Confucianism and Chinese Art

July 22, 2010
Editor: zhuhong

Editor's Note:

Chinese people adopt an implicit style of speaking because they regard overt directness as offensive, and believe that going into too much detail is rarely of interest.

This cultural connotation is also apparent in Chinese art, in which images are implicit and indistinct, as opposed to the vivid, vibrant imagery of Western art.

Chinese philosophy regards human life and everything within the universe as harmonious and unified. Within this concept, one should pursue life's truth, which transcends eternal life, time and space. The purpose of art is hence to reflect the artist's interpretation of life.

The emphasis of Chinese art is on presenting kindred spirits rather than producing faithful likenesses, which it regards as dull and static.

Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are the three pillars of Chinese thought that have had the greatest influence on Chinese art. This and the forthcoming two articles analyze how these three schools of thought relate to Chinese art.

A Story

Caption: Confucius with his students []
Confucius asked his students their ambitions. The first to answer said that he wanted to help weak countries get stronger. The second said he wanted his people to live a well-off life. The third said he wanted to be a master of ceremonies.

The last student said, "In Spring, having put on my spring clothes, I would like to bathe in the Qihe River with a group of adults and children and, after bathing walk back together, singing as the wind blows our hair dry. This is my ideal, teacher."

Confucius made no comment on the first three grand ambitions but commended the last. The sage could see from the carefree scene the student described his social ideal and political ambition – of people living and working happily in a peaceful and harmonious social environment.

Root of the Nation's Culture

Caption: Qu Yuan []
Confucianism has been a predominant school of thought in China for millennia, and is a cornerstone of Chinese culture. Its influence on human relationships and ethical norms are still apparent in the thinking and behavior of Chinese people today.

Confucianism advocates a general ethic whereby people realize their own value through the contributions they make to society and the country. In contrast to individualism, Confucianism emphasizes the harmony of society as a whole. This is achieved through a tiered social system within which every person accepts their place and role. Confucianism raises the concept of the ideal human being as a role model to be emulated through scrupulous adherence to a moral code.

Confucianism regards art as a medium for character improvement, and therefore expects art to serve a political purpose. The artistic process reveals life's secrets, and the artist makes this knowledge a driving force through which to improve morals and hence character. As Confucianism advocates keeping in touch with society, many artists, thinkers and poets of that time had political ambitions. The concept of the ideal human being, meanwhile, gave rise to a specific aesthetic value.

This value is manifest in "character analogy" whereby characteristics of the subject of a work of art exemplify a good character and morals. Its purpose is to embed in the aesthetic appeal of artistic works the core Confucian principles of benevolent governance and moral codes. Confucius' student in the story earlier cited uses character analogy to describe his political ambitions through the image of an ideal life.

Character analogy has had far-reaching impact on Chinese artistic creation, and the aesthetic imagery it traditionally embodies has been passed down over generations of Chinese literati. Many artists throughout the history of Chinese art history have consciously associated certain characteristics of their works with human ethics and ideals. For example, pines and cypresses symbolize moral integrity; orchids and bamboo represent aloofness from politics and material pursuits; vanilla is symbolic of a person of noble character and integrity, and weeds are synonymous with villainy.

The long lyric poem Lisao by the great Chinese poet and patriot Qu Yuan (B.C. 340-278), is a classic example of character analogy. Qu Yuan used analogy to imbed in this romantic lyric his own feelings without detracting from its realism.

Figure painting is another manifestation of the influence of Confucianism on Chinese art. It is evident in portraits before the Tang Dynasty (618-907) of respected statesmen and other luminaries who appear gentle and honest through the portrayed combination of beauty and righteousness. Confucianism advocates "being happy but not without restraints, feeling sad but not to the extent that it injures the body."Subjects of Chinese traditional portraits hence give the strong impression of having peaceful, philosophical dispositions.

Representative Works

Caption: Ink painting Six Gentlemen by Ni Zan (1301-1374), Yuan Dynasty (1206-1370) []
The six trees in this picture are the pine, cypress, camphor tree, Chinese scholar tree, phoebe and elm -- all Confucian symbols of moral integrity.

Caption: Calligraphy In Memory of My Nephew (partial) by Yan Zhenqing (709-784), Tang Dynasty (618-907) []
Yang Zhenqing created this piece of work to commemorate his nephew who sacrificed his life for the country. It expresses strong patriotic feelings. Although only a sketch, the swiftness of the pen's strokes is apparent, and the gradual deepening of the shade of ink complements the white spaces on the scroll in a way that expresses grief and sadness.

(Source: Chinese Art by Yao Kougen & Zhao Ji, The Confucianism in Journey to the West by Cao Bingjian,, Translated and edited by

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