The Transformation of Modern Chinese Landscape Painting | New Bloom Magazine (2023)

Lee Tzu-Tung

English /// 中文
Translator: Minmin
Photo Credit:Jessica Fu


BACK INMAY 2015, I attended the MFA show held at the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and saw Jessica Fu’s showcase. She painted on a transparent celluloid, and then used a profile projector to project the celluloid onto the wall; a dream-like imagery of the ink wash painting emerges, immersing the individual into this monochrome illusion when standing in front of the wall. She tries to convey her near-death experience during the Fukushima nuclear incident using such aesthetics. I felt that this art is special because Jessica, a citizen of Hong Kong, adopted ink wash aesthetics, but deviates from the strong notion of nationalism which often infused with original landscape (shanshui) paintings and literati paintings in order to illustrate her individual, sensual and fragile experience in Japan.

1. Shanshui Politics?

AN EXHIBITIONthemed “Shanshui politics”, was recently held at China’s Shanghai Himalayas Museum together with the La Biennale di Venezia, concerning itself with traditional Chinese landscape painting or shanshui (山水). The forum divided Chinese modern painting into three stages: The first stage featured artists such as Xie Shichen (謝世臣) and He Haixia (何海霞) attempting to depict ancient China’s shanshui scene. The second stage is featured artists such as, Wang Nanming (王南溟)、 Wang Jiuliang (王久良), and Ni Weihua (倪衛華), attempt to reveal China’s social issues through shanshui painting. The third stage discussed how Ma Yansong (馬岩松) and Chen Bochong (陳伯沖) use architecture to provide a solution to society’s problems through the shanshui context of human feelings and literary culture.

Photo credit: Randian
He Haixia (何海霞), Glen Torrents (幽谷奔流) [1982]
Wang Nanming (王南溟), “Rubbing Drought” (拓印乾旱) [2007]

Why discuss the politics of Chinese landscape painting? China has been developing, experimenting, and creating shanshui paintings based on different themes and through different mediums. Traditionally, landscape painting not only represents the imperialistic Sinocentric culture that deeply rooted in literati’s mind. As these literati stand on the mountain top “looking” upon the great Chinese cultural and geographical territory in mist, the landscape painting now becomes the “map” of their imagined national glory. This represents not just the great “Chinese” imperialistic culture, but also a medium to remember the “Chinese” humiliation in a form of a political, cultural, and geographical context; which is a politically-correct motif for modern Chinese scholars and artists. Only through reading and understanding the changes of modern China landscape painting, can we then identify and understand the changing nationalistic sentiments of China after the end of the Qing era.

2. The Political Starting Point of Modern Chinese Landscape Painting

LANDSCAPE PAINTINGoccupied the forefront of Chinese art from the 10th century to the 18th century, until the late Qing Dynasty, when Western imperialistic forces came to China and forced out commercial trade through military power; it was not till then that the Qing Emperor decided to strengthen China through the Self-Strengthening Movement (自強運動), from 1865 to 1895. The movement mainly emphasized modern technology and institutionalization, policies such as buying battleship and guns from European countries, importing clock and traffic systems, as well as modifying the art school pedagogy by introducing sketch, color sciences, and techniques of chiaroscuro from the Renaissance period. [1]

However, due to a series of defeat and the total breakdown on First and Second Opium War, people soon lost their faith on this reconstruction that merely focused on modus and materiality, and decided to extend the improvement in larger scale. Scholars such as Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀), Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培) and Kang Youwei (康有為), who originally had classical education, began to lead a revolt against Confucianism through the New Culture Movement (新⽂文化運動) from the mid-1910s to 1920s, which aimed to eliminate all the bad habits inherited from “old China” and hence establish new ones.

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In January 1915, Chen Duxiu published an article at New Youth (新青年) magazine asking “What is the ‘New Culture’ Movement?” and declared, “In order to know what New Culture is, we must know first what ‘Culture’ is: culture includes science, religion, ethics, art, literature and music; therefore, the New Culture Movement is to add and modify the disadvantage of the Old Culture on top of these areas.” Therefore, this atmosphere of cultural change swept and overturned the tradition of Chinese landscape painting.

Tao Linyue [1927]

Kang Youwei [2], wrote in his preface to 1917 ”Catalogue of Paintings Collected in the Hall of Ten Thousand Trees” (萬⽊木草堂藏書⽬) that “Chinese painting in the recent era has declined to the utmost. Ancient Masters like the “Four Wangs and Two Shis” (四王二⽯) [3] are using brushes like dried twists, and having the taste like dry wax”. [4] He also stated that “only by importing the realism to Chinese painting can modify the obstacles in Traditional Painting. ” [5] In respond to Kang’s critics, the cultural minister [6] and the president of Beijing University, Cai Yuanpei (蔡元培), had also made the denouncement that “National painting draws people with no precision: fingers lack knuckles, legs are stiffed like wood, figures can’t turn their head…” In addition, as a former student who studied philosophy and civilization in Universität Leipzig, Cai was strongly infuenced by Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics, and held lots of concerts and cultural exhibitions, hoped these events would improve the aesthetic judgement of people along with the capacity of “thinking” and “will”. Moreover, art students such as Xiu Beihun (徐悲鴻), Zhao Wuzhi (趙無極) were encouraged by him to study Western art techniques in French art schools such as the Beaux-Arts de Paris.

Faced with pressure on traditional shanshui painting from the cultural leaders, artists started to debate amongst themselves: What characteristics of Chinese painting is considered beautiful, good, and worth preserving? What elements truly represent Chinese tradition, and needs to be perpetuated? What elements should be eliminated and conquered? What Western elements should we learn?

Some artist such as Hu Peihen (胡佩衡), Pen Tienshou (潘天壽) began to believe that every nation, every ethnic group should have their independent culture, instead of just adopting Western styles. In 1925, Pen stated, “We should keep distance on foreign cultures, and remind ourselves not to be fascinated by the other kind of style that will jeopardize the originality within each kind of art.”

However, these voices of opposition did not find acceptance. On the other hand, individuals who followed the same mind as Cai Yuanpei and Kang, surfaced and became a driving force behind the establishment of principles of modern Chinese landscape painting.

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3. Tao-Lin Yue and Qi Bai-Shi’s; Their fate with that of Modern Chinese Painting

LET US NOWmention two artists, Tao Leng-yue (1895-1985) and Qi Baishi (1864-1957). In 1925, Cai Yuanpei fervently endorsed Tao as an artist, and endeavors to describe Tao’s style and artwork with the following: “The structure and the essences follows tradition; the picture and the essence, however, adopts a unique European feeling.” [7] Between the years 1930 to 1940, the Head of the Ministry of Culture then held Tao’s work of high-esteemed, leading to the value escalation of his artwork to fetch three times more than artists of similar background. [8] However, he was condemned of being a capitalist roader during the 1958 Cultural Revolution, eventually ending his artist career. For the next 20 years or so, he was responsible for painting the decorative flowers on thermos bottles until 1978 in Shanghai, until his reputation as a great artist was revived by a group of secondary students. Today in the arts, Tao, compared to other artists of the same era such as Fu Baoshi, Li Kojan, is less heard of.

Qi Baishi,“Snow Mountain After Rain” (雨後雲山) [1928]

On the other hand, the unique and idiosyncratic Qi had the tendency of gifting his paintings to friends and family; as a result, he hardly profited from the artistic market. Qi particularly admired the works of Dong Qichang (董其昌), Shi Shitao (⽯石濤), and Badashanren (八⼤山人). As we can see, his work started to have a cubist interpretation of nature, using angular lines and geometric forms to render what could have been a flatter mountain.. Although, during the earlier part of his career, his artworks fetched little value in the market; yet he is now a reputable and highly-esteemed artist. Meanwhile, his disciple Li Kojan maintained a good relationship with Premier Zhou Enlai. In the later part of his life, he started incorporated peasant related themes into his art work, which due to his portrayal of a “peasantry aesthetic,” he was thus regarded by the China Communist Party as a noble and reputable artist.

Qi Baishi [1956]

The artist’s life and his work are much related to the political conflict at the time. Both Tao and Qi were following mainstream cultural policy, which encouraged artists to improve their works by incorporating western painting style. Tao used Western techniques of chiaroscuro while Qi used cubist touch that he learnt from France and Japan. However, appreciation of these two masters nowadays are in opposite to the 1930s. The rise of Communist Party and the following Cultural Revolution again made many artists fled out of China or choose to adopt their works with upcoming political ideology.

In addition, the unique transformation of these painting had also signaled an ideological depart from traditional landscapes. For example, Yi (意) and Chi (氣), that is to say, the atmosphere and energy eminent from the author, were considered as the most important qualities in traditional landscape painting. These unspeakable qualities, even though can be seen without further explanation, can only be fully-understand by elites who possess a large amount of cultural refinement. When the western philosophy of precision and the discourse patriotic nationalism in 20th centuries was forced to merge with traditional landscape painting, the Yi and Chi— the thousand years of communal intimacy shared between cultural elites —was also being destroyed.


ONE OF THEquestions that is often raised in the field of contemporary Chinese landscape painting is “Do these paintings testify to the survival or destruction of landscape painting? ” Since Qing empire collapsed in the 1910s, China has undergone wars and shifts in sovereignty between warlords and alien Western countries. “Memories” of defeat have become a national trauma, while “History” itself served as the real fiction to form national identification and give people expectations to wait on its revival.

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Critic of Chinese nationalism Jerome Tseng (曾昭明) and left-wing Japanese scholar Kojin Karatani (柄谷行人) both observe: The birth of nation-states is a result of the refutation and separation of different imperial countries; because before the birth of the nation-state was the absolute monarchy, and establishes political authority which represses the principles of empire (For more information, review Jerome Tseng’s 歧路徘徊的中國夢:民族國家或天下帝國). As China was originally a world empire, the move to return to world empire is possible because the impulse to empire remains”.

As Michael Sullivan has noted, people’s attitudes to the landscape have changed fundamentally since 1949:

“The mountain and streams are no longer an object of contemplation, in which the viewer must lose himself and forget the ‘dusty’ world. They have become for most artist the visible symbol of resurgent China.”

Therefore, “art history” on the transformation of Chinese landscape painting, not only can be seen as a history of incorporation with Western style, but also should be regarded as the psychological molding process of building a culture’s subjectivity, in which artists contribute to the construction of national nostalgia and a literature of tragedy.

[1] Constitution of Pedagogy in Year Ren Yin. 壬寅學制 (1902),which also introduced the elementary, junior high and high school system to China.

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[2] Arestoration that last for only one hundred days due to political rivalry between the Queen and the Emperor.

[3]王時敏、王鑒、王翬、王原祁、石濤、髡殘 (石道人)

[4] 枯筆數筆, 味同嚼蠟

[5 ] 輸入寫實主義, 改良中國畫的最大障礙

[6] Served in newly established Sun Yat-Sen’s government (the early Republic of China).

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[7] 結構神韻, 悉守國粹;傳光透視,特採歐風


What are the three concepts of landscape painting in Chinese painting? ›

In shan shui paintings, three basic elements make up a painting: mountains, rivers, and on occasion, waterfalls. Hence the Chinese name shan shui ("mountain-water") for landscape art.

What is the significance of landscape in Chinese painting? ›

By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. Such images might also convey specific social, philosophical, or political convictions.

What is the main principle of Chinese Shanshui painting? ›

The concept is to never create inorganic patterns, but instead to mimic the patterns that nature creates. The Threshold – The path should lead to a threshold. The threshold is there to embrace you and provide a special welcome. The threshold can be the mountain, or its shadow upon the ground, or its cut into the sky.

What does the small size of Chinese people in Chinese landscape paintings tell us about the relationship between humans and the environment? ›

The tiny scale of humans relative to the mountains in a typical Chinese landscape painting suggests that we humans coexist with many otherliving things. Humans are integrated into a larger whole rather than celebrated as a towering presence.

What is the two main technique of Chinese painting? ›

In simple terms, there are two types of "guo hua": the first, known as "Gong-bi" or meticulous-style, is also described as court-style painting; the second, known as "Shui-mo" or "xie yi" or freehand-style, is also called ink and brush painting, or "literati painting", and was practiced by amateur scholar artists.

What kind of technique is used in Chinese painting? ›

From Meticulous to Freehand: Painting Techniques

Like calligraphy, traditional Chinese painting, or guohua (国画 /gwor-hwaa/), is done using a brush dipped in black ink or colored pigments, usually on paper or silk. The finished work can be mounted on scrolls and hung.

What is the main theme or subject of Chinese painting? ›

Figures, mountains and water, and flowers and birds are major figures and common themes found in Chinese paintings, corresponding to their counterparts found in European paintings. Figure painting originated in primitive times, when people painted figures and animals on walls with chalk, red earth and carbon black.

What is the message of landscape painting? ›

Landscape Painting depicts the scenery of the natural world with the views that impact the artists eye. In an effort to represent the beauty that meets the eye, the artist tries to capture that fleeting moment in time and space, for all time, thus becoming a co-creator with the original Creator.

What is the focus theme of Chinese painting? ›

The art from China often has a central theme of nature, harmony and balance that makes it an excellent example of the values that are held within the country.

What is the message in the Chinese story landscape of the soul? ›

The story underlines the message that the Emperor was only interested appreciating the outer appearance of the painting but the artist makes known to him the true meaning of his work. The Emperor admires the territory while the artist is filled with the 'spirit' within.

What is the concept of shanshui answer? ›

(ii) Shanshui, meaning “mountain-water”, refers to a style of Chinese painting that involves natural landscapes, the landscape which is an inner one, a spiritual and conceptual space. It represents the two complementary poles (`yin' and `young') reflecting the Daoist view of the universe.

What are the 3 main subject in Chinese painting? ›

There are three main subjects of Chinese painting: human figures, landscapes, and birds and flowers. Figure painting became highly developed during the Tang Dynasty, and landscape painting reached its height during the Song Dynasty.

How do landscape paintings convey the values and ideas of Chinese culture? ›

Traditional Chinese culture is filled with environmental virtues and ideas. Landscape painting reflects the wisdom of our forebears in revering nature and extols the wonders of creation in nature, and this sentiment seeps into the Chinese people's aesthetic tastes and attitudes on moral and personal cultivation.

How does the author contrast the Chinese view of art with the concept of the painting which one do you find easy to understand and admire? ›

Answer: In the Chinese view, art is a representation of the mind or the spirit, whereas in the European view, it is of the figure or the body. While Chinese paintings reveal the inner world, the European paintings lay emphasis on a true representation of the physical appearance of the subject.

What is the philosophy behind every Chinese landscape paintings? ›

The Chinese term for "landscape" is made up of two characters meaning "mountains and water." It is linked with the philosophy of Daoism, which emphasizes harmony with the natural world.

What are the five important elements of art used in Chinese painting? ›

T he five elements are the origin of countless things. Here we speak of water and fire, wood, metal, and earth. The Confucian classics articulate the five elements and their phases that account for natural phenomena and seasonal changes.

What are the 3 types of Chinese art? ›

What Are Some of the Main Forms of Chinese Art? Calligraphy, Painting, and Poetry were some of the main forms of Chinese art. These were also referred to as the “Three Perfections”.

How many principles are there in Chinese painting? ›

The Six principles of Chinese painting were established by Xie He in "Six points to consider when judging a painting" from the preface to his book The Record of the Classification of Old Painters written circa 550 and refers to "old" and "ancient" practices.

What were the basic materials used for Chinese painting? ›

Chinese painting uses water-based inks and pigments on either paper or silk grounds. Black ink comes from lampblack, a substance made by burning pine resins or tung oil; colored pigments are derived from vegetable and mineral materials.

What are the best features of Chinese art? ›

The main aim of Chinese art - initially centered on propitiation and sacrifice - soon turned to the expression of human understanding of these life forces, in a variety of artforms, including painting (notably that of landscapes, bamboo, birds, and flowers), pottery, relief sculpture and the like.

What is the texture of Chinese painting? ›

Landscape painting is the major theme of Chinese painting. Over the centuries, masters of Chinese landscape painting developed various texture strokes. Hemp-fiber and axe-cut are two major types of texture strokes.

What was the purpose of Chinese art? ›

As it developed, the purpose of Chinese art turned from propitiation and sacrifice to the expression of human understanding of these forces, in the form of painting of landscapes, bamboo, birds, and flowers. This might be called the metaphysical, Daoist aspect of Chinese painting.

What is the main purpose of painting? ›

Painting is about trying to attract others, trying to make them watch our work for more than a few seconds, trying to make them plunge into and travel through our painting in order to find “things,” visual gifts that cannot be hurriedly seen; our focal point, the most important part, the reason that made the viewer ...

What are the three concepts in landscape paintings answer? ›

Students will study the composition of landscape paintings, emphasizing space, depth, and the concepts of foreground, middle ground, and background.

What is the most important element of a landscape painting? ›

Color (or hue) is at the heart of every painting. It is arguably the most important element because it sets the tone for how viewers feel about the work.

How did the Chinese view nature? ›

Chinese philosophy tends to focus on the relationships between the various elements in nature rather than on what makes or controls them. According to Daoist beliefs, man is a crucial component of the natural world and is advised to follow the flow of nature's rhythms.

What is the main idea of the lesson landscape of the soul? ›

The main theme of the chapter is about the arts. It revolves around the art of painting told through the help of various stories. We learn about Chinese painters and their works as well as the story behind them. Similarly, the second part explores the concept of 'art brut' meaning the art of the ones who have no right.

How does the author describe the landscape in the beginning of the lesson? ›

The landscape is described by the author is that ; it is so beautiful and colouful , side of the canal , gobbling up another vehicle.

What is the meaning of the title landscape of the soul? ›

Landscape of the soul is a chapter which talks about the illusionistic paintings which painters made, decreasing the difference between what was real and what was illusionary. This chapter also explains that Chinese art from where a Chinese painter wants you to enter his mind rather than borrow his eyes.

What is Shanshui painting in Chinese art Why is the Middle void important? ›

Answer: The third element, the Middle Void where their interaction takes place, is lacking in Shanshui. The Middle Void is indispensable. Hence nothing can happen without it. This is the reason why the white, unpainted space in Chinese landscape is important.

How does it express the concept of the word landscape? ›

Landscape means the natural and physical attributes of land together with air and water which change over time and which is made known by people's evolving perceptions and associations [such as beliefs, uses, values and relationships] .

Which Chinese philosopher is mentioned in the lesson landscape of the soul? ›

This idea is brought up in the tale about Wu Daozi's painting. Wu Daozi was commissioned by the Emperor to paint a landscape. The emperor, in awe of the painting, appreciated only its outer appearance. According to the painter, a spirit dwelled in the cave of the painting at the foot of the mountain.

What is the four types Chinese paintings? ›

There are mainly four major categories in Chinese painting:
  • Landscape (山水) 南唐‧巨然︰秋山問道圖 Chu-jan, Southern T'ang: Seeking after the Tao. in Autumn Mountain.
  • Figure (人物) 明‧陳洪綬︰喬松仙壽圖 Ch'en Hung-shou, Ming: Immortal Under Pines.
  • Bird and Flower (花鳥) 南宋‧李安忠︰竹鳩 Li An-chung, Southern Sung: Shrike and Bamboo.
  • Genre (風俗)

What was important about the landscape of Ancient China and why? ›

Perhaps the two most important geographical features of Ancient China were the two major rivers that flowed through central China: the Yellow River to the north and the Yangtze River to the south. These major rivers were a great source of fresh water, food, fertile soil, and transportation.

What was important about China's landscape and why? ›

The large land was isolated from much of the rest of the world by dry deserts to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the east, and impassable mountains to the south. This enabled the Chinese to develop independently from other world civilizations.

Who influenced Chinese landscape painting? ›

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.

What does Chinese painting symbolize? ›

The drawings, paintings, engravings of animals and flowers among others, have beyond their decorative aspect, a symbolic value evocative of power, financial success, matrimonial happiness, good health. They are also given the capacity to ward off harmful influences such as demons and diseases.

What did the emperor say about the painting in landscape of the soul? ›

The Emperor watched the painting for a long while. He admired the wonderful scene painted by Wu Daozi. He discovered forests, high mountains, waterfalls, clouds floating in the vast sky, men on hilly paths and birds in flight.

What are 4 types of landscapes in China? ›

Deserts, grasslands, mountains and tropical coastlines all combine to form China. As the fourth largest country in the world, China's sweeping landscape harbours some of the world's most extreme climates, as well as truly inspiring natural wonders.

What are the 3 concept of Chinese art? ›

The exhibition Three Perfections: Poetry, Calligraphy and Painting in Chinese Art explores the interconnections between poetry, calligraphy and painting.

What are 3 styles of landscape painting? ›

The Different Types of Landscape Paintings
  • Impressionistic Landscape Paintings.
  • Representational Landscape Paintings.
  • Abstract Landscape Paintings.
30 May 2022

What are the 5 elements of Chinese painting? ›

T he five elements are the origin of countless things. Here we speak of water and fire, wood, metal, and earth. The Confucian classics articulate the five elements and their phases that account for natural phenomena and seasonal changes.

What is the purpose of Chinese art? ›

As it developed, the purpose of Chinese art turned from propitiation and sacrifice to the expression of human understanding of these forces, in the form of painting of landscapes, bamboo, birds, and flowers. This might be called the metaphysical, Daoist aspect of Chinese painting.

When was the first landscape painting? ›

Although paintings from the earliest ancient and Classical periods included natural scenic elements, landscape as an independent genre did not emerge in the Western tradition until the Renaissance in the 16th century. In the Eastern tradition, the genre can be traced back to 4th-century-ce China.

What is landscaping art called? ›

Landscape painting, also known as landscape art, is the depiction of natural scenery such as mountains, valleys, trees, rivers, and forests, especially where the main subject is a wide view—with its elements arranged into a coherent composition.

How many types of landscape are there? ›

List of different types of landscape. Desert, Plain, Taiga, Tundra, Wetland, Mountain, Mountain range, Cliff, Coast, Littoral zone, Glacier, Polar regions of Earth, Shrubland, Forest, Rainforest, Woodland, Jungle, Moors, Steppe, Valley.

What are the 4 elements of painting? ›

The goal of this unit is to introduce students to the basic elements of art (color, line, shape, form, and texture) and to show students how artists use these elements in different ways in their work.

What is the most important feature of Chinese art? ›

The main aim of Chinese art - initially centered on propitiation and sacrifice - soon turned to the expression of human understanding of these life forces, in a variety of artforms, including painting (notably that of landscapes, bamboo, birds, and flowers), pottery, relief sculpture and the like.


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