Understanding the Profound Power of Traditional Chinese Culture Through Landscape Painting (2023)

General Secretary Xi Jinping has said, "Culture is the soul of a country and nation. Our country will thrive only if our culture thrives, and our nation will be strong only if our culture is strong. Without full confidence in our culture, without a rich and prosperous culture, the Chinese nation will not be able to rejuvenate itself." As an important constituent of the best of China's traditional culture, the splendid and prolific art of landscape painting melds together the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of the Chinese people, and continues to generate great fascination.

Instilled with the Chinese people's deep sentiment for our country

The cultural mentality of deeply loving one's hometown reflects the profound sense of attachment to one's native place that is ingrained within the minds of the Chinese people. This love is brought on by images of natural scenery, and thus through the window of landscape painting, the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation are able to recall memories of their native lands within them and to find a sense of belonging, which in turn stimulates even deeper sentiment for the motherland.

The inspiration for Yuan Dynasty painter Zhao Mengfu's seminal work Autumn Colors on the Queshan and Huashan Mountains was his friend Zhou Mi's intense longing for his ancestral homeland. The entire frame depicts Zhao's impression of the Queshan and Huashan mountains on opposite banks of the Yellow River near Ji'nan. On the left is Queshan, painted with the technique of fiber texture strokes to appear as a serene yet imposing whole, and on the right is Huashan, painted with lotus leaf strokes to highlight its main ridge towering into the sky. Between the mountains are lush thickets of trees and plants, thatched houses, as well as fishermen and domestic animals scattered along the riverbank. The trees are dotted with red leaves to cleverly depict an autumn scene. People who visit the place depicted in Autumn Colors are amazed to discover that more than 700 years later, the overall scene including Queshan and the houses, thickets, and riverbanks around its base has barely changed. It is fair to say that Autumn Colors is a classic work in the historical transition in Chinese art from painting scenes of nature to painting impressions of nature.

Understanding the Profound Power of Traditional Chinese Culture Through Landscape Painting (1)

Autumn Colors on the Queshan and Huashan Mountains (partial image), Zhao Mengfu, Yuan Dynasty.

(Video) China: Landscape Painting, Lecture 5

Tying together the Chinese people's nostalgia for the homeland with landscape painting is a major proposition that involves national sentiment and cultural memory. This is not only an extension of the spirit of the art of landscape painting, but also the art's cultural mission. It also reflects the notion posed by Xi Jinping that "A nation, or people of a country, must know who they are, where they came from, and where they are heading." Landscape painting is connected to recollection of our native places and veneration of our country. In the process of leaving home and then returning, travelers construct a cultural landscape unique to the Chinese nation. From the wise men of ancient times traveling back to their distant places of origin out of homesickness, to the overseas Chinese of today coming back to search for their roots, our endeavors to carry on our culture and make our nation thrive are all connected to the physical landscape. The lifeblood of the Chinese nation is deeply permeated with sentiment for our native places and love for our hometown. This nourishes human relations in daily life, and is manifested in the new era among the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation at home and abroad who are confident and determined in their cultural identity.

Xi Jinping has said, "China's history stretches over thousands of years, and patriotism has always been a stirring theme and a powerful force inspiring the Chinese of all ethnic groups to carry on and excel." Over thousands of years, a great volume of landscape paintings have threaded together the loving sentiment of the family-nation construct, and become a unique symbol of Chinese culture. These works, just like Autumn Colors on the Queshan and Huashan Mountains, have constantly sown the seeds of love throughout China's culture and history and infused patriotism into the hearts of the Chinese people. Generation after generation, they have exerted an influence as towering as the mountains and as long as the rivers, and become a deep and enduring force driving the Chinese nation to flourish.

Understanding the Profound Power of Traditional Chinese Culture Through Landscape Painting (2)

Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, Fan Kuan, Northern Song Dynasty.

Portraying a vision of harmony between humans and nature

Whether or not we are able to build a harmonious relationship between humans and nature, and in turn achieve what has been described as "dwelling poetically," is an important standard for measuring the advancement of human civilization.

(Video) Traditional Chinese art and its connection with the divine

Ancient Chinese theory on landscape painting always maintained a sense of compassion for everything in nature, and stressed the interdependence between people and their fellow men, nature, and society. Northern Song painter Fan Kuan's masterwork Travelers Among Mountains and Streams is a panoramic composition of imposing stature that captures the monumental Qinling and Longshan mountains in simple yet elegant dark ink, and authentically portrays the majesty of the striking northern landscape. Opening the scroll, we see a string of traders and pack animals laden with goods trekking along a mountain path by secluded springs, and we can almost hear the gurgling of water, the murmuring of human voices, and the grunting of mules. From the painting, we can see how our ancient forebears lived and worked among lucid waters and lush mountains. What an amazing scene this is of traditional life in China! The reason why Fan's work has been passed on and remained relevant is not just because it rose to the peak of Song Dynasty painting on the level of artistic technique, but also because the artistic thought behind it illuminated the traditional cultural ethos of respecting nature, understanding nature, and revering nature. Humanity exists because of nature, and there is a type of harmonious symbiosis between them. This is the concept conveyed by Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, which vividly illustrates the fact that people's pursuit of better lives is tied to their natural environment.

The natural landscape is our source of poetic inspirations, permeated with human emotion toward nature. 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. Concepts in ancient landscape painting theory such as capturing the essence of nature through human creation and pouring the character and emotion of the artist into the work emphasize that humans and nature are intrinsically connected. Therefore, all human affairs should follow the laws of nature, and attain harmony with nature. From ancient times to the present, the wisdom and pursuits of the Chinese nation have always reached greater heights against a tableau of harmony between humans and nature. This harmony is the root of the Chinese nation's being, and the fountainhead of the Chinese civilization's development.

Xi Jinping has stressed that we should pursue harmony between humans and nature. Idyllic images of nature like mountains covered in dense forest, verdant plains blending into an azure sky, and a fine spring day in the city or the countryside are not just a source of enjoyment, but also a support for humanity as we head into the future. Appreciating traditional Chinese landscape paintings on a deep level can help us acquire the inspiration and confidence we need to create a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. This is an activity of great value for promoting eco-friendly ethics and for more effectively advancing efforts to build a Chinese socialist eco-civilization in the new era. Today, looking back on the introduction of the Beautiful China Initiative through the lens of Travelers Among Mountains and Streams, the idea that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets already seems self-evident.

Understanding the Profound Power of Traditional Chinese Culture Through Landscape Painting (3)

The Dujiangyan Dam in Guanxian County, Cen Xuegong.

Celebrating a tirelessly aspirational national spirit

(Video) How Chinese Landscape Painting survived the CCP

The traditional Chinese cultural concept of unity between humans and nature recognizes the importance of reverence for nature, but this by no means suggests that we should completely resign ourselves to it. While respecting nature, protecting it, and following its ways, we should also try to make rational use of it and improve it. This is something that the Chinese people have always striven toward, and this great and tirelessly aspirational national spirit is naturally reflected within traditional Chinese landscape painting.

Taking the quest to master water as an example, our ancient Chinese forebears worked industriously and courageously to confront natural calamity, from the legendary figures Gun, who raised dikes to combat floods, and his son Yu, who built canals to dissipate floodwaters, to the great engineers Li Bing and his son, who designed systems to harness water for irrigation. This great national spirit of tirelessly striving to become better has been passed on from generation to generation, culminating in monumental contemporary achievements like the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Cen Xuegong's landscape painting The Dujiangyan Dam in Guanxian County combines a raw rendition painted on the spot with the methods of traditional Chinese landscape painting to portray the subject of Dujiangyan, an ancient irrigation system that was built as a result of the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation striving to improve nature through their ingenuity and hard work. It conveys the marvelous tale of scientifically-driven efforts to control water in ancient China while also celebrating the beauty of the landscape in a new style, and thus becomes an important piece in modern experimentation in Chinese landscape art. The image is a typical view of the Dujiangyan dam, but shows a raft struggling ahead amid the rushing river, vividly illustrating the stalwart ethos of the Chinese nation described as follows in The Book of Changes: "Just as heaven keeps moving forward vigorously, a man of virtue should strive continuously to strengthen himself." It allows us to appreciate on a deep level the struggle of people who braved hardship and faced the forces of nature through the ages as they sought a better life. The aesthetic value of The Dujiangyan Dam in Guanxian County lies not only in its praise for the hard work and ingenuity of the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation in mastering nature, but even more so in its exaltation of China's tirelessly aspirational national spirit.

Understanding the Profound Power of Traditional Chinese Culture Through Landscape Painting (4)

A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (partial image), Wang Ximeng, Northern Song Dynasty.

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese people were swept up in an enthusiastic wave of socialist reconstruction under the leadership of the CPC. This brought artists out of their studios, and enabled them to produce new images of our beloved country by merging the landscape and the scenery with developmental efforts on various fronts including industry, agriculture, hydraulic engineering, and transportation. Through landscape painting, they passionately celebrated the Chinese people's dedication to building a modern socialist country, and projected with great intensity how members of the public yearned for and pursued a better life. Even today, these works are still inspiring us to build a better tomorrow for our socialist country.

Nourishing the virtuous soul of the Chinese nation

(Video) The Nuts and Bolts of Chinese Painting: Connoisseurship, Brushwork and Materials

The Chinese nation is a nation that is tied to the natural landscape. The thinking of great sages of the past was intimately connected to the way of nature, and this fed the Chinese civilization's great achievements and forged China's magnificent culture. In The Book of Songs, virtue is compared to nature through simile in the line, "Stately as a mountain, graceful as a river." Confucius said, "The wise find joy in water; the benevolent find joy in mountains," using features of the natural landscape as moral and spiritual analogies to encourage traditional Chinese virtues through delight in natural beauty.

All the depictions of the natural landscape transmitted through the brushes of great masters in history share common celebration and praise for traditional virtues like kindness and sincerity. These virtues, whether carved into mountains or concealed in the brushwork of paintings, have quietly carried forward the precious character of the Chinese nation over thousands of years, and bred noble values among the Chinese people. For example, there are many character inscriptions carved into the rock on Mount Taishan, including one near the scenic peak which is a prayer for peace and prosperity, and another near the Crescent Moon Pavilion which is an exhortation to morality and a tribute to the graceful soul. Meanwhile, Northern Song Dynasty painter Wang Ximeng's masterpiece A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains is known as one of the ten greatest ancient Chinese paintings and is the only example in the history of Chinese art where an artist has achieved such enduring fame despite having just a single surviving work. Painted on a long scroll, the piece is rooted in tradition and incredibly detailed. The misty, rolling rivers and undulating layers of mountains constitute a spectacular landscape scene of the region around the Yangtze River Delta. Static images of fishing villages, markets, waterside pavilions, thatched houses, watermills, and bridges call to mind the motion of people catching fish, rowing boats, strolling about, and going to market, thus achieving a perfect balance between activity and tranquility. Through a grand view of rivers and mountains, the painting evokes a sense of peace and prosperity as well as awe at China's vastness, and accords with the Chinese nation's aesthetic appreciation for moderation and harmony.

Xi Jinping has said that it is the cultural genes deeply embedded within the veins of the Chinese nation that have sustained our ancient nation and enabled our 5,000year-old civilization to endure till today. A country cannot prosper without virtues, nor can anyone succeed without virtues. Works of traditional Chinese landscape painting demonstrate value and application of virtue, and have inspired the Chinese people to carry on the best of China's traditional culture, guided people in seeking a life of valuing, respecting, and abiding by virtue, and generated a force toward betterment and goodness. As long as the quest for noble virtues is passed on to future generations, the Chinese nation will always be full of hope.

The great land of China would have no claim to beauty without its mountains and rivers. As the ancient philosopher Zhuangzi said, "Nature has its own great beauty, yet speaks nothing." When our nation's deeply embedded aesthetic sensibilities came together with the soul of the landscape, lucid waters and lush mountains were transformed into an artistic style unique to the Chinese nation. Over years of evolution, this has transcended its aesthetic connotations on the artistic level and become a part of the daily life and mental world of the people. The art of landscape painting reflects the path and direction of the civilizational development of the Chinese nation, and powerfully portrays the spirit and ideals of our nation. It has naturally generated a cultural force that has been passed on in the veins of the Chinese people, and this has become a powerful spiritual pillar underpinning the Chinese nation's cultural self-confidence in the new era.

Zhang Qing is Deputy Director of the National Art Museum of China.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 18, 2021)

(Video) "Another Universe: Ancient China, Mind, and Landscape" by David Hinton


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 are the characteristics of traditional Chinese landscape painting? ›

The colors are restrained and subtle and the paintings are usually created in ink on paper, with a small amount of watercolor. They are not framed or glazed but mounted on silk in different formats such as hanging scrolls, handscrolls, album leaves and fan paintings.

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.

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 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.

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 the original purpose of ancient Chinese landscape pictures? ›

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.

How do you describe traditional Chinese art? ›

Traditional Chinese painting involves essentially the same techniques as Chinese calligraphy and is done with a brush dipped in black or colored ink; oils are not used. As with calligraphy, the most popular materials on which paintings are made of paper and silk.

How would you describe a landscape painting? ›

Landscape art is typically described by what appears in the foreground, middle ground, and background. Consider what objects you can see in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the landscape. In many landscapes, understanding how the artist depicts space is important to visually appreciating the work.

How does landscapes influence culture? ›

Landforms might include physical features like mountains or oceans. If you live in the mountains, you're likely to develop a particular culture that adapts to life at a high altitude. For example, you might wear heavier clothing and tend to be physically stronger as a result of climbing often.

What does landscape tell us about our culture? ›

These special sites reveal aspects of our country's origins and development as well as our evolving relationships with the natural world. They provide scenic, economic, ecological, social, recreational, and educational opportunities helping communities to better understand themselves.

Why cultural landscapes are important? ›

The Cultural Landscape Foundation: "Cultural landscapes provide a sense of place and identity; they map our relationship with the land over time; and they are part of our national heritage and each of our lives."

What influences the landscape painting of China? ›

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 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 main techniques in Chinese painting? ›

There are two main techniques in Chinese painting:
  • Gongbi (工笔 /gong-bee/), literally 'working pen', is a meticulous style, rich in color and detailed brush strokes. ...
  • Xieyi (写意 /sshyeah-ee/ 'writing' ), meaning “freehand", is a looser style of painting, and usually used in landscapes.
30 Aug 2021

What is unique about China's landscape? ›

Its territory includes mountains, high plateaus, sandy deserts, and dense forests. One-third of China's land area is made up of mountains. The tallest mountain on Earth, Mount Everest, sits on the border between China and Nepal. China has thousands of rivers.

How do you read a Chinese landscape painting? ›

Chinese landscape paintings are “read,” meaning they are viewed, from right to left. Ideally, a viewer unrolls a section of the landscape at a time to experience the landscape in real time.

How did China's landscape play an important role in shaping its history? ›

How did China's landscape play an important role in shaping its history? Its mountains and deserts isolated the Chinese from advanced agrarian societies in other parts of Asia. How was government organized under the Qin? Power was centralized and divided into three ministries.

What is the greatest contribution of ancient China in the development of arts? ›

The Ancient Chinese mastered the art of making silk from the spun cocoons of silkworms. They kept this technique secret for hundreds of years as silk was desired by other nations and enabled China to become rich. They also dyed silk into intricate and decorative patterns.

What was the most important aspect of Chinese life? ›

The Chinese traditional cultural values of harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty, and filial piety are embodied in China's diplomacy through the concept of harmony, the most important Chinese traditional value.

What is the most important feature of Chinese architecture? ›

Walled compounds, raised pavilions, wooden columns and panelling, yellow glazed roof tiles, landscaped gardens, and a careful application of town planning and use of space are all notable features of the architecture of ancient China, with many of them still playing an important part in modern architecture across East ...

What are Chinese landscape paintings called? ›

Shan shui (Chinese: 山水; pinyin: shān shuǐ; lit. 'mountain-water'; pronounced [ʂán ʂwèɪ]) refers to a style of traditional Chinese painting that involves or depicts scenery or natural landscapes, using a brush and ink rather than more conventional paints.

How can you describe Chinese art and culture? ›

Chinese art history encompasses all the visual arts originating in China and produced by the Chinese cultures and artists. It is marked by many different types, ranging from Neolithic pottery to calligraphy, painting, poetry, porcelain, bronze work, jade carving, and many others.

What is the importance of Chinese art? ›

In early times Chinese art often served as a means to submit to the will of heaven through ritual and sacrifice. Archaic bronze vessels were made for sacrifices to heaven and to the spirits of clan ancestors, who were believed to influence the living for good if the rites were properly and regularly performed.

What does a Chinese painting focuses on? ›

This is the aim of the traditional Chinese painter: to capture not only the outer appearance of a subject but its inner essence as well—its energy, life force, spirit. To accomplish his goal, the Chinese painter more often than not rejected the use of color.

What is the traditional purpose and meaning of landscape painting? ›

A landscape painting or drawing refers to an artwork whose primary focus is natural scenery, such as mountains, forests, cliffs, trees, rivers, valleys, etc. If you want to learn how to paint landscapes, this section will help you get started!

What do you understand by realistic landscape painting and the technique of perspective? ›

Realistic landscape painting means painting landscape in a way that is similar to the way the landscape looks naturally. Hence, when a person sees a realistic landscape painting, the person should feel that he or she is looking at an actual landscape.

What is the history of landscape painting? ›

Artists have been painting the landscape since ancient times. The Greeks and Romans created wall paintings of landscapes and gardenscapes. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the tradition of depicting pure landscapes declined, and the landscape was seen only as a setting for religious and figural scenes.

What is the relationship between landscape and culture? ›

The relationship between people, their culture, and the physical landscape is known as human-environment interaction. This relationship is reciprocal; culture adapts to a particular place, and that place is changed by people.

What are traditional cultural landscapes? ›

Traditional cultural landscapes are considered by the NRHP to be a type of significance rather than a property type. Property types are limited to those specified in the NHPA and the NRHP regulations and include districts, buildings, structures, sites, and objects.

What are the most important cultural traits that shape a person's cultural landscape? ›

The most important cultural traits that shape a people's cultural landscape are their customs, ideas, and ways of doing things.

Why is it important to understand the history of a landscape? ›

Comprehensive knowledge about the history of landscapes as social–ecological systems clearly contributes to understanding the current state of different aspects of sustainability. This knowledge production requires collaboration among scholars from different disciplines, and practitioners.

What is your understanding of landscape architecture and its importance? ›

Landscape architecture is the study and practice of designing environments (outdoors & indoors) of varying scale that encompasses elements of art, environment, architecture, engineering, and sociology. Landscape Architecture is a profession that is unknown or misunderstood as gardening by many.

Why are landscapes and features of the place important in shaping one's own culture? ›

Landscapes and features are important because they contribute significantly to our well-being and quality of life. They provide the broader context within which we live our lives. Living within aesthetically pleasing and culturally meaningful landscapes enhances our sense of wellbeing.

What is the importance of landscape painting? ›

Landscape painting eventually gained prominence in the late 18th century with the rise of Romanticism, and often continued to carry a religious significance. Additionally, it became a method of self-expression, with the emotions of the painter and their appreciation of nature demonstrated in the painting.

What is the purpose of landscape? ›

Landscaping is an art of planning the drives, walks, lawns, shrubs, gardens, flower-beds etc. so as to form a beautiful setting for a building. The main purpose of landscaping is to create a joyful environment round the building and give the occupants a healthy breath, good appearance and natural beauty.

What does the Chinese landscape represent it is? ›

It represents the two complementary poles (yin and yang) reflecting the Daoist view of the universe.

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 is Chinese landscape art? ›

Chinese landscape painting, “shanshui hua” means the painting of mountains and rivers which are the two major components that represents the essence of the nature. Shanshui in Chinese tradition is given rich meaning, for example mountain represents Yang and river indicates Yin.

What is the most significant form of Chinese art? ›

Since the 3rd century ce, calligraphy, or writing as a fine art, has been considered supreme among the visual arts in China.

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 significance of the landscape? ›

Landscapes provide: locations to connect with the natural world and built environment. a vital record of our past and insights into our ancestors and the places they lived. varied opportunities for learning about our natural and cultural heritage.

What does landscape painting symbolize? ›

Nature and Meaning

In landscape painting, natural features like trees, mountains, streams, and waterfalls are ripe for symbolic and allegorical meanings of different sorts. Nature can embody many moods. This powerful, inevitable, and disconcerting version isn't its only possible interpretation.

What does the Chinese term landscape mean? ›

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 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.

What are the importance and benefits of landscaping? ›

Landscaping has great benefits, including increasing your home value, beautifying your space, the potential to decrease heating and cooling expenses and potential health benefits.

What influenced landscape paintings? ›

Two major traditions emerged: English and French, both of which influenced landscape painters throughout Europe and North America, and had a huge impact on the art of the period.

What does Chinese art represent? ›

In early times Chinese art often served as a means to submit to the will of heaven through ritual and sacrifice. Archaic bronze vessels were made for sacrifices to heaven and to the spirits of clan ancestors, who were believed to influence the living for good if the rites were properly and regularly performed.


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