Among the various types of traditional Chinese paintings, I am partial to monochromatic works that are impressionistic or even abstract. While many prefer the vivacious colours and meticulous detail of paintings commissioned by the imperial courts and similar works (and there is nothing wrong with that – to each their own), I prefer the interplay between infinite shades of black ink and paper that creates multiple textures and illusions of light and shadow. The affinity for black-and-white ink painting was strong among the literati in China’s late imperial period, during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912). Colours were for formal court portraits and gewgaws. By the early 20th century, however, when China was in the throes of foreign invasions and revolution, a new school of Chinese painting emerged, the Lingnan School, which bucked centuries of inherited wisdom. The word “Lingnan”, which means “south of the mountains”, is a geographical appellation that refers to a region in China that is located to the south of five sprawling mountain ranges. Consisting of a larger area in the past, Lingnan in the present day is generally taken to mean the region covering Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau. The Lingnan School was so named because its founders, artists Gao Jianfu, Gao Qifeng and Chen Shuren, all hailed from the province of Guangdong, which was also where they developed a bold and progressive style of painting in the early 20th century. However, the founders never referred to themselves as the Lingnan School. In fact, they were not very impressed with the name because they found the geographical reference limiting and thought that it might take the focus off their art. They were concerned that they would be construed as just another group of regional artists. Despite their misgivings, the name stuck. The Lingnan School was very much a product of that particular period in China’s history, where millennia of Chinese tradition and modern ideas that originated in the West collided with a resounding crash. Its founders and proponents advocated the incorporation of Western styles into Chinese paintings to create artworks that were still Chinese in essence, but infused with modernity and dynamism. An immediately apparent feature of the Lingnan School is its use of colours. The subjects of the paintings are rendered in rich and vibrant hues. Sometimes, even the backgrounds are saturated with colours to bring out the subjects in the foreground. The generous use of colours was one way in which the early masters of the Lingnan School rejected the centuries-old tradition that championed and celebrated the austerity of black-and-white works. From tokens to ‘vaccine passports’: a history of Chinese travel documents The founders of the Lingnan School established art schools where they taught their art to students, who in turn imparted the Lingnan style to their students. Among the most famous and influential artists of the Lingnan School were Zhao Shao’ang (1905-1998), also known as Chao Shao-an, who was the student of Gao Qifeng, and Guan Shanyue (1912-2000), who was Gao Jianfu’s student. Zhao was considered one of the best painters of the flower-and-bird genre of his time, and Guan’s landscapes, or “mountains and bodies of water” (shanshui), are stunning in their splendour. Like most styles of art, the Lingnan School has outgrown its early rebellion and radicalism. In fact, it is even considered somewhat old-fashioned by many of today’s artists, curators and art enthusiasts. While I am not a big fan, I do recognise its historical significance. If you wish to experience the exuberance of this style of Chinese painting, head to the Chao Shao-an Gallery in the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, which features the works of Zhao Shao’ang, and the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which boasts a stellar collection of Lingnan School artworks.