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Painting in Han Dynasty (205 BC - 220 AD)

History Overview

The son of Qin Shi Huang Di, Er Shi Huang Di was unable to hold on to his father's reign. Three years after the death of Qin Shi Huang, peasants revolted and overthrew the central government. A certain peasant, Liu Bang, who served as a minor official, managed to sway the peasants and neighbouring forces against the incumbent rulers. The defeat of the Qin left a vacuum at the top. Numerous rivals vied for the emperor's throne, but it was Liu Bang, through luck and through betrayal of his companion in arms Xiang Xu, succeeded in leading an army and conquered the valley of the Wei, the key to power.

Liu Bang inherited a centralized state and a powerful administrative system. Chang'an, town of the long quietude (modern Xi'an) became the capital. Liu Bang left the Confucian scholars to their devices to develop ideas, which would eventually have considerable influence on customs and government.

Han rule would last almost uninterrupted for four hundred years. It was during this period that many cultural traditions were established, which would survive to this day. The regional differences that existed during the Warring States period disappeared and gradually fused into what would be termed as Han culture.

Emergence of Painting as an Art Form

The Han established trade along the Silk Route through Central Asia, to Japan, Southeast Asia and as far as India. The Qin burned books and scholars, the Han encouraged learning and revived lost classics, which lead to the revival of Confucian and Daoist thoughts.

Both Confucian and Daoist philosophies shaped Han culture. And thus began the detailed record keeping of the history of China that would continue well into the early part of the twentieth century. Historical records were originally kept on silk and bamboo or on strips of wood. With the invention of paper around 105 A.D., during the Eastern Han Dynasty (23 A.D. - 220 A.D.); historical records were soon kept on this versatile medium. Paper lead to a proliferation of paintings during the Han period, and also lead to the development of calligraphy as an art form.

During the Han period, several styles of painting emerged. Formal orthodox style reflected the Confucian philosophy of the period: secular, clarity, non-overlapping, characterized by fine continuous black lines, with flat washes of color filling in between the borders. The orthodox style was to remain prevalent for many centuries, even to this day.

Another style mirrored the progression of calligraphy with sweeping brush strokes of varying thickness to convey the distinctive character of each subject as seen in "Gentlemen in Conversation". Han paintings had already transcended conceptual art; artists did not paint mere symbols or stereotypes, but had captured essence and spirit of the individuals in their paintings.

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