Bamboo Paintings of East Asia—History, Significance, and Artists
For anyone who is familiar with east Asian art, one of the most familiar motifs is bamboo. Asian painters have painted bamboo scroll paintings, door panels, and more for many centuries. It is one of the most common and simplest subjects of Chinese brush painting and Japanese sumi-e (ink painting). Bamboo stalks have been painted by all kinds of people ranging from schoolchildren to world-famous artists for many centuries.
It is one of the most common plants in all of Asia that has many uses. It also has a simplistic beauty that makes it appealing in artwork. Images of bamboo blossoms, bamboo blowing in the wind, and more are always beautiful and relaxing to look at.
These paintings have a long history in Asia and much deeper meanings than most people realize. What are the meanings behind some of these paintings? Who are some of the famous artists from ancient times who painted bamboo? That and much more will be explored in this article. So please, read on and enjoy!
Table of Contents
Bamboo in Asia
Bamboo is one of the most common plants to be found in Asia. It can be found growing across the eastern and southern regions of the continent, including four of the countries that are most famous for bamboo art: China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Bamboo is a grass that is very sturdy yet flexible. It grows all year round, blossoms rarely, and can withstand some of the worst weather Mother Nature can throw at it. If cut down, it grows back very rapidly. In China, bamboo is, along with pine trees and plum blossoms, known as one of the "Three Friends of Winter" (岁寒三友). These three plants can withstand the harshest of winters and blossom or stay evergreen throughout the winter season.
Bamboo has a wide variety of uses in the countries where it goes, which include housing materials, food and eating utensils, paper, weaponry, and more.
In ancient China, bamboo represented the Confucian value of moral virtue. To the Chinese, a person who is mentally and spiritually strong is just like a stalk of bamboo. That is, flexible enough to bend with whatever Life throws at them but reliable and tough enough to stand strong and keep growing. Also, the inside of a bamboo stalk symbolizes a sound mind clear of negative thoughts and feelings. Bamboo has a long life span, which makes it a symbol of longevity in China. Its reliability and steadfastness represent virtuousness in people.
These are the basic meanings of bamboo in both Chinese art and elsewhere in east Asia.
Traditional bamboo paintings are both a type of painting and a type of calligraphy. They are made using the same type of ink and the same strokes as used in Chinese calligraphy for writing Chinese characters. Also, many traditional Chinese-style bamboo paintings (including the ones made in neighboring countries) feature a poem that compliments the painting, helps explain its meaning, and sets the tone.
In Chinese art, bamboo is known as one of the "Four Gentlemen" along with the chrysanthemum, orchid, and plum blossom. Each of these plants represents the four seasons: The orchid represents spring, the chrysanthemum represents fall, the plum blossom represents winter, and bamboo represents summer. They often represent each season in Chinese art and are featured in landscapes depicting the seasons. Often bamboo is painted with plum blossoms or pine trees, which are the other "Friends of Winter" mentioned above. Also, animals who have bamboo in their natural habitat such as monkeys, pandas, and sparrows are often depicted in groves of them in Chinese (and Chinese-style) bamboo paintings.
Over time, these paintings became enormously popular in ancient China. So much so that painting a bamboo stalk became a subject of the Imperial examinations along with calligraphy!
In some east Asian countries including China and Japan, bamboo wall murals and scroll paintings hanging on the walls of Buddhist temples are not an uncommon find. These are to help a layperson or monk who views them find harmony with and a passion for nature.
In ancient China, a number of artists arose who were masters of bamboo painting.
The most well-known of these is Wen Tong (1018-1079 CE). Wen came from Sichuan province and had a huge passion for bamboo. He was so skilled at painting them that supposedly he could paint two different stalks with two brushes in one hand! He mastered the art of painting bamboo leaves with calligraphy strokes. According to a poem written by his student and contemporary Su Shi (1037-1101), Wen not only painted the bamboo on paper, but became part of the plant itself. As the popular legend goes, "there were whole bamboos in his heart" and it was thanks to Wen Tong and his love for bamboo where this popular Chinese idiom (meaning someone has thought a plan out thoroughly and is about to put it into action) originates.
Wang Fu (1362-1416) is another artist who was famous for hpainting bamboo. Wang was an early Ming dynasty painter, calligrapher, landscapist, and poet who painted stalks with calligraphic lines and both intricate and minimal landscapes. His paintings look amazingly real!
Xia Chang (1388-1470) was inspired by Wang Fu's works and became famous in his own right. As a matter of fact, his popularity spread throughout east Asia and his works were very popular in Japan and Korea! Xia Chang was a skilled calligrapher and used his skills to full effect, using an ancient Imperial seal script-style calligraphy technique for bamboo leaves and a type of cursive script for regular grass surrounding bamboo twigs.
Guan Daosheng (1262-1319) was a female poet, artist, and calligrapher who was married to the Yuan dynasty-era prince and scholar Zhao Mengfu (who was himself a famous artist and calligrapher during that time). Guan excelled at painting bamboo and used light, graceful strokes to make striking depictions of them. Her poems - which were written in a style unusual for women of the time - made the paintings that much more graceful.
Another noteworthy bamboo artist was the Obaku Zen monk Dapeng Zhenkun (1691-1774), or Taiho Seikon (also known as Taoho Shokon and Obaku Taiho). Taiho was a monk of the Obaku Zen Buddhist order who created some very amazing bamboo paintings. Taiho's paintings feature massive stalks which jut upwards and dominate the whole painting. After emigrating to Japan in 1722 following the fall of the Ming dynasty and the establishment of an Obaku temple in Japan, Taiho was one of a number of Obaku Zen monks who brought Ming culture to Tokugawa-era Japan.
Learn how to paint bamboo from this video!
Japanese Bamboo Paintings
In Japan, as in most other places in east Asia, bamboo has also been painted and written on paper. It carries all the same meanings as it does in China. As a matter of fact, much of Japanese art has been heavily influenced by traditional Chinese art over the centuries and as a result, many Japanese bamboo scroll paintings are very similar to those in China!
Bamboo was a popular subject in Japanese art genres such as zen art and ukiyo-e, and in the various styles of Japanese painting prior to the Edo period (1603-1868). Some of Japan's most famous artists such as Hasegawa Tohaku, Katsushika Hokusai, and Ando Hiroshige (right) painted some very dramatic and colorful bamboo paintings.
Prior to the coming of the ukiyo-e era in the Edo period when art became easily available to the common person, Chinese-style paintings were made almost exclusively for Japan's imperial and military elite. Bamboo paintings were one of the most common to be painted for the elite. The Kano school painted some very striking ones against a golden backdrop and the Hasegawa school painted misty bamboo stalks on door panels.
Korean Bamboo Paintings
Bamboo art has been a mainstay of Korean art since the Joseon (Choson) dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1897. However, it was in existence as far back as the Goryeo (Koryŏ) dynasty (918-1392 CE). According to ancient Goryeo writings, bamboo art soared in popularity during this time.
During the Joseon period, bamboo painting became highly important. So important that it was the first area in which aspiring court painters were tested!
Due in large part to the strong influence of Chinese painting styles on Korean artwork, bamboo motifs became very popular both in monochrome ink paintings and in porcelain pieces. Porcelain pieces often featured them with animals such as sparrows and cranes, and plants such as pine trees, grapes, and chrysanthemums. Paintings during this time were typically done in two styles: Conservative style, which used outlines of bamboo and wash, and calligraphic, in which each pen or brush stroke was done elegantly.
One of the most famous bamboo painters in Korea was Yi Chong (1541-1622), who was a descendant of King Sejong. He was an poet, artist, and calligrapher who painted some very striking monochrome bamboo paintings. His works influenced other bamboo painters who came after him.
Two other painters who, along with Yi Chong, are regarded as the three great bamboo painters of the Joseon dynasty, are Yu Tok-chang (1694-1774) and Sin Wi (1769-1847).
Silhouettes of bamboo have long been an image in Chinese and Japanese artwork and poetry. A silhouette of bamboo blowing in the wind against the rising sun or a full moon, or silhouettes of stalks outside the window of a traditional Japanese or Chinese house have inspired many a haiku poem over the years!
They are also popular images on Sukoshi shoji folding screens. These screens can be found in many homes, Japanese and non-Japanese alike!
Learn More Here
- Bamboo painting - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wikipedia entry on bamboo paintings.
- Bamboo - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Bamboo at Wikipedia.
- The Art of Chinese Brush Painting - Expressing the Chi
Excellent hub from hubber maralexa about the art of Chinese brush painting. If you want to give Chinese brush painting a try, this is a good place to start!
- The Womanly Arts
Article about Chinese female artists. Includes a detailed section about Guan Daosheng.
- Korean Art: Characteristics, History, Development
Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards): Arts and Crafts of Korea during the Goryeo, Joseon Periods. Contains some info about bamboo paintings during Korea's Goryeo and Joseon periods.
Bamboo paintings and bamboo art have been around for many centuries and the same techniques used for painting and writing bamboo a thousand years ago are still in use today. Also, as people around the world learn how to paint and write bamboo, its popularity will no doubt keep growing.
Thank you for your visit and please visit again as I plan to update this hub in the future. Also, if you decide to try your hand at bamboo art after visiting this hub, all the best of luck to you!