Confucian Principles in Chinese Painting: Beginner's Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read


  1. What is Confucianism?
  2. How does Confucianism influence Chinese painting?
  3. Symbols and motifs in Confucian painting
  4. Famous Confucian painters and their works
  5. How to identify Confucian principles in paintings
  6. How to appreciate Confucian paintings

Chinese painting is a treasure trove of history, culture, and philosophy. One of the most influential philosophies seen in this art form is Confucianism. As we explore the world of Chinese landscape painting, you'll see how deeply Confucian principles are woven into the art, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly. Let's begin our journey into understanding Confucian principles in Chinese landscape painting.

What is Confucianism?

Confucianism is more than a philosophy; it's a way of life that has guided Chinese society for over two millennia. Named after its founder, Confucius, this philosophy emphasizes ethics, social harmony, and personal growth.

The Core Concepts of Confucianism

There are several key ideas you should know about Confucianism:

  • Rén: This represents benevolence, compassion, and the essential goodness of human beings. It's about treating others kindly and respectfully.
  • Yì: This stands for righteousness. It means knowing what is right and having the moral courage to do it.
  • Lǐ: This refers to ritual propriety, the set of rules and etiquette for behavior and interactions in society.
  • Zhì: This is wisdom or knowledge. Confucius placed a high value on learning and education.
  • Xìn: This denotes honesty and trustworthiness. It's about being true to one's word.

Confucianism in Daily Life

Confucianism isn't just philosophical musings, but practical guidelines for everyday life. Its principles guide everything from personal interactions to governance. It fosters a society where everyone knows their role and respects others. In this way, Confucianism helps build a harmonious and orderly society.

Confucianism and Art

Art, including Chinese landscape painting, is one of the many ways Confucian principles are expressed. Artists use visual metaphors and symbols to depict these principles. They create works that not only please the eye but also encourage the viewer to reflect on Confucian values. As we journey further into the world of Confucian principles in Chinese landscape painting, you'll start recognizing these elements in various artworks.

How does Confucianism influence Chinese painting?

Confucianism has a significant influence on Chinese painting, shaping not only the content of the artwork but also the artist's approach and technique. It's like a hidden thread, connecting the elements of the painting and guiding the hand of the artist. Let's see how this works.

Confucian Values in Art

Confucian values like ethics, harmony, and personal growth often become the central theme of the painting. Artists express these values through various symbols and metaphors in their work. For instance, a painting of a tree standing firm amidst a storm might reflect the Confucian principle of Yì, or righteousness. Similarly, a tranquil landscape with harmonious elements can symbolize the Confucian ideal of a balanced and orderly society.

Art as a Means of Moral Education

Confucianism considers art as a powerful tool for moral education. Confucius himself was a great advocate of using music and poetry for moral and intellectual development. In line with this, Chinese painters often use their artwork to impart moral lessons based on Confucian principles. When you look at a Chinese landscape painting, it's not just about admiring the beauty of the scene; it's also about understanding the moral message that the artist wants to convey.

The Role of the Artist

Confucianism also shapes the role of the artist in society. In Confucian thought, the artist is not just a creator of beautiful things but also a moral exemplar. The artist's character and integrity are believed to be reflected in their work. Therefore, to create a great painting, the artist must first cultivate themselves according to Confucian principles. It's not just about mastering the brush; it's about living the values that you want to express in your art.

Through these various ways, Confucianism leaves its mark on Chinese painting, making it a rich tapestry of moral and philosophical insights. As you delve deeper into Confucian principles in Chinese landscape painting, you'll begin to see the layers of meaning behind each brush stroke.

Symbols and motifs in Confucian painting

Decoding the symbols and motifs in Confucian painting is like reading a visual language. These symbols are not just decorative elements; they carry profound meanings that reflect Confucian principles. Let's get acquainted with some of these symbols.

Trees and Plants

Trees and plants are common elements in Chinese landscape painting. They are often symbols of moral virtues in Confucianism. For example, the bamboo represents resilience and integrity, because it bends but does not break under strong winds. Similarly, the pine tree, which stays green all year round, symbolizes endurance and steadfastness. By including these elements in their artwork, painters convey the message of perseverance and moral fortitude.


Animals also play significant roles as symbols in Confucian painting. The dragon, a powerful creature in Chinese mythology, represents the emperor and the power of transformation. The crane, known for its graceful and peaceful demeanor, embodies longevity and wisdom. When you see these animals in a painting, they are not just there for their aesthetic appeal; they are conveying a deeper, Confucian message.

Mountains and Water

Mountains and water are central elements in Chinese landscape painting. In Confucian thought, mountains represent the moral high ground, while water symbolizes humility and adaptability. A waterfall flowing down a mountain, for example, depicts the ideal of a wise person who remains humble despite their high position.

These symbols and motifs give life to Confucian principles in Chinese landscape painting. As you learn to recognize and understand them, you'll find that every painting is not just a picture, but a story waiting to be read.

Famous Confucian painters and their works

Just like in any other art form, there are several influential figures in Confucian painting whose works have stood the test of time. Their paintings are not just masterpieces of art, but also windows into the rich tapestry of Confucian principles and Chinese culture. Let's get to know some of these painters and their iconic works.

Wang Ximeng

Wang Ximeng is a legendary figure in Chinese painting, known for his masterpiece "A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains." This painting is a grand panorama of a vibrant landscape filled with mountains, rivers, trees, and tiny figures. With a keen eye, you can spot the Confucian principles of harmony and balance echoed throughout the painting.

Zhao Mengfu

Zhao Mengfu was a prominent painter during the Yuan Dynasty. His painting "Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains" depicts a peaceful landscape that embodies the Confucian principles of tranquility and simplicity. The painting invites the viewer to appreciate the beauty of the natural world and the calm it brings.

Wen Zhengming

Wen Zhengming, a leading figure in the Ming Dynasty, is known for his literati paintings. One of his notable works is "The Garden of the Unsuccessful Politician." It's a series of scenes that depict a peaceful garden retreat, symbolizing the Confucian ideal of withdrawal and reflection in the face of political failure.

These painters have left an indelible mark on Confucian painting with their unique styles and profound understanding of Confucian principles. Their works provide us with valuable insights into the visual language of Confucianism in Chinese landscape painting.

How to identify Confucian principles in paintings

Now that you're familiar with a few famous Confucian painters and their works, you might be wondering how to identify Confucian principles in Chinese landscape paintings. While it's not always a straightforward task, there are a few principles and elements you can look for.


One of the fundamental Confucian principles is harmony, which is often represented by the balance of elements in a painting. Look for signs of symmetry between natural elements like rivers and mountains, or between man-made structures and the natural world. When you see a painting where everything feels just right and in its place, it's likely embodying the Confucian principle of harmony.

Humanity (Ren)

Ren, or humanity, is another core principle in Confucianism. In a painting, this might be depicted through compassionate human figures or interactions between people. For instance, a painting might show a scholar teaching a group of students or a family sharing a meal together.

Order and Hierarchy

Confucian principles in Chinese landscape painting also emphasize order and hierarchy. Look for signs of this in the layout of a painting, with certain elements placed higher or lower than others, or larger or smaller, to signify their importance.

Identifying Confucian principles in paintings is a bit like learning a new language. Once you grasp the basics, you'll start to see these principles playing out in all sorts of ways. It'll deepen your appreciation of the artwork and give you new insights into the rich world of Confucian principles in Chinese landscape painting.

How to appreciate Confucian paintings

With the ability to identify Confucian principles in Chinese landscape painting, you're well on your way to fully appreciating these beautiful works of art. Here are some additional tips to enhance your experience.

Slow Down and Observe

True appreciation comes from taking the time to really look at a painting. Notice the balance of colors, the way the brush strokes come together to form an image, and the overall composition of the painting. Much like reading a novel, you'll find the story within the painting unfolds as you give it time.

Understand the Context

Art doesn't exist in a vacuum—it reflects the culture, the times, and the personal experiences of the artist. Understanding the context of when and why a painting was created can give you a deeper appreciation of the work. For instance, learning about the Confucian values of a specific historical period can provide insight into the themes and symbols present in the artworks of that time.

Personal Reflection

Lastly, art is a personal experience. What feelings does the painting evoke in you? How does it connect with your own experiences and worldview? By reflecting on these questions, you can connect more deeply with the work.

Remember, appreciating art is a journey, not a destination. Each painting offers a new opportunity to explore and learn. With these tips in mind, you're ready to dive deeper into the world of Confucian principles in Chinese landscape painting. Enjoy the journey!

If you're intrigued by the connection between Confucian principles and Chinese painting, we recommend checking out Eric Drummond's workshop, 'Classical Painting in the Modern Day.' This workshop will help you understand the deeper meaning behind traditional Chinese art and how these techniques can be applied to contemporary painting. Don't miss the chance to learn from an expert and further your artistic journey.