The Medieval World, C. 400–1300

Chinese Art from the Sui to the Yuan Dynasties, C. 589–1368

What are Xie He’s Six Canons?

Xie He was a painter and scholar from the late fifth century who is known for establishing six laws or “canons” of painting. These six canons go a long way in explaining the underlying philosophy of Chinese painting. There is ongoing debate as to the exact translation of each of the canons, but according to James Cahill, author of “The Six Laws and How to Read Them,” they are as follows:

  1. Engender a sense of movement through spirit consonance.
  2. Use the brush with the bone method.
  3. Responding to things, depict their forms.
  4. According to kind, describe appearances [with color].
  5. Dividing and planning, positioning and arranging.
  6. Transmitting and conveying earlier models through copying and transcribing. (see Kleiner 57).

While difficult to understand, Xie He’s principles of painting tell art historians a great deal about what was important to early Chinese painters. The first principle suggests a strong connection between art-making and spirituality. The goal was to capture the spontaneity and intangible spirit-quality of the subject being depicted. The latter principles are slightly more straightforward, and refer to technical skills. Xie He explains how to hold the paint brush, encourages naturalism, and emphasizes skill-development through copying and practice.


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