T-shaped painting on silk

The painting on a T-shaped silk banner was unearthed from a 2,000-year-old tomb in southern China, revealing the ethereal beauty of exquisite line drawing.


ZHANG Yanyuan (815-907 AD), a renowned painter and art critic from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), once said that traditional Chinese painting is all about lines.

“Without lines, it won’t be a painting,” he asserted.


Nearly all Chinese artists, ancient or contemporary, would probably agree.



The oldest Chinese paintings were nearly all composed of lines drawn on rocks, pottery, bronze ware and other handicrafts. And before Cai Lun (circa AD 61-121) invented paper, Chinese artists also painted on another popular material in the country, namely, silk.

In April 1972, the painting on a T-shaped silk banner was unearthed from a 2,000-year-old tomb in southern China, shedding new light on this special genre of Chinese painting and revealing the ethereal beauty of exquisite line drawing.

Archaeologists found the silk banner draped on an inner coffin in one of the tombs at Mawangdui near Changsha, capital of southern China’s Hunan Province. They were awed by the dazzling color and the fine lines used to draw a painting on the banner.

Since then, the painting has been hailed by Chinese artists and art critics as one of the earliest masterpieces featuring gongbi zhongcai, or fine-brush with heavy color.

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Archaeologists found the silk banner draped on an inner coffin in one of the tombs at Mawangdui in 1972.


The banner is 205 centimeters long, 92 centimeters wide at top and 47.7 centimeters at bottom. It looks like an ancient Chinese dress with long sleeves.


The painting features motifs representative of the cosmos and afterlife. The top horizontal section depicts the heavens and features several legendary figures in Chinese mythology, such as Nuwa, the Goddess who made man and Chang’e, a lonely woman who lives on the moon.

Heaven

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The top horizontal section depicts the heavens and features several legendary figures from Chinese mythology, such as Nuwa, the Goddess who made man.

Earth

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The middle part represents the Earth and portrays the journey of the diseased (middle) into Heaven.


The top part of the vertical section of the painting represents the Earth and portrays scenes of a funeral, with family members offering sacrifices to help the diseased on the journey to heaven.


The bottom part of the vertical section illustrates the underworld with another legendary figure, Gun, a chieftain who once snuck into heaven and stole a lump of magic soil to stop a 22-year-long deluge on the earth.

Underworld

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The bottom illustrates the underworld, with another legendary figure, Gun, riding a mythological sea creature and holding a white platform which represents the Earth. Ancient Chinese believed the earth was a flat piece of ground floating on the ocean.


The painting also contains some chimerical creatures, such as dragons, divine leopards and those with human bodies and beast’s heads.

In addition to the legendary figures and creatures, there are also a number of real world animals and plants, such as cranes, swan geese, toads, rabbits and various trees.


Modern scholars and artists believe the painting was jointly created by several craftsmen with consummate painting skills. They say the composition, the brush drill and coloring of the painting demonstrate that Chinese brush painting had already reached a very high level in the early years of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220 ).


Artists at that time had not only mastered the traditional techniques of brush painting, but also invented a number of new ones. For instance: the exquisite line drawing and application of enriched colors.

The line drawing skill used in the painting later evolved into the so-called yousi miao or “silkthread drawing” technique, which was first employed by Gu Kaizhi (circa AD 345-406), widely considered the father of classical Chinese figure painting.


The “silkthread” technique was widely used in the following centuries for drawing thin, smooth and flowing lines with classic suave elegance.


No wonder, the painting on the T-shaped silk banner is widely regarded as a milestone in the development of traditional Chinese painting.


Today, the painting is a prized piece in the collection of the Hunan Provincial Museum, in the southern China province where it was discovered more than four decades ago.

Artist: Anonymous

Year: Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220)

Type: Ink and color on silk

Dimensions: 92 cm × 205 cm

Location: Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsha



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