SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Painting and Visual Culture in China

Module Code:
Unit value:
30 credits - 1.0 unit
Year of study:

This course explores the multi-polarity of the field of Chinese art history today by investigating the historical methodologies, canons, practices and other forces by which it has been shaped. The course is primarily focussed on the brush arts of painting and calligraphy, encompassing a reading of brush traces as special acts and sites of human endeavor, but considers other pictorial art forms, notably the reproductive media of ink-rubbing and printing, and contemporary media. Necessarily, this course builds on a preliminary survey of art in China, before focussing more closely on themes and issues in specific phases and movements during the dynasty era and into the present. There is emphasis throughout on current events and initiatives in the field, including the ways art is collected, displayed, accessed and communicated through exhibitions, conferences and websites. Generally, the genres, themes and periods to be studied relate to current exhibitions or other events and meetings. Modernity is a perennial issue, and relevant artistic themes include, but are not limited to imperialism, colonialism and nationalism, the advance of technologies relevant to visual culture, and the roles of city life, travel and mass communication.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

Course Objectives:
  • An understanding of the methods, practice and key issues in painting and visual culture in relation to painting in China.
  • A context for critical appraisal by the students of various methodologies for the study of Chinese visual culture.
  • A range of skills relevant to an understanding of painting, calligraphy.
  • Preparation for advanced or independent study of a specific research topic.
Learning outcomes:

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • have gained advanced knowledge and understanding of the themes, issues and debates of Chinese art relating to: social contexts; processes of representation; and ways in which meaning is constituted, through in depth examples.
  • be able to compare and evaluate different approaches to understanding art traditions in China.
  • be able to assess critically the materials and themes explored in the course through the use of particular examples from China.
  • have gained knowledge and understanding of the range of skills used in art history and to have developed independent study and research and presentation skills.
  • be able to provide a basis for further study at a PG research level for advanced students.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Scope and syllabus

The course primarily complements other MA offerings in East Asian archaeology, art history and museum practice.

The course is structured around 10 sessions on core themes, complemented by sessions on specific artworks, genres or periods of study and museum visits and viewings:

  • Approaching Chinese painting – a practical guide
  • Mapping the field: issues in periodisation, genres, techology and practices
  • Art theories and practices in China
  • Anatomy of a painting: Admonitions  and women
  • Collections, canons, objects and the mounting of exhibitions
  • Painting media and mounting formats
  • Significant form: ink outline and calligraphy
  • The art economy: society, values, obsessions
  • Court art & patronage
  • Religious art

Method of assessment

  • One  4 000 words independently researched essay (worth 56%)
  • One presentation (worth 15%)
  • One seminar participation (worth 9%)
  • One slide test (worth 20%)

Suggested reading

  • Clunas, Craig. Elegant Debts : The Social Art of Wen Zhengming, 1470-1559. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.
  • Clunas, Craig. Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China. London: Reaktion Books, 1997.
  • Fong, Wen C, and James CY Watt. Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996.
  • Harrist, Robert E, Jr, and Wen C Fong. The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B Elliott Collection. Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1999.
  • Ledderose, Lothar. Ten Thousand Things: Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art. Princeton, 1999.
  • McCausland, Shane (ed.) Gu Kaizhi and the Admonitions Scroll. London: British Museum Press in conjunction with the Percival David Foundation, 2003.
  • Thorp, Robert & Richard Vinograd. Chinese Art and Culture. New York, 2001.
  • Yang Xin, et al. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven & London: Yale University Press/Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1997.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules