Zhu Da 朱耷 painting 花鸟册页之二

the principle of the balance in chinese painting

The Essence of Chinese Painting (I)

(I studied Chinese painting, wrote my dissertation on Chinese painting, occasionally publish articles on Chinese painting and hold lectures on this. I would like to show some aspects of Chinese painting over time).

The fundamental difference between many Chinese and Western paintings lies in the different image structures. To put it simply, it works like a western scale in western painting and like a Chinese scale in Chinese. [Fig. 1] While that balance is static, this one is dynamic. What you put in the left pan in the former, you have to put the same weight in the right pan to achieve balance. The Chinese scales, on the other hand, work in that you can place different weights on the two ends of the scales, and balance is only created by shifting the suspension so you can read the weight.


The principle of the former includes not only image objects with measurable weight, but also e.g. in abstract painting, etc. Color areas are also a kind of weight and it is important to balance them out.

In Chinese painting, this question of balance is of fundamental importance even in the individual stroke.

[Fig. 2] Even in the simplest Chinese character yī ( 一 one) we get a very good impression of how this is to be understood. The lower symbol in Fig. 2 shows shuǐ ( 水 water), which as a symbol itself already acts like a scale.

These examples also show very clearly how the ends of the line or the parts of a character “communicate” with one another. In no case can a line begin here and lead “somewhere” in a good Chinese painting or calligraphy. Rather, a field of strength (qì, 气 breath, life force) must be built up between the beginning and the end of the line or the line combinations, and so the “qi” gets embedded.

The principle can be compared with the two palms of the hands in taijiquan exercises (shadow boxing). Despite the empty space between the palms, they are always in imaginary contact and advanced practitioners can feel the qi haptically between the palms of the hands like a ball.

This qi in the two examples mentioned is not as different as it might seem at first glance. In both cases, it is a field of power that is formed between the two poles yin and yang. If the painter succeeds in applying and making visible the principle in individual lines, then in the combination of lines and finally in the entire picture, qì, the most important quality in a Chinese picture, flows through the picture.

As in western art history, Chinese painters have naturally tried over time to sound out the limits in all areas of painting, also using scales or balance.

Zhu Da (1), perceived by his contemporaries as an eccentric, played with the idea of ​​the scales in countless works. Not so clear at first glance, this example [Fig. 3] but at second glance it is very informative – if we have turned the picture upside down – how the principle of the Chinese scales works in this painting.


Playing with the scales or balance becomes really exciting when empty space (nothing) is thrown into the scales. [Fig. 4] Viewed in isolation, the bird would likely tip over backward. The empty space and the imaginary line to the signature at the top left of the picture create a counterweight that forces the composition back into balance.


Less spectacular, but nonetheless very sophisticated, Hong Ren (2) composed this little picture. [Fig. 5] If he leaves the left half of the picture completely empty, he piles up on the right rock that points infinitely upwards. The fact that the composition works is mainly thanks to the well-thought-out representation of the tree, which both communicates with the elements shown in the picture and moves the infinite emptiness into the picture, thus creating balance.


300 years later Pan Tianshou (3) takes up the idea of ​​this composition, only he stages a cormorant, which emits its sound in the direction of the upper left corner (emptiness). One almost thinks to hear the bird’s cry. [Fig. 6]


After these smaller works (they were also chosen because they are easier to depict), let’s look at the principle of balance again using a longer, vertical scroll. [Fig. 7]


It comes from Chen Kang (4) and shows a bird on a branch, painted in the sense of Zhu Da. From a heavy, old, gnarled branch a juicy young branch protrudes far into the sky and at its extreme end sits a bird, the light counterweight, so to speak. The creation of 2 perspectives in the picture and the skillful use of emptiness reinforce the impression of space.

Chen Kang also uses a trick that was also often used by Zhu Da: the empty space on the right can be seen through the horizontal, lighter line in the gnarled branch, the thin twig, the tail feather of the bird, and the resulting imaginary line to the seal on the right below, in something solid, namely a rock, to be rethought. This we can imagine the bird sitting on a rock.

This trick with the interplay of real versus not real falls into the category “between absolutely similar and absolutely dissimilar” (sì yú bù sì zhī jiān 似 与不 似 之间) and enjoyed great popularity, especially in the Qing period.

As a last classic example [Fig. 8] Ma Yuan’s (5) famous picture scroll hike on a mountain path in spring should be mentioned, (山徑 春 行 shān jìng chūn xíng) an album sheet adorned with a poem by Emperor Ningzong (6) at the top right.


Ma Yuan used the “one corner composition” (邊角 之 景 biānjiǎo zhī jǐng) to transform tension into meditative calm by reducing the image content to the extreme. Hence his nickname one-corner-Ma (馬 一角 Mǎ yījiǎo).)

What we have already discussed above can also be seen in this picture of Ma Yuan, this time executed in more detail, and artistically implemented. The principle 似 与不 似 之间 between absolutely similar and absolutely dissimilar can be seen in the treatment of the willow branches, which at the same time also reminds us of distant mountain ridges and allows the landscape that started on the top left to be interpreted into the distance. Everything that has weight is placed in the lower left corner and the dynamics of the scales create space far away.

Again and again, this principle has served the scales not only subliminally (in single lines) but also as the primary content of an image. Representing an example from modern painting, this last charming picture [Fig. 9] by Li Keran (7), in which a lightweight boy pulls a heavy water buffalo to balance.



(1) Zhu Da (Zhū Dā 朱 耷; also known as Bādà Shānrén 八大山人 1625 – 1705) was a Chinese painter and calligrapher of the Qing Dynasty.

(2) Hongren (Hóng Rén 弘仁, personal name Jiāng Tāo 江 韬, stage name Jiàn Jiāng 漸 江, 1610 – 1664 in She Xian) was a Chinese painter of the late Ming and Qing dynasties and a Buddhist monk. He is known as one of the most important masters of the Anhui school.

(3) Pan Tianshou (Pān Tiānshòu 潘天壽; 1897–1971) was an important painter and teacher.

He studied painting with Wu Changshuo and laid the foundations for modern training in traditional Chinese painting. During the Cultural Revolution until he died in 1971 he was subjected to persecution and reprisals.

(4) Chen Kang (Chén Kāng 陳 康 19th century).

(5) Ma Yuan (马 远 Mǎ Yuǎn 1160-1225 was an important painter of the Chinese Song Dynasty.

(6) Emperor Ningzong (宋宁宗 Sòng Níngzōng 1168 – 1224) was the 13th emperor of the Song Dynasty and ruled between 1194 and his death in 1224. He was an important patron of the arts and primarily supported painters such as Liang Kai and Ma Yuan.

(7) Li Keran (李可染 Lǐ Kěrǎn 1907-1989) was one of the most popular Chinese painters of the 20th century. He was particularly popular for his depiction of water buffalo. But he is also considered an innovator in Chinese landscape painting.


Fig.1: Sketch of the principle of western scales and Chinese scales
Fig.2: The Chinese characters one (yī 一) and water (shuǐ 水)
Fig.3: Zhu Da 朱 耷: Chrysanthemums. Album sheet. From the album Pictures of Flowers, Fruits and Insects No. 2 (huā guǒ wū chóng cè zhī èr 花果 烏 蟲 册 之 二)
Fig.4: Zhu Da 朱 耷: bird. Album sheet. From the album Pictures of Flowers and Birds No. 2 (huā niǎo cè yè zhī èr 花鸟 册 页 之 二)
Fig.5: Hong Ren (弘仁; 1610–1663) landscape fragment. Ink on paper. 25.2 x 25.3 cm. Shanghai Museum
Fig.6: Pan Tianshou (潘天寿), cormorant (lúcí 鸬鹚). 1960. Jiangsu Museum of Art
Fig.7: Chen Kang (Chén Kāng 陳 康 19th century). Bird on a branch in the style of Zhu Da. Ink on paper. 107 x 28 cm. Picture scroll.
Fig.8: Ma Yuan (Mǎ Yuǎn 馬 遠 c. 1160–65 – 1225). Hike on a mountain path in spring (shān jìng chūn xíng 山徑 春 行). Indian ink on silk. 27.4 cm × 43.1 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei
Ill.9: Li Keran (李可染 Lǐ Kěrǎn 1907 – 1989) water buffalo (shuǐniú 水牛), ink on paper, scroll painting 68 x 35.5 cm. 1978 [The picture is from an exhibition catalog from artnet]


I studied Chinese art, lived in China for 5 years, studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and wrote my dissertation on Chinese free-hand style painting. My pictures are presented HERE. More articles can be found in The Essence of Chinese Painting.


This article was published in German in 2020 by oe-g.cf.

@ Friedrich Zettl. All rights reserved.


3 responses to “the principle of the balance in chinese painting”

  1. Leena T Pandey avatar

    I’m not really familiar with Chines paintings. This was quite enlightening.

  2. jeannette-paterakis avatar

    Sehr interessant. Man lernt nie aus.Danke.

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