Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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Two Distinguished Artists

In A.D. 364, a new temple was being planned for the neighborhood of Jiangning, and the prospective abbot in charge held an activity to solicit donations by public subscription. Many rich men came forward to contribute money, but one of them gave more than 100 strings of cash. However, there was a young artist who stepped forward and promised to contribute 1,000 strings of cash. This surprised all those present,for although the young man was  skilful painter, he was certainly not that rich. Everyone thought he was joking, or even boasting, and did not really believe him.

A few days later, when a monk came to collect the money from him, the young artist calmly bade him to white wash a section of wall in the old temple. When this was done, the artist shut himself up in the temple and painted on the wall a portrait of a character in Buddhist legends, but left the eyes blank. The young man then sent for the abbot and said, "The mural is now basically finished. You may open the temple gates and let people in for a look.But those who come the first day must each pay 100 strings of cash; those who come the second day need only pay 50, while whose who come on the third day may decide how much to pay themselves. Puzzled, the abbot asked, "Why should we charge every visitor on the first day 100 strings of cash?" The young artist replied, "In such a portrait, the body is unimportant, while the eyes make the portrait lifelike and true, for they are the windows on the soul. On the first day I will paint the eyes in full view of the visitors."

The news spread quickly, and on the first day, crowds of visitors packed the temple grounds since all were eager to see the artist paint the eyes of the portrait. With a light touch from the artist's brush, the portrait was at once endowed with a life and vigor that made it look as though it were breathing. All at once, the temple was set aglow, and those who witnessed this could not help but admire the young man's artistic talent. The monks too were very happy, for on the first day the money they collected far exceeded 1,000 strings.

The artist was one other than Gu Kaizhi, who was at that time hardly 20 years old. He loved painting, and with constant and diligent practice became very good at landscapes, portraits, descriptions of historical stories, and Buddhist iconography, all popular genres of painting in those days. He paid special attention to the representation of a person' character and expression. After years of exploration into the art of painting, Gu developed some basic techniques and theories of landscape and figurative painting and formed his own creative style. his painstaking and unremitting efforts made him an outstanding artist of the Eastern Jin Period. He was not only an early pioneer in the history of Chinese painting, but was noted for his theories as well. In the old days, people called Gu "artist without parallel" in recognition of his artistic talent. This is indeed a most suitable name. It is a pity that none of his works are now extant and all we have now are facsimiles made by other ancient artists.

During the period of Kai Yuan in the Tang Dynasty, a "sage artist" by the name of Wu Daozi had become famous in Xuchang, Henan Province. He began with calligraphy, and shifted to painting later. not satisfied with imitating the techniques of his predecessors, Wu set out to develop his own creative style, and evinced superb artistic talent before he was 20. People all said that his painting brush was a magic one, so that whatever he painted - whether they were birds, beasts, insects, fish, landscape, plants or people - all would look attractive and lifelike.

When the fame of this sage artist reached the ear of Emperor Xuan Zong of Tang, Wu Daozi was summoned to the imperial palace to paint specially for the court,a s the emperor had heard that he was particularly adept at painting Buddhist and Taoist figures and had over three hundred murals to his name in the temples of Changan and Luoyang. The characters in these murals bore different expressions and wore different garments.Once Emperor Xuan Zong of Tang ordered Wu to take a tour along the Jialing River and then reproduce on the palace corridor the scenic beauty of the area in three months. With his unique talent and a miraculous speed, Wu spent no more than a single day and had the charming landscape of the 300-li long Jialing River reproduced on the walls of the palace. The Emperor was so delighted that he praised Wu as "a veritable immortal among us."

When the people of Wu hometown, Xuchang, heard of this they built a temple in his honor, where the image of this "sage artist" was enshrined. Wu Daozi is truly an influential and celebrated artist in the history of Chinese painting.


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