Dong Qichang was a prominent painter and calligrapher of the late Ming Dynasty, and the most influential art critic in late Imperial China. In various treatises, he disparaged realism, color, professional technical skill, and other aspects of the tradition of Chinese academic painting, which he dubbed the "Northern School" of painting, lauding the literati painting mode of monochrome ink painting, which he dubbed the "Southern School." Though many of his ideas were not entirely new at this time, it was through Dong's writings, and widespread acceptance of them, that these ideas became canon.
Dong Qichang's articulation of the definition of literati form, attitude, and aesthetics, as well as his criteria for judging the quality of art, and his selection of canonical great artists of the past (e.g. the Four Wangs, or the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty), remain dominant in Chinese art history today, both in China and throughout the world. He identified Wang Wei as the founder of the Southern School, and drew much inspiration and stylistic influence from Zhao Mengfu and other Yuan Dynasty artists, as well as from Wen Zhengming, among others. Among his many aesthetic ideas was the argument that things should be painted not as they look (which would be realism), but rather, as they are, evoking the true spirit of the subject. This, too, was a profoundly influential concept both for painters, and for critics and connoisseurs, down to the present day.
Originally from the Shanghai area, when taking the prefectural Chinese Imperial examinations for the first time at age 17, he finished second, behind his cousin who the judges claimed possessed superior calligraphy.
- Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 262.
- Benjamin Elman, A Cultural History of Civil Examinations in Late Imperial China, University of California Press (2000), 136.