The bas-reliefs of the Han dynasty are almost all comprised in the sculptured stone slabs embellishing mortuary chambers and of these the artistic merit is most unequal. [4] Their technique is primitive. It consists in making the contours of figures by cutting away the stone in grooves with softened angles, leaving the figure in silhouette. Engraved lines complete the drawing.

The subjects are sometimes mythical and sometimes legendary. There are representations of divinities, fabulous animals, scenes of war and of the chase and processions of people bearing tribute. At times the great compositions display imposing spectacles, a luxurious and refined array. Now and then attempts at pictorial perspective are joined to some unrelated scene.

All this is in direct conflict with the technique of bas-reliefs and leads to the surmise that the models were drawn by painters and copied with more or less skill by makers of funeral monuments.

Plate VI

T’ang Period. Collection of R. Petrucci.

This impression is confirmed if certain carved slabs are compared with a painting by Ku K’ai-chih, of which we can judge by means of a copy made in the Sung period. [5] One of the scenes of this long scroll leaves no possible misapprehension as to the pictorial origin of the Han bas-reliefs. Its subject, a river god on a chariot drawn by dragons, is similar in composition to the models used by the artisans of the third century.

We have, however, better testimony than a copy made at a later period. The British Museum, in London, is the owner of a painting attributed to Ku K’ai-chih. The reasons impelling us to believe in its authenticity are weighty, almost indisputable. [6] [B] We therefore accept it here and will endeavor to define the work of one of the greatest painters of China in the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century.

The painted scenes are inspired by a work of the third century containing admonitions addressed to the ladies of the imperial palace. The striking characteristics of these compositions are the lightness and delicacy of style, the poetry of the attitudes and the supreme elegance of the forms. Heavy black tresses frame the ivory faces with refined and subtle charm. The voluptuous caprice of garments in long floating folds, the extreme perfection of the figures and the grace of gestures make this painting a thing of unique beauty. Only through the cultivation of centuries could such spiritual insight be attained.

If the copy from the collection of Tuan Fang recalls the bas-reliefs of the Han period, the painting in the British Museum is related to the bas-reliefs of Long-men, which date from the seventh century and of which M. Chavannes has published photographs. Therefore we may say that the style of Ku K’ai-chih exemplifies the distinctive features of Chinese painting at a period extending from the third to the seventh centuries. [7]

It should also be noted that toward the end of the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century, the painter and critic Hsieh Ho formulated the Six Canons [8] upon which the far-eastern code of Aesthetics is founded. These Canons introduce philosophical conceptions and technical knowledge which also presuppose long cultivation, for it is only after rules have been brought to reality in a work of art that they are formulated into a code. Therefore when Buddhism appeared in China it found there a native art whose value was proved beyond question by a long succession of masterpieces. After having exhausted every manifestation of strength and vigor, this art had arrived at expressions of extreme refinement and profound and appealing charm, closely verging on the disquieting dreams of decadence.

Plate VII

Sung Period. British Museum, London.