Gu huapin lu 古畫品錄 "Classification of ancient painters", also called Gujin huapin 古今畫品 "Classified painting of old and new", is a critique of paintings and the individual style of painters written during the Southern Qi period 南齊 (479-502) by Xie He 謝赫 (459?-532?). In the imperial bibliographical chapter in the official dynastic history Songshi 宋史, the book is called Gujin huapin, and in Bian Yongyu's 卞永譽 (1645-1712) Shigutang shuhua huikao 式古堂書畫彙考 from the Qing period 清 (1644-1911), it is listed with the title Guhuaping 古畫評 "Critiques on ancient paintings.
Xie He hailed from Xiayang 夏陽 (modern Linfen 臨汾, Shanxi), but not much is known about his life. A biography of Xie He is to be found in Zhang Yanyuan's 張彥遠 (815-907) book Lidai minghua ji 歷代名畫記. The Chen-period 陳 (557-589) writer Yao Zui 姚最 (536-602), who wrote a sequel to the Gu huapin lu called Xuhua pinlu 續畫品錄, admired Xie for his ability to paint exact portraits after a single glimpse at a person, yet Xie lacked the skill to express individual personality in his portraits. The portraits Anqi xiansheng tu 安期先生圖 and Jin Mingdi bunian tu 晉明帝步輦圖 have survived.
The short book discusses paintings of high quality (huapin 畫品) from the Three Empires period 三國 (220-280) to the Liang period 梁 (502-557). It is arranged according to the names of 27 painters. Xie He made use of a system of six qualification categories (pin 品), similar to the official categorization of eminent families during that time (zhongzhengpin 中正品). Five painters belonged in Xie's eyes to the highest category, namely Lu Tanwei 陸探微 (d. 485), Cao Buxing 曹不興 (early 3rd cent.), Wei Xie 衛協 (4th cent.), Zhang Mo 張墨 (4th cent.), and Xun Xu 荀勖 (d. 289). The famous painter Gu Kaizhi 顧愷之 (c. 348-c. 405), one of the few artists whose paintings have survived until today (as copies), is only ranked among the third category.
Xie He describes in a clear and concise way his method of categorizing painters. Those of the highest category professed in all six methods or techniques (liu fa 六法), namely distinct and lively style (qiyun shengdong 氣韻生動), using the brush with the "bone" method [linking the personality of the painter with his style] (gufa yongbi 骨法用筆), reflecting the shape of the object (yingwu xiangxing 應物象形), suiting the type of the object and reflecting its colours (suilei fucai 隨類賦彩), composition and placement (jingying weizhi 經營位置), and transmission by copying (chuanyi moxie 傳移模寫). Most painters were only able to fulfill one or two of these methods, and even the best of them were not able to perfect themselves in all these skills.
|雖畫有六法，罕能盡該。而自古及今，各善一節。六法者何？||Few [painters] there are who can master all the six technical factors, but from ancient times till now, there have been artists who are good in some one aspect. What are these six techniques?|
|一，氣韻生動是也；||First, creating a lifelike tone and atmosphere (engendering of movement);|
|二，骨法用筆是也；||second, building structure through brush-work (usage of the brush);|
|三，應物象形是也；||third, depicting the forms of things as they are (imaging of form);|
|四，隨類賦彩是也；||fourth, appropriate colouring (application of colour);|
|五，經營位置是也；||fifth, composition (positioning and placement);|
|六，傳移模寫是也。||and sixth, transcribing and copying (modeling and depiction).|
|唯陸探微、衛協備該之矣。然跡有巧拙，藝無古今。||Only Lu Tanwei and Wei Xie mastered all six. But there are individual differences in skill, and the laws of art apply to all ages.|
Lin 1967: 34 (in brackets Mair 2004: 105). van Briessen (1998: 109-111) assembles various attempts of translation of the six aspects ("six principles").
These six methods or skills were applied for the rating of paintings from all ages. Xie He used this method so consistently that it became the common method of all later critics on painting, as can be seen, for instance, in Jing Hao's 荊浩 (c. 870–c. 930) Liuyao 六要, Guo Ruoxu's 郭若虛 (fl. 1071) Tuhua jianwen zhi 圖畫見聞志 or Song Zifang's 宋子房 Liulun 六論 from the Song period 宋 (960-1279). Yet Xie was also criticized by Yao Zui that his judgments lacked a certain spirit of reality and did not reflect the historical background. Yao was also surprised that a painter like Lu Tanwei was rated as nearly perfect, while Gu Kaizhi was only assessed as an average-class painter.
Mair (2004) demonstrates convincingly that Xie's concept has origins in Indian painting theory, based on linguistic arguments as well as conceptual ones, as expounded in the Indian treatise Ṣaḍaṅga "The six limbs".
The oldest surviving print of the Gu huapin lu dates from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644). It is included in the series Jindai mishu 津逮秘書, Xuejin taoyuan 學津討源, Wangshi shuhua yuan 王氏書畫苑, Shuofu 說郛, Yanbei ouchao 硯北偶鈔, Baichuan xuehai 百川學海, Meishu congshu 美術叢書 and Siku quanshu 四庫全書.