Magic and Tradition of Chinese Landscape Painting

May 14, 2016

Chinese landscape painting is considered the highest form of painting in that country with a long and interesting history. Ever since the time of the great Five Dynasties period to the Northern Song period Chinese artists have been painting landscapes in such a meticulous and masterful manner that the whole era is called the Great age of Chinese landscape. This type of painting has become so popular during the long period of its golden age, that it became associated with refined taste and sought after for many years. The Chinese term for landscape is comprised of two characters which mean mountains and water, and it has been linked to the Daoism philosophy, which promotes harmony with nature. The places we usually see in these magical artworks are usually not real, but completely imaginary and idealized, mostly due to the fact that in China, mountains are often associated with religion, and thus, people believe that owning and looking at depictions of mountains is food for the soul.

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Left: Li Gongnian - Winter Evening Landscape, c. 1120 / Right: Li Gongnian - Winter Evening Landscape, detail, c. 1120, both via

Leonardo da Vinci or the Chinese?

It has long been considered that Leonardo da Vinci was actually the first person to ever draft a landscape on August 5th, 1473. This unprecedented act of depicting mountains and trees on their own was revolutionary and surely helped Leonardo’s already genius status, but is this really the truth? Long before one of the greatest minds of humanity was born, the Chinese artists have been painting landscapes, depicting rivers and rocks, mountains and trees, for centuries. Leonardo’s 1473 drawing actually looks a lot like a painting Winter Evening Landscape by Li Gongnian, painted in 1120, over 350 years before da Vinci’s famous sketch.

The western world tends to center itself in terms of inventions, the practice that continues on even to the 21st century. Just look back on your years in school and try to remember one thing you learned about the Far East, whether its history or art, and I bet that you will have to think long and hard before you remember anything. This, of course, is nothing new of scandalous, as all cultures tend to think of their own as the most important one, but when it comes to unfairly crediting a western artist for something the Chinese have been doing for centuries, the Western-centrism becomes a bit of a problem. Which bring us to Chinese landscape painting. The artists from the Middle Kingdom have been painting with such sensitivity and poetry while Europe was in the midst of fighting the barbaric crusades and completely forgetting the flourishing creativity of the ancient Greece. China has been in its golden age that Europe would not see until the ages of Leonardo and Van Gogh, who was, interestingly, heavily inspired by the Chinese art. It is still a mystery that da Vinci’s sketch looks almost exactly like the Gongnian piece, which draws the inquisitive minds to wonder if Leonardo had somehow managed to see the painting for himself, maybe through the artifacts brought from the Silk Road.

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Gu Kaizhi -Admonitions of the Court Instructress, detail via

History of Chinese Landscape Painting - Inception

One of the first examples of Chinese landscape painting is the, unfortunately, now lost original of Nymph of the Luo River by Gu Kaizhi, the Sung dynasty version of which can be found in the Palace Museum in Beijing and Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. The actual landscape of this painting is actually a part of figure painting practice and considered to be the inception of the art form we are talking about. By the time of Tang dynasty (618-907), the practice of landscape painting has become a bit more popular, mostly due to the fact that the demand for Buddhist icons was high. During this period, two schools of landscape painting have emerged. The first one, practiced by Li Sixun, the court painter, and his son Li Zhaodao, employed the meticulous and decorative manner of painting using precise line technique, inspired by the earlier artists such as Zhan Ziqian and Gu Kaizhi. This school frequently used blue and green for decoration, thus earning the name blue-green landscape. The other school was founded by the painter and poet Wang Wei, who painted in a more spontaneous technique called pomo, which translated into English means broken ink, and used a variety of shades of ink washing. In the Ming dynasty, these schools were regarded as the Northern School and the Southern School. The appeal of this kind of pictures was due to the fact that educated men longed for the escape from their ordinary everyday lives and for the connection with nature. With the collapse of the Tang dynasty, this escapism into the natural world became even more prominent among the cultured men, who found the idea of seeking a safe haven in the mountains more appealing than dealing with the failure of human community and the chaos of the dynastic subsidence.

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Left: Fan Kuan - Travelers among Mountains and Streams / Middle: Dong Yuan - Wintry Groves and Layered Banks / Right: Guan Tong - Traveling in the Guan Mountain, all via

The Great age of Chinese Landscape Painting

The Great age of Chinese Landscape, or the period from the Five Dynasties (907-960) to the Northern Song (960-1127), gave birth to the mastery of artists such as Guan Tong, Jing Hao, Fan Kuan, Li Cheng, and Guo Xi, who are considered to be Northern artists and painted very high mountains using strong black lines, sharp brushstrokes, and ink wash. In the south, Juran and Dong Yuan depicted rivers and hills of their countryside, using softer brushwork. In the Northern Song, the poet Su Shi theorized the purpose of painting as an expression, rather than the representation. According to Su Shi and his circle of intellectuals, the goal of a painter who chooses to depict a landscape is not to make the viewers feel that they are wandering around realistically painted mountains, but rather to show the artist’s own thoughts and feelings that originate from his heart, not from the things that can be seen. These early scholar painters produced a myriad of original work that was and still is, important because their aim to be sincere and spontaneous in expressing their personalities. One of the foremost scholars of that time was Mi Fu, who disregarded the use of lines, and painted his mountains with blobs of wet ink, transferred onto the paper with the flat part of the brush, reminding of the works of impressionists.

After the invasion of the Jurchens, the Tungusic people from the region of Manchuria, later known as Manchu people, the North fled to the South, thus changing and transmitting its tradition to the Southern Song. The main figure of this process was Li Tang, who is responsible for the exceptional style based on the ax-cut texture stroke. Unfortunately, most of his originals are lost forever, but copies and literary sources propose that his influence and style had had the mastery over the twelfth century art, which definitely makes him an indispensable bond between the Northern Song’s splendor and Southern Song’s romanticism, seen in the works of Xia Gui and Ma Yuan.

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Left: Ni Zan - Rongxi Studio / Middle: Wu Zhen - Fisherman in Reclusion at Dongting / Right: Wang Meng - Thatched Cottage in Autumn Mountains, all via

Yuan Dynasty – The Disillusionment of the Educated

The Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and its reign brought the prohibition of the educated Chinese from the government service and the evolution of the Song idea of retreat into an alternative culture. During this period, the oppressed elite transformed their estates into spaces for literary gatherings and other matters of the culture. These events were usually commemorated in paintings, not offering the realistic view of the situation, but a depiction of shared ideals of an isolated world, in which a grandiose villa may become a simple hut. These paintings also served as pictorial representations of the owner of the estate, and the highest form of art became a way of showing the artist’s heart and mind to others. Some of the most prominent painters of this period are Zhao Mengfu, and the Four Masters of the Yuan, Huang Gongwang, Ni Zan, Wang Meng, and Wu Zhen.

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Left: Wen Zhengming -Guests Arriving at a Mountain Villa / Middle: Shen Zhou - Lofty Mount Lu, detail / Right: Dong Qichang -Shady Trees in a Summer Landscape all via

Ming Dynasty – The Reintroduced Aesthetics

When the native Chinese rule was reinstated, during the time of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), court artists, headed by Dai Lin, painted conservative images that reintroduced the Song metaphor for the country as the well-organized imperial garden, and literati painters focused on pursuing their self-expression, seen in the works of Yuan scholar-artists such as Shen Zhou and Wen Zhengming, who dedicated their lives to the reinterpretation of Yuan scholar style. However, one of the most significant painters of this time was Dong Qichang, who reached the heights of the aesthetic ideals of that time and managed to give his paintings a theoretical formulation by producing critical writings. He was the one who composed a theory of the Northern and Southern Schools, and marked the tradition of the independent scholar painters as Southern School, which was connected to the Chan Buddhism in the Tang dynasty, which proposed that enlightenment came to the artists spontaneously and instantly, not like the Northern School, which stated that enlightenment could be reached only gradually, after a long period of training and preparation.

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Left: Wang Shimin - After Wang Wei’s Clearing of Mountains and Rivers after Snow / Middle: Wang Yuanqi - After Huang Gongwang’s “Autumn Mountains” / Right: Wang Jian - Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, all via

Qing Dynasty – The Orthodox and the Ming Loyalists

When the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchus in 1644, the Qing court continued to appreciate the Chinese culture and continued to promote the literati tradition. This admiration gave birth to the Orthodox School, whose most important representatives are the famous Four Wangs, Wang Shimin, who had learned to paint from Dong Qichang, and often employed the manner of painting of the Yuan times. Wang Jian was a close friend of Shimin who also learned from Dong Qichang. Wang Shimin’s pupil, Wang Hui was the third of the Wangs, and the fourth one was Wang Yuanqi, the most gifted of the four, and the personal favorite of the Kangxi Emperor. The Four Wangs aimed to achieve the great syntheses of style by studying the styles of Yuan and Song masters.

However, not all Qing landscapes were as conventional as the ones mentioned above. Yimin, or the people left over - the Ming loyalists produced a group called Four Monks, which included Shitao, Zhu Da, Kuncan, and Hongren. Zhu Da’s brushstrokes appear careless, but confident, and his landscapes carry the distortion of the Southern tradition, which, at a time, must have been shocking to the disciples of the more conventional school. Shitao, whose real name was Zhu Ruoji, was a descendant of the founder of the Ming dynasty and spent his life wandering around China before becoming a professional painter. Hongren expressed a spiritual serenity in his scanty landscapes, and Kuncan painted with a dry brush to achieve the impression of serenity and grandeur.

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Left: Qi Baishi - Peach Blossom Spring / Middle: Fu Baoshi - Mountains in Sichuan / Right: Gao Jianfu - A Solitary Temple in the Autumn Mountains, all via

Twentieth Century and the Post-War Period

The modern movement of Chinese landscape painting was started by Gao Jianfu, Gao Qifeng, his brother, and Chen Shuren. All three of them studied in Japan and created a New National Painting movement, influenced by the Japanese style. By the time of the 1920s, Chinese artists became drawn to Japan, Paris, and Germany, and began incorporating European traditions into their own art. Liu Haisu, for example, was influenced by the Post-Impressionists, and Lin Fengmian was enchanted with Matisse’s works. The years before the demise of the Nationalist Party in 1949 were marked by the artists such as Fu Baoshi, Huang Binhong, Qi Baishi, and Zhang Daqian, who was an expert forger, who achieved the status of a true master, and one of the finest examples of his oeuvre is the uncompleted panorama Mount Lu.

The post-war years inspired the artists to turn to Europe again. Zhao Wuji and Zhu Dechun found a home in Paris and became great Abstract Expressionists. Wu Guanzhong returned to Beijing after five years in Paris and became the first living Chinese artist who had a solo exhibition at the British Museum in London.

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Zhao Wuji - 20. 8. 84 via

Is Chinese Landscape Painting the True Representative of Chinese Art?

After this quick overview of Chinese landscape painting, can we safely say that this art form is truly the most representative art form of Chinese tradition? Surely, many would agree as these landscapes are nothing short of extraordinary. The art that shaped China into the cultural hub of the Far East has always been a symbol of the ongoing fight of the opposites: the fight of the old with the new, the native and the foreign. Perhaps the most important fact is that these paintings represent something all artists eventually strive for, and that is the true expression of their inner feelings, thoughts, their own views of the world as it is and as it should be. They are the depictions of their innermost desires and troubles, and for an art form that occurred so early in the history of the world, this is definitely the most important feature. To be able to express oneself is the highest peak of art one can reach, and these landscapes are just that, the most respectable and artistically valuable forms of expression in the world of Chinese art.

All images are for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Guo Xi - Autumn in the River Valley, c 1070 via Images in the slider: Li Zhaodao - Emperor Going to Shu via | Ma Yuan - On a Mountain Path in Spring via | Xia Gui - Pure and Remote; View of Streams and Mountains via

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