"Chinese painting, specifically painting with ink or watercolors, has a different perspective from the way Western artists create images," said my friend Ting Ting. She's a professional editor and she loves classical Chinese art. Ting Ting often invites me to attend gallery openings around Beijing.
"Yes," I replied, "I was struck not only by the colors, but also by the way the artists depicted nature and animals. But none of the pictures contained human forms—why?"
"For many Chinese artists, painting the human form is not appealing—it does not reflect the spirit of the artist, or carry out the tradition of Chinese painting. People are only a small part of the whole surrounding Heaven and Earth, so it's better to contemplate nature, and show everything in harmony, rather than focusing on an individual. Chinese compositions, for this reason, may seem unusual to Western eyes. If you look carefully, however, you'll see how the artist seeks balance and peace."
"But I have seen earlier watercolors, from the 19th century, that depicted humans, and even portraits," I protested.
"Yes, indeed," Ting Ting said. "Many of those were made for profitable export. They were painted on pith, a special material made from the tissue of wild trees (Tetrapanax Papyrifera) that grows in south China. Pith was accessible because the material required no special processing after it was cut and dried to make art paper. The material's cell structure allowed gouache (watercolor paint) to sit on the surface without spreading. With gouache, artists achieved great delicacy and detail, almost like embroidery. In contrast, watercolor washes were difficult to apply. I'm wandering: You wanted to know about portraits and people…"
"The subjects we just saw in Beijing were animals and nature, but the exhibit I visited in London last year contained only females, with stylized and unreal faces," I said. "They even looked slightly Western, with bigger eyes and rosebud lips; that sort of thing."
"Chinese exported watercolors," Ting Ting explained. "They were sold to sea captains and foreign company managers in the 1800s. These Chinese artists sought to please their patrons: Foreign tastes meant changing traditional Chinese aesthetics of female beauty."
"Unlike traditional Chinese female beauty equating with oval faces and white skin," I said.
"Yes, pink-cheeked ladies aren't beautiful for the Chinese, as they are for the Britons," Ting Ting agreed. "But female portraits were painted for Chinese pleasure as well. Usually the subjects were royalty—so these faces always had no imperfections. They were stylized, just as European court painting had stylized features. Sometimes artists received commissions to paint lovely ladies wandering in natural settings. For example, in the early 1700s, Prince Yinzhen, the future Yongzheng Emperor, had a folding screen of 12 panes made for his pleasure. This screen contained 12 beauties, each alone in nature, looking pensive and innocent. They were what we call meiren—idealized beauties who served to give aesthetic pleasure to men. After he became emperor, he discarded this watercolor screen, and went on to more serious pursuits."
"Kaiser Franz I bought a set of 12 watercolors from Edward Watts, a British diplomat in China during the 1820s. His set of paintings also had 12 beauties, all desirable young women at leisure in natural surroundings," I said.
"But they do not have the same sensitivity as the women in the emperor's screen," replied Ting Ting." The Kaiser's pictures show women playing musical instruments, painting, embroidering—even drinking wine and smoking a pipe. Obviously, these ladies had loose morals—ladies of the night who traveled on 'flower boats' along the Pearl River in south China. The paintings reflect the coarser tastes of Western men, as opposed to the refined tastes of Chinese men, at least during that period of time."
"Western ideals for women were and still are very different from the Chinese ideals," I said.
"You are correct," Ting Ting said. "Just as the aesthetics in painting are very different, then and now. But you must not think that Chinese artists only use stylized forms for the human face. The terracotta warriors created 2,000 years ago display remarkable care in how Chinese artists sought to differentiate faces. It is the same on scrolls of the 18th century imperial processions. Chinese society is more group oriented than Western society; that does not mean that Chinese people hold less value for the individual. It just means, in art as in life, Chinese have a different perspective. By studying our art you can learn more about Chinese culture."
The writer is an American and lives in Beijing