An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

huapin 畫品 and shupin 書品, qualitative ranking of artworks

Mar 31, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Huapin 畫品 is in traditional Chinese literature a genre of criticizing painters and their works. The term was introduced in Xie He's 謝赫 (459?-532?) book Gu huapin lu 古畫品錄. A similar genre was developed for calligraphic works, shupin 書品, and found its earliest manifestation in Yu Jianwu's 庾肩吾 (487-551) book Shupin 書品. Lastly, the qualitative ranking of artworks corresponded to that of literature works, and lyrics in particular, as seen in Zhong Rong's 鍾嶸 (c. 468-518) poetry critique Shipin 詩品.

Painting critiques discuss the artistic, stylistic and technical achievements of artworks, also by taking into account the ability of artists to express certain thoughts, ideas or concepts. The word pin 品 points at a special function of this genre of critics, namely the relative ranking of individual artworks or the complete work of individual artists as compared to other products and artists. The genre was influenced by the custom of the gentry class of the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Jin Dynasties to evaluate the "moral" standing and virtues of eminent families as a criterion for access to positions and ranks in the officialdom. The concept of the socio-hierarchical ranking in nine classes (jiupin 九品) flourished during the Six Dynasties 六朝 (222~589) and the Sui 隋 (581-618) and Tang 唐 (618-907) periods, but became rare after the Song period 唐 (618-907).

The nine ranks consisted of a double combination of the words "upper" (shang 上), "middle" (zhong 中), and lower (xia 下), resulting in the ranks (cidi 次第) shangshang 上上, shangzhong 上中, shangxia 上下, zhongshang 中上, etc. It was perhaps first used for a moral ranking of person in the table Gujin ren biao 古今人表 (ch. 20) in the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書. The ninefold hierarchy system of the time ranked families according to putative achievement of virtue, and thus pretended that members of higher social classes had higher moral standards. In the realm of art, this would mean that members of higher classes – better trained in social virtues – would produce better artworks.

Most huapin- or shupin-type books have also a historiographical function by including biographies of artists whose background of life was rather unknown if they were not part of the officialdom and did not have a kind of "public career" laid down in official biographies.

The book of Xie He was the paradigm for a whole literary genre dedicated to the classification and rating of painters and their artworks. The scholarly method of such books was ranking and critique (pin ping 品評). Even if such ratings were in fact subjective approaches (even if they pretended to follow objective criteria), huapin books had a great influence on the popularity and history of painting. They preserve titles and objects of paintings that have not survived, and thus give an insight into the artworks of painters of whose personal lives not much is known.

The earliest known book of the huapin genre was Emperor Wu's 梁武帝 (r. 502-549) Zhaogonglu 昭公錄 (lost), in which he made appraisals towards the technical expertise or painters, their inheritance and tradition, styles, and strengths and weaknesses. Xie He's Gu huapin lu was the first book in which standards were created for the ranking and rating of painters, namely the "six skills" (liufa 六法) that are, the ability to create a lifelike tone and atmosphere, building structure through brush-work, depicting the forms of things as they are, appropriate colouring, composition, and transcribing and copying. Xie ranked artworks according to six categories (liupin 六品). The persons in the lowest category (di liu pin 第六品) were by no means bad painters, but were less perfect in the one or other of the six skills.

Xie's work was followed by Yao Zui's 姚最 (536-602) Xu huapin 續畫品, who did not establish classes (pin), but rated the artworks of the Southern and Northern Dynasties era 南北朝 (300~600) according to scholarly criteria. These two books were the fundament of later books of critique on Tang-period painting, like Yan Zong's xxx 彥琮 Houhualu 後畫錄, Li Sizhen's 李嗣真 (d. 696) Xu huapin 續畫品, or Dou Meng's 竇蒙 (c. 750) Huashiyi lu 畫拾遺錄.

Li Sizhen introduced a new rating method of paintings according to the three aspects inspired (shen 神), excellent (miao 妙), and competent (neng 能). Zhu Jingxuan's 朱景玄 (mid-9th cent.) Tangchao minghua lu 唐朝名畫錄 followed Li's new concept and based his evaluation of painters by the four aspects inspired (shen), excellent (miao), competent (neng), and untrammeled (yi 逸). He was also the first author who systematically added short biographies.

An even better insight into the wide social spread of painting during the Song period is possible in the books of Liu Daochun 劉道醇 (c. 1028-1098), namely Wudai minghua buyi 五代名畫補遺 and Shengchao minghua ping 聖朝名畫評. The last of the great classical books of rating paintings is Dong You's 董逌 (early 12th cent.) Guangchuan huaba 廣川畫跋, which is very concise and reliable. He also wrote a counterpart on calligraphy, Guangchuan shuba 廣川書跋. Emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 (r. 1100-1125) of the Song dynasty – as a private artist known by his personal name Zhao Ji 趙佶 – was a great patron of the arts and commissioned the compilation of the art critiques Xuanhe huapu 宣和畫譜, Xuanhe shupu 宣和畫譜, Xuanhe yinpu 宣和印譜, and Xuanhe bogu lu 宣和博古錄. The compilers of these books also operated with the four skills, but in a different order, namely inspired (shen), untrammeled (yi), excellent (miao), and competent (neng).

The Qing-period scholar Huang Yue 黃鉞 (1750-1841) established in his book Ershisi huapin 二十四畫品 a method of rating painting by no less than twenty-four aspects, namely resonance (qiyun 氣韻), inspiration and excellence (shenmiao 神妙), elegance in simplicity (gaogu 高古), freshness (cangrun 蒼潤), profundity and grandeur (chenxiong 沉雄), balance in frugality (chonghe 沖和), floating elementariness (danyi 淡逸), simple sincerity (puzhuo 樸拙), originality (chaotuo 超脫), extraordinariness (qipi 奇僻), unrestrainedness (zongheng 縱橫), uninhibitedness (linli 淋漓), desolateness and coldness (huanghan 荒寒), peacefulness (qingkuang 清曠), personality (xingling 性靈), perfectness (yuanhun 圓渾), depth and quietness (yousui 幽邃), brightness and clarity (mingjing 明凈), robustness and vigour (jianba 健拔), clear succinctness (jianije 簡潔), diligent focusing (jingqin 精勤), lively gracefulness (junshuang 雋爽),startling flexibility (konglin 空靈), and delicate beauty (shaoxiu 韶秀).

Pan Zengying 潘曾瑩 (1808-1878) in his Hongxue Shanfang huapin 紅雪山房畫品 reduced this wide range of ranking and evaluation of paintings to twelve aspects: depth and beauty (youxiu 幽秀), nobility and flawlessness (gaojie 高潔), simplicity with elegance (gudan 古淡), exquisite clearness (qingli 清麗), unconstrained boldness (haofang 豪放), outstanding singularity (chaoyi 超逸), spirit and resonance (shenyun 神韻), peace and distance (xianyuan 閑遠), restrained culturedness (yunjie 蘊藉), beautiful softness (yanrun 嫣潤), outstanding individuality (lengpi 冷僻), and unrestricted freshness (shushuang 疏爽).

The earliest book rating calligraphy works was Yuan Ang's 袁昂 (461-540) brief Gujin shuping 古今書評 with critics on 25 calligraphers. He did not use a ranking. The same is true for Wang Sengqian's 王僧虔 Lunshu 論書. Similar categories were used for the evaluation of calligraphy, as in Yu Jianwu's ninefold categories. Li Sizhen in his Shuhoupin 書後品 added the category "untrammeled" (yipin 逸品) to the 9 pin-ranks). Zhang Huaiguan's 張懷瓘 (early 8th cent.) Shuduan 書斷 and Zhu Changwen's 朱長文 (1039-1098) Xu shuduan 續書斷 rated calligraphies according to the three aspects excellent, inspired and competent (miao, shen, neng). Much later, Bao Shichen 包世臣 (1775-1855), who wrote Yizhou shuangji 藝舟雙楫 introduced five categories, namely the traditional four ones (shen, miao, neng, and yi), and the new category "good" (jia 佳). Apart from "inspired" (shen), all were again divided into upper and lower (shang xia), resulting – once more – in a total traditional number of nine categories.

For his supplementary book Guang yizhou shuangji 廣藝舟雙楫, Kang Youwei 康有為 (1858-1927) made use of 11 categories, at least for the evaluation of stele inscriptions (beiwen 碑). These consisted of the single category shen, and the double categories excellent (miao), lofty (gao 高), refined (jing 精), untrammeled (yi), and competent (neng), with two sub-categories each.

Seal carvings were likewise categorized according to the system, as can be seen in the seal catalogues Yinshuo 印說 of Zhou Yingyuan 周應願 (fl. 1588) and Yijing 印經 of Zhu Jian 朱簡 (b. 1570).

Cui Erping 崔爾平, ed. (1990). Shufa zhuanke shuyu cidian 書法篆刻術語辭典 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 77.
Du Xixian 杜希賢 (1993). "Huapin 畫品", in Zhongguo xiaoxue jiaoxue baike quanshu 中國小學教學百科全書, Vol. Meishu 美術卷 (Shenyang: Shenyang chubanshe), 266.
Jiaoyu da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 《教育大辭典》編纂委員會, ed. (1992). Jiaoyu da cidian 教育大辭典, part 9, Zhongguo gudai jiaoyu shi 中國古代教育史 (Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 137.
Wang Long 王瀧 (1992). "Huapin 畫品", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Meishu 美術 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol 1, 322.
Wang Long 王瀧 (1992). "Shupin 書品", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Meishu 美術 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, 737.