Amongst the Four Gentlemen Plants and the Three Friends of the Winter, bamboo is one of the overlapping images. These groupings are both collections of symbolic flowers and plants that represent a certain characteristic that men admire. Bamboo, 竹 (zhu) in Chinese, is rather special, in the various ancient painting theories it has also been listed as an independent subject, demonstrating its significance in society and in people’s heart.

bamboo grass

Even though common, bamboo is loaded with cultural notions, and in the mind of the literati scholars, bamboo could never be replaced. One of the most famous scholars of the Song Dynasty, Su Dongpo, once wrote (I attempt to translate here): not eating meat will make people thin, but not having bamboo will make people vulgar. It is easy to gain weight again, but there is no cure for vulgarity. Harsh as it sounds, the message is loud and clear – to maintain elegance, one has to be surrounded by bamboo and bamboo like people. What kind of people are these?

Bamboo was given characteristics and personalities that resemble the most virtuous people. In fact people in the eastern societies love learning from various aspects of nature, including flowers and plants. Bamboo is seen to be shooting straight into the sky, never bending. It is gentleman like, standing with integrity and behaving courteously. Bamboo has joints, in Chinese these joints are called “节” (jie), also referring to integrity and a positive energy. Bamboo stays green in colder seasons, a reflection of its perseverance. Bamboo is hollow on the inside, a sign of modesty and broad-mindedness. Bamboo is tidy, clean, and elegant, giving people the impression that it is honest. There are more aspects but you get the idea, all these above mentioned characteristics can be human traits, and when somebody has all these qualities in him or herself, this person must be a good model from whom the others should learn.

Bamboo, Zheng Banqiao

The practice of comparing people with bamboo started already in the early Qin Dynasty ( -221BC). The great philosopher Zhuang Zi (369BC-286BC) in his articles wrote the baby phoenix fed on bamboo fruit only, unintentionally gave the reputation of bamboo a boost, because the phoenix is an elegant bird, and therefore the food it eats has to be elegant too. The connection between literati scholars, the social elites, and bamboo was reinforced in the periods leading up to the Tang Dynasty. The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove was formed in the 3rd Century, composing of scholars of literature, writers, and musicians. These people resided in the town known for its bamboo forest (no concrete proof), and therefore came the name of the group. These scholars expressed themselves in inferred ways, using symbolism, comparison, or myth to tell the world in an ironic way that they were frustrated towards the system and crude ruling.

In the collection of Tang Poetry (全唐诗) of the alleged 49,403 (some poems are considered not genuine) poems, the bamboo as a single subject covered 1,000 of them, a rather significant number. Most poets used the image of bamboo to express their admiration of its qualities, every single one mentioned above.

Bamboo, Wen Tong

The Song Dynasty was the most prosperous time of bamboo culture, and painting accompanied poetry had became a common method of expression. One of the most noteworthy artists of the time was Wen Tong, who was known to be able to paint two differently shaded bamboo using both hands simultaneously. The tradition of bamboo painting lasted until today, and as Ni Zan (a great Yuan Dynasty painter) said, my bamboo painting may not look like the real one, but so what? I paint bamboo as an outlet, and I cannot care less about whether it is straight, bent, or whether the leaves are prosperous. I think Ni has indeed captured the true essence of the bamboo spirit after all.

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A parallel universe of the Chinese Painting

Have you also considered certainty in our universe that is filled with randomness? Ok, let us narrow it down, what about the development of the Chinese painting or the so called Sumi-e painting? What would happen if the universe took a different turn concerning the oriental art? I suppose there is at least one scenario, issuing from the rock painting.

The rock painting means exactly as it sounds, and it was born in the pre-historical times when ancient ancestors of ours painted animals, figures and tools on the surface of caves. It experienced a glorious development during the Sui and Tang Dynasty (6th Century), and the evidences are clearly visible today, such as in the Dunhuang frescoes (see the gorgeous example blow), dating back as far as the year 336. Located in the western side of China, along the silk road, these paintings contained the wisdom of many ancient civilizations. This was also the type of painting that went all the way to Japan, deeply influencing its artistic taste. In China however, the rock painting encountered an overwhelming crush from the later water-ink painting and the literati-scholar art, and the techniques of rock painting were almost completely lost in the course of history. In Japan however, after its initial introduction in the 6th Century, it reached a peak during the 9th Century, manifesting into a rather Japanese style of painting, which led to the Yamato-e. Unfortunately in China, it was rarely seen anymore until recent years.

Dunhuang Murals, photo from the internet
Yamato-e, photo from the internet

The truth is, the usaeg of color of this ancient painting style still lives on in our so called “traditional Chinese Painting”, especially in the Gongbi style. The Gongbi painting also requires color pigments that are rock based. In the rock painting the majority of colors used came from minerals, and some others are chemically made. Some of the particularly beautiful colors such as Azurite (石青), Malachite Green (石绿), Orpiment (雌黄), Cinnabar (朱砂), Ocher (赭石) are still in our daily painting use, where the traditional craftsmen of the high-quality painting colors continued using traditional ways to refine these colors.

However these rock colors could not be mixed to create a new color due to the large grains, even the very fine modern versions. Also, the rock painting color pigments are not transparent, and the less fine pigments would create rough textures on the surface of the artwork, deeming it not desirable in the Gongbi painting, which strives for silk like smoothness.

Azurite ore, photo from the internet

So what would happen if the rock painting continued to influence the Chinese painting without interruption? I imagine the oriental painting materials would be completely different from today. Suppose the mineral paints could be refined at will, the surfaces used to paint on (paper or silk) may not exactly complement the purpose. Delicate paper or silk would be wasted to bear the thick layers of color above it, whereas thicker and less fine surfaces may fit better. The content of the painting may not change but the scale may. The Gongbi art is usually small with great details, thanks to the fine surface and the fine color; art such as Thangka would demand a much larger scale. Perhaps the painting brushes need changing as well, the delicate animals hairs may not be able to sustain the overwhelming rock paints, so perhaps the synthetic hair brushes or even tough hair brushes would be more popular. Also the plant based painting colors may never be developed, simply because these colors will not last as permanently as the mineral colors. Last but not least, ink may never be developed, and therefore, no ink stones.

I think I will be sad to not having silk like papers and silk to paint, not being able to paint in a smaller scale, and not to have the plant based color variations to use. In addition to all the above, I would miss the simplicity of painting using only ink. So in summary, continuing on this path may lead to the disappearance of all the treasures of the scholar’s chamber that we all love (brush, ink, paper, and ink stone), wow, I would be really sad.

Thangka, photo from the internet

History cannot be assumed, but after this thought experiment I do appreciate the various branches of the oriental art more. I love the fact that the ancient rock painting is not the dominate artistic expression any longer, but we are fortunate enough to still be able to enjoy this ancient art style and be able to paint in that way. What do you think?

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Introduction to Chinese Calligraphy

I am excited to announce to you that you can now subscribe to our membership to follow in-depth art learning! In the various tiers of the memberships you can receive different awards that are exclusive. One of the projects involve the creation of art syllabus, where I interpret original and important contents from books written in Chinese (such as art theories) and edit related comments and add related images to provide you with simple to understand yet applicable information. There will also be tutorials and audios, providing you with as many perspectives of the oriental art as possible. Below is a sample of our downloadable resource that introduces you to the Chinese Calligraphy.

Each country has its unique scripts, and calligraphy refers to the law of construction of each of the components within these scripts. The calligraphy is a representation of the civilization, when the law of writing wanes, the country cannot be strong. The Chinese education started in the Zhou Dynasty (around 1100BC-771BC). At that time one enters elementary school at the age of 8, and the young pupils study the “six basic skills”, including courtesy, music, archery, driving, calligraphy and mathematic.

The origin story of the Chinese characters is rather legendary. An official (some say a tribe leader) of the Huang Di period (primitive society) Cang Jie (仓颉) was considered the creator of the Chinese characters. He was born with four eyes and great wisdom, allowing him to observe the paw prints of various birds, shell patterns of turtles, landscapes of mountains and waters, palm prints, and analyze the movements of the stars, therefore abandoning the recording of events by tying knots, and creating writing systems. This is a hieroglyph system mainly based on the images of an object, but it has 6 variations and categories. This system has been used since its creation until today. The script that was created during this time was used called Seal Script (篆书), used for over 2,000 years, until the Qin Dynasty (221BC-207BC) unification, where the small seal script was put to use.

Stone tablet with writings created by Cangjie

One of the reasons for the creation of small seal script was due to the burning of ancient books during the Qin Dynasty. So scholars such as Li Si (李斯) created the small seal script. Around the same period, the Official Script was also formed, facilitating the convenience of writing. Cheng Miao (程邈) was known to be the creator of the official script, marking one of the major transformations of the Chinese writing systems. Today both scripts are alive.

Since the Han Dynasty (202BC-220) the national official examinations included calligraphy as one of the test parameters. These calligraphy scripts included both Seal and Official Scripts and other smaller scripts from the Qin Dynasty (8 in total). In the Tang Dynasty (618-907) an official position was set up for master calligraphers.

Han and Jin (226-420) Dynasties gave birth to 3 more important scripts, the Standard Script (楷书) and 2 Cursive Scripts (行书、草书). The Jin Dynasty in particular was known for its achievements in the calligraphy, but the later periods including Tang and Song (960-1279) Dynasties both produced many great masters. These 3 later scripts are all much more convenient to use than any ancient scripts, which produced another major transformation of the writing system that influences us until today.

Chun Hua Ge Tie

The Yuan Dynasty (1721-1368) introduced Mongolian culture and new scripts into the Chinese land, but the mainstream practitioners continued with tradition. Since the late Tang Dynasty the most important calligraphy “text books” have been carved onto stone or wooden tablets, making it possible to study by later period scholars. The most notable one is called Chun Hua Ge Tie (淳化阁帖), known as the earliest collection of various calligraphers made in such way. There were 10 scrolls in total, collecting over 1,000 years of 420 art pieces from 103 artists and emperors. There are rubbing editions from various periods and a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) edition even surfaced in an audition in 2019.

Stone tablet

In the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) the study of stone tablet rubbing scripts from the past became a popular trend, the scholars of this time both went into tradition and strived for innovation. It is unknown where the Chinese calligraphy will go from here on, but it is extremely fortunate that these scripts are still available and being studied today.

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About “autumn”

In the Northern hemisphere we are embracing the autumn already. Autumn is such a pretty season, it is full of colours and is inspiring for people who love painting or photography. I certainly enjoy this period of time a lot, and I secretly love the European autumn more, because it lasts so much longer than in my hometown! In the Chinese language, the character for autumn has some interesting stories to tell, would you like to find out about its origin?

The character of autumn is “秋”, which is a character that has the “crop” on the left side and “fire” on the right. But this is only how we see it today, in the long historical evolution this character has actually changed a whole lot!

Autumn landscape, Fiona Sheng

In the beginning, autumn had to do with crickets or grasshoppers (the first two examples on the left side). We can clearly see how this character used to look like in the oracle bone script below. Obviously there were various ways of writing this character in this script, but they all resemble this general shape of a bug, with the tentacles on the head and some legs on the left. Also the field in the ancient time needed rest before the next planting session, which requires burning, and “fire” became a necessary component in this character, but the bug side slowly evolved and disappeared. Some theories say that the fire was also used to kill the grasshoppers that eat crops, but either way, a new component meaning “crop” started to appear in this character.

In the Spring and Autumn period this character started to take on a “turtle” side (see the example below on the far right side), rendering it too complicated to write. The various components of this character change location occasionally, but the character does not change in the meaning.

Since the union of Chinese calligraphy in the Qin Dynasty, the character of autumn started to be regulated to having two components only, the “crop” and the “fire” (see the example below on the left side). Although these two components also switch location from time to time for a long duration since then. The other two examples below shows some other variation of the Jinwen, another ancient style of script before the Qin Dynasty.

Now this character of autumn has been clearly determined to be written this exact way “秋”, however in Chinese calligraphy the two sides may still switch, for artistic purposes mostly. How do you like the final version of the character of autumn? Would you miss the bugs inside?

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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The circular culture

Tomorrow will be the Mid-Autumn Day, also known as the Mooncake Festival, so happy Mooncake Festival everybody! This is the time of family union, and in this post let us follow the tradition and gather around to admire the moon above us, have a cup of tea while eating some nice food as we talk, shall we?

A long long time ago in the East far far away, there were a group of people who loved round things. The ancient oriental belief systems held a deeply-rooted belief that stated “the sky is dome and the earth is square”. As the very first root of a giant cultural tree, this belief has its extensions and applications consciously or subconsciously in almost every single branch that developed from this tree. So the notion of “round” equals “fulfilment” and “complete” took root in all the children and children’s children’s hearts of this cultural sphere until this very day.

Weekend Sale

This weekend as a celebration, our Bunny in the red leaves Round Wall Art (canvas print) will be on sale, you will receive 10% off over ONLY this weekend, and there are ONLY 3 prints available. Come quick!

Remember the bunnies and the moon? If not, come to our live streams to find out!

The circle not only represents the heavens, it also since the start of the oriental culture represented change and reincarnation. Just like in the theory of Yin Yang, where the world moves following certain regulations, and the wax and wane of all matters are normal. Events also evolve in a similar manner, where history eventually repeats itself, starting from the beginning. Perhaps gazing up into the night sky at the moon inspired a few great minds? We can only guess, but the oriental wisdom has a way to regulate the extremes and normalise our lives for us.

The application of round and circular shape is definitely seen everywhere, starting from architecture. You must have seen at least some images of the round shapes used in the traditional architecture, such as windows, doors, bridges, and sometimes even entire buildings. The shape feel safe, harmonious, comforting and pleasing, our sentiments towards it may have been carried in our genes.

Round window, photo from the internet
Round door, photo from the internet
Bridge, photo from the internet
Round building 土楼, photo from the internet

In the smaller cultural aspects of our lives there are ubiquitous round shapes too. The Chinese chess, ancient and modern coins, traditional plates, bowls, and jewelries, in all these objects the most common shape is round. In the oriental art, the best lines are never either round or sharp, we say there has to be edges in the roundness and in the roundness there has to be holding structures. Below is a fragment of a calligraphy piece written by one of the most important artists of the Cursive Script, where such lines are clearly visible. Even though you do not understand what has been written, nor do many Chinese people who has not been trained in such arts, you must be able to appreciate the flow, the harmony, and the emotion – we see round shapes everywhere yet nowhere, a true masterpiece.

Cursive Script, Zhang Xu, Tang Dynasty

Finally I would like to introduce you a rather important round object, the mooncake. We started the discussion from the Mid-Autumn Day, and on this day if you can find a Chinese store normally you can get a piece of mooncake. They are round and golden, just like the full moon on this very night. They are rather tasty, but do not have too much of it in one go, they contain quite a lot of sugar and oil. Although there are many healthier versions, and you can find many types of stuffings, some sweet, some savoury. Enjoy!

Egg Mooncake, photo from the internet

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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Signature in an artwork

We know that the oriental artworks are often a combination of the painting, calligraphy, poetry and seals. When looking at a piece of painting, it will be clear that the main part of the painting is the images, but it will not be so clear when looking at the calligraphy on the artworks – we cannot identify the function of these characters directly without certain background knowledge, because some many be the title, some may be a poem, and others may be the signature. Let us focus on the signature today, and after this post you will know more about signing your own works!

Flower Bird Painting, Fiona Sheng

Above is an artwork I recently created, and on the top left side there is a line of writing that consists of the title and the signature. The simple way to tell the title and the signature apart would be by the size of them. The larger characters are usually the title, which is followed by the signature. Sometimes the title and signature section go horizontally, and in which case it is important to know how to read (assuming you can read Chinese characters) them.

Traditionally the writings follow the direction of Top-Bottom, Right-Left. So when reading the writings on a piece of oriental artwork, ancient and modern, the correct starting point would be the most top right side. In the past book pages also follow this order, which is still the case nowadays in Japanese manga! Even though in the modern Chinese texts the writing direction has switched to the same as in English, the traditional art still follow the traditional ways, so the characters are written in the old direction and in traditional Chinese characters, not the simplified ones.

Calligraphy, Qi Gong, Photo from the internet

Focusing on the signature alone, it is normal to only have the name written down, which can often be 1-4 characters long, and sometimes we add a character “書” behind it, meaning “xxx wrote”, but this character alone means both to write and the word for book. Other than signing short names, it is also very common to sign the purpose of the artwork or the year before the name. In the first painting in this post, you can see the title-year-name style, and in the photo above it states the purpose and then the name. This way the length and meaning of the signature is adjustable, fitting to the artwork.

When signing with the year, which is the most common signature style, the year should be signed in the traditional way, which means instead of writing “2022”, we write “壬寅年” instead, the way it was supposed to be in the Stem-Branches or Ganzhi system, also known as the sexagenary cycle. This is an ancient and long-surviving recording system that was common in the Eastern Asia, but its application can barely be seen other than in artworks anymore. As stated in the name of this system, it repeats every 60 years, and that means the same name of the year comes back once every 60 years.

Flower Bird Painting, Song Hui Zong, (example of a very short signature)

So how do we get the 60 year cycle? We have 10 stems and 12 branches, and we match them according to certain orders. These heavenly stems, written as 甲乙丙丁戊己庚辛壬癸, their functions are just like numbers 1-10, indicating an order; the earthly branches are animals, the same animals for the zodiacs, and they are 子丑寅卯辰巳午未申酉戌亥, each referring to an animal. It is worth noting that these character cannot be used to refer to the animal directly, they are associated to the animals only. Every other character from the top line matches with every other character from the bottom line, and then we have the complete chart of exactly 60 matchings:


One day I will show you have to write them in correct calligraphy, but for now if you need to sign your work, you have some notes to help!

Enjoy such cultural discussions? Have comments? I look forward to hearing from you!

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