Tuesday, June 9, 2009


What goes into a painting of shan-shui—mountains and waters, or what we in the west call “landscape”—and how well it is painted, both depend upon how the painter balances the contrasting requirements of external and internal “manifestation.” Both are the product of careful observation and study, of imitation and personal revelation. This appears to be a fundamental theme in texts about shan-shui in the Northern and Southern Song (960–1279 C.E.), but it is also present in much earlier texts about poetry.

In his
Poetic Exposition on Literature, for example, Lu Ji described how the poet prepares to write: He observes phenomena in the world around him; he celebrates the good example provided to him by his predecessors; he immerses himself in both; finally he lifts the brush. For Lu Ji, observing things “remotely,” and experiencing the passage of time or becoming intimately aware of the changing of the seasons, are two ways of describing the same thing. But they are not enough. He must study and imitate the example of other poets. Both are necessary to prepare him for his work. In other words, his is the work of culture, and culture is a product of history, including literature.

Likewise the painter must observe the appearance of things and study their inner nature in order to be able to paint
shan-shui. The texts, most notably Ching Hao, continually emphasized the painter’s obligation to unite observation and study, to fuse sense and thought. Together these enabled the painter to produce an image of shan-shui which rose over the transient world of appearances and revealed to the viewer its underlying truths. In the texts, the membrane separating paintings of shan-shui, in which the painter exploits observation and knowledge, and the actual shan-shui that is captured in his painting was very thin. The best paintings should move the viewer as much as the real thing, and in both cases shan-shui contained a number of standard elements.

Foremost among these were the eponymous mountains-and-waters, the defining framework for the representation of
shan-shui. Together, according to Kuo Hsi, for example, these constitute a wholeness, a kind of body. The mountain has a head, a face, a neck, and limbs. Water flows in its arteries like blood. So although numerous motifs are mentioned over and over again, most of them are associated directly with one or other of these two essential elements. Rocks, cliffs, torrents and tributaries, valleys and peaks clearly serve to define the larger masses of the mountains and of the waters which flow among them. The painting of shan-shui will have as its principal structure one mountain to which its lesser neighbors cluster, a relationship which is compared again and again with that of the host and his guests, or the lord and his subjects or deputies.

After mountains and waters, trees occupy the most important place in the texts. Indeed they are sometimes treated like mountains. The ordering of trees may follow that of mountains (lord and vassals), and they are frequently described in similarly anthropomorphic or symbolic ways. Motifs of branches, foliage, bark, roots, moss and wispy lichens serve to define trees in the same way that mountains are a mighty accumulation of rocks and boulders.

Although they are frequently mentioned among the constituent elements of
shan-shui, clouds belong to a different set of phenomena upon which the texts lay some emphasis. Few descriptions of mountains and waters lack some indication of atmospheric effects, and these serve to amplify the prominent forms of the mountains; to indicate the season or the weather; and to supplement the animating presence and action of the waters. Wind and rain, mist and vapor, low clouds and snow are some of the effects with which the principal forms of shan-shui are accompanied. Very often these effects are mentioned precisely for their transitory quality, since clouds are matter-and-energy in flux, whilst mountains and waters exist in a completely different state of materiality. Both are essential ingredients of shan-shui.

In the beautiful and much earlier
Shan-shui lun by Wang Wei, for instance, atmospheric effects were mentioned only where they are in the process of changing. Mists rise. Clouds disperse. Rain gradually clears. Waves leave their footprint on the waters. The effects of atmosphere, here as elsewhere, help to indicate the passage of time in shan-shui, or to emphasize the transitory quality of the moment in which the viewer observes the various phenomena assembled around the host mountain. In other words shan-shui is far more than place; it is process, and time is an essential dimension of its existence.

Figures or signs of human activity are not always included in descriptions of
shan-shui, but when they are, they are said to reflect the mood of the prevailing atmospheric conditions. Han Cho describes figures in an autumn landscape, for example, as mournful-looking, gazing at the moon. They do not belong to a narrative mode of representation, but rather serve as passive participants in the mysterious spiritual drama of the entire composition. A group of riders mentioned by Kuo Ssu embodies the true appearance of riders; we learn nothing of what they are doing, where they came from, or where they are going. Nevertheless, figures clearly belong to the structure of shan-shui.

In an important passage, Kuo Hsi speaks of the “three degrees of size” at work in a painting, and defines these as the mountain, the tree, and the human figure. This system, which appears to correspond with the three types of distance by which the viewer is oriented in space (high distance, deep distance, and level distance), states explicitly what is usually indicated through metaphor, that trees and mountains are directly comparable with the human body, that they form the kind of parallelism to which the cultivated Chinese mind was long accustomed.
Shan-shui may therefore be described as a projection of human proportions and qualities on the order of the natural landscape, a form of microcosm set against an exactly corresponding macrocosm.

A strict hierarchy of techniques or sensitivities, the so-called six essentials given by Ching Hao, will enable the painter to achieve this end, and all of them converge on the line produced by his brush. It is his principal tool for producing forms, shapes, textures, atmosphere, while the qualities of tone and color carried by the ink, though important, are usually secondary. The painting of
shan-shui was seen, therefore, as a process of building up texture from single lines, and by building up the illusion of spatial wholeness from the texture of the various motifs thus delineated. It was a process of filling the surface of the silk with carefully articulated detail.

Again and again descriptions of
shan-shui, as in Wang Wei for example, speak of places filled with various types of motif, of paths filled with people, or tree-filled towers and terraces, and, most importantly, of mist enshrouding the area below the host mountain. In this example a spatial void—atmosphere—is understood to have substance, to be constructed by the mind of the painter through the brush, just as the substance of rocks or trees is refined or reduced to the characteristic essence of rock or tree. The idea is expressed in an epigrammatic way by Li Ch’eng-sou. In substance there is emptiness, he wrote, but in emptiness there is substance. This mutual interpenetration, like the co-dependence of observation and revelation, lies at the heart of the tremendous flowering of shan-shui in the Northern and Southern Song, and those later periods in which it was so celebrated.

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