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Before the Song dynasty, painters at court were skilled artisans whose talents were called upon to complete the decorative schemes of palaces, much the way painters helped decorate aristocratic homes and temples.

When the Song defeated their rivals they also took over their court artists, who included some experts in bird and flower painting. Then, during the Northern Song, and especially during the reign of Emperor Huizong (r. 1100-1125), the standing of court painters was raised. The court painting academy became an educational institution where court painters were ranked, tested, and rewarded similar as to civil service officials.

In the great catalog of the collection of Emperor Huizong - the Hsuan-ho-hua-pu whose preface is dated 1120, the paintings are divided into ten different groups, giving us both a rough indication of their importance and also a chronology for their appearance in Chinese art.

The ranking is also graded in their moral importance since the opinion has alwas been that paintings is either useful and educational, or worthless not to say subversive. Of the around 6,400 paintings flower and bird paintings made up about half the collection while almost the remaining half was split even between Daoist and Buddhist painings and, landscapes.

The groups are the following:

  1. Daoshih - Daoist, Buddhist and Confutian religious or philosophical art, including depictions of Gods.
  2. Renwu - Humans, ancient rulers and legendary heroes.
  3. Gongshih - Palaces and other buildings.
  4. Fantze - Foreign tribes.
  5. Longyu - Dragons and fishes.
  6. Shanshui - Landscape. Literally 'mountains' (Shan) and 'waters' (Shui)
  7. Chushou - Animals, popular from Tang.
  8. Huaniao - Flower and bird painting. Literally 'flowers' (Hua) and 'birds' (Niao).
  9. Mochu - Bamboo in ink.
  10. Sukuo - Vegetables and fruits.

Beginning in Huizong's reign, court painters were expected to be able to couple painting and poetry. Courtly styles throughout the Song and Yuan period were characterized by technical finesse and close observation. Court artists spent part of their time copying old masterpieces, a practice that served the practical purposes of preserving compositions but also helped maintain high technical standards. Throughout the Southern Song exacting depiction of nature was appreciated at court.

Scholars, on the other hand, during the middle of the Northern Song, began to take up painting as one of the arts of the gentleman, as means for self expression. Brushwork in painting, by analogy to brushwork in calligraphy, was believed to express a person's moral character. Their style was more individualistic, less refined and easier to master by those already familiar with the brush from calligraphy. Some even felt that the attempt to capture appearance was beneath the scholar. Paintings should be understated, not flashy. Figures done with a thin pecilled line, rather than a modulated one, were considered plainer and more suitable for scholar painters.

During the years of Mongol rule in the Yuan dynasty, court sponsorship of painting continued, but at nowhere near the levels of the previous dynasty.

A few tips on how to judge the quality of any Chinese painting:

Chinese freehand painting is mostly about its lines, less on perspective and shading as in a Western painting. The commonly used expression to describe a bad Chinese painting is "fuzao" (impetuous) i.e., the painter tries to be swift but has no control over the lines. A good painting usually has longer lines that flow smoothly in intended directions like water. The bad one has shorter lines that are jerky and wild, flawed with joints, of uneven thickness and painted over to cover badly drawn lines. Now, this is before we even look at the proportion and expression of any drawn figures. A good way to train your eyes is to put any painting next to a good one and look for the differences mentioned above. After a while, you will be able to tell them apart from afar.

See also Painting terms, Qianjiang