This assignment is intended to assist teachers in understanding the meanings and functions of the “monumental landscape” style of the Northern Song period (960–1127).
Teachers should first read my introduction to Northern Song landscape below. Use the links provided to view the two paintings discussed: Fan Kuan’s Travelers Among Mountains and Streams and Guo Xi’s Early Spring. Take some time and examine Early Spring in detail. There are thirteen figures and two temple complexes—can you find them? Read “Daoism and Nature” by James Miller, and “Chinese Philosophy: Neo-Confucianism,” using the links provided. Finally, answer two of the three questions below based on your own observations regarding the painting Early Spring and the assigned readings.)
(Please answer two of the three questions below):
- How are Neo-Confucian ideas reflected in Guo Xi’s Early Spring and in his essay The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams?
- How are Daoist ideas about nature reflected in Guo Xi’s Early Spring and in his essay The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams?
- Who is the audience for Guo Xi’s paintings, and what purpose do landscape paintings serve for this audience, based on Guo Xi’s essay? How does Early Spring reflect this intended purpose, in terms of the content or the style of the painting (what is painted and how it is painted?
One of the greatest achievements of Chinese painting is in the genre of landscape. In pictorial art of the Han (206 BCE–221 CE) through Tang (618–907 CE) dynasties landscape elements are used primarily to create a setting for a narrative. But in the Five Dynasties and early Northern Song periods, the tenth and eleventh centuries, we see the development of landscape as a subject in its own right. There are no landscape paintings from the Five Dynasties period that are widely accepted as authentic. However, there are a number of works attributed to Northern Song artists that are considered authentic by most historians of Chinese art. One example is a work by Fan Kuan (active late tenth to early eleventh centuries) traditionally known as Travelers Among Mountains and Streams (click on “enlargement” to see the painting in greater detail).
This painting is large in size—almost seven feet in length—and is dominated by a mountain peak located on the central axis, flanked by two smaller peaks. There are several figures in the painting. Two men and a group of four mules move along the river bank, while a monk walks from behind a large bluff toward a rustic bridge over the stream in the middle ground. These provide a sense of scale for the painting; here man is dwarfed by nature.
The path along which the monk walks presumably leads to the temple, the rooftops of which can be seen above the trees at center right. Writers of the period frequently comment on how these landscapes are navigable; they describe how the viewer may visually cross a bridge, ford a stream, pass a wine shop and so on.
Verisimilitude is very important in works of this period; the artist attempts to capture the forms, the volumes, and the surface textures of nature. Close examination of the trees reveals the careful delineation of the foliage—each leaf is individually outlined—and although more or less the same form is used for all the leaves on any one tree, the orientation of each leaf is varied to avoid a patternized look.
Landscape painting of this period is often described as Daoist (or Taoist), that is, as reflecting ideas ascribed to the native Chinese religion of Daoism. Daoist philosophy taught that one should not force oneself to conform to social norms, but be in accord with the natural world. The Daoist intuitively understands his or her unity with all things.
However, Song dynasty landscape paintings may also reflect concepts of Neo-Confucianism, a contemporary revival of Confucianism, particularly those of the “School of Principle.” Principles or li are the underlying patterns that govern all things. This school believed that one should cultivate oneself through “the investigation of things,” which would lead to an understanding of the principles of all phenomena. Principles were manifested in the behavior and relationships of human beings, as well as those of animals and in natural phenomena.
Another Northern Song work is Early Spring, by Guo Xi, a court painter, which you can view through the link below. This painting was signed, titled and dated to 1052 by the painter. In China, the beginning of the lunar New Year, and the beginning of spring, falls sometime between the end of January and early March, so this painting represents a landscape after the snows have melted but before trees and plants have begun blooming. Like Fan Kuan’s painting, this work is composed around a large mountain on the central axis that towers over the human elements.
Guo Xi’s son, Guo Si, produced a collection of his father’s notes on landscape painting, titled Linquan gaozhi (The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams), which provides a textual corollary to Guo Xi’s painting. Below are extracts from this text.
“In what does a gentleman's love of landscape consist? The cultivation of his fundamental nature in rural retreats is his frequent occupation. The carefree abandon of mountain streams is his frequent delight. The secluded freedom of fishermen and woodsmen is his frequent enjoyment. The flight of cranes and the calling of apes are his frequent intimacies. The bridles and fetters of the everyday world are what human nature constantly abhors. Immortals and sages in mists and vapors are what human nature constantly longs for and yet is unable to see. It is simply that, in a time of peace and plenty, when the intentions of the ruler and parents are high-minded, purifying oneself is of little significance and office-holding is allied to honor. Can anyone of humanitarian instinct then tread aloof or retire afar in order to practice a retreat from worldly affairs?…[A]re the longing for forests and streams, and the companionship of mists and vapors, then to be experienced only in dreams and denied to the waking senses?
It is now possible for subtle hands to reproduce them in all their rich splendor. Without leaving your room you may sit to your heart's content among streams and valleys. The voices of apes and the calls of birds will fall on your ears faintly. The glow of the mountain and the color of the waters will dazzle your eyes glitteringly. Could this fail to quicken your interest and thoroughly capture your heart?…
A great mountain is dominating as chief over the assembled hills, thereby ranking in an ordered arrangement the ridges and peaks, forests and valleys as suzerains of varying degrees and distances. The general appearance is of a great lord glorious on his throne and a hundred princes hastening to pay him court, without any effect of arrogance or withdrawal [on either part]. A tall pine stands erect as the mark of all other trees, thereby ranking in an ordered arrangement the subsidiary trees and plants as numerous admiring assistants. The general effect is of a nobleman dazzling in his prime with all lesser mortals in his service, without insolent or oppressed attitudes [on either part]…
A mountain has the significance of a major object. Its form may rear up, may be arrogantly aloof. It may be lofty and broad, may sprawl. It may spread vast and extensive, may be solid and bulky. It may be heroic and martial, may be sacred or awe-inspiring…
Water has the significance of a living object. Its form may be deep and peaceful, may be lithe and slippery. It may spread to the horizon or circle back again…
A mountain has water as blood, foliage as hair, haze and clouds as its spirit and character. Thus, a mountain gains life through water, its external beauty through vegetation and its elegant charm through haze and clouds. Water has the mountain as its face, huts and pavilions as eyes and eye-brows, anglers as its soul…
Rocks are nature’s bones and, with bones[,] value is placed on their being strong and well covered, not poking through the surface. Water is nature’s blood and, with blood, value is place on its circulating and not congealing.”
From Susan Bush and Hsio-yen Shih, Early Chinese Texts on Painting (Harvard University Press, 1985) pp. 150-153, 166-167.