Understanding the debate over form-likeness requires an acknowledgement of ancient Chinese concepts of representation and realism, that were commonly based on and reflected principles of magic realism (painted image perceived as a prototype of a form in nature). Because both ideographic script and pictorial representation functioned as graphic signs that expressed meaning, calligraphy and painting were perceived as having both a representative and presentational function. Privilege was given to capturing, via brushwork, the spirit of a being over its mimetic imitation, and in subscribing to this idea form-likeness would present itself naturally by way of individual expression. As a result, some viewed realism as uninteresting and aesthetically naïve. The poet-official Su Shi is noted for stating,in regards to this debate, that “if anyone discusses painting in terms of formal likeness, his understanding is close to that of a child.” This debate begins to foster political and artistic implications when scholar-officials like Su Shi predict that striving to achieve perfect mimetic representations of nature would lead to the end of Chinese art history since this could be readily achieved (e.g. jiehua paintings). This can help explains why, after the fall of the Southern Song dynasty to the Mongols, artists such as Zhao Mengfu instigate a permanent change in style from mimetic to art historical representation. To avoid this “end”, and motivate artists to master both nature and history, it becomes customary to use past aesthetic traditions and techniques in generating new modes of expression.
“The histories of the arts of Asia, which are often neglected in their countries of origin, remain a relatively understudied field. Modern Chinese artists, for example, who struggle with a traditional Chinese art historiography that is shaped by a cyclical world view based on the rise and fall of dynastic histories, seem to have difficulty in finding meaning and inspiration in traditional art forms. In other words, the traditional representation system does not appear to fit modern Chinese discourse, which sees Western history as a universal model. Having lost the use of the traditional narrative, how is the modern Chinese artist to express himself?”—Wen C. Fong on why Chinese painting is history