into the Paleolithic and Neolithic Ages. From what is known, in China there were more than 200 sites belonging to the Paleolithic Age and Xihoudu site was one of them, in which were discovered the fossils of elk horns and skulls with clear cutting and scraping marks. The Xihoudu people did this to make or produce a horn tool (Graphic 21).

  The question is, what was the purpose of primitives leaving some cutting marks on horns in making horn tools? In primitive times people must spend a large amount of time in making a tool and with the working efficiency so low, Xihoudu people would not devote their time or energy to making cutting marks if they were not useful, which means elk horns with cutting marks might serve more purposes than tools.

  Then ,what functions could the elk horns play? As a matter of fact, there was just one ultimate purpose in all early human behaviour, which was to solve the problem of mental and physiological survival. Primitives needed desperately to remove their mental and physiological pressure, so we might as well make a conjecture that primitives worked the elk horns to get both a tool and a meaningful totem. In other words, it could be that the primitives were trying to carve lines in order to create images.

  But the conjecture might not be true. Nevertheless, the practice of line carving (whether it was done on purpose or not) would definitely influence the primitives’ thinking. Primitives could learn that they created line or other images out of the cutting and scraping movements. The knowledge was significant because it motivated the above-mentioned sorcerer’s line-drawing and other related behaviour.

  (2) Jucishan rock paintings and line images

  Jucishan rock paintings of Henan was the only rock painting site that could be traced to the late Old Stone Age in central China (Graphics 22-29), which was the cradle of Chinese civilization. The rock paintings were evidence of the origin of Chinese civilization in visual images.

  Some images in Jucishan rock paintings were quite clear (for example, the image was a woman in Graphic 22), but some were abstract, constituted by lines or round dots that made up a line (Graphics 23-25), which were interpreted as rivers, a map of rivers and hills (Graphic 26), something related to prophecy (Graphics 27-28), or the earliest character (Graphic 29) by different people.

  But neither the cause nor the connotations of the abstract images is important. For primitives, all their efforts in image creation paid off as long as the dot or line images could stand for the mental illusion in their mind and bring them mental solace. Although we found no definite meaning in the abstract images, they did represent something with clear spiritual value to primitives. In effect, there were no primitive images without connotations, whether they were abstract or specific, made up of complex or simple designs. Even simple some curves had a meaning for them. In the eyes of the primitives, the images were their mental support for survival.

  Anyhow, Jucishan rock paintings showed that Chinese paintings did not seek for likeness in form even from the beginning.


  2. Yangshao Culture and line images

  Yangshao Culture was the representative of Chinese culture during The Neolithic Age (about 5000 to 10,000 years from now), whose colored pottery was the exemplar of Chinese primitive colored pottery art and whose technique reached the peak. The visual images in this period were mainly pottery designs and patterns, many of which were inherited from primitive rock paintings such as geometric patterns (Graphics 30-31), cloud patterns (Graphic 32), lotus patterns (Graphics 33-34) or bird and animal patterns (Graphics 35-36). Meanwhile, its increasingly skillful technique and style paved the way for the style of later Chinese paintings.

  Among colored pottery from Yangshao Culture, two most representative works were Colored pottery with human face and fish patterns (Graphic 37) and Colored pottery with stork, fish and stone axe patterns (Graphic 38). The Colored pottery with human face and fish patterns had human face and fish patterns inside the pot, which were vivid and neat. And Colored pottery with stork, fish and stone axe patterns was the master piece of Yangshao Culture on which a stork had a fish in its mouth and a stone axe beside it. The whole drawing was simple and bold and except for the medium , was not much different from later paintings in structure and shaping.

  It seemed that we could detect a trace of the origin of Chinese painting from the two drawings.

  First, some later paintings inherited the shaping from the pottery paintings, for example, the stork in Graphic 38 shared a lot of similarities with birds in Chinese flower-and-bird paintings (Graphic 39) in body shape, the proportion of body to head, the mouth expression, and especially the look of eyes (Graphic 36). Considering the fact that Yangshao Culture wasn’t discovered until 1921, we could conclude that the similarities could be ascribed to the similar aesthetic values in the same cultural environment.

  Second, the brush for Chinese paintings is quite similar to the painting tool used for the colored pottery in Yangshao Culture. Although we haven’t found any painting tool in Yangshao Culture, we could still make a conjecture about it. First, the lines in Graphics 37 and 38 were painted in black paints. Besides the black color, white paints were also used in Colored pottery with stork, fish and stone axe patterns. Both paints needed to be diluted into liquid or mud form and the painting tool must be soft to match the paints. Second, The large area of white color in the stork in Graphic 38 and the colored lines in Graphics 31, 32, 34 and 36 were smooth and neat, which couldn’t be done with hard painting tools. Third, the line images in the human face, fish and stone axe from Graphics 37 and 38 were much similar to those from later Chinese paintings (Graphics 40-41), so they must be painted by some soft tool that may absorb water.

  Third, later Chinese paintings inherited a lot in technique from the pottery paintings of Yangshao Culture. For instance, the contrast between black and white colors was used in Colored Pottery with Human Face and Fish Patterns. Although this technique was regarded by some scholars as reflecting the tattooing custom of the tribes at that time, it highlights from the visual perspective, the three-dimensional effect and the fantastic technique to demarcate images. The technique may enrich the paintings and make them lively, which was in great use in later paintings as exemplified in The silk painting with dragon, phoenix and people from Chu Tomb of Warring States Period in Changsha (Graphic 42)

  It is evident from the above examples that the Chinese painting underwent primitive rock paintings before it witnesses a clear awareness of line images in pottery paintings of Yangshao Culture. Although there were a lot of lines in the early Chinese rock paintings, only line images in pottery paintings of Yangshao Culture could reflect the charm of painting by the Chinese brush.

  It thus could be claimed that at the stage of Yangshao Culture, line images in Chinese visual culture began to take on local or national features and became different from line images of other nations due to the application of the Chinese brush. The designs and patterns from Yangshao Civilization fully demonstrated the importance of hand movement in the use of brush. From this time on, visual art loaded with unique Chinese culture and aesthetic charm has been worshiped and admired, which indicated that the brush was closely related to the origin of line images and had a big influence in the Chinese paintings as well as culture.

  3. The influence of Chinese early culture in the origin of line image

  (1) The linear thinking in Chinese ideology

  Chinese people tend to think things have two sides, which contrast with each other, such as up contrasting with down, east with west and Yin with Yang (Yin and Yang are the two terms in the Book of Changes, an ancient book, about 6000 years from now. Yin and Yang are the two basic elements of the world according to the Book of Changes). And the human is the center of all the contrasting relations that make up nature (or the world), so it is up to the human to co-ordinate them, which is called harmony between nature and the human. In terms of the ideology, the early Chinese thought they were at the center of nature, so were superior to and ruled the four directions of east, west, south and north. And this ideology took shape long time ago and never changed in the ancient society.

  The design of the Yuban (a kind of jade work on which words or drawings are carved) (Graphic 43) is the square surrounded by the circle, conforming to the Chinese belief that the sky (also the heavens) is round and the earth is square. And the lines from the circle should point to different directions like East, Southeast, etc. The Yucong (jade pieces of cylinder shape, used mainly for sacrifice in the ancient society) discovered in Liangzhu, Zhejiang (Graphics 44 and 45) were regarded as something linking the sky and earth. It is square outside and round inside, representing the earth and sky. Its hollow shape means it can link the earth and the sky and has the power of reaching the god and ghost in sacrifice.

  Still other scholars hold that the round hole in the Yucong is the passage leading the spirit of the dead people to come back, which is supported by the Colored pottery with human face and fish patterns (the pot being a coffin lid as a matter of fact ) in Yangshao culture (Graphic 37). The pottery also has a round hole in it, so is it the passage leading the spirit? And how about the dented dot-like holes in the rock paintings of the Old Stone Age?

  If the dot-like holes were meant to be a passage leading the spirit, it seemed to explain why the dot-like holes constituted a line in the rock paintings, in terms of the origin of line images, because the passage must be a line, otherwise it would not be a passage.

  If we relate the line to the passage for the spirit, we could formulate that linear thinking (passage for spirits in sacrifice) helped to motivate the birth of the line image ( a passage is a line) and offer an explanation why there is usually a large blank space in a Chinese painting. This is because linear thinking enables us to conjure up a line where there is not. It is frequent to see many such paintings in which a blank space conjures up line images. For example, although Zhu Da ( painter, 1626—1705 AD) and Qi Baishi (painter, 1864一1957 AD) drew no water in their paintings, we see it in our mind and they achieved better effect in doing so (Graphics 46 and 47).

  (2) The linear thinking of Chinese people in family and clan relations

  In the early human society, worship of one’s ancestors was popular and was not typical of Chinese culture. But traditional Chinese culture took the worship to the extreme in which they could not break the link with their ancestors . One is an integral part of his clan, without which he could not realize his value or establish his self-identity. So it is a strong belief for a Chinese that he should go back to his hometown when he is old and hold on to his ancestors and clan.

  Clan relations were linear and of two types: one was among the immediate family males such as the grandfather, the father and the son; the other was among the kin or relatives who shared the same ancestral temple, clan hall and ritual of sacrifice. So clan relations were a network made up of lines, deeply rooted in the same cultural belief. The linear view on clan relations helped to maintain the social order and values. Especially before Xia Dynasty (21 BC-16BC) when written language was not developed, the unbreakable line of clan relations symbolized the historical heritage. Obviously the kinship line was warm, gentle and not cold. It is delicate and strong, elegant and vigorous. These features correspond to the feel we get from line images in traditional Chinese painting.

  Mirroring the kinship line, a line image in traditional Chinese painting looks soft and smooth without edges or corners. When a line image is drawn, the brush movements at the beginning and end of line drawing are underlined and the brush tip should remain in the middle of the line, or it will not be a good line image. And the charm and beauty of the line image are all conveyed in the smooth and gentle line. So the line image is deeply related to the clan beliefs that kinship relations are of a line which are gentle and soft.


  Chapter 5 The formation of line images in Chinese painting

  1.The brush being the prerequisite of the line image

  Writing tools have corresponding writing technique to go with them. For the Chinese brush, you must hold it in a vertical position as its tip is made of animals’ hair and becomes soft when soaked in liquid paint (Graphic 48).Meanwhile the brush with a proper amount of water at its tip will leave a smooth, forceful and full mark.

  The marks left by a Chinese brush may vary with the painting size, structure and material in thickness and smoothness to achieve the aesthetic purpose. So the Chinese brush has the artistic feature from the beginning and the basic tool in the Chinese painting is the Chinese brush. In a sense, the brush, being both hard and soft not only determined the style of the traditional Chinese painting but deeply influenced the whole Chinese culture.

  Usually, the hair of a good brush possesses four virtues of a pointed tip, a full middle, a smooth and elastic end. First, the pointed tip can display the delicate changes of lines. Second, its smooth hair can make the line vigorous while it spreads across the paper. Third, its cone shape makes it easy to move in all directions. Fourth, it can display the strength of the lines. The four virtues are significant in that we do not only judge a good brush by them but also the brush technique used in traditional Chinese painting by them.

  2. The Chinese painting technique: the immediate cause of line image formation

  To me the Chinese painting technique should cover at least two aspects: the ability to shape images and ability to use the materials and tools.

  (1) The ability to shape images and the formation of line images

  It takes a long time and a lot of practice to grasp the shaping technique even if we know a lot about anatomy. Then did the primitives have the technique? They should have. Zhuangzi ( a famous thinker in the Spring and Autumn Period) once told a story of a butcher skillfully dissecting an ox, which showed that Chinese ancients knew something about anatomy, and it was beneficial to their life and work.

  Then why didn’t they put the anatomical knowledge into the shaping art? It is because anatomical knowledge could help people grasp shaping technique, but it was not the only method for them to master the technique. Unlike western painters who aim to capture the right proportion of the real objects they face and draw accurately, traditional Chinese painters take the way of observation, memory and creation. An immediate consequence of it is that the painted image is like the real object in spirit but not in shape because the memory can not restore every detail about the real object. In the eyes of Westerners, the Chinese shaping technique does not conform to anatomical and perspective knowledge, but to a Chinese, their aim is to use a variety of line images to reflect the object in their memory. So the shaping technique varies with the aesthetic standard. It gives rise to the unique oriental aesthetic values that Chinese people stress more the likeness in spirit than in shape. “It underlines likeness in spirit more than the shape. Unlikeness of the shape is acceptable as long as the likeness of spirit is achieved and it is where the charm of the painting lies”(from Qi Baishi, 1864一1957, a famous painter). For a Chinese, a faithful reflection of an object lies in the likeness in spirit.

  In people’s aesthetic consciousness, likeness in spirit counts more than likeness in shape. So in the Chinese aesthetic consciousness, they appreciate paintings that convey the spirit more than those that have mere physical likeness.

  (2) The ability to use the tools and the formation of line image

  When a line is painted, the brush is pressed down at the start and gradually lifted as the line comes to the end in one and continuous movement (Graphics 49-50). The Line image in Chinese painting is not merely for constituting a pattern. Otherwise hand movement at the start and the end of line drawing would not be emphasized. In fact, the line image system in Chinese paintings consists of lines on paper and invisible lines in painters’ mind when he is moving his brush. As the tip of the brush moves, the painter puts energy, emotions and thoughts into the line and it is what is stressed as “force” in the technique of line drawing. In other words, a good line image should have force.

  So the line is not only a method to shape an image or pattern, but an image itself. In this aspect, the traditional Chinese painting exhibits an intrinsic difference from Western paintings.

  The line image is closely related to materials and the tool, and the tool is the ultimate cause of the painting technique. In other words, the painting technique arises from the technique of using the painting tool. When you hold a brush, you should keep it vertical in your four fingers of the thumb, index finger, middle finger, and fourth finger, with the palm shaped like holding an egg and the brush tip pointing to the pinkie. The uniqueness in holding the brush underlies the unique line drawing technique in the Chinese painting, which can be described roughly as: keeping the brush in a vertical position and the tip at the center of the lines. Line images painted in this way will be full, smooth, elastic, vivid, lively and forceful.

  It can be stated that the technique to use the brush is a standard to judge whether a line image is qualified and valuable. It is also an immediate cause for the line image to become what it is.

  3.Traditional culture: the aesthetic foundation of line image formation

  (1) The influence of The book of changes in line image formation

  The earliest record of Chinese culture could be found in The book of changes, also called Zhou Yi.

  Philosophically, Zhouyi is a book written to reveal the patterns (dao, literally means "the way") of things changing between the heavens and earth, which in ancient Chinese refers to the world as a whole. The authors of the Zhouyi imitated the myriad changing things in the cosmos by applying a structure of hexagrams or images based on the observation of natural changes over a period of 1,500 years, from 2,000 BC to 500 BC. The Zhouyi is composed of the following elements: numbers and images.

  The basis of the Zhouyi is its unique philosophy of numbers. Fu Xi (said to be the first of the Three Sovereigns of ancient China) created the abstract images (eight trigrams) according to the philosophy of number. Each image (trigram) represents a kind of thing or event in the universe. The application of numbers in the Zhouyi system is involved in its method of divination, calculating the images ( tri/hexagrams) over intricate steps. The interpretation of the abstract images through numbers cultivates the artistic belief—seeking for likeness in spirit rather than shape in Chinese painting. The images (trigrams ) are different combinations of the undivided line –, i.e., yang/strong line or broken line - -, i.e., yin/soft line, which indicates that the image of the line is a quite general and expressive visual sign for a Chinese.

  Zhou Yi had a profound influence in Chinese aesthetic belief and the painting style. For example, its view that everything has its origin in Tao (a general and abstract concept) holds some intrinsic connection with the simple style of the Chinese painting. Painters do not pay much attention to the background in a painting and they even paint the images in a general style, attempting to catch the likeness in spirit. This aesthetic standard remained the same from the pre-Qin period to the Qing Dynasty.

  (2) The foundation of line images on early Chinese thoughts

  There is an important pair of concepts in Chinese aesthetic standard—Yin (soft ) and Yang (strong). Yin and Yang are from Zhou Yi and the concepts are widely used for opposite things in daily life such as the two representing even and odd numbers, evening and daylight, cold and hot weather, or the North and South respectively. They are an abstract summary of all the conflicting things in the cosmos. Ancient Chinese held that the harmony and balance between Yin and Yang were the basis of things in the world. When the belief is put into the painting practice, painters would control their force by pressing down and lift their brush in painting so that line images took on special charm.

  Yin and Yang conflict but are united at the same time. The contrast and union of Yin and Yang integrate the balanced things in the cosmos into a harmonious whole and the human is the center of the cosmos. So from Yin and Yang derived the concepts of the heavens, the earth (the earth being Yin and the heavens being Yang) and the human, which are related and react with one another in a profound and mysterious way. It is held that there is a spiritual connection among the three, which manifest itself in the world phenomena. And the linear relation among the three is reciprocal in accordance with the view that life is a circle. This concept contributes to the continuous movement in drawing a line.

  Yin and Yang are quite general beliefs. When they are mirrored in the painting practice, an aesthetic belief arises that image paintings should be of simple style. The belief had taken shape at the start of line images and could only be realized by it.


  4. Chinese calligraphy and line images in painting

  Chinese paintings had the same origin as Chinese calligraphy, which could be attributed to historical and cultural causes. But the most important reason was both of them use the brush. First, the unique shape of a brush determines the unique way to hold it: raising the elbow and the wrist and holding the brush in four fingers. Second, this way to hold a brush contributes to the same technique in Chinese paintings or calligraphy which is to keep the hand in a vertical position and the brush tip at the center of the lines. Third, line images drawn or written in this way are the basic form of Chinese calligraphy and paintings. In light of this, the two indeed had the same origin. So the same way to hold and move the brush must unite the two artistic forms and corresponding aesthetic values, with the two developing and influencing each other.

  Calligraphy is an art of writing Chinese characters. Except the dot, all the other strokes in characters like horizontal and vertical strokes, slanting strokes to the right or left, loop or hook strokes are lines. Even the dot stroke conveys the charm of a line (Graphic 51)

  Caiyi (master in calligraphy, 132-192 AD) stated in his Nine calligraphy techniques: ‘the soft hair of brush may bring variations to characters or line images’. The soft hair contributes to the line images characteristic of Chinese culture. The art of calligraphy is in fact the art of lines, which possess the aesthetic value. Just as lines in calligraphy reveal the emotions and thoughts of the person writing it, so do lines in painting.

  Calligraphy and painting art share the same technique of writing or drawing line images and the same aesthetic standard to evaluate a line image, which explains the close relation between the two.

  5. Six aesthetic principles: the symbol of line image formation in the Chinese painting

  Xie He ( Chinese painter and painting theorist, 479—502 AD) summarized in Comments on paintings the six aesthetic principles from paintings before him, which later became the basic criteria of traditional Chinese paintings. The six principles are: likeness in spirit; using the brush to paint the outline of images; modeled on real objects; appropriate use of colors; mapping out the space; painting the real person and objects as well as imitating the old paintings. The core of the principles is likeness in spirit, which later developed into a philosophical concept and was more than an aesthetic principle.

  How could a painter achieve the likeness in spirit? According to Xie He, it could be achieved through the practice of the other principles including using the brush to paint the outline of images; modeled on real objects; appropriate use of colors and mapping out the space, etc. The third principle modeled on real objects is concerned with shaping, the fourth with coloring, and the fifth with the painting structure, all of which are about shaping of images. Then what is the point of the second principle using the brush to paint the outline of images? Obviously the principle is related to the technique of using the brush and stresses the importance of lines (the outline consisting of lines). Since the Wei and Jin Dynasties (220-420 AD), paintings were mainly in the form of baimiao (the line drawings in the traditional brush and ink style). The structure, facial expressions and looks of the painting object could only be expressed by the force, accuracy and thickness of lines. So it makes sense to put forward a principle which highlights line drawing, that is, the second principle. The principle is motivated by the painting brush and ranks the second in importance concerning the aesthetic standard of traditional paintings.

  With the development of painting practice, the principle using the brush to paint the outline of images began to take on new meanings and became an artistic feel ( incorporation of the outline of images and the painter’s artistic temperament) that is instilled into the line through his hand movement so that the line has force and looks vivid and lively. The line image like this does not only use the brush and corresponding technique to convey aesthetic beauty but an oriental spirit and charm.

  According to Xie He, likeness in spirit is the purpose of a painting, meaning paintings should carry the painter’s emotions and thoughts and the other five principles are ways to express images, among which using the brush to paint the outline of images is especially important. It is because painters first draw the outline of images before they apply other principles to make the image lively and vivid. For thousands of years, the Chinese painting and its technique have been developing and changing, but the six aesthetic principles which are used in evaluation of paintings have never changed.

  It is known that an artistic image should reveal the painter’s emotions and thoughts, but how? I think we should adopt the second principle using the brush to paint the outline of images to realize it. The second principle is the unique dialect that may express Chinese culture in the environment of the Chinese painting. Thanks for the technique of using the brush to paint the outline of images, painters could achieve the aesthetic purpose of likeness spirit. So the relation between the two principles is the first principle being the purpose of the second and the second being the way to fulfill it. In most cases they correspond to each other and are the two sides of the same coin. So mention of one will point to the other. We’ll regard the two principles temporarily as one here. As pointed out above, with the development of painting practice, using the brush to paint the outline of images was no longer a mere line drawing technique, but became an artistic feel, with more subjective elements in it. It is the union of the painting and the painter, in which the painter concentrates on the painting and the two integrate. Motivated by the brush and Chinese culture, it has been the ultimate purpose and aesthetic standard of the Chinese painting up to now. Its development as a painting technique enhances the national style of Chinese paintings. Structuring and pervading the whole Chinese painting system, it is also a clue for us to interpret the aesthetic beliefs in Chinese painting.

  (The paper is a shortened edition. The original book was published in 2012 by Wuhan University Press)

[Editor] 常霞