Chinese traditional painting dates back to the Neolithic Age about 6,000 years ago. The excavated colored pottery with painted human faces, fish, animal and plants reflect various aspects of the life of primitive clan communities. The line patterns on unearthed pottery ware resemble ripples, fishing nets, teeth. The animal and human figures, succinct and vivid, are proofs to the innate sensitivity of the ancient artists to the nature.
Paintings or engravings found on precipitous cliffs in Sichuan, Yunnan and Mongolia; Heihe in the far north and Altai in China’s extreme west are even more ancient. Strong visual effects characterize the bright red cliff paintings in southern China that depict scenes of sacrificial rites, production activities and daily life. In comparison, hunting, animal grazing, wars and dancing are the main themes of cliff paintings in northern China.
Silk painting is the work painted on silk. The painting unearthed in 1949 from a tomb of Chu of the Warring States Period in the southern suburb of Changsha, Hunan Province, was painted on silk with human figures, dragons and phoenixes. It is the earliest work on silk ever discovered in China and measures about 30 centimeters long by 20 centimeters wide. From this and other early paintings on silk showing vigour and elegance, it can be seen that the ancients were already familiar with the art of the writing or painting on silk with brush. Silk painting kept developing before the invention of paper and reached its artistic peak in the Western Han Dynasty.
Paintings on paper appeared much later than those on silk for the simple reason that the invention of silk preceded that of paper by a long historical period. In 1964, when a tomb dating to the Jin Dynasty was excavated at Astana in Turpan, Xinjiang, a colored painting on paper was discovered. It shows on the upper the sun, the moon and the Big Dipper and at the lower a man with a fan in his hand. The portrayal, 106.5 centimeters long and 47 centimeters wide, is the only known painting on paper of such antiquity in China.