The Southern School (南宗画, pinyin: nanzhonghua) of Chinese painting, often called "literati painting" (文人画, wenrenhua), is a term used to denote art and artists which stand in opposition to the formal Northern School of painting. Where professional, formal painters were classified as Northern School, scholar-bureaucrats who had either retired from the professional world or who were never a part of it constituted the Southern School.
Never a formal school of art in the sense of artists training under a single master in a single studio, the Southern School is more of an umbrella term spanning a great breadth across both geography and chronology. The literati lifestyle and attitude, and the associated style of painting, can be said to go back quite far to early periods of Chinese history. However, classification of the "Southern School" as such, that is, the coining of the term, is said to have been made by the scholar-artist Dong Qichang (1555-1636), who borrowed the concept from Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism, which also has Northern and Southern Schools.
Generally, Southern School painters worked in monochrome ink, and focused on expressive brushstrokes and a somewhat more impressionistic approach than the Northern School's formal attention to detail and use of color and highly refined traditional modes and methods. The stereotypical literati painter lived in retirement in the mountains or other rural areas, not entirely isolated, but immersed in natural beauty and far from mundane concerns. They were also lovers of culture, hypothetically enjoying and taking part in all Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar as touted by Confucianism, that is, painting, calligraphy, music, and games of skill and strategy. They would often combine these elements into their work, and would gather with one another to share their interests.
Literati paintings are most commonly of landscapes, and feature men in retirement, or travelers, admiring and enjoying the scenery, or immersed in culture. Figures are often depicted carrying or playing guqin (zithers), and residing in quite isolated mountain hermitages. Calligraphic inscriptions, either of classical poems or ones composed by a contemporary literati (the painter, or a friend), are also quite common. However, while this sort of landscape, with certain features and elements, is the standard stereotypical Southern School painting, the genre actually varied quite widely, as the literati painters themselves, in rejecting the formal strictures of the Northern School, sought the freedom to experiment with subjects and styles.
Beginning in the 18th century, the attitudes of the Chinese literati (the scholar-bureaucrat in retirement who devotes himself entirely to a love of culture) began to be taken up by Japanese artists. As the Japanese literati (文人, J: bunjin) were forbidden to leave Japan, and had little access to original Chinese works (or to meeting the literati themselves), the lifestyle, attitude, and art changed considerably in Japan. Outside of native Japanese inspirations, these bunjin gained Chinese influence only through woodblock-printed art books which attempted to reproduce and communicate the Southern School ideals and methods. The Southern School (C: nanzhonghua, J: nanshūga) came to be known as nanga in Japan.