The T’ang period had been the golden age of Chinese poetry. It had witnessed an extraordinary outburst of religious fervor, and the overwhelming domination of Buddhism. It had, moreover, triumphantly re-established the unity of the empire and to the pride of intellectual activity it could add the pride of might and dominion. But the same cannot be said for the Sung period. From a political standpoint its history is one of cumulative disaster. Ancient China retreated by degrees before the thrusts of the barbarians, until the great thunderbolt of Genghis Khan’s conquest, reverberating with formidable echoes throughout all Asia, announced the approaching downfall of culture in the red dawn of a new era.

The Sung culture, totally different from that of the T’ang period, was, however, swept forward to its culmination. It would seem as if, under the menace of the barbarians, the mind had set for its goal the development of ideas embryonic in earlier work, formulating them in haste and arresting them finally in perfect yet sad images, in which the heights attained were haunted by the shadow of impending ruin.

Plate XI

Sung Period. Collection of R. Petrucci.

The dynasty opened with a classical reaction against new ideas and witnessed a return to Confucian philosophy, with its conception of the State. But centuries of history had not rolled by without effect. In the tenth and eleventh centuries the ancient writings were no longer understood with their original meaning. A whole series of philosophers, of whom the last is Chu Hsi (thirteenth century), had formulated a composite doctrine resulting in what might be called an official philosophy, which has dominated to the present day. Some bold spirits, however, opposed this reactionary codification, struggling in vain to give a positive and firm structure to the doomed empire. Their influence appears to have been considerable. Just as the old heterodox philosophy was being stifled by the dry and colorless metaphysics of the conservatives, it was awakened to new life by the painters, who gave it a stirring interpretation in their work.

The period of technical research was past. At first, with care and patience, forms had been determined by drawing. Color had remained a thing apart, regarded as a work of illumination and quite distinct from drawing. Then study was extended still further. Color came to be viewed in the light of shades and tones and became one of the means for the expression of form; it became the very drawing itself,—that which reveals the basic structure.

Wang Wei represents the moment when art, emancipating itself from problems already solved, had conquered every medium of expression. Such is the tradition which he bequeathed to the Sung artists, who were destined to add thereto such supreme masterpieces.

The Sung painters were haunted by the old philosophical beliefs as to the formation of the universe. Beyond the actual surroundings they dimly perceived a magic world made up of perfect forms. Appearances were but the visible covering of the two great principles whose combination engendered life. They believed that, in painting, they did more than to reproduce the external form of things. They labored with the conviction that they were wresting the soul from objects, in order to transfer it to the painted silk. Thus they created something new, an imaginary world more beautiful than the real world, wherein the intimate relation of beings and things was disclosed,—a world pervaded by pure spirit and one which was revealed only to those whose thought was sufficiently enlightened, and whose sympathies were sufficiently broad, to understand and to be stirred.

The painters of the line of Wang Wei during the Sung period, devoted themselves chiefly to the development of painting in monochrome. They pursued the study of relations of tones and values of shading up to the limit of extreme delicacy, and if they mingled color at all with their subtle evocations, it was with a feeling of unequalled restraint. They dwelt for the most part in intimacy with Nature. Fleeing from the cares of court and city, they retired into mountain solitudes, meditating for long periods before taking up the brush to paint. Thus they portrayed those mountains enveloped in mists, wherein was revealed the harmony of the two principles which control the universe. From the depths of valleys misty vapors arose and cedars and gigantic pines reared their majestic forms, while, on the threshold of a thatched cabin upon some rocky plateau, a hermit deep in meditation contemplated the vast expanse of a landscape of august grandeur.

Plate XII

By Chao Mêng-fu. Yüan Period. Doucet Collection.