Confucian and Taoist Principles in Chinese Literati Paintings

James Jordan, Ph.D.

Kong Fuzi and Lao Tze

Confucian and Taoist principles (as summarized by Lao Tze) are inherent throughout Asian art. We have derived our western name "Confucius" from the Latinized form of the original Chinese name K'ung Fu-tz (Wade-Giles romanization) or Kong Fuzi (Pinyin), which literally means "Master Kong".  Kong Fuzi (551 - 479 BC) and Lao Tze (late 6th century BC) lived in a period of decentralized power, war and petty feudal lords who were often corrupt. The result was often famine, suffering and exploitation of common people. As a reformer who wished to change this situation, Kong Fuzi harked back to an earlier Golden Age, that of the Chou Dynasty, which he saw as orderly and peaceful. He attributed this order and peace mainly to the practice of virtue by rulers (e.g., Yao, Shun, the Duke of Chou). The Taoists also looked for an alternative to chaos and suffering, which they to attributed to a kind of corruption. Rather than the greed and calculating which led to war, they advocated a life of natural simplicity in which the best rulers interfere least in the lives of the people (Koller, 2002).

We Wei. Scholar Seated Under a Tree

In this example by We Wei, "Scholar Seated Under a Tree," we see the archetype of the Wise Old Man, that was incorporated by the Chinese to depict the Literati.  Both Confucian and Taoist philosophies advocated love and peace among people.

Confucian Principles.

Confucius emphasized ritual, convention and the importance of ancient tradition. Consequently, paintings were more often scenes depicting idealized ancient traditions, with harmony a central underlying theme. Ideas expressed were that people should practice the virtues associated with their respective positions in a relationship: filial piety as a child, love as a parent, loyalty to the sovereign as a government minister, and wisdom and benevolence as a ruler (Koller, 2002).  Humanity was the highest principle of conduct, but to realize that - one's impulses had to be actively cultivated and regulated through introspection. Rulers were expected to strive to carry out the rituals and ceremonies properly and to instill virtue in their subjects.

Neo-Confucianism was an attempt to revive ancient Confucianism during the Song (also Sung) period (960-1279) and  incorporated some elements of Buddhism and Taoism. It is especially associated with Chu Hsi (1130 - 1200) and the Ch'eng brothers (Ch'eng Hao 1032 - 1085, and Ch'eng Yi 1033 - 1108). The Neo-Confucian schools spoke often of Li (principle) and Ch'i (matter). The Great Ultimate (T'ai-chi), sometimes identified with li, produces everything by generating yin and yang and the five agencies (Koller, 2002).  It is itself either li or a combination of li and ch'i. In Chu Hsi's interpretation, the Great Ultimate is the principle of goodness, representing a harmony of ch'i and li

Taoist Principles.

Unlike Confucianists, the Taoists looked to nature rather than human beings as the source of moral knowledge. Society has to allow itself to conform to the universe. Instead of rules, reflection and active cultivation, Taoists stressed simplicity and spontaneity.  If the Tao of humanity and the Tao of nature are one, there will be peace and harmony, but this is best achieved by action without undue thought.  Yin-yang theory posits the two opposing forces of yin, or non-being, and yang, or being, to explain change, generation and destruction. It offers an answer to the question of how the universe came to be.  The main influence by Taoists in paintings can be seen in the overall composition, that of simplicity.  Other Taoist principles seen are the depictions of nature as a statement of the source of human knowledge, usually shown as a composition of small humans in relation to enormous nature.

The basic thrust of Neo-Confucianism is Confucian. But the yin-yang reversal of opposites is a Taoist idea.  It is harder to find Buddhist elements because the Neo-Confucians often vehemently attacked Buddhism, but their concern with the nature of mind is partly due to the Buddhist influence. A Buddhist influence in art can sometimes be seen in transcendency themes.

The Literati.

As mentioned above, a common Chinese Taoist principle expressed in paintings is the harmony between humans and nature.  This is especially true during the Ming dynasty (15th - 16th century) with the ink and color paintings on silk.  Following 1279, after the Southern Song dynasty fell to the armies of Kublai Khan, the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) began a change in art style.  Here are a few examples of this art style which came to be known as the Literati paintings of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties.  This came about from the southern Chinese scholars who found themselves alienated from the Mongol court (Stokstad, 2004).  They usually had access to government positions for which they were educated, but during the Yuan dynasty these educated men were denied any access.  These scholars, known as the Literati - found other outlets for their talents such as the arts.

Zhao Mengfu. Autumn Colors on the Qiao & Hua Mountains

The above example is by Zhao Mengfu, which is a section from Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains. This was done during the Yuan dynasty in 1296. The Literati painting style was a preference for an earlier - archaic style of painting, an unassuming brushwork, and the sparse use of subtle colors (Stokstad, 2004). Zhao did not paint in the naturalistic style that was prevalent during this time. Instead, he preferred this archaic and elegant style which reflects the Confucian principle of reverence for the elders (filial piety). These paintings were not for public display, but for fellow members of the educated elite. In Zhao Mengfu's Literati painting there is the Taoist principle of harmony with nature with the relationship of trees to mountains depicted. In other parts of the painting, there is only the vaguest hint at human occupation of the land; they are secondary to the real subject matter of this painting - that of nature. The Confucian principle is very evident in the upper part of the painting, a little writing on the subject, perhaps extolling on some personal subject shared between scholars. The Literati favored these handscrolls and hanging scrolls which could easily be rolled up and transported to show to their friends or small gatherings for discussion.

Shen Zhou. Poet on a Mountain Top (1500)

Another example is from Shen Zhou, entitled Poet on a Mountain Top, a sheet from an album of landscapes. This was also painted as a handscroll, but at a later period during the Ming dynasty, about 1500. Once again, the Taoist principle of harmony with nature is evident with the subject matter, in this case, a human communing with nature. The little household is snuggled in the mountains and the poet leaves the shelter to stand before the majesty of nature. As if appearing as a Confucian answer to the "superior man," the poem appears as a vision before him. It reads,

            White clouds like a belt encircle the mountain's waist

            A stone ledge flying in space and the far thin road.

            I lean alone on my bramble staff and gazing contented into space

            Wish the sounding torrent would answer to your flute.

                                    (Translated by Rrichard Edwards, cited in Eight Dynasties of Chinese Paintings, p.185)

The literati style depicted above is an informal, relaxed, and straightforward manner of both calligraphy and painting style, according to Stockstad (2004).  It also depicts the relationship that these Literati scholars strived towards the ultimate achievement - a balance of worldly knowledge (Confucianism) and the Taoist principle of that which is sought, has no name but can only be experienced through nature.  The implication of Shen Zhou's painting is that truth cannot be put into words, only through riddles or in this case, an impressionistic feeling in poetic art form at the feet of mother nature.


Koller, J., (2002).  Asian Philosophies (4th Ed.). Prentice Hall: NJ.

Stokstad, M., (2004). Art: A Brief History (2nd Ed.). Prentice Hall: NJ.