Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We use cookies to personalise your experience; learn more in our Privacy and Cookie Policy. You can opt out of some cookies by adjusting your browser settings; see the cookie policy for details. By using this site, you agree to our use of cookies.

‘This was a romantic art with mountain peaks of fantastic shapes and cloud-capped terraces’

Although landscape was long the primary theme of Chinese painting, the role of architectural depictions was an incredibly important one

First published in AR July 1947, this piece was republished online in November 2015

For over a thousand years landscape has been the principal theme of Chinese painting, in strong contrast to its late introduction in the west. The reasons for this lie deep in the structure of Chinese Civilization. Poetry and painting, always closely allied, were accomplishments which were common forms in a society dominated by scholar-officials. And so there is a solidarity of common approach between the professional painter and his patron: they shared a philosophy of art as a means of getting into closer touch with Nature. Painting was not so much a means of expression as a spiritual exercise, in which executant and spectator must each participate. An interesting light is thrown on the nature of appreciation by its normal issue in copying. In the landscape paintings of China, then, we are in immediate touch with the general attitude of her society to Nature.

Now nearly every Chinese landscape painting contains some sign of human habitation. Often it may be no more than a thatched hut, for as the eleventh century painter Kuo His wrote, ‘a pavilion on a mountain gives a clue to an excellent view.’ The spectator is drawn into a Chinese landscape; it was said to be a mark of a good picture that you could ramble in it; of the best, that you could dwell in it. It follows that the favourite building will be a retreat, in which the retired official might find communion with the natural world and nourish his spirit on mists and clouds. For the mountain dominates every landscape, with the water at its feet.

‘Harmony is always the guiding principle: the pavilion looks upon the mountain and the mountain upon the pavilion’

From the time of the classic Sung painters of the eleventh century onwards, Petrach’s sentiment expressed about his celebrated ascent of Mont Ventoux (which took place in April, 1336,) that he was strengthened to complete it by a sense that he was, ‘Climbing out of sin’ would be in the mind of any Chinese literate; with the characteristic national difference; that less emphasis would lie on the effort of climbing, and more on the sensuous influence of sights and sounds. It is the way of the contemplative, to allow the soul to be filled with the life of a greater force.

Such is the general approach to Nature found in Chinese landscape painting: and as the buildings in them are always peculiar significance, not introduced as a measure of scale, still less for any formal value in the composition, they will be the key to a fit approach to the natural world. Harmony is always the guiding principle: ‘the pavilion looks upon the mountain and the mountain upon the pavilion.’ The sound of running water is always near. A wall indicates seclusion but the door in it usually hospitably open: a grove of bamboos surrounds the place, especially loved by scholars for its beauty and association as a symbol of loyalty.

The picture by Li Wei of the eleventh century, now in the Boston Museum, is a classic composition of this kind. The retreat lies open, ready to receive the spectator. It is characteristic of Chinese pictorial criticism that architectural coherence, or organic planning of a building, is treated on a par with the right kind of building in the right place. The landscape demands the building rather than the building being designed for its situation. The right kind of building should be placed by the painter on a mountain, or in a valley in the foreground or distance. For all Chinese landscapes are imaginary views, even if inspired by a particular place. They are not, till fairly recent times, descriptive, but evocative. But the structure of the buildings is nearly always quite clear, and simple. The use of wood and the absence of any clear division between house and garden help to keep building and countryside in close relation; even more elaborate buildings are composed of simple elements, and are complex rather than enriched.


It will therefore be easily understood that the drawing of buildings was regularly studied in China as a branch of landscape painting, with the treatment of human figures as a further extension of the same branch. The painter will learn how to draw different kinds of roofs, doors and fences, just as he learns how to draw the foliage of different kinds of trees. But naturally the great painter will excel rather in the use of these terms, that is, in his conception of a painting, which is to include them.

The architectural elements introduced into the Village Among Willows by the fourteenth century painter Chu Te-Jun, are simple, but the placing of this closely-knit complex of buildings in relation to the natural scenery is an exercise in ‘how to fit ourselves to Nature.’ No personal preference of the painter is the subject, but his attempt to express a lesson of universal application. It is not man who moulds the natural scene, but he seeks to live so as to share in, and not to interfere with, the natural harmony. Water is especially esteemed as a life-giving principle; and just as the fall or torrent are suitable accompaniments for the scholar’s solitude, so a waterside or island site is preferred for a community settlement. But to avoid any appearance of aloofness, the bridge leading to it should always be shown. Indeed there are few Chinese pictures in which a bridge is not to be found.

‘This was a romantic art in which mountain peaks of fantastic shapes, and impossible steepness serve as a background, for palace buildings, which are piled up in a grand profusion of cloud-capped terraces’

This attitude to landscape dominates all Chinese art criticism; but there is another tradition, which is at least as old if not older. Chinese civilization has, for all its orientation towards the natural world, flourished in the city, and especially at court. The greatest age of China is the T’ang period (A.D. 618-906) when the centralised government of the Empire was most highly developed. This is the classic age of poetry to which later times look back, and its landscape art also continued to inspire later painters. This was a romantic art in which mountain peaks of fantastic shapes, and impossible steepness serve as a background, for palace buildings, which are piled up in a grand profusion of cloud-capped terraces. The elements of these scenes are indeed derived from the unbelievably grand peaks of the Yang-tze river gorges, and the traditional style of palace building in China, but these mountains could never be climbed nor these palaces built; and the “blue, green and gold “lapis blue, and malachite green, and gold contouring of the peaks show clearly that it is a world of the imagination. (This example, in the Boston Museum, shows the Ch’iu Ch’ing Palace in Shensi, and is in the T’ang style though painted in the thirteenth or fourteenth century.) Nevertheless the sublimity of such scenes was not without its influence on Chinese architecture, and especially upon landscape gardening. If you could not always live in the mountains, you could at least introduce symbols and reminders of wild nature into your garden. The Chinese love for fantastic rocks; covered with lichens, in their gardens show how this taste might be indulged.

A view, or a vista, is always sought whenever possible, as was not without its influence in late, seventeenth century or eighteenth century Europe, when she first began to learn about China through the Jesuits. The Ming period (A.D. 1368-1644) saw a native dynasty going back, in many ways, for inspiration to the T’ang, and the T’ang-style landscapes were then especially in vogue. A further tendency, however, served to modify and direct the exuberance of this style. According to Chinese tradition it was a painter named Kuo Chung-shu of, the tenth century who invented “boundary painting.” This is a system of measured drawing of architecture, using perspective to show the relation of the parts, but not accepting a single viewpoint to give focus to the whole. The example chosen (shown below) is actually attributed, to Kuo Chung-shu himself; it is a large picture (1.61 by 1.05 metres) in a Japanese collection. Such an exercise, so elaborate and sustained, reminds one of nothing so much as one of the capriccio compositions of the Bibiena family in seventeenth century Europe.


This development of the science of perspective corresponds to the Chinese love of order. Though descriptive and illustrative paintings are not very common, they can be conveniently treated in accordance with these principles. An excellent example is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The elevated viewpoint allows of the clear depiction of a street scene, while over the wall can be seen the courtyard of a private house. This is by an unknown painter of the twelfth century. To return to the Ming period; the best remembered of the court artists of the sixteenth century, Ch’iu Ying, excelled at painting garden scenes in which the two traditions were to some extent harmonised, (in a Japanese private collection). Both architecture and natural scenery are explicitly treated, and their relationship is coherent, but the delicacy of touch and clarity of composition does not redeem his work, for the Chinese critic, since Ch’iu Ying was not a poet nor a scholar nor a calligrapher, and therefore was unable, in his view, to make up for poverty of conception by eclectic borrowing from the old master.

The main tradition of landscape painting in China had followed other lines. As time went on the so-called Southern School became increasingly predominant. It looked back to the T’ang poet-painter Wang Wei (A.D. 698-759) as the founder of its tradition, which was regarded as ” harmoniously pure and detached,” so that the painter working within it can allow his line to be ” penetrated by the creative power of Nature.” It is not possible for us to tell how far Wang Wei himself went on these lines, since no original from his hand is known to exist. But in the British Museum is one early fourteenth century copy of one of his most famous pictures, a long scroll depicting his home on the Wang Chuan. This is not, it should be understood, a literal view; but rather an illustration, to some poems, which he wrote upon this favourite spot. The reticence of the picture, its depth and comprehensiveness make it indeed a composition to wander in curiously haunting with its spirit of harmony and peace. It is the Chinese attitude to nature, in forming such landscape paintings as this, which may give us a new, and wider, viewpoint from which to consider the relation of architecture and natural scenery and of man’s place in the physical world.

Readers' comments (1)

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.