How to Read Chinese Paintings

Maxwell K. Hearn’s How to Read Chinese Paintings (2008, Yale University Press) uses numerous paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to share the genre of scholar-official painting that many Westerners have enjoyed viewing without always knowing their symbolism. Subjects such as horses, bamboo, pine trees, and landscape paintings are familiar subjects yet their symbolism can invoke correct treatment of scholar-officials, resilience, loyalty and Taoism among others. Hearn writes that the Chinese words du hua, meaning “to read a painting,” typify the Chinese approach to unraveling the work of scholar-official painters.
Scholar-officials valued crisp calligraphy and monochrome painting that left no room to cover up errors with color; even shading was frowned upon. To become a Chinese scholar-official, one had to master calligraphy, history, and literary style in Confucian civil service examinations. The scholar-officials formed a cadre, from which painting practitioners, collectors, and critics were drawn, spanning centuries.

The scholar-official painters sought to capture a subject’s inner essence and its outer appearance by relying on line according to Hearn. Scholar-official painters used the inked brush to convey the “energy, life force, [and] spirit” of their subjects. An absolute mastery of calligraphy acquired beginning with copying standard characters in childhood and learning “running” and “cursive” scripts later in life along with “seal” scripts made it possible for scholar-officials to produce flawless landscapes in ink. The historical and artistic knowledge of scholar-officials allowed them to express criticism of an emperor just by adopting a particular style or historical subject.

Hearn writes that the scholar-official painters used the verb “to write” rather than “to paint” to distinguish themselves from craftsmen who painted. This preference for ink on paper contrasted with the style of court artists, who relied on color and illusionistic scenes. The objectives of court painters differed from those of scholar-official painters as well; court painters aimed to please the emperors. Hearn informs readers that the role of the scholar-official was to pass historical judgment through their “poetry, diaries, and commentaries.”

Hearn discusses forty of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Chinese scholar-official painting using detailed photography that reveals the sure brushstrokes that can evoke slowing dying trees, birds ready to take flight, and luxurious robes. The effect of the close-up photography through the book is akin to unrolling a silk scroll with a painting on it that invites you to lose yourself in contemplation. How to read Chinese Paintings also invites more than one reading and encourages viewers to not only evaluate a scholar-official painter’s technique, but to ask, “What is your lesson?”

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