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Toward the end of the fifth century, the art critic Xie He (active 479–502) proposed the so-called Six Principles as the essential criteria for judging the quality of Chinese painting, and the aesthetic values and concerns he enunciated in his essay exerted a profound influence on later generations. The first and most important of these principles, called "spiritual resonance and lifelike motion" (qiyun shengdong), or a sense of inner liveliness, subsequently became the most constant and fundamental feature of all great Chinese works of the brush.

Of Wang Wei (701–761), the renowned poet-painter of the Tang dynasty (618–907), it was said that "there are paintings in his poems and poems in his paintings," one of the earliest statements conceptually linking the verbal art of poetry and the visual arts of painting and calligraphy as parallel and interrelated modes of expression. Together they became known as the Three Perfections. It was not until the late Northern Song dynasty (960–1127), however, that the rising class of literati painters came to believe that a universal principle inextricably united painting, calligraphy, and poetry, and began to define the relationship between poetry and painting by saying that "poems are formless paintings, while paintings are poetry with form." After this time, a great literati painter was expected to present all Three Perfections in a single work.
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Sheep and Goat, by Zhao Mengfu
Sheep and Goat
by Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322)
China, Yuan dynasty, early 14th century
Handscroll; ink on paper
25.2 x 48.4 cm (10 x 19 in.)
Purchase   F1931.4

The inscription reads: "I have painted horses before, but have never painted sheep [or goats], so when Zhongxin requested a painting, I playfully drew these for him from life. Though I cannot get close to the ancient masters, I have managed somewhat to capture their essential spirit."

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