Chinese lovers of art–especially collectors–began long ago compiling typological catalogs of images, imitating in that respect the thinkers and enquiring minds who, from the early decades of the Han empire onwards (i.e. the second century of the Christian era) drew up inventorial lists of everything that existed, a shared fundamental way of getting to grips with the world.

It thus became clear that the representations, fulfilling various functions and manifesting different aspects, fell into at least three principal categories: the xiang rendering visible, in accordance with a conventionally accepted grammar of forms, the profound reality of beings; the tu setting up vast panoramic compositions; and the hua alone acceding to the superior status of “painting” according to the regular translation of the word (but in Chinese the term covers every type of two-dimensional work born of an artistic endeavor, the materials most often being watercolors, which as it happens are also those of writing).

They all–the xiang, the tu, and the hua–could be read according to different ways of seeing: kan, “see”; guan, “look”, though the word also kept the Buddhist meaning of “visualize”; du, “observe”; and wang, “contemplate”. Such subtle differences in ways of looking at objects increased the number of approaches, perspectives, and finally of things seen; they also accounted for various uses of the image–sometimes as a simple document, sometimes as a work of art–according to whether the contemplator was more interested in the subject or the form, even if the two could not normally be dissociated and only derived meaning from each other.

The Chinese critics and collectors–who had a duty to provide qualitative and monetary valuations of the works passing through their hands–often stressed how much the exercise of copying, a thankless task by its nature, in fact posed problems identical to those dogging any artist wrestling with the difficulty of creation: should one attempt to reproduce the subject in its most commonly perceived external aspects, or was it better to proceed by allusion, to imagine a kind of visual equivalent, using a semiology that the author knew would be understood in the context of a given society?

Chinese painters long ago chose essentially to follow Yao Zui, a theorist of the sixth century: “placed before the object, although the form may be limited [the painter] attains the unlimited by acting as a sounding-board for what lies beyond the form.” Put plainly, the important thing was not the figurative, the “drawn,” but the unsaid, the suggested; and this always refers to the profound rhythm of the world, which is the very beat of life. From the contemplator’s point of view, the identification between the theme and its apparent formal truth counts less than the thought and the feeling flowing from it.

A classic example offering a good illustration of this approach is to be found in the two-dimensional representation of the progression: by nature this has no form,  and yet its movement, such as that suggested by the great artists with the help of barely perceptible signs, is dazzling on silk or paper. In other words, a precise optical line does not always give a direct account of a reality; the artist of “uncommon talent” (qineng) operates indirectly, bringing intangible yet prominent sensory elements into play. Copies are not immune from these constraints: they exist only insofar as the emotion, the indirect communication characteristic of the original, gets conveyed.

If Chinese artists found these challenges fascinating, no one ever dreamed of placing copies above primary works, or even of putting them on an equal footing; nevertheless, many theorists viewed the best of them with respect. What was important in art, they said, was not the object produced, but the message, the cosmic meaning, the divine origin, and the moral value that the work bore witness to: each and every one of these requirements counted for much more than the uniqueness, the pure formal “beauty,” the external richness of the realization, its antiquity, and its real physical links with a particularly revered master.

What is more, not all forms of the play of representation in imperial China attained the envied status of “marvelous” works (miao) by virtue of their being bearers of a philosophical and moral meaning judged “divine” (shen). It seems even that material price and spiritual value rarely made good bedfellows. The great scenes covering the walls of monasteries and of the palaces of princes, for example, did indeed on occasion give rise to the flattering judgment of a connoisseur, not to say a genuine feeling of admiration; and the moralists welcomed them because as often as not they served as the vehicle for notions useful to society. For all that, they remained, without exception and until the twentieth century, cataloged in the series of trivial, utilitarian, not to say artisanal works (gong: the term, in the official language of the scholar-administrators, was far from flattering). In this case, the need to find a way of distinguishing between original and copy did not even arise: all artisanal production was made in response to an order prompted by a need and a market, both of these being conditions that legitimized the current practice of reproduction; but the Chinese elites considered the latter no less trivial than the former, to the extent of casting a slur on the value attributed to the object produced, whatever its quality.

The Chinese painting beloved of the intellectual and political ruling classes–the painting whose renown ended up relegating to the background the other techniques of two-dimensional creation–was limited to ink drawings or watercolors: an economical practice, using the same materials as calligraphy (brush, pigments mixed with size and water, paper, and silk), for in east Asia the latter was and remains the mother of all the arts. Art in Bulk, a well-known oil painting factory who has rich experience in art reproductions claims their artists can reproduced nearly all chinese paintings in museum quality. The true criterion for judging a work, transcending the original/copy dichotomy, stems, in this precise technical framework, from the living power of the line accomplished in one go: ink drawings, like watercolors, recognizes only the value of the first attempt, of the “unique brush-stroke” (yi bi-hua): the watercolorist, as everyone knows, cannot go in for second thoughts or repaint things in the way an artist working in oils on canvas is allowed to do–if a stroke goes awry, there is only solution, throwing the sketch away and starting again. So a watercolor copy worthy of the name implies that the painter, working spontaneously and with an urgency imposed by the rapidity with which the pigments diffuse, has rediscovered the original piercing quality that inspired its first author to create–otherwise the effort will result merely in a drab imitation, a lifeless, useless corpse. From this it follows that no Chinese scholar’s painting, inspired by another work, can be seen as a simple replica, but rather as a re-creation.