Silk painting is an ancient art form in China, beginning as early as 476 B.C., when artisans in the imperial court began carefully painting Chinese calligraphy characters on silk scrolls. At that time, calligraphy was thought to be the highest and purest form of painting, and over the years the art developed to include human figures and depict religious and mythological characters as well as forms from nature. Silk paintings were exclusive to China for centuries and this prominence lasted until the advent of paper as the preferred artistic surface.
Scholars believe that Chinese silk painting emerged during what historians call the Warring States Period (403 to 221 B.C.) and reached its peak in the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 25 A.D.). The earliest Chinese silk paintings were unearthed from tombs, leading Chinese art experts to believe silk paintings played some part in the funeral service, perhaps as banners carried in the burial processional, and were then placed within the tomb to protect the dead or help their souls ascend to paradise.
The earliest examples of silk paintings were unearthed from a tomb in Changsha City in central China's Hunan Province in 1949, a structure believed to have been built between 476 and 221 B.C. Two such works include "Lady, Dragon and Phoenix" and "Man Driving the Dragon." The first depicted stories about the deceased in the tomb. Its black and white colours are said to represent the contrast between truth and lies, movement and stillness, according to chinaculture.org. The second shows a bearded man in a robe with a dragon next to him and a white bird standing on his tail, which is said to represent the fact that the deceased was a nobleman.
Another example of Chinese silk painting was discovered in a tomb from a later period, the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), also in Changsha City. The T-shaped painting contains three parts, said to represent heaven, world and hell. According to chinaculture.com, the heaven painting is a horizontal scroll, while the others are vertical, an arrangement meant to help the deceased ascend to heaven.
How the Art Developed
It is believed that the Chinese introduced silk painting around 2600 B.C.--well before paper was invented--and the art remained exclusive to China until 1000 A.D., when silk became a highly coveted trading commodity and the art spread across Asia and Europe.
Silk painting in China developed in the imperial courts, according to chinavista.com, where aristocrats and scholars perfected the technique using a brush pen made of animal hair and black ink made from pine soot and animal glue.
Silk was chosen as an artistic surface not only because of its soft, luxurious feel, but also for its practicality. Silk is light, easy to cut into any desired shape and size and is convenient to carry. Chinese artisans prepared the silk for painting by beating it on a stone slab until the surface became very smooth. After the silk was prepared, the colour pigments or ink tones were applied slowly and carefully.
Originally, silk paintings had religious or mythological themes. Later on, Chinese calligraphy symbols became popular as the silk paintings were used as wall ornaments. Today, according to chinesepaintingsexpo.com, favourite Chinese silk painting subjects include horses, bamboo, flowers and birds. Chinese calligraphy paintings also remain popular today. In this type of painting, the artist combines a painting and sometimes a poem on the silk canvas. Alternatively, the artist could paint a dragon and write the Chinese calligraphy symbol for the dragon next to it.
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