The Art of ‘Liu Bai’

The Art of ‘Liu Bai

Luo ping


Chinese painting is the cream of Chinese culture. It is a unique school of fine art, a school that, in style and techniques, is vastly different from any other fine art school in the world. As such, Chinese painting has problems in appealing to foreigners and other interested parties even though they can learn something from the works and fall for the poetic pictures.


The most fundamental question addressed to Chinese art is: why do Chinese painters always create works so sparingly? Chinese painters always not only like to paint using just one color of ink – black – but also like to paint using only a few simple lines and dots even though it leaves most of the canvas blank.

It is easy to answer the first problem. Chinese painters are good at using Chinese ink meticulously to produce a lot of subtle tonalities and shades. This is the reason why some critics said that ‘ink has five colors.’ The second problem is hard to answer because its existence relates closely to spirit of the Taoist and art appreciation theory. ‘Liu Bai’ is the general term for the significant blankness in Chinese arts. ‘Liu’ means ‘leave’; ‘Bai’ means ‘blankness’.

Why do Chinese painters use the special ‘Liu Bai’ style in their works?

First of all, it derives strength from its unique perspective on art theory. In comparison with western painting, the execution of Chinese painting is done with more free and bold brush strokes and without perspective. Artists suggest that real art does not imitate real life or recreate life details but expresses the a sense of the spirit by concentrating natural images. Take Qi Baishi①’s ‘Shrimp’ for example,: there are just some shrimps in view, there is no grass floating around, there’s not even more any water! The work is filled with ‘blankness’. But you can learn about nature’s vital force from just these few shrimps because Qi Baishi simply wanted to focus on and express the life force of nature.

What is more, ‘Liu Bai’ can create further effects beyond this. ‘Liu Bai’ is at its best with free style painting②. There are three cases I want to show you the shortcoming of realism genre.

Take ‘A clearing autumn day at Yuzhuang’ for the first example. The artist, Ni Zan③, described in his work a desolate scene of six trees, an open river and mountains in the far distance with a few simple strokes of very dry ink. Would he try to depict every one of the river waves and floating clouds into his work to full the blankness? No, he wouldn’t, because all of the strokes are used sparingly to express the clear sky and coldish, dry weather of autumn.

Please take a look at ‘Lonely fishing on the cold river’, the second example. The artist, Ma Yuan④, depicted a lonely fisherman sitting at in a lonely boat with a bamboo fishing rod in hands. The fisherman is a hermit; he was just enjoying the happiness of solitude. The life style is the ideal life of ancient scholars. How is it possible to portray this character and express this state of mind simply by lines and dots?

Last but not least, I want to show in this section is ‘Bamboo’ created by Zhen Xie⑤. Would you please imagine the picture full of bamboo leaves, black soil without any white space? In contrast to the relaxed feel of the Liu Bai painting, your eyes would feel overwhelmed and tired.

The above-mentioned cases are all apt examples to prove that ‘Liu Bai’, with its faithful to nature blankness, can play a key role in expressing the meaning that we want to express. There used to be a saying that goes, ‘a few key spring landscapes have the enough power to move you.’ Sometimes, excessively recreating things in an effort to be ‘original’ will interfere with the artists’ ability to convey a sense of ‘spirit’.

Maybe you want to ask another question: are there some profound meanings hidden in the Liu Bai’? You would be right. There are two theories.

One is from Taoism. An English science historiographer once said, ‘a complex of subtle of conceptions lies at the base of all subsequent Chinese scientific thought’. And I think Taoism also deeply influenced the thought of Chinese painters, such as the ‘Liu Bai’. There is a famous sentence from ‘Tao Te Ching,: ‘great straightness seems twisted; great intelligence seems stupid; great eloquence seems awkward’. There is also similar expression about art that ‘great music seems but a few sounds, great pictures seems to have no picture’. Ancient artists and philosophers suggested that the most wonderful music comes not from musical instruments or from the throats of human beings, but from Nature. And yet nature, including the wind, rain and rivers, just sings to us. It is similar to pictures: the most beautiful picture also comprises the basic elements of nature, such as the sky, earth, river yet using simplicity to express its boundlessness. Not only nature, but also the spirit, and state of mind, all of these are the targets of fine art. Appreciating this, you will marvel at the discovery that ‘Liu Bai’ were able to express so much using just space. It also accord with another sentence in ‘Tao Te Ching’, ‘great fullness seems empty; and it cannot be exhausted’. This is a unique view through a unique culture.

The Liu Bai’ preference of Chinese painters is influenced by the appreciative principle , in addition to Taoism. Some critics say that art appreciation is a  two-way process. The first process is made by artists: they concentrated the images and express the mind through their works. And the audiences finish the process through their imagination and empathy. To some extent, imagination space had an influence on the rise and fall of the art work; the primary element is ‘Liu Bai’ because only a significant blankness can arouse people’s appetite.

The idea of Liu Bai’ is not only applied to making fine art and other art works, such as bonsais, calligraphy, music and gardens, it also works in one’s social life as well. This is what traditional Chinese philosophy and art are all about. Over time, more and more artforms using Liu Bai’ will be discovered and appreciated in all of Chinese culture.



Qi Baishi: (1863-1957), the famous masters of modern China.

②free style painting: In comparison with the elaborate and meticulous painting, the execution of free style painting is done with more free and bold brush strokes.

Ni Zan:(1301-1374), one of the four famous masters of Yuan paintings.

Ma Yuan: (1140-1225), the famous masters of Song dynasty.

Zhen Xie: (1693-1765) also named Zhen Banqiao, one of the eight famous masters of Qing dynasty.


  1. Guide to the Shanghai Museum’s galleries by Education Department of the Shanghai Museum
  2. Traditional culture
  3. Dictionary of Art Terms by Edward Lucie-Smith




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