Home Magazine The History of Chinese Landscape Painting

Chinese landscape painting is one of the most mesmerizing and beautiful genres of art there is in the world.  In Chinese –landscape- is “Shan Shui” which is literally translated to “mountain and water”, two of the most iconic elements found in nature which together are thought to be equilibrated and harmonious, elements that this genre of art tries to capture. This ancient type of artwork dates back to the Chinese dynasties and evolved over the years through meaning, techniques and painters. Let’s take a tour at this magnificent movement and observe it’s most important moments and pieces.

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Chinese art, in general, is quite different from its occidental counterpart... 


Qian Xuan, Early Autumn, 13 Century


Traditional Chinese Landscape Painting

Traditional painting in this country is not considered as an independent form of art, but it is part of the “brush art” which included poetry, calligraphy and painting in one single discipline, in that order of importance, and it is generally taught and mastered by scholars of this tradition. Generally speaking painting in China traditionally is monochromatic, using black ink on raw or white paper. The objective and main point of these sort of paintings does not lay on colour, but on the strokes. The stroke is the amalgamation of the artists’ essence and vision, unlike many artistic movements, the search for meaning through a faithful mimetic representation of reality is left behind. In fact, many landscape paintings are not actually based on existing landscapes but are an imaginary composition of every artist, an abstract idea of inspiration captured in a unique way. The brush becomes the extension of the arm and hand of the artist; it is the object transmitting and embodying the creator’s expressive nature. The technique is similar to that of watercolour since it does not allow retouching the painting, this art requires high skills and a fast-paced movement.

Unlike European art, paintings in China are elaborated for private contemplation, a very intimate approach that allows for the spirit and inspiration of whoever possessed the piece. Every format allows for a different way of observation and interpretation. One of the most interesting formats is that of rolled papers, which similarly to a film, uncover a story, and expose a visual narrative. As the painting is unrolled or developed and opened, other parts of the painting are close, making some of the elements appear and others disappear. An interesting element of Chinese paintings is that they are usually accompanied by a number of seals or stamps. Every artist would have a seal which he would print on the painting. In the same way that every owner of the painting would leave a stamp on the paper. This would allow to see not only who the creator was but look at the different hands that possessed the piece of art.

“Water and mountain” were so central in this art form that a painter would be recognized as a masterful one if it was considered it was able to pause water, immovable while allowing mountains to flow and constantly move in the painting. Mountains were associated to the divine, as they reach to the skies, and along with clouds and fog, the scenarios would represent the void, a key concept in Chinese art (not exclusively on landscape painting). At the core of the meaning of this Chinese movement lies the infinite possibilities of the void, everything that exists and everything that doesn’t. Throughout its history the characteristics of this genre of art were influenced by not only the passing dynasties but also by the philosophies that ruled at the time, starting from Taoism through Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism.

Ancient Chinese Landscape Painting

Ancient Chinese landscape painting began as a way to narrate stories and poems, the first evidence of this art dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.) in which man was the central part of every work. As Buddhism reigned on those years the central narratives revolved around the life of Siddharta and the depiction of divine scenarios. However, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) it began to acquire its own identity and distinction from other forms of “brush art”. Meanings like nature as a shelter from the day to day life of the educated man starting appearing in the most iconic artworks of the time. Wu Daozi (680-760) and Wang Wei (701-761) were the most important artists of the Tang dynasty, however, no original pieces by them still exist, what is left of them are some copies which have an uncertain or dubious origin. Wang Wei, another key player, was a poet and painter. Wei wrote a transcendental work that talked about landscape painting. In there he stated his intention of creating a truthful environment and an equilibrated composition through paint.  Wang Wei took landscape painting into another dimension and gave merit and recognition to Chinese landscape painting. He recreated textures through brush strokes and gouache. His most important piece is “The Waterfall”, in which he exhibits an expressionist nature, with taints of abstraction and few details, elements that would later be further developed and adopted as part of the general characteristics of landscape painting in China.


Wang Wei, Tang Dynasty (618-907)


Later on, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was when the landscape painting era flourished, this style was finally recognized at the same level as poetry, achieving the highest levels of appreciation and acknowledgement for creators of this time. This era was known as the “Great Age of Chinese Landscape”. Over the course of this great era a number of important painters appeared, from which three are very well known until nowadays. Fan Kuan (X – 1020), Ma Yuan (1160 – 1225), and Guo Xi (1020 – 1090).

Fan Kuan lived all his life surrounded by mountains. Living a life of solitude yet freedom, he was able to capture the essence of nature which is why he was known as “The master of mountains”. Through simplicity in its compositions, he achieved a soul-nourishing effect, influenced by the Daoist principle of becoming one with nature. One of his most important pieces is a vertical roll of over two meters called “Travelers among Mountains and Streams”. This masterpiece collects the vision of man and nature, human figures are lost in the immense, monumental and static nature imposed in front of the viewer.


Fan Kuan, Travelers Among Mountain sand Streams, Song Dynasty (960-1279)


Ma Yuan, Walking on Path in Spring, Song Dynasty (960-1279)


Ma Yuan came from a prominent painting family. He went for smaller formats through which he recreated solemn and peaceful landscapes, staying completely away from the grand panoramas. His main landscape characteristic was that of simplicity in his compositions. He would fill his pieces with subtle gouaches and delicate brushes, cornering elements like mountains and pines to corners of the frame, thus creating spaces in which the void was constantly the main character. In his artwork “On a Mountain Path in Spring” man contemplates nature as its source of inspiration.  


Guo Xi, Early Spring, Song Dynasty (960-1279)


Guo Xi was an important painter whose techniques would influence the next generations to come, using monumental paintings with strong dark brushes to include colossal mountains in his sceneries. Guo Xi eventually had the highest position in the court of the Hanlin Academy of painting. Xi had a fixed, direct vision of nature always observing the way in which seasons and meteorological phenomena would change its form. He is well known for being able to capture the flow of nature and its influence on human nature. His masterpiece is “Early Spring” in which he recreates the renaissance of spring after winter, the movement of nature and the shy and small presence of man, who enjoys an ever-changing universe.  

Afterwards, during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368), the meaning and the symbolic sight of landscape painting shifted completely. Nature passed on to be the natural landscape of what was understood to be that of the artist. Artists’ backyard, possessions or the village where the painter lived became his own natural environment. The movement began depicting the core cultural and personal values of the creator and his social environment. This was the time of the four masters of Yuan.

Characteristics of Chinese Landscape Painting

During the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) along with the restoration of the native Chinese rule, a new wave of artists gave a rebirth to the Song legacy, while others retook the Yuan tradition. At the beginning of this dynasty, the distinction between scholar and the amateur painting was not hard and fast. Artists like Qiu Ying and Lan Ying were able to cross from one style to the other and use their various talents depending on the occasion. In the late Ming dynasty, however, the artist and critic Dong Qichang established a difference between professional and scholar painters, giving preference to scholars. This had an immediate effect on the general perception of painting and styles in the future. Dong Qichang divided Chinese painting into two categories: Literari painters of the Ming Dynasty Wy school in southern China and the great masters of the Northern Song dynasty; Style and attitude were modified later on during the late Ming and Qing dynasties (1644-1911). Professional painters of the decorative schools began to lose relevance as new interpretations of conservative, literati tradition dominated the major opinion on painters and critics. Similar works to those of Ni Zan, Wu Chen, and Dong Qichang appear. The painters recycle and regroup traditional texture strokes, leaf patterns, and dots in new and invigorated ways.


Dong Qichang, Wanluan Thatched Hall, Ming dynasty (1368–1644)


During the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) the “Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting”, a compilation of painting styles, which included brushstrokes techniques into categories such as trees, rocks and figures under landscapes, flowers, and other elements of natural environments. This and other manuals made representations of the styles and brushstrokes of the ancient schools available to a broader audience. Now, individuals that would otherwise not have a way to approach collections of old paintings were able to use the traditional techniques in their own creations. During the 18th and 19th centuries, merchant cities like Shanghai and Yangzhou became relevant as art patrons promoted the creation of new radical styles of landscape paintings. Additionally, with the commerce routes being open with Europe, occidental style permeated the painting techniques and creations being done, at the same time that Chinese landscape painting began to be known and recognized in Europe.

“The New National Painting” movement was established at the end of the XIX century, which reincorporated Cantonese or Lingnan, regional style, with heavy influences of Euro-Japanese characteristics. Different artists would be inspired by the great masters of occidental modern art.  It is in the last century that these mixtures of influences and radically different techniques and philosophies have created a wide variety in proposals, making the Chinese landscape painting a very broad genre. Whether the artworks are fantastic huge formats of monumental proportions of nature, or small scraps of paper with a few brushes of ink, these paintings are without doubt inherently filled with beauty. They transport us to a wild and unknown nature, which even if they do not exist in real life, they are imprinted on our spirit and minds, the same way as artists did dozens or even hundreds of years ago.

Cover image: Guan Shanyue, in the manner of 1912-2000.

Written by Eduardo Alva Lòpez

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