The first paintings in China, during the Xia and Shang Dynasties, were pictures engraved on bronze. These continued into the Zhou Dynasty together with many wall paintings. Line drawings of figures on silk first appeared during the Warring States period and rich coloured silk paintings in the late Western Han Dynasty.
The invention of paper during the Eastern Han Dynasty led to a proliferation of paintings on paper. Two main styles emerged. A formal style which was fine continuous black lines filled in by colour washes which is still used today. The other style used sweeping brush strokes of different thicknesses and was a much looser, more expressionist style.
During the Southern and Northern Dynasties Chinese Buddhist art emerged and there are many Buddhist wallpaintings from this era. In the early 6th century shading, which probably came to China via the Silk Road from the Mediterranean region, changed the traditional flat colour wash style. It brought a new dimension enabling more lifelike as opposed to stylised pictures.
The earliest known landscape is from the Sui Dynasty (581-617 AD). The Tang Dynasty was considered a golden age in Chinese art, when people from many nations and religions flocked to China and produced many different styles of art. The general style was more relaxed with free-flowing brush strokes rather than formal lines. Innovative painters felt that colour was less important than the brush strokes and produced monochrome pictures while official court artists still used fine lines and bright colours. Flower and bird painting reached its prime during the Five Dynasties (907-60).
The Northern Song Dynasty brought in a sense of spatial awareness with the use of things such as mist or fading washes to create depth. Landscape paintings acquired a more dream-like atmosphere because of that. Emperor Hui Zong was a skilled artist himself and established the Song Imperial Painting Academy. Artists were taught to be able to earn a living in the Emperor’s style which was one of meticulous details, fine lines and light, multiple brush strokes (similar to Western Realism). They tended to use colour on silk. Opposed to the ‘Academy Style’ were the literati artists who painted for pleasure using one-movement brush strokes in a fairly loose form, similar to Impressionism. They used monochrome ink on paper and many of their paintings were of bamboo (a symbol of purity and endurance) and believed in the expression of thoughts and feelings. The Southern Song continued the same styles, but the scenery in the south was different and the wild and stark landscape was replaced by a gentler more intimate style which seemed almost mystical, often by the use of monochrome ink washes and spontaneous Daoist and Buddhist views of nature.