In traditional China as in many other cultures, the visual representation of stories was a medium for creating, expressing and spreading cultural values. Chinese illustrations usually featured human and immortal beings with some relation to moralising texts whether written down of orally transmitted. These inspired viewers awareness and attainment. “Viewers of the pictures repeatedly claimed that the images conveyed something words could not, making them complimentary to the writing and of equal importance”. pictorial art also plays a part in forming disseminating social norms and political authority.
Chinese narrative illustrations can be divided in to three different categories – Moral narrative which is associated with an instructive function, literary narrative which has expressive qualities and genre narrative which is about a particular subject matter from everyday life. Although these three are different you can overlap each of them in a single painting. As well as those three sub categories of illustration they were also known under subject headings as figures, ghosts and spirits. The figures were also sometime divided in to more specific types like peasants, barbarian tribes and beautiful women.
Buddhist viewed the distribution of texts and duplication of images as devout works and they played a part in the invention of printing, Which is by nature an act of duplication. The creating of authority stamps with personal names carved in them were the first print like instruments but were more like bronze rubbings than printing, they were used to produce multiple copies of their image so was a starting point to create printing.
China has been using illustrations in their stories since the 8th century this was with the invention of block printing. Block Printing as with many of mankind’s firsts originated in China. It originally was created to print images on textiles, the earliest extant example of this dates back to CE 25-220, it was only later that someone thought to use the blocks for creating text. The areas of text were originally quite small and were accompanied by large amounts of Imagery. These usually had a religious proverb to accompany it.
The world’s earliest precisely dated printed book is a Chinese scroll about 16 feet in length and is called the Diamond Sutra. It starts with an illustration of a Buddha who has finished his daily walk with the monks to gather offerings of food and has sit down to rest. This illustration tells the story that is contained in the large scroll.
The earliest example of an illustrated book in three colours- red, black and white was called the Ink Garden of the Cheng family. It included a number of Biblical illustrations from the gospels. The history of Chinese illustration is very much the the history of printing in China.
Illustrations were an integral part of many books, appearing in a variety of formats, from carefully produced and no doubt more expensive items with fine block prints placed at intervals between the text, to cheaper, cruder books with small illustrations at the top of every page. The small illustrations were popular with the Ming and Quing editions of popular fiction and commonly contained a series of illustrations of characters or scenes grouped together at the beginning of the text.
Illustration within the last decade
Illustration in China was not used to its full potential over the last decade or two as it was mostly used for propaganda. It was re-istablished at the start of the digital age and grew with the rise of the design and advertising industries, which boomed in the early 1980’s and slowed down due to the fall of world wide economy. Young illustrators work was mostly found on the internet through online blogs, this was quick and easy way of introducing their work to the world. The only problem with this was that is was not easily available for art galleries to find. Many young illustrators who have made it to selling work usually work part-time as fee competition between illustrators is common.
An astonishing transformation of China’s creative land scape, growing wealth, new technology and a fresh confidence in individual expression is happening now. Illustrators are creating an ever growing and more influential artist identity. They are technically competent due to the rigorous art school training, originated from the Russian academic heritage. China is determined to grow its “cultural and creative industries”. It has a new generation of 20-30 year old Artists that are really taking the world by storm, with Chinas economic boom their is more money to encourage people to take up illustration and create a career out of it. It is now recognised and accepted as a valid creative art form.