Ma-Xia School of Painting Flourishes

Named after two famous artists of the Imperial Painting Academy of the Southern Song period, the Ma-Xia school was a distinctive, new style of landscape painting that suggested limitless space and otherworldliness. This style, which included innovative methods of composition, ink washes, and brush strokes, greatly influenced later generations of Chinese and Japanese artists.

Summary of Event

During the Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279), the emperors were devoted patrons of the arts, and the painting Painting;China
China;painting profession developed as never before. When the Jurchen invaded China and captured the Northern Song capital in 1127, the Song imperial family fled to the south and established a new capital in Hangzhou. Thus, the period from 1127 to 1279 is known as the Southern Song Dynasty Southern Song Dynasty;painting . During this time, the Imperial Painting Academy was the center of painting. The supreme expression of Southern Song art was the distinctive Ma-Xia style of landscape painting, named after the famous court artists Ma Yuan Ma Yuan and Xia Gui Xia Gui . [kw]Ma-Xia School of Painting Flourishes[Ma Xia] (c. 1190-1279)
[kw]Painting Flourishes, Ma-Xia School of (c. 1190-1279)
Ma-Xia school[Ma Xia school]
China;c. 1190-1279: Ma-Xia School of Painting Flourishes[2110]
Philosophy;c. 1190-1279: Ma-Xia School of Painting Flourishes[2110]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1190-1279: Ma-Xia School of Painting Flourishes[2110]
Ma Yuan
Xia Gui

Other than some basic history, there is limited biographical information on Ma Yuan. He came from a distinguished family of court artists from Hezhong, Shanxi Province. He may have first served under Emperor Xiaozong (Hsiao-tsung; r. 1163-1190). Later, under Emperor Guangzong (Kuang-tsung; r. 1190-1194), Ma Yuan attained the level of daizhao, or painter-in-attendance. Under Emperor Ningzong (Ning-tsung; r. 1195-1224), he achieved the Golden Girdle, the highest rank a court painter could achieve.

Xia Gui was born in Qiantang (now Hangzhou) and served in the Imperial Academy from 1200 to 1230. A contemporary of Ma Yuan, Xia attained the ranks of daizhao and the prestigious Golden Girdle under Emperor Ningzong. Later, he served under Emperor Lizong (Li-tsung; r. 1225-1264). Stylistically, he followed in the tradition of Li Tang Li Tang (Song painter) (Li T’ang), whose paintings served as the transition between the earlier Northern Song monumental landscapes and the new lyrical, spontaneous, Southern Song style. Li had also developed the brushstroke technique known as the ax stroke, which resembled marks made on wood by a chisel or ax. Xia and Ma both developed Li’s small ax strokes into a broader form called large ax-cut strokes.

Spontaneity, lyricism, and simplified brushstrokes are characteristic of the Ma-Xia tradition. Other qualities and techniques include mists, asymmetrical compositions, intimacy, and variegated ink tones and washes. These were all used to suggest a feeling of open space, vast atmospheric void, infinity, and otherworldliness. Ma-Xia images invited contemplation and intimacy and often suggested melancholy, perhaps reflecting the nostalgia of the exiled royal court.

Dramatic asymmetrical compositions were typical of the Ma-Xia style. Ma Yuan was often called “One-Corner Ma” because of his mastery of the one-corner composition, in which the design weight or painted elements would be focused in one corner, with the rest of the silk or paper left blank or barely tinted to suggest empty space or mist. The album leaf was the most popular form among the academy artists, and many of Ma Yuan’s album and fan paintings have survived. In “On a Mountain Path in Spring” (album leaf, ink and color on silk, collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei), the style is lyrical and intimate, as though capturing a brief moment in time. Mountains, trees, a scholar, and his servant are in the left corner. The scholar watches two birds against the vast open space. A similar compositional arrangement of painted elements appears in another album leaf, “Scholar by a Waterfall” (ink and color on silk, Metropolitan Museum of Art).

In one of Ma Yuan’s major surviving paintings, “Banquet by Lantern Light” (hanging scroll, ink and color on silk, National Palace Museum in Taipei), the scene is a royal banquet, where several guests approach the royal hosts, who are hidden in a lower corner. The well-known Ma Yuan elements of a misty atmosphere, tightly constructed compositions, angular plum trees, floating distant mountains, and tall, strong pines are evident here. The painting is typical of the many nostalgic night scenes he painted.

“The Four Old Recluses in the Shang Mountains” (hand scroll, Cincinnati Art Museum) is another dramatic painting with bold diagonal movement, ax-cut textured rocks, and expressive figures. Other notable paintings include “Rain over Trees on a Rocky Shore” (hanging scroll, Seikado Foundation in Tokyo), “Early Spring” (fan-shaped, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), “An Angler on a Wintry Lake” (hand scroll, national Museum, Tokyo), and “Two Sages and an Attendant Beneath a Plum Tree” (fan-shaped, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

There were many imitators of Ma Yuan’s style. Xia Gui’s work, on the other hand, was difficult to copy or imitate convincingly, because Xia had extraordinary technical virtuosity with the brush, ink values, and texture strokes. His “Pure and Remote Views of Streams and Mountains” (hand scroll, ink on paper, National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan) is one of the most significant paintings and possibly the best example of the ink monochrome technique in the history of Chinese art. This hand or horizontal scroll is viewed like a continuous panorama, as one unrolls one end toward the other, and rolls back the parts already seen. This painting shows Xia’s exacting control of ink values, ranging from soft, pale gray washes to the deepest blacks. He used swift, broken ax-cut strokes and wet and dry brush techniques to sculpt the mountains and define surface textures. Compositionally, there is a clear sense of near, middle, and far distance, and of empty space versus solid objects. Xia Gui’s other classic hand scroll is “Twelve Landscape Views” (ink on paper, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City), in which the scenes take the viewer through time, from morning into night.


After the fall of the Southern Song Dynasty in 1279, Ma-Xia landscape painting became unpopular. Although Sun Junze Sun Junze , an artist in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), painted in this tradition, and professional painters of the Zhe school of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) produced decorative variations of the style, connoisseurs considered the Ma-Xia tradition too professional—just empty technique. Some intellectuals of this period were suspicious of professionalism in the arts, which they felt should be the domain of elite literati who practiced the arts as a social pastime. For this reason, few Ma-Xia paintings survived or were collected in China.

However, the tradition was brought to Japan, where it became very popular. In Japan, the Ma-Xia paintings greatly influenced the styles of Shūbun Shūbun and his student Sesshū, who are considered the two greatest masters of ink painting of the Ashikaga period (1338-1573). Sesshū Sesshū (1420-1506), a Zen Buddhist monk, was often considered the greatest artist of his time. While in China from 1466 to 1469, he copied the techniques of the Southern Song painters. Xia’s influence is obvious in two major hand scrolls by Sesshū, whose Chinese style of ink painting became the model for later Japanese artists.

Ma Yuan and Xia Gui are considered two of China’s greatest masters of landscape painting. Their lyrical, delicate style has also become one of the most popular and recognizable styles of Chinese painting in the West.

Further Reading

  • Barnhart, Richard M., et al. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. The chapter, “The Five Dynasties and the Song Period (907-1279),” discusses the Ma-Xia painters. This oversize book includes beautiful color plates and a helpful glossary.
  • Cahill, James. Chinese Paintings: XI-XIV Centuries. New York: Crown, 1960. Includes interesting analyses of paintings by Ma Yuan and Xia Gui.
  • Fong, Wen C., and James Watt. Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996. Informative discussions of the Ma-Xia school and its artists, especially in the chapter on the Imperial Painting Academy of the Song dynasty. Beautifully illustrated with examples of paintings by the Ma-Xia artists.
  • Lee, Sherman E. Chinese Landscape Painting. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1962. Informative chapter on “The Song Dynasty,” with detailed discussion of famous paintings by Ma Yuan and Xia Gui. Beautifully illustrated book with plates on almost every page.
  • Loehr, Max. The Great Painters of China. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Includes an interesting chapter, “Painters of the Southern Song (1127-1278),” which discusses Ma Yuan, Xia Gui, and Ma Lin. Illustrated.
  • Sirén, Osvald. Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles. Vol. 2. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1973. In this standard history of Chinese painting, volume 2 contains a detailed chapter on the Ma-Hsia school of painting.
  • Sullivan, Michael. Symbols of Eternity: The Art of Landscape Painting in China. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1979. The chapter, “Realism Achieved and Abandoned: The Song Dynasty, 960-1279” examines the work and style of Ma Yuan and Xia Gui.