III. DIVISION OF SUBJECTS
The Chinese divide the subjects of painting into four principal classes, as follows:
Landscape. Man and Objects. Flowers and Birds. Plants and Insects.
Nowhere do we see a predominant place assigned to the drawing or painting of the human figure. This alone is sufficient to mark the wide difference between Chinese and European painting.
The exact name for Landscape is translated by the words mountain and water picture. They recall the ancient conception of Creation on which the Oriental system of the world is founded. The mountain exemplifies the teeming life of the earth. It is threaded by veins wherein waters continuously flow. Cascades, brooks and torrents are the outward evidence of this inner travail. By its own superabundance of life, it brings forth clouds and arrays itself in mists, thus being a manifestation of the two principles which rule the life of the universe.
The second class, Man and Objects, must be understood principally as concerning man, his works, his belongings, and, in a general sense, all things created by the hand of man, in combination with landscape. This was the convention in early times when the first painters whose artistic purpose can be formulated with certainty, portrayed the history of the legendary beings of Taoism,--the genii and fairies dwelling amidst an imaginary Nature. The records tell us, to be sure, that the early masters painted portraits, but it was at a later period that Man and Objects composed a class distinct from Landscape, a period responsible for those ancestral portraits painted after death, which are almost always attributable to ordinary artisans. Earlier they endeavored to apply to figure painting the methods, technique and laws established for an ensemble in which the thought of nature predominated. Special rules bearing on this subject are sometimes found of a very early date but there is no indication that they were collected into a definite system until the end of the seventeenth century. Up to the present time our only knowledge of their content is through a small treatise published at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The third class, Flowers and Birds, deals with those paintings wherein the Chinese gave rein to their fancy for painting the bird in conjunction with the plant life associated with its home and habits. The bird is treated with a full understanding of its life, and flowers are studied with such a comprehension of their essential structure that a botanist can readily detect the characteristics typical of a species, despite the simplifications which an artist always imposes on the complexity of forms.
This general class is subdivided. The epidendrum, the iris, the orchis and the chrysanthemum became special studies each of which had its own masters, both from the standpoint of painting itself, and of the application of the aesthetic rules which govern this art. The bamboo and the plum tree are also allied to this class. Under the influence of philosophic and symbolic ideas they furnished a special category of subjects to the imagination of the painter and form a division apart which has its own laws and methods, regarding which the Chinese treatises on Aesthetics inform us fully.
Finally, the fourth class, Plants and Insects, is based upon the same conception as that of Flowers and Birds. The insect is represented with the plant which is his habitat when in the stage of caterpillar and larva, or flying above the flowers and plants upon which he subsists on reaching the stage of butterfly and insect. Certain books add to this fourth class a subdivision comprising fishes.
Lastly we must note that in the Far East, as in Europe, there is a special class to be taken into consideration, Religious paintings. In China, this refers almost exclusively to Buddhist paintings.