Chinese Studies Landscape Painting
Uta Lauer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0051


In the early beginnings of renditions of landscape in painting, natural settings served only as background. Landscape has always been associated with animistic, shamanistic, and other religious belief systems. The Chinese term for landscape is shan shui 山水 (mountain and water). The Five Sacred Mountains, Taishan in the east, Huashan in the west, Hengshan (Hunan Province) in the south, Hengshan (Shanxi Province) in the north, Songshan in the center, and the four sacred rivers, Yangzi, Yellow River, Huai, and Ji River, were revered. Mountains were considered an axis mundi connecting heaven, earth, and the underworld. The Queen Mother of the West was believed to reside in the Kunlun Mountains. Mythological texts, such as the Shanhai jing, describe the geography of China interspersed with mythical landscapes inhabited by gods and goddesses. According to Daoist belief, caves and grottoes are passages that lead to a paradisiacal world. Immortals inhabited isles in the Eastern Sea. During the Han dynasty, a numerological system of correlations developed, connecting yin and yang to the four seasons and the five basic energies of wood, earth, metal, water, and fire. Landscape poetry flourished during the Jin dynasty. The earliest treatise on landscape painting, Gu Kaizhi’s Record of How to Paint Mount Yutai, coincides with the rise of nature poetry. Until the Tang dynasty, when a few landscape painters, such as Li Sixun, made their appearance, figure painting was the dominant genre. Landscape served as background or had a cosmic content, as in tomb murals, relating to the four cardinal directions—east-spring, south-summer, west-autumn, and north-winter—and thus to the passage of time. During the Northern Song dynasty, monumental landscape painting, predominantly executed in monochrome ink, emerged, succeeding the earlier Tang dynasty blue and green landscapes. From the Song dynasty onward, landscape painting was not only a genre in its own right but also the most highly regarded and appreciated genre. The literati scholar-painters in general preferred landscape to other genres. Painting became part of the imperial exams to become an official. In the 11th century the painter Guo Xi wrote a treatise on landscape painting, The Lofty Truth of Forests and Streams (Linquan gaozi), listing three kinds of perspective: high, deep, and level distance. Since the Tang dynasty, a certain pictorial vocabulary, a stock repertoire, and a set of painting conventions had developed that over centuries comprised the prime reference system. Over time, this set of conventions was modified, subtly transformed, and infused with additional, new meaning but never altogether discarded.

General Overviews

Most general works on Chinese landscape painting are selective and not comprehensive, since the topic spans a long period of time and is closely intertwined with other cultural and social practices. Sirén 1956–1958 presents a chronological overview of all Chinese painting genres, but since landscape painting is the prime genre, it occupies the largest part. Sullivan 1979 provides the necessary background to understand the principles of Chinese landscape painting. Ho, et al. 1980 provides an excellent starting point for the paintings discussed, including the translation of inscriptions, the identification of seals, and further literature on a specific painting. Fong, et al. 1984 introduces the Elliot collection now kept at the Princeton University Art Museum and used there extensively for study purposes. The essays in the catalogue are informative exemplary studies that can serve as a guideline for how to approach Chinese painting. Wang 1995 treats all important aspects of Chinese painting, in particular landscape painting, including technical matters, such as mounting and colors, often neglected in other publications on the subject. Yang, et al. 1997 is an up-to-date single-volume publication on Chinese painting in general with substantial sections on Chinese landscape painting and excellent color illustrations. Silbergeld 2005 clarifies the meaning of the term shan shui 山水 (mountain and water), the Chinese binomial (compound) used to denominate landscape and, more specifically, landscape painting. The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City includes Landscape Painting in Chinese Art, which offers very good introductory articles and rich information on paintings from the museum’s collection. Also very useful are the links to individual, downloadable images of paintings, including close-ups.

  • Fong, Wen C., Alfreda Murck, Shou-chien Shih, Pao-chen Ch’en, and Jan Stuart. Images of the Mind: Selections from the Edward L. Elliot Family and John B. Elliot Collections of Chinese Calligraphy and Painting at the Art Museum, Princeton University. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 1984.

    Exhibition catalogue of two major collections with introductory essays by leading scholars. Translation of inscriptions, identification of seals. Lists where a painting was published earlier so readers can form their own opinions on the scholarship. Chinese glossary at the end.

  • Ho, Wai-kam, Sherman E. Lee, Laurence Sickman, and Marc F. Wilson. Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting: The Collection of the Nelson Gallery–Atkins Museum, Kansas City, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1980.

    Exemplary exhibition catalogue with introductory essays. The majority are landscape paintings. Inscriptions are translated, seals are identified, each work is discussed in detail, and literature is provided.

  • Landscape Painting in Chinese Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    A chronological survey that points to major issues. Includes links to paintings in the collection and downloadable images, including details. Further scholarly literature is indicated.

  • Silbergeld, Jerome. “Mountains and Water, Shan Shui: What Do We Mean by ‘Landscape’ in Chinese Landscape Painting?” Journal of the International Snuff Bottle Society 37.1 (2005): 4–20.

    Discusses the terminology in light of early-21st-century scholarship against the background of the multifaceted issues that inform the different readings of the term “landscape” in Chinese landscape painting.

  • Sirén, Osvald. Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles. 7 vols. London: Lund Humphries and Ronald, 1956–1958.

    Standard reference work. Covers other painting genres as well, but the majority are landscape paintings. Arranged chronologically and thematically. Each chapter is divided into a general part and a section on individual painters. Sirén employed mainly classical Chinese primary textual sources and relied little on secondary information. Volume 7 provides an annotated list of paintings and further reading.

  • Sullivan, Michael. Symbols of Eternity: The Art of Landscape Painting in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979.

    Introduction for the general reader explaining the underlying principles, philosophical ideas, and general developments. Also refers to the political and social settings relevant to landscape painting. No Chinese character list.

  • Wang Yao-t’ing. Looking at Chinese Painting: A Comprehensive Guide to the Philosophy, Technique, and History of Chinese Painting. Tokyo: Nigensha, 1995.

    Excellent introduction for the general reader and undergraduate student. Also discusses the use and role of seals and colophons. Explains technical matters, such as mounting, formats, color pigments, and ink. Offers a methodological approach on how to study Chinese painting.

  • Yang Xin, Nie Chongzheng, Lang Shaojun, Richard M. Barnhart, James Cahill, and Wu, Hung. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

    Comprehensive account of Chinese painting with major sections on landscape painting. Includes the latest scholarship. Index of painters’ names with Chinese characters and style names. Good-sized color illustrations throughout, including works hitherto little known but of great significance.

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