The literati painting or wenrenhua (文人畫) is the ideal form of the Chinese scholar-painter who was more interested in personal erudition and expression than in literal representation or an immediately attractive surface beauty. First formulated in the Northern Song period (960–1127)—at which time it was called shidafuhua (士大夫畫, scholar-official painting)—by the poet-calligrapher Su Shi (蘇軾), the ideal of the literati painting was finally and enduringly codified by the great Ming dynasty critic and painter Dong Qichang (董其昌), who identified two great lineages of painters.
One lineage was the “Southern school,” beginning with the poet-painter Wang Wei (王維) in the Tang dynasty and continuing with such masters as Dong Yuan (董源) and Juran (巨然) in the Five Dynasties period, Mi Fu (米芾) in the Northern Song, the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty, and the Wu school artists of the second half of the 15th and first half of the 16th centuries (Ming dynasty). The paintings of the artists in this grouping are characterized generally by subjective, personal, and expressive treatment of reality.
The aim of these artists was not to depict nature realistically—that could be left to the professionals—but to express themselves, to “satisfy the heart.” They spoke of merely “borrowing” the literal shapes and forms of things as a vehicle through which they could “lodge” their thoughts and feelings. In this amateur painting mode of the scholars, skill was suspect because it was the attribute of the professional and court painter. The scholars valued spontaneity above all, even making a virtue of awkwardness as a sign of the painter’s sincerity.
In contrast were those artists more interested in precise and decorative paintings, beginning with Li Sixun (李思訓) in the Tang dynasty and continuing with artists of the Southern Song academy and their heirs of the Zhe school in the Ming dynasty. According to the principle of the literati painting, the completely literate, cultured artist—learned in all the humane arts—who revealed the privacy of his vision in his painting was preferred over the “professional,” whose paintings were more obviously pleasing to the eye. The contrast is overly categorical, but it is useful still in understanding the major interests and intentions of Chinese painters through the ages.