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Understanding the Profound Power of Traditional Chinese Culture Through Landscape Painting

By Zhang Qing Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2021-11-15

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. 


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

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.


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. 

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. 


The Dujiangyan Dam in Guanxian County, Cen Xuegong. 

Celebrating a tirelessly aspirational national spirit 

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.


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 

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)