An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Gu huapin lu 古畫品錄

Aug 24, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

Gu huapin lu 古畫品錄 "Classification of ancient painters", also called Gujin huapin 古今畫品 "Classified painting of old and new", is a critique of paintings and the individual style of painters written by the Southern Qi-period 南齊 (479-502) scholar and artist Xie He 謝赫 (459?-532?). In the imperial bibliographical chapter in the official dynastic history Songshi 宋史, the book is called Gujin huapin, and in Bian Yongyu's 卞永譽 Shigutang shuhua huikao 式古堂書畫匯考 from the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), it is listed with the title Guhuaping 古畫評 "Critiques on ancient paintings.

Xie He hailed from Xiayang 夏陽 (moden Linfen 臨汾, Shanxi), but not much is known about his life. A biography of Xie He is to be found in Zhang Yanyuan's 張彦遠 book Lidai minghua ji 歷代名畫記. The Chen-period 陳 (557-589) writer Yao Zui 姚最, who wrote a sequel to the Gu huapin lu called Xu huapin lu 續畫品錄, admired Xie for his ability to paint exact portraits after a single glimpse at a person, yet he lacked the skill to express individual personality in his portraits. The portaits Anqi xiansheng tu 安期先生圖 and Jin Mingdi bunian tu 晉明帝步輦圖 have survived.

The short book discusses paintings of high quality (huapin 畫品) from the Three Empires period 三國 (220-280) to the Liang period 梁 (502-557). It is arranged according to the names of 27 painters. Xie He made use of a system of six qualification categories (pin 品), similar to the official categorization of eminent families during that time (zhongzhengpin 中正品). Five painters belonged in Xie's eyes to the highest category, namely Lu Tanwei 陸探微, Cao Buxing 曹不興, Wei Xie 衛協, Zhang Mo 張墨, and Xun Xu 荀勖. The famous painter Gu Kaizhi 顧愷之, one of the few artists whose paintings have survived until today (as copies), is only ranked among the third category.

Xie He clearly describes his method of categorizing painters. Those of the highest category professed in all six methods or techniques (liu fa 六法), namely distinct and lively style (qiyun shengdong 氣韻生動), using the brush with the "bone" method [linking the personality of the painter with his style] (gufa yongbi 骨法用筆), reflecting the shape of the object (yingwu xiangxing 應物象形), suiting the type of the object and reflecting its colours (suilei fucai 隨類賦彩), composition and placement (jingying weizhi 經營位置), and transmission by copying (chuanyi moxie 傳移模寫). Most painters were only able to fulfill one or two of these methods, and even the best of them were not able to perfect themselves in all these skills. These six methods or skills were applied for the rating of paintings from all ages. Xie He used this method so consistently that it became the common method of all later critics on painting, as can be seen, for instance, in Guo Ruoxu's 郭若虛 Tuhua jianwen zhi 圖畫見聞志 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279). Yet He was also criticized by Yao Zui that his judgments lacked a certain spirit of reality and did not reflect the historical background. Yao was also surprised that a painter like Lu Tanwei was rated as nearly perfect, while Gu Kaizhi was only assessed as an average-class painter.

The oldest surviving print of the Gu huapin lu dates from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). It is included in the series Jindai mishu 津逮秘書, Xuejin taoyuan 學津討源, Wang Shizhen's 王世貞 Huayuan 畫苑 (also called Wangshi shuhua yuan 王氏書畫苑), the Shuofu 說郛, Yanbei ouchao 硯北偶鈔, Baichuan xuehai 百川學海, Meishu congshu 美術叢書 and Siku quanshu 四庫全書.

Thanks to Prof. Dr. Gregor Paul for his suggestions.
Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰, ed. (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典 (Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe), Vol. 2, 1794.
Qiu Ren 裘仁 (1996). "Gu huapin lu 古畫品錄", in Gu Yucheng 周谷城, ed. Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Vol. Yishu 藝術 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 616.