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Painting in Ming Dynasty (1368 AD - 1644AD)

History Overview

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, unrest grew within China against the alien invaders, the Mongols. Coupled with famine, unrelenting droughts, general revolts were brewing in all areas of China. Chiang-nan, an area south of the Yangtze River, was the heartland of a revolt movement that would lead to the overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty. Chu Yuan-chang, a former Buddhist monk, proclaimed himself as prince of an independent state in 1364, lead the revolt to dethrone the Yuan rulers and gave rise to a new dynasty: Ming, meaning enlightened. Chu Yuan-chang declared himself as Emperor of the new dynasty with the title: Hong Wu, meaning "vast military accomplishment".

Nanjing was established as the new capital and changed the Yuan's Dynasty's capital Dadu to Beiping ("north pacified"). Under Ming rule, the imperial ministries reported directly to the emperor rather than the Prime Minister as established in previous dynasties. Under the centralized regime, the emperor would supervise all functions of the ministries, otherwise, he would relegate his functions to the Inner Court and eunuchs. Such a system led to the abuse of power and neglect of good government.

The reign of the Emperor Xuande (1426-35) saw a re-establishment of good government to the Ming Court. Emperor Xuande was a talented artist and poet and he was the first Ming Emperor to patronize the arts extensively. The later Ming emperors allowed the state of internal and external affairs to deteriorate, which led to numerous peasant uprisings. In addition, frequent incursions by the Japanese on the coastal areas of China, and abusive eunuch powers, eventually lead to the demise of the Ming Court. Rebellions broke out in China and marauding forces from the north, the Manchus, finally put the end to the Ming era. The foreign invaders from Manchuria literally walked into Beijing and proclaimed the Qing Dynasty.

Art History

During the reign of the Ming, artists, scholars, poets were welcomed back to the imperial court. These new court painters were referred to as the "Ming Academy", though there were no organized body of artists. Though, the Ming artists only partially succeeded in re-capturing the greatness of the Song painters.

However, art theory and art criticism were abound in the Ming period. Dong Qichang (1555-1636), a painter, calligrapher, scholar and the most influential art critic of his time, classified the different styles of paintings into two schools: the Northern and the Southern school. The Northern school, the Zhe School, were characterized by professional artists; the Southern school, the Ma-Xia tradition, were dominated by the literati artists. Dong criticized the Northern tradition as being superficial and emphasized too much on fine detail that was characteristic of court painters. He praised the literati artists, who relied on brushwork to express personal insights into the paintings rather than to capture the likeness of the subject.

In the late 15th and early 16th century of the Ming era, produced several brilliant literati artists. Paintings took on new form and meaning. often, paintings symbolized moral values of society; paintings by Wen Zheng Ming (1470 - 1559) surpassed mere symbols but delved into the temperament of the artist's consciousness and mood.

Another notable artist was Chou Chen, whose work was credited (by most modern scholars) to the famous painting "Dreaming of Immortality in a Thatched Cottage", even though the handscroll painting was signed by his pupil Dang Yin. The drawing combined mastery of the brush strokes, composition, use of space, and grand illussion, seldom seen in post-Song painters. The painting told a story of a man who dreamed he had attained immortality through Daoist practices: the scholar asleep in his cottage atop a mountain, leaning on his desk. As the scroll unrolled further, he appeared in his dream, floating off to the land of the immortals -- the strong and detailed brush strokes dominating the scholar's real world, the ephemeral washes suspending his dream world.

Once again Chinese artists of the Ming period had proven that artistic brilliance could not be derived by techniques alone, but by the pure ingenuity of the artists' mind as proven in later periods.

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