Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Chinese graphic Modus Operandi

In less known Chinese paintings from the 13th century, a notable degree of convergence between orthogonality and local regions of a scene ameliorate the strong illusion of divergence that is perceived in the strict orthographic scheme. This subtle form of oblique convergence seems likely to have been developed to compensate for this divergence illusion. The widespread employment of these stylistic choices in Chinese painting is evaluated in the framework of Panofsky’s characterization of perspective as a symbolic rather than literal form of spatial representation and its role in the culture of the imperial courts of the Chinese dynasties.

How was it, then, that the Chinese painter, who insisted on truth to natural appearance, should have been so ignorant of even the elementary laws of perspective as the West understands it? The answer is that he deliberately avoided it, for the same reason that he avoided the use of shadows. … Why, he asks, should we restrict ourselves? Why, if we have the means to depict what we know to be there, paint only what we can see from one viewpoint? (Sullivan, 1984, p. 176)

The Colors of Mount Taihang by Wang Hui, Dated 1669

For Chinese culture, parallel projection was a sort of symbolic form, profoundly rooted in a pictorial experience that knew almost no interruption until the recent past.  Shen Kuo writes, “the proper way of painting a landscape is to see the small from the viewpoint of the large, just as one looks at artificial mountains in gardens (as one walks around).” This angle of totality is not just an aerial view, but also oblique parallel projection: a cavalier viewpoint.

shen-yan example | Along the River 7-119-3 portion

It is true that oblique projection was incapable of rendering depth since its geometrical nature meant that it could not cope with diminutions or convergences. But Chinese artists had made recourse to expedients that were able to give the impression of ‘distancing’.

ping-yuan example | Old Trees, Level Distance by Guo Xi

Chinese landscape painters were able practitioners of aerial or atmospheric perspective. In the tenth century, painter-scholar Guo Xi was the first to codify ways of representing the third dimension in landscape painting. His text distinguished three types of distances: high distance (gao-yuan) was customarily used in vertical format works, in which a series of towering mountain ranges, each constituting a horizon in itself, is seen from below looking upwards; deep distance composition (shen-yan), the most commonly used, with the spectator placed at a high vantage point looking down; and level distance (ping-yuan), in which the scenery stretches away broadly and the spectator has an uninterrupted view into infinity.

The adherence to the parallel construction, despite the fact that the perceptual divergence is so strong, speaks to the dominance of the parallel perspective rule in the Chinese graphic modus operandi. This artistry can be fully appreciated in the 14th-century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms attributed to Luo Guanzhong.

The arrest of Consort Dong, with Emperor Xian of Han helpless in the background; a depiction from a Qing dynasty printed version of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Set in the turbulent years towards the end of the Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history, starting in 169 AD and ending with the reunification of the land in 280. The story – part historical, part legend, and part mythical – dramatises the lives of feudal lords and their retainers, who tried to replace the dwindling Han dynasty or restore it. While the novel follows hundreds of characters, the focus is mainly on the three power blocs that emerged from the remnants of the Han dynasty, and would eventually form the three states of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu. The novel deals with the plots, personal and military battles, intrigues, and struggles of these states to achieve dominance for almost 100 years. This fictional classic novel is an illustrated art of war and storytelling.

An illustration from a Ming dynasty printed edition of the novel from 1591, collection of the Peking University.
literature: Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Wikipedia /// Chinese Perspective as a Rational System: Relationship to Panofsky’s Symbolic Form, Christopher W. Tyler and Chien-Chung Chen /// Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Wang Hui at The MET

Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Chinese graphic Modus Operandi

Chinese perspective is seen to follow well-prescribed principles and to act on a rational solution to the problem of depicting perspective in a scroll format. Its dominating principle is that of oblique orthographic perspective (in which transversals are shown as horizontal and receding orthogonal conform to a uniform oblique).