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Portrait Painting in Five Dynasties and Song Dynasty

Chinese painting art entered a prosperous phase in the period from the Sui Dynasty (581-618) to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Sui Dynasty is a transitional period, and portrait painting boomed in the Tang Dynasty. The mid Tang Dynasty is the most developed period of the Chinese paintings, when the religious painting became more realistic and the content of paintings changed into the important political affairs. New styles of paintings, combining styles of the Central Plains and the western-bordered areas, were quite well received. Yan Liben, representative of the Central Plain portrait painting, inherited the painting style of Yang Zihua and Zhang Sengyao in the Northern and Southern Dynasties and further developed it. Portrait paintings of plump court ladies showed the changes of content from political affairs in the early Tang Dynasty into daily affairs, represented by the most famous painters Wu Daozi and Zhang Xuan.

The trend of artistic development in any given historical period was influenced by the social ideology, cultural background and economic development of the time. In the mid-Tang Dynasty, after a hundred years of development, political power was becoming stable and the economy was prospering, hence epicurism was becoming increasingly popular among the ruling class. The portrait painting style initiated by Yan Liben of the early Tang Dynasty, which had aimed at praising country heroes, gradually lost its appeal. In many Buddhist paintings, goddesses were modeled after imperial court ladies, a development that indicated religious painting was becoming more realistic, and that secular painting was beginning to take on its initial form. Zhang Xuan and Zhou Fang were two representative artists of the time.

During the Five Dynasties Period, subjects of portrait painting enlarged from court ladies to fable and historical figures and scholars. The painters stressed on the depiction of expressions and feelings of the characters.

In the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), the
Hanlin Painting Academy of the imperial palace promoted the development of painting techniques and trained a lot of talented painters. The main achievement in portrait painting is: depicting characters through religionary fables, folk customs and stories. Famous painters in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) were Li Tang, Xiao Zhao, Su Hanchen and etc. The contents of their paintings related to the political conflicts with the development of the urban economy and the renaissance of artic creation of the citizens, the cultural painting popularized. A representative work of this time is The Qingming Festival by the Riverside done by the Song painter Zhang Zeduan. It portrays the noisy street scenes of Bianjing during the Qingming Festival (a festival for mourning ancestors)

Since the rulers of the Northern Song Dynasty attached great importance to the Taoism, portrait murals underwent further improvement. The central government had organized lots of competitions, and many experts on portrait mural emerged, such as Wang Ai, Wu Zongyuan, Wang Zhuo, Sun Mengqing, Zhao Guangfu, Sun Zhiwei and so on. Works of these people could not be found now because most of the temples were destroyed, however, the style of this period can be judged from the murals in Dunhuang. At the same period, human figure story paintings and culture painting both enjoyed comparatively high fame. The Rose Picking and the Restoring of Jin by Li Tang met the need of political propaganda. Zhongxing Ruiying Tu by Xiao Zhao, student of Li Tang, praised the wisdom of the emperors. Four Generals of Zhongxing by Liu Songnian was a representative of realistic paintings, picturing the famous generals like Yue Fei.

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