Traditional and Modern Illustration.

Traditional and Modern Illustration.

The word ‘illustration’ is something that is not initially associated with China. When we are asked to generalize illustration as a whole, we tend to think of more western works that we are more familiar with. China and its illustrative traditions are both rich with history and contemporary in its subjects, both or which are distinctive in there own right.

One of the most well-known and revered uses of imagery in Chinese culture past and present is in their depiction of the mythical creatures in the Chinese Zodiac. Throughout time 12 creatures –mythical or otherwise- have been depicted in many different ways and in many different styles but have always kept the same sense of realism and intricate simplicity that Chinese images are so well known for.  The creatures (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig) are often depicted in as ‘moments in time’ or in ‘hunting’ poses but still hold the elegance and style that is so well known in Chinese imagery. The sense of style that has been used throughout history is one that is still being used to this day as it is seen as upholding the traditional values of these symbols.

In terms of the ultra modern illustrations with historic origins, Manhua is one that cannot be ignored.  The first original Manhua is thought to be form 1867 and has continued to grow ever since.  Manhua, from the same derivative as Japanese Manga, first appeared in newspapers and often depicted satirical drawings during the 1920s or in book form, formally known as Lianhuanhua.  In 1911 Sun Yat-Sen established the Republic of China by using Manhua to circulate an anti-Peng propaganda message.

The early Manhua depicted scenes using a great sense of realism and very few colours (black and white mainly), which is stark contrast to modern day illustrations. Then modern day ones are very colourful and stylized in their drawings. Xia Da is a well know modern day Manhua artist know for her stylized supernatural series ‘Zi Bu Yu’ which combines whimsical old feeling scenes with unrealistic characters. In terms of Manhua magazines and stories as a whole, many artists are not as well known due to the extent of a similar universal style. In and out with their time, both have been very distinctive and easily recognizable as Chinese art, which, in such a massive ‘art world’ is so distinctive as an art form that is not easy to replicate.

Possibly the oldest and most beautiful and simplest for of illustration is Calligraphy.   The art of Chinese calligraphy dates back to the earliest days of Chinese history, in which it was carved onto many things from turtle shell to animal bones to tree trunks in the Shang dynasty to make records.  In later years, silk cloth was used to create huge scrolls.

After calligraphy was done and mastered, the thought of combining words and image to create impressive image in its own right was thought.

The image is one done by Wang Mian (1287-1359), a renowned painter because of his illustrated poems of plums, during the Yuan dynasty.  The images he created are poems of plums the Mian himself wrote and painted. The only image in each of Mian’s works is of the subject of the poem (which is almost always a plum tree).  The innovative and distinctive way in which Mian and many others used this type of expression is one that is easily recognizable as truly Chinese.

To create an image that is both distinctive and appealing in whatever discipline, is not a simple thing to do. In both historical and modern day China, their works of art are something that is instantly recognizable as Chinese. Throughout history, no matter what the subject or the medium, Chinese images and text can be instantly recognized as Chinese unlike many other countries. This is what makes Chinese illustrations special.



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