AMONG the visual arts of Asia, the painting of imperial China is debatably the most accomplished and the most artistically satisfying. Most examples of this eloquent art, however, have been locked away in politically isolated China for several decades - sheltered in old Beijing's Forbidden City - the palace of the emperors of China for five centuries. This vast Imperial Palace, a museum since 1925, counts among its greatest treasures a large group of paintings from the last imperial dynasties: the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (pronounced ``Ching,'' 1644-1911).
With the widening exchange of ideas between China and the West, many precious elements of Chinese civilization have made their first outside appearances in the United States. A fine example is the exhibition ``Masterworks of Ming and Qing: Painting from the Forbidden City.'' Having been at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, the show is now at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (Sept. 15-Oct. 29) and will move on to Houston's Museum of Fine Arts (Nov. 12-Dec. 31).
The pieces include 76 works on paper and silk selected from the 9,000 works held by the Palace Museum. These hanging scrolls, handscrolls, and album leaves were painted in both colors and ink by professional and court painters as well as Buddhist monks, hermits, and scholar-amateurs.
The hanging scroll is Asia's equivalent of the West's easel painting and is probably unique to East Asia: a rolled silk or paper surface that can be unfurled horizontally as the viewer ``reads'' its unfolding and continuous imagery.
The album format is reminiscent of a Western picture book, a succession of pages often interrelated in subject and design. The landscapes, flowers, animals, and figures are rendered in styles representing several distinctive schools and periods.
Chinese artists, like those of the European Renaissance, were part of an elaborate hierarchy. Some fought to succeed in the highly competitive court, while others were reclusive and tried to avoid the intrigues of the lords and ladies.
All of them, however, used the subjects and techniques of various masters of earlier days, whom they revered.
Some formed schools, such as the Zhe School. The members usually made large pictures for great homes and imperial offices, using vivid contrasts of ink tones and strong, bold brushwork to emphasize dramatic expression and action. The far more restrained manner of the Wu School became dominant when the dynasty collapsed and the patrons and professionals of the Zhe School were displaced.
Many artists of the Wu were wealthy gentlemen and scholars who fancied poetry and had the leisure to devote themselves to the arts. They were part of an elite that had mastered the fine art of Chinese writing - a calligraphy with thousands of subtle ideograms whose execution in ink on paper required a brilliant skill with the brush.
The styles of representational painting gradually evolved from the techniques of calligraphy.
OF the paintings of the Zhe school in the exhibition, ``Arising Dragon'' by the early 16th-century professional artist Wang Zhao is one of the most exceptional. A work created with strong, moving brushwork on silk, it depicts the flight of a dragon arising from its winter's sleep and sweeping over the heads of an amazed scholar and his attendant. This kind of large scroll was intended to hang in palaces and aristocratic households.
A major Ming painting of the Wu school is Tang Yin's ``Serving Tea.'' A gentleman prepares tea in a rustic retreat hidden amid steep cliffs. The coloring is highly refined and restrained, and the brushwork demonstrates tremendous skill.
The work of Xu Wei, a Ming painter, shows the unlimited expressiveness achieved by the use of the restrictive and traditional materials of Chinese painting: brush and ink on paper or silk. Especially notable is his ``Flowers of the Four Seasons,'' a remarkable handscroll that presents an unfolding series of ``ink-play'' in staccato brushstrokes, broad washes, and flung ink, used to depict botanical specimens: peonies, grapes, banana palms, cassia, pine, bamboo, and flowering plum.
Also notable in Xu Wei's work is the ink-splash technique - a controlled splatter of ink that originated among the Zen monks and that Xu revived in his own painting.
WHEN the Ming dynasty fell to the Manchu-dominated Qing dynasty in 1644, painting took on a somewhat political tone: reflecting the tension felt by native Chinese people living under the rule of the foreign Manchus. As is often the case among Asian artists, this attitude was represented more as a tension in nature itself, rather than as social turmoil.
For example, Mei Qing's highly expressionistic visions of nature are bold metaphoric images representing his profound sense of alienation.
This period of artistic stress ended with the artistic revival that took shape at the imperial court in Beijing under the enlightened rule of the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722). Among the many major artists who were attracted to the capital city was Wang Hui, who worked at the court for many years.
Typical of the orthodox school of the early Qing is Wang's famous landscape of 1703: highly transparent and formal, with the features of the landscape built up by the meticulous repetition of brushstroke patterns.
One of the most brilliant and curious of the court painters of the Qing dynasty was Lang Shining. Lang was actually an Italian Jesuit priest named Giuseppe Castiglione, who was born in Milan in 1688 and sailed to China in 1714, where he lived until his death in 1766.
During his very long career, he produced a unique style that combined Western techniques with Chinese materials and brushwork. The scroll entitled ``Tranquil Spring'' - a portrait of the Qianlong emperor as a young prince - is an especially impressive example of Lang's work.
An entirely different style from the refined draftsmanship of Lang Shining is the brusque manner and minimal attitude of the hanging scroll by Gao Qipei, one of the few Chinese painters who invented a non-traditional technique of painting: instead of employing the typical brush made from animal hair, Gao painted with his fingers, and the improvisational results are especially visible in his depiction of a wind-swept lone figure on a peak.
``Masterworks of Ming and Qing'' provides an exceptional opportunity to see first-hand some of the most valued of Chinese painting - an overview of the epochs when painting reached its highest achievements in China and had strong influences upon the evolving style of painting in ancient Japan.
The installation at the Cleveland Museum of Art was outstandingly effective, lending a calm, meditative mood to paintings that express both lavish refinement and a profound immersion in the natural world.
An excellent catalog is available from the participating museums.