Xuan Paper in Chinese Contemporary Art

The history of Chinese art is very long, and during different periods it was influenced by many factors – political and economic changes, technological innovations, shifts in ideologies, etc. These factors form an integral part of the artistic evolution in China and should be carefully studied and analyzed for a better understanding of the nature of Chinese art. Paper plays an extremely important role in the development of Chinese art, as major changes in paper-making technologies had a great impact on the changing art tendencies. This essay is devoted to the study of Xuan paper and its role in the artistic processes which took place in ancient and contemporary China. It will also explore how the use of Xuan paper has changed over the years, starting from its invention during the Tang Dynasty to the current stage of its development and extensive usage in contemporary Chinese art.

The history of Xuan paper is more than 1500 years long. It was invented during the Tang Dynasty. The first written records of using Xuan paper can be found in old Chinese books Notes of Past Famous Paintings, and so-called New Book of Tang. Ink wash painting had been already used in China before the invention of this paper, but artists used other varieties of paper (scrolls, rough sheets) and silk that could not provide excellent technical characteristics of Xuan paper. They obviously had some advantages, but the ink could not be distributed with such a fluency and smoothness, as on Xuan paper. The unique qualities of this paper can be primarily explained by a very sophisticated process of its manufacturing. 

 

Nowadays, Xuan paper is mostly produced in Jing County, Anhui Province, but at the beginning of the Tang dynasty, there were more manufacturing centers, such as Chizhou and Huizhou. The process of making Xuan paper is very long and complex. Paper making process varies depending on the type of paper that is being produced. Usually specialists single out three main types of Xuan paper, which are Shuxuan, Shengxuan, and Banshuxuan. The differences between these types are not dramatic, but they exist and make these types suitable for slightly different purposes. Shengxuan (that can be translated as “Raw Xuan”) does not go through extensive processing cycles and, as a result, has an ability to absorb water, which causes the ink to blur. These features are heavily used for landscape paintings that do not require small details. This type of Xuan paper allows creating special “misty” atmosphere that is very appreciated in traditional Chinese ink wash art. Shuxuan (translated as “Ripe Xuan”) undergoes heavier processing and in the middle stage of production, Potassium alum is worked into it. It results in a stiff texture, a much smaller ability to absorb water, and the outcome is poorer resistance to shear stress. This paper is very thin and can be very easily torn. These characteristics make Shuxuan variety of Xuan paper, which is more suitable for Gongbi, a very careful and detailed realistic style of Chinese art, rather than Xieyi, that combines details with large impressionistic elements. The third type of Xuan paper, Banshuxuan (translated as “Half-ripe Xuan”) has an intermediate absorbability levels that put it between the two above-mentioned types of paper and makes it rather universal. 

The materials that are used for the production of Xuan paper are closely connected with geographic and climatic characteristics of Jing County. In fact, the mild and rather stable climate, abundant rainfall and special impact of Karst mountain area provides a perfect environment for the growth of one of the most important components of Xuan paper – the Tara Wingceltis tree (that is also called as Blue Sandalwood Pteroceltis tatarinowii). The tree bark is the most important material of Xuan paper and it is mixed in special proportions with high quality rice straw. It is usually said that there are more than 140 steps involved in producing Xuan paper, but, in fact, it is very difficult to give the precise figure because the manufacturing process is very complex. This paper has a strong, smooth surface and a very harmonious texture. Due to its resistance to mould, creasing, corrosion and insects, its longevity is one of its primary characteristics. 

Xuan paper also played an important role in the evolution of color usage in Chinese art. It also influenced thematic content of the paintings. The artists of the Tang dynasty, when Xuan paper was only invented, were still dependent on the traditions cemented by previous epochs. Therefore, their paintings were mostly one-colored (or two at most) and have rather simple plot – for instance, one horse or a few flowers, etc. More extensive production of Xuan paper allowed more artists to be familiar with its properties and in due course of time they were ready for more creative experiments. Narrative painting, with a wider color range and a much more complex and sophisticated composition than paintings of previous epochs, was very popular during the Ming period that lasted for about three centuries (1368–1644). These paintings were often done on large scrolls of Xuan paper and depicted either busy urban scenes or detailed panoramic landscapes. Another aspect of the impact made by Xuan paper on Ming dynasty art was the fact that it gave artists more freedom and, as a result, they could develop their individual style and did not correspond to the general norms and standards that were difficult to avoid if the material (silk, for example) did not allow it. 

In Ming painting, as well as in calligraphy of that period, each form is still constructed of a recognized set of typical brushstrokes. However, the execution of these forms is, in each individual case, a unique personal performance and choice of the artist. The society valued the presence of personality in a work of art over technical skills and correspondence to the norms, so the artist who worked during the Ming dynasty was inclined to aim for mastery of performance, rather than laborious craftsmanship. To better understand the nature of art at this period, it is necessary to analyze one of the typical works that were created during this dynasty. The scroll with an ink painting titled The Sixteen Luohans was done in 1591. Being quite famous for its eccentricity, Wu’s art represents a fin-de-siècle rebellion in the artistic style of that period. As it has already been mentioned, these new creative tendencies were unlikely to emerge without the impact of Xuan paper and its primary technical characteristics. In The Sixteen Luohans, one of Wu Bin’s earliest and most famous works, the artist has already begun to pay much attention to an eccentric archaism in figure painting that also had a profound and long-lasting impact on late Ming figure painters. In addition, this painting reflects inventive approaches in color usage and impressive combination of lines and washes that became possible due to the Xuan paper. 

Later Chinese ink painting developed according to the principles of individuality and creativity, but, in general, the artistic style of the following centuries was quite stable. However, a real revolution happened in the twentieth century when completely new contemporary painting began to dominate the artistic scene of China. It would be a mistake to say that contemporary artists did not have any connections with the art of previous periods. The unique and extraordinary feature of contemporary Chinese painting is, in contrast to European or American art, its ability to integrate basic principles of ancient art into the modern artistic ideology and style. The representatives of modern art have a larger variety of materials to choose from and the methods of their manufacturing have been considerably improved, but they still rely on some crucial elements that make these links between epochs possible. One of them is the usage of Xuan paper that is still extremely popular in China and all over Asia. 

A good example of how the Xuan paper is used by contemporary artists is the work of Wu Guanzhong who is often called a “father of modern Chinese painting”. His oeuvre reflects both Western and Eastern influences that can be widely seen in his works. It is possible to see the ideas characteristic of such European styles as Fauvism or impressionism, but the basis of Wu Guanzhong’s paintings is still traditional Chinese themes and classical brushstrokes. The painting titled Households by Lake Tai perfectly reflects all of these principles that are traces of ancient patterns in modern art. The black color dominates at this scene, as the boats and the contours of houses are created with the help of different strokes of black ink. The artist also added some small spots of other colors (red, green, etc.) that created an interesting contrast with the black. The reflections of boats and houses are slightly blurry. The combination of rigid and strong lines with atmospheric surface of the water is the result of smart and skillful usage of Xuan paper properties. Wu Guanzhong was obviously aware of the shapes that are made with special brushstrokes and combined the aesthetic effect of these forms with the impact of color. Such painting as Households by Lake Tai and many other works from Wu Guanzhong’s oeuvre would not be possible. For instance, on silk and only the Xuan paper allowed the artist to find such expressive ways of communicating his message to the audience.

Similar tendencies can be found not only in contemporary Chinese paintings, but also in calligraphy, various installations, etc. London-based Chinese artist Zhu Jinshi created a very big installation titled Boat. It was made of Xuan paper and symbolized the fragility of the links between different objects and concepts. Xuan paper hanged on long rails, creating the silhouette of the boat that was traditionally considered a metaphor for connecting the parts into the whole. This installation is one of numerous example of extensive usage of Xuan paper not only in painting, but also in other forms of contemporary Chinese art. Nowadays, Xuan paper is used both in the traditional ways, as a perfect basis for painting and in new specifically modern ways, such as installations and others. Contemporary artists extended the sphere of Xuan paper usage, thus making it more expressive and more universal.

To conclude, Xuan paper is an important element of Chinese artistic traditions. Since the time it was invented during the period of the Tang dynasty, the properties of this paper allowed the artists to better communicate their message to the audience and be open in their creative pursuits, as Xuan paper is perfect for combining different techniques, colors, etc. These changes were most obvious during the Ming dynasty. Nowadays, Xuan paper is still widely used and it acquired a unique function of connecting the art of different epochs. The usage of Xuan paper in modern art (by Wu Guanzhong and other prominent artists) allowed artists to create powerful links that tied together contemporary innovations and the basic principles of ancient Chinese ink painting.

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Jun 26, 2020 in Research
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