CHINESE ART IS ONE of the oldest continuous visual styles in the world. It is instantly recognizable, whether the painting was created today or a thousand years ago. And the most extraordinary genre of Chinese art is landscape painting, known as Shan shui (山水), literally meaning “mountains and rivers”.
For more than 1500 years, Chinese artists have painted natural landscapes of mountains, paths, rivers, trees and rocks–sometimes with a sage or his hut just visible if you look carefully.
This contrasts with western art, in which close-up images of people dominated, and landscapes were considered unimportant. It wasn’t until the 1600s that western artists started to focus on the landscape for its own sake, rather than just as a background for human characters in the foreground.
Below is Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawing of his childhood haunts in Tuscany, Italy.
He drew this in August 1473, and it was unprecedented for its long view of trees and distant hills with no characters. And yet it wasn’t until about 200 years later that landscape art became popular in the west.
In contrast, the Chinese have long valued landscape painting as one of the most mesmerizing and beautiful genres of art. They not only depict scenes from nature, but also reflect the painter’s inner feelings, his emotional connection with the landscape and philosophy of life.
Another contrast: In the west, oil painting is the favored medium, and it accentuates the richness of colour that creates a very realistic outcome. In contrast, ancient Chinese landscape paintings are generally created in ink on paper and even mounted on silk in different formats – including hanging scrolls, handscrolls and folding fans.
GOLDEN AGE OF ART
Western artists use dramatic shapes, rich colours, and plenty of light and shadow to express natural scenery, often with a meticulous depiction of the details of the landscape. The aim is to capture reality.
In contrast, Chinese art is stylised rather than realistic, and uses few colors, instead of many. Chinese artists resort to their imagination to capture the essential elements of the intriguing natural landscape and bring us to a place that may not even exist.
The golden age of Chinese landscape paintings ran from the period of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), through the Five Dynasties period (907-960) to the Northern Song (960-1127), giving rise to generations of renowned Chinese painters who were usually scholars belonging to the literati.
One of the most momentous landscape paintings in Chinese history is “Emperor Ming Huang’s Journey to Shu”. (明皇幸蜀圖) which is widely believed to be painted by artist Li Zhaodao (李昭道) in Tang period.
The painting depicts Tang Emperor Ming Huang (known as the Xuanzong Emperor or 唐玄宗) fleeing to Sichuan during an internal rebellion in the country. At the head of the army, the Chinese emperor wearing red robes rides a horse. Travellers make their way up to gigantic mountains topped with coiling clouds and beautiful sceneries – as if entering the realm of heavens and immortals.
The composition of painting is precise and compact, while the lines portraying deep green trees and mountains are fine and strong. Being awash in opulent colours of green, blue and ochre, it is considered a historical classic of landscape painting.
SENSE OF SCALE AND MOVEMENT
Classical Western paintings tend to opt for realism, valuing the accurate depiction of a scene with a fixed perspective, aiming to be photo-realistic.
But Chinese artists create dynamic perspectives that let viewers have a sense of movement and revel in the intriguing natural landscapes. They imagined themselves wandering through the mountains, scaling peaks, and walking along paths near streams and brooks.
In the period of the Northern Song dynasty, the painting by artist Fan Kuan (范寬) above, “Travellers among Mountains and Streams” (谿山行旅圖) – is considered one of the greatest masterpieces. Fan spent much time travelling through the land to commune with nature.
Fan’s painting is so distinctive that it embraces a tripartite compositional arrangement – in the lower foreground are jutting hard rocks; and then you look further up to see a donkey team in the middle with rocks and trees; and further up, in the distance, stands a massive mountain in the centre of the artwork.
The main mountain takes up almost two-thirds of the painting and this dramatic difference in size between mountains and miniscule figures epitomize the majesty of landscape.
Above all, Fan used angular strokes to render the outlines of the land, thereby giving a sense of vital energy in his artwork. Whether “true” or not, the monumental hanging scroll genuinely captures the wonder of the nature.
EXPRESSING INNER EMOTIONS
Chinese cultural ideas about nature can most clearly be seen in the paintings too. The art is linked with ideologies that emphasize harmony with the natural world. Artists express their inner feelings, intentions and emotions through creating a particular artistic atmosphere.
In the Ming dynasty, prominent literati painter Wen Zhengming (文徵明) was originally a scholar in imperial court. Resigning from his post three years later, Wen devoted the rest of his life to painting, poetry and calligraphy. Along with literati masters Shen Zhou (沈周), Tang Yin (唐寅), and Qiu Ying (仇英), Wen is regarded as one of the “Four Great Masters of the Ming dynasty”.
One of Wen’s iconic painting is “Living Aloft: Master Liu’s Retreat” (高士隱居圖軸) – which was drawn for one his best friends Liu Lin for his retirement from the imperial court. Wen’s painting presents two members of the literati enjoying a peaceful moment in the mountains, separated by a small river from the outside world, in a cottage surrounded by a tall grove of trees. Wen demonstrates the deep pleasure he finds in tranquility and a sense of seclusion.
Unlike western drawings, Chinese landscape paintings are meant to provide viewers with a window to refresh their connection with the natural world, which is considered essential to maintain one’s moral integrity and upright character in Chinese culture. The drawings typically contain pathways, bridges, and signs of human habitation that the we could use to project ourselves into the natural, rustic scenes and revel in serene mood.
Image at the top shows a detail from Emperor Minghuang’s Journey to Sichuan; a blue-green shan shui painting depicting the flight of Emperor Xuanzong from Chang’an, a late Ming Dynasty painting after an original by Qiu Ying (1494–1552).