sketch by Pan Tianshou

The Essence of Chinese Painting (III)

composition in Chinese painting

At regular intervals, I try to analyze various aspects of Chinese painting, its philosophy, concepts, techniques, etc. based on short contributions. 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 on The Essence of Chinese Painting can be found HERE.

4 Phases – Structure in Chinese painting

Pan Tianshou (1) was the great intellectual of the last century in China. One of his greatest achievements was the establishment of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where Pan Tianshou first attempted to teach Chinese painting (to some extent) scientifically and analytically. In the course of this, Pan also devoted himself to the topic of construction in Chinese paintings and named 4 phases in a painting:  – chéng – zhuǎn – jié (起 承 转 结) (Fig.1)

sketch by Pan Tianshou

fig. 1

The aim of this short article is to illustrate this idea – in his work and in examples from other painters. Using one of his lotus paintings, a closer look at the individual sections helps to illustrate this thought more clearly. (Fig. 2)

fig. 2

the path of the eye in the picture

In his explanatory sketch with the strong branch (Fig.1), Pan uses cross stitches for this section, which block the optical path of the eye. Very often small twigs or blades of grass are used, which offer the eye the possibility of deviating from the power flow qi (气 qì) and thus increase the tension in the picture. Often these also serve as auxiliary lines to create imaginary centers outside the picture, i.e. points in which these grasses, etc. converge outside the picture surface and thus create an optical picture surface that goes beyond the format of the sheet. qǐ 起 (lit. to rise, to start) Is the point at which the viewer’s eye enters the picture and continues its wandering through the picture. chéng 承 (lit. undertake) means to “undertake” the journey through the painting from the entry point to the point where the path takes a turn. zhuǎn 转 (lit: turn) The eye should describe the longest possible way up in the picture and that is why the painter often lets it wander in an arc or in an S-line before it turns and is led back to the beginning. jié 结 (lit: merge, unite) the path of the eye took a turn and is wandering back. In a typical example (Fig. 3) in which what has just been discussed can be understood very well, it is also very clear that this section of jié does not need to be carried out by a concrete line. It is more elegant (and also more common) to make an imaginary connection, a principle known as yì dào bǐ bù dào (意 到 笔 不到 the sense arrives, but the brush does not).

fig. 3

This principle is also occasionally used to establish a connection between qǐ and the main part. The tip of the boat (fig. 4) points to a point that looks like a random blob. (The collophone is also cleverly attached. Horizontally, written through the middle of the picture, the characters look like a sandbank and thus create an additional optical level. At the same time, Pan Tianshou succeeds in dividing the overall picture into an upper and a lower area thus creating 2 image levels.

fig. 4

off center

As mentioned above, most Chinese images do not have the objects shown in the center. Often the middle is completely free. When building a picture, it is essential to relate the painted areas and the empty spaces to enable the flow of qi (qì 气). But even in the painted areas, empty spaces are built in. For example, the Chinese painter uses the dragon’s eyes ”(lóng yǎn 龙眼). (Fig.5)

fig. 5

Chinese art theorists often refer to the Chinese board game 围棋 wéi qí (Chinese chess), in which the incorporation of empty spaces is also essential. It is like things that painters have repeatedly played with the 4 phases qǐ – chéng – zhuǎn – jié and explored the limits. The last example (Fig.6), a picture by Zhū Dā (2), puts zhuǎn (turning) into the center of attention and the idea of ​​the twisting wild goose was often taken up by later painters, such as Biān Shòumín. (3)

fig. 6


Fig.1: Pān Tiānshòu, the structure of an image. Illustration from his textbook on Chinese painting. 

Fig.2: Pān Tiānshòu: Morning greeting (映 日 图 yìngrìtú, 99×163 cm) 

Fig.3: Pān Tiānshòu: A trunk of red paint alone lifts the sky (一枝 红艳 独 撑 天 yī zhī hóng yàn dú chēng tiān) 

Fig.4: Pān Tiānshòu: After the rain, the 1000 mountains look like cast iron (雨后 千山 铁铸 成 yǔhòu qiān shān tiě zhùchéng. 1961, 132.5 × 44 cm) 

Fig.5: Fù Bàoshí (Fù Bàoshí 傅抱石, 1904-1965) dragon eyes (picture: girl 侍女 shì nǚ) 

Fig.6: Zhū Dā: picture scroll with reeds and ducks (芦 雁 图轴 lúyàntúzhóu, 33 x 103 cm) 

Fig 7: Biān Shòumín: appreciation of reeds and ducks (芦 雁 图 欣赏 lú yàn tú xīnshǎng). When giving the title, he refers to the picture of Zhu Da.


(1) Pan Tianshou (Pān Tiānshòu 潘天壽; 1897–1971) was an important painter and teacher. He studied painting with Wu Changshuo (吳昌碩, 1844-1927) 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. 

(2) 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. 

(3) Biān Shòumín (边 寿 民 1684 – 1752) belonged to the “Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou”. (揚州八怪 Yángzhoū Bā Guài)


@ Friedrich Zettl. All rights reserved.


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