Tung Ch'i-ch'ang (1555-1636), a Chinese calligrapher, painter, and art historian, founded the Sung-chiang school of literati painting.
Tung Ch'i-ch'ang was born in Shanghai into a poor family with a tradition of scholarship and civil service. Compelled by the threat of forced labor, Tung ran away from home at about 16 and took up residence in the city of Hua-t'ing, Sung-chiang. Embarking on a course of traditional study, Tung repeatedly failed the civil service examinations. When he finally passed, however, in 1589, he did so brilliantly and began a career in government.
Tung's last posts were president of the Board of Rites and chief of instruction of the heir apparent, a far cry from his humble beginnings. He was not enamored of this or any other position, however. To be president of the Board of Rites rang hollow when the state was collapsing all around. It was an exceedingly difficult time in which to serve the state, for his plans went unheeded, and the fabric of state continued to crumble. Testifying to his continued dissatisfaction with affairs were Tung's repeated retirements, during which he withdrew to his home in the South to paint and write. One such period lasted from 1605 to 1620.
Tung's study of calligraphy may have been instigated by the importance of this art to success in the examination system. He quickly became the greatest brush master of the age, however, and is generally regarded as the most brilliant calligrapher of the past 500 years. His mastery of the brush certainly contributed to his later success as a painter.
It is not known precisely when Tung began to paint, but it was sometime in his 20s. During this time he was serving as tutor to several important families, and the influence of such older collectors and painters as Hsiang Yüan-pien and Ku Cheng-i, whose patronage he was able to secure, was decisive in shaping the tastes of the young artist. More significant may have been the directions set out by the brilliant Mo shih-lung, an older contemporary and friend. According to Tung, it was Mo who laid down the framework of the theory of the Northern and Southern schools of painting, which Tung subsequently elaborated and explored in his own painting.
The basis of the new direction in landscape painting was appreciation and understanding of the great masters of the Yüan period (1279-1368), especially the Four Great Masters of that age, Huang Kung-wang, Wu Chen, Ni Tsan, and Wang Meng. It was believed that they were the last painters to realize the monumental and enduring qualities of the great universe with integrity and substance, unswayed by popular convention and the common taste. During the long interval between the 14th and late 16th centuries, Tung believed, painters had too often fallen into the paths of sweetness, romanticism, and elaborateness and thus had departed from the classical wellspring of the art. He set out to restore the integrity of landscape painting.
Following Mo Shih-lung's tentative theoretical proposal, Tung codified and elaborated the theory that related scholar-painters, beginning with Wang Wei, in a continuous succession of classical transmission. This mantle of the "Southern school" was believed to rest on Tung's shoulders in the late Ming period. Included within the orthodox transmission were Tung Yüan, Li Ch'eng, Fan K'uan, Li Kung-lin, Mi Fu, Mi Yu-jen, and the four Yüan masters. To the "Northern school" were consigned all academicians and professionals—like Ma Yüan and Hsia Kuei—and the founder was said to be the T'ang master of the decorative "blue-and-green" style, Li Ssu-hsün. Tung Ch'i-ch'ang even went so far as to assert that the professional pursuit of a career in painting would lead to a premature death, citing in contrast the long lives of the scholar-amateurs. He himself lived into his 80s.
In his own powerful painting, Tung faithfully observed the newly established orthodoxy. There are no human figures in his work, no story, and no concession whatever to public taste. His subject was style itself, the great styles of the past, and their transformation into expressions of Tung's own inner will. He believed that one must first immerse oneself in the white light to be found in the classical art of the great styles of the past, which he viewed as a succession of insights into "truth, " and then must begin the long and difficult process of giving all back piece by piece until one is left only with self, a self transformed by the crucible of discipline and years of intense study. If this final transformation can be won, the painter himself will join the classical heritage and lend his own hard-won vision to the totality of experience.
In Tung's own case, the result was a compelling structure of abstract compositional principles through which he achieved a strongly architectonic symphony of "brush and ink." He readily disclaimed any pretense to naturalism: "If you want to admire the beauties of mountains and trees, take a walk in the hills, " he said in effect, "but if you admire the beauties of brush and ink, look to painting." His position in the history of Chinese painting corresponds to that of Paul Cézanne in Western art history.
The best general account of Tung, his position in history, his art, and his legacy, is Roderick Whitfield, In Pursuit of Antiquity: Chinese Paintings of the Ming and Ch'ing Dynasties (1969). An excellent biographical essay by Nelson Wu, "Tung Ch'ich'ang (1555-1636): Apathy in Government and Fervor in Art, " is in Arthur F. Wright and Denis Twitchett, eds., Confucian Personalities (1962). Recommended for background is Victoria Contag, Chinese Masters of the 17th Century, translated by M. Bullock (1970).