In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Japanese Literati Painting and Calligraphy

  • Introduction
  • Publications in Japanese through the Mid-20th Century
  • Surveys and Literati Painting Theory
  • Literati Painting in Japanese Language Book Series
  • Journals in Japanese
  • Haiga
  • Women Literati Artists
  • Knowledge of Chinese and Korean Literati Painting in Japan
  • The Cultural Milieu of Japanese Literati Painters
  • Interchange Between Modern Era Chinese and Japanese Literati Painters and Scholars

Art History Japanese Literati Painting and Calligraphy
Patricia J. Graham, Frank L. Chance
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0163


Literati painting in Japan is generally referred to as Bunjinga (literati painting; Ch. Wen ren hua) or Nanga (Southern School painting; Ch. nan zong hua), both terms borrowed from China. Wen ren hua refers to the status of artists who belonged to the scholar-gentleman class. Nan zong hua was coined by the Chinese painter and theorist Dong Qichang (b. 1555–d. 1636), who used it to describe art by literati, ostensibly amateurs, whose paintings were indebted to their mastery of calligraphy, expressed their inner feelings, and sought to capture the spiritual essence of their subjects. He deemed Nan zong hua superior to that of another so-called “school” of painters he invented, the “northern school,” professionals whose work he declared to be superficial and decorative. In relation to Japanese literati painters, however, this distinction between the southern and northern schools is largely irrelevant. The diverse and very large group of artists defined as literati painters were variously amateurs and professionals who worked in styles inspired by a wide range of Chinese pictorial approaches, which the Japanese learned from imported woodblock-printed painting books, actual paintings, and Chinese and Korean artists and calligraphers who visited or emigrated to Japan, including professional painters, Confucian scholars, and Chan (Zen) Buddhist monks. Some Japanese literati painters were samurai, others commoners. Their commonality is a dedication to and deep knowledge of Sinophile literati culture—particularly Chinese poetry—and their use of Chinese literati painting subjects, especially ink landscapes and themes, such as bamboo, in response to the market demands of Japanese consumers fascinated by Chinese culture. Many also brushed polished and colorful bird-and-flower paintings modeled after the work of Chinese professional painters, and their art was also impacted by native styles then in vogue and by naturalistic rendering drawn from exposure to imported Western art. Some literati artists earned their living as Confucian scholars or writers and painted as an avocation; others worked as professional painters, presiding over independent ateliers with legions of disciples. Although the literati painting movement began in the Kyoto region, it was quickly embraced by artists throughout the country who often traveled and shared ideas. The first writings on the subject date to the early 20th century, but the heyday of scholarship occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, and resulted, in the West, in a large number of dissertations, with the majority dating from the late 1970s through early 1990s. Those that were subsequently revised as published monographs have been omitted from this bibliography.

Publications in Japanese through the Mid-20th Century

As in Kanematsu 1910, the earliest writing on Japanese literati painting was done by literati painters themselves, or, as in Tajima 1909–1910 and Tajima and Ōmura 1899–1908, by scholars who included paintings by literati artists in folios that compiled famous paintings, often with the inclusion of names of famous collectors of the day. Muramatsu 1976–1977 and Umezawa 1919 were the first instances of recording basic biographical information on the artists. Ōmura 1921 took a broader view, emphasizing the importance of Japanese literati painting in connection to China (see a reappraisal of Ōmura in Kirschner 2011, cited under Interchange Between Modern Era Chinese and Japanese Literati Painters and Scholars). In addition to the publications cited in this section, there are numerous monographs and catalogues on individual artists. Later publications on those artists generally reference these and so have not been included here.

  • Muramatsu Shōfū 村松梢風. Honchō gajinden (本朝画人伝). 8 vols. Tokyo: Setsugekka Shōbō, 1976–1977.

    (Biographies of famous Japanese painters). Not exclusively about literati painters, but includes many artists working in this tradition, up to the time of Tomioka Tessai. Originally published 1924.

  • Ōmura Seigai 大村西崖. Bunjinga no fukkō (文人畫の復興) Tokyo: Gogensha, 1921.

    (The Renaissance of literati painting). This important early study, by a specialist of Chinese art in Japan, bemoaned the contemporary neglect of Japanese literati painting and situated it within the great tradition of literati painting history in China. Doing so helped revive interest in literati painting in China itself.

  • Tajima Shi’ichi 田島志一. Nanga jū taikashū (南畫十大家集). 2 vols. Tokyo: Shinbi Shoin, 1909–1910.

    (Ten great masters of literati painting). Short biography of the ten great masters: Volume 1: Ike no Taiga, Yosa no Buson, Tani Bunchō, Tanomura Chikuden, Watanabe Kazan; Volume 2: Okada Hanko, Nakabayashi Chikuto, Tsubaki Chinzan, Yamamoto Baiitsu, Nukina Kaioku. Each plate has a description that provides the name of the painting, its original size, and a summary of the painting’s subject.

  • Tajima Shi’ichi 田島志一 and Ōmura Seigai 大村西崖, ed. Shinbi taikan (真美大觀). 20 vols. Tokyo: Nippon Shimbi Kyōkai, 1899–1908.

    (Selected relics of Japanese art, lit. “Compendium of true beauty”). Stitch-bound paper in cloth folders. Bilingual text. Not exclusively featuring literati painting but includes many examples of famous literati paintings in private, museum, and temple collections. The publisher of the first five volumes was a Buddhist organization with offices at the Zen temple of Kenninji, Kyoto. Ōmura Seigai became chief editor in 1906 when the company relocated to Tokyo.

  • Umezawa Waken 梅澤和軒 (aka Seiichi 精一). Nihon nangashi (日本南畫史) Tokyo: Nan’yōdō Honten, 1919.

    (History of Japanese Nanga painting). The most important prewar publication on the history of Japanese literati painting. Includes information on major artists and the development of the art form. The preface indicates that one reason for the book was to refute misconceptions promulgated by Ernest Fenollosa. Revised in 1929.

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