The Song dynasty (960–1279) was culturally the most brilliant era in later imperial Chinese history. A time of great social and economic change, the period in large measure shaped the intellectual and political climate of China down to the twentieth century. The first half of this era, when the capital was located at Bianliang (modern Kaifeng), is known as the Northern Song period.
The early Northern Song dynasty witnessed the flowering of one of the supreme artistic expressions of Chinese civilization: monumental landscape painting. Retreating to the mountains to escape the turmoil and destruction that occurred at the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907), tenth-century recluse-painters discovered in nature the moral order that they had found lacking in the human world. In their visionary landscapes, the great mountain, towering above the lesser mountains, trees, and men, was like “a ruler among his subjects, a master among servants.” Later, Song court painters transformed these idealized images of nature into emblems of a perfectly ordered state.
An important outgrowth of Song political unification after the war-torn Five Dynasties period (907–60) was the creation of a distinctive style of court painting under the auspices of the Imperial Painting Academy. Painters from all parts of the empire were recruited to serve the needs of the court. Over time, the varied traditions represented by this diverse group of artists were welded together into a harmonious Song academic manner that valued a naturalistic, closely descriptive portrayal of the physical world. Under Emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1125), himself an accomplished painter and calligrapher, imperial patronage and the ruler’s direct involvement in establishing artistic direction reached a zenith. While maintaining that the fundamental purpose of painting was to be true to nature, Huizong sought to enrich its content through the inclusion of poetic resonance and references to antique styles.
The momentous political shift during the early Song—from a society ruled by a hereditary aristocratic order to a society governed by a central bureaucracy of scholar-officials chosen through the civil-service examination—also had a major impact on the arts. As a ruling elite, these Neo-Confucian scholars regarded public service as their principal calling, but factional strife sometimes forced them to retire from political engagement, during which time they often pursued artistic interests. Dissatisfied with the rigidity and oversophistication of early Northern Song calligraphy, eleventh-century scholars sought to revive the natural, spontaneous qualities of more archaic models. The literati also applied their new critical standards to painting. Rejecting the highly realistic descriptive style followed by the professional painters of the Imperial Painting Academy, they also departed from the official view that art must serve the state. Instead, the amateur scholar-artist pursued painting and calligraphy for his own amusement as a forum of personal expression.