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Chinese Landscape Paintings: History, Themes, and Significance

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"Travelers Through Mountain Passes," by Dai Jin (1388-1462)

"Travelers Through Mountain Passes," by Dai Jin (1388-1462)

Chinese Landscape Painting

For many thousands of years, landscape paintings, or shan shui Hua (山水画), have been a major part of Chinese art. They are one of the most well-known types of Chinese painting around the world and are familiar to almost everyone who considers themselves a lover of Chinese art.

Meditative, mysterious, and perplexing, Chinese landscape paintings have captivated the imagination of the West and have been painted by Chinese artists in their basic form for many millennia. The rugged mountains of these paintings are simple in nature but require deep thought and contemplation to understand.

In this article, we'll take a look at the history and meanings of Chinese landscape paintings, the artists who painted them, their influences on art throughout the region, shan shui in the modern-day, and much more.

In This Article

  • Basic Elements and Meanings
  • History
  • Video
  • Colors
  • Famous Painters and Paintings
  • The Chinese Influence on Asian Landscape Art
  • Modern-Day Chinese Landscape Paintings
  • A Timeless Art Form
"Entering Suzhou and the Grand Canal" by Qing-era court painter Xu Yang (active 1750-1776). This is the sixth scroll from the series and shows the Western influence on Chinese painting of the time.

"Entering Suzhou and the Grand Canal" by Qing-era court painter Xu Yang (active 1750-1776). This is the sixth scroll from the series and shows the Western influence on Chinese painting of the time.

"In the Mountains to Collect Herbs" by Ming painter Lu Zhi (1409-1576). Note the tiny man and pathways in the midst of the massive, foreboding mountainous landscape with its detailed features.

"In the Mountains to Collect Herbs" by Ming painter Lu Zhi (1409-1576). Note the tiny man and pathways in the midst of the massive, foreboding mountainous landscape with its detailed features.

Basic Elements and Meanings

In shan shui paintings, three basic elements make up a painting: mountains, rivers, and on occasion, waterfalls. Hence the Chinese name shan shui ("mountain-water") for landscape art.


Mountains are the "heart" of a Chinese landscape painting. They are the center point of a vast landscape, usually jutting upward toward Heaven. Or they are a steep green monolith covered with craggy rocks and ridges. Behind these surreal landscapes is a very deep, philosophical meaning. Furthermore, they are a product of the artist's imagination. The landscape surrounding the mountain entices the viewer to partake in its beauty and contemplate the meaning of the mountain—or, sometimes, the vast emptiness surrounding it. The fog surrounding the mountain is the "spiritual void" we must fill by contemplating the painting.

According to traditional Chinese beliefs, mountains are considered sacred. They are the places where the immortals reside and are very close to Heaven, both physically and spiritually. This belief is reflected very strongly in many of these paintings.

Other Landscape Elements

In most landscape paintings, rivers and pathways dot the landscape. They streak across the landscape, point the viewer straight to the mountain, and add a sense of balance to the painting. Often they'll streak up or down the mountain itself and add to the painting's beauty or surrealism.

Sometimes, while the mountain may be the center, the painting's true "heart and soul" may be another object entirely, such as the moon or stars. They give an element of distance to the painting and emphasize the feeling of vastness or solitude.

Other elements in shan shui paintings include rocks, trees, buildings (i.e., houses and temples), the sun and moon, fishing boats, and people. They are all part of the vast landscape. Also, on many shan shui paintings are poems known as shan shui poetry (山水诗). Shan shui poems complement the painting and explain it. Many of these poems reflect the connotation of Heaven, and the meaning is very clear.

Philosophical Influences

Taoist (Daoist) and Buddhist philosophy strongly influence Chinese landscape paintings. The vast landscapes in these paintings represent the vastness of the universe. One tiny person in the midst of these landscapes is as small as we are in the vast cosmos.

Also, the Taoist philosophy of yin-yang is very much a part of shan shui artwork. All of the elements of the painting are separate, such as the mountain and the earth surrounding it, rivers and lakes, and so on. Brushstrokes can be light strokes (yin) or heavy, dark strokes (yang), representing yin and yang qualities.

The mountain in a shan shui painting is also a focal point for reflection on the part of the viewer. When staring at a mountain off in the distance jutting through the fog into the sky, it's up to us to take in the scenery, stare at the mountain, and find the meaning of the painting in our own hearts.

History of Chinese Landscape Paintings

Shan shui draws much of its influence from Buddhist art that influenced art all across Asia thanks to the ancient Silk Road trading route. The lavish backgrounds that are a prominent part of Chinese landscape paintings were directly inspired by the murals and woodcuts that depicted the life of Buddha from countries such as India. These Silk Road influences merged with the Taoist natural paintings that already existed in China and, together, created shan shui.

Landscape art has been in existence in China for many thousands of years, but its popularity started to rise during the 5th century CE, or the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). During this time, it was a way to express communion with the natural world.

Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE)

Over time, landscape art matured. It particularly took its shape during the "Chinese renaissance" of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE). During the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), landscape paintings started having implied social, political, and religious commentaries. The mountains represented the Emperor, and the trees were the Emperor's subjects. All were part of a "natural order" under the divine guidance and rule of the Song Emperor. During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), landscape paintings took on a more "common man" approach. Landscapes with more attention to background details became the norm, such as tranquil little houses situated in the vast mountains. These houses symbolized the artists' desire for solitude and personal growth.

Also, during the Song Dynasty, shan shui paintings became a favorite pastime among the country's upper class. Scholars, literati, court painters, and more made nationally famous paintings that have remained famous works of art down through the ages.

Yuan Dynasty (AD 1279-1378)

After the Mongol conquest of China during the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty (AD 1279-1378), landscape paintings became an expression of dissent and a desire for solitude from Mongol occupation. Houses situated in the mountains represented the private gatherings the artists would have away from the prying eyes of the Mongols. The mountain homes in many of the paintings from this era became a tribute to those underground gatherings. It was also during this time that landscape paintings became more of an expression of the artist's inner spirit than an expression of the influence of past masters.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)

When the Yuan Dynasty was vanquished, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) came to power in China. During this time, two different groups of influence emerged: The court painters who were inspired by the Song-era paintings of the natural order by Imperial rule, and the artistic literati who were influenced by the Yuan-era paintings, which emphasized self-expression. Shan shui paintings took on both meanings during this time. Also, during the Ming dynasty, paintings became a little more colorful as the spectrum of colors used in Chinese paintings increased.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

During the Manchu rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the mountains again became a place of solitude and seclusion from the political order of the day. Many Ming loyalist artists withdrew from society during the Qing rule, and some lived reclusive lives in Nature. Other loyalist artists lived in and around the city of Nanjing, which was a hotbed for Ming loyalists.

Since many loyalists didn't have access to classical artwork, they relied on the nature around them to provide inspiration for their paintings. Also, the countryside around Nanjing was a popular source of inspiration for loyalist painters.

18th Century and Beyond

When the Jesuits and other Christian missionaries started arriving in China during the late 18th century, European influence gradually seeped into Chinese artwork. Landscape paintings became a little more colorful than they ever were before, and the atmosphere of many Chinese paintings, in general, started to change. This change continued well into the 20th century, when modern art became the norm.

A blue-green shan shui painting by Ming artist Shen Zhou (1427-1509)

A blue-green shan shui painting by Ming artist Shen Zhou (1427-1509)

"Summer Mountains" by Northern Song painter Qu Ding (active approx. 1023-1056 CE). This is one of the most famous of all Chinese landscape paintings.

"Summer Mountains" by Northern Song painter Qu Ding (active approx. 1023-1056 CE). This is one of the most famous of all Chinese landscape paintings.

Colors of Chinese Landscape Painting

Colors and textures can add meaning to a Chinese landscape painting.

During the Tang Dynasty, blue-green (青绿山水, or Qing lu shan shui) shan shui paintings grew in popularity. This style of painting is strongly associated with ancient Chinese paintings, especially since variations of it date as far back as the Six Dynasties (AD 220-589)!

Five Elements

Shan shui paintings are painted using the traditional Five Elements, or wu xing (五行). That is, five elements represent the parts of the natural world: Wood, Fire, Metal, earth, and Water. Each of these elements is associated with a certain direction and is assigned a specific color according to its direction. For example, Water is associated with the north and is assigned the colors blue or black. There are also positive and negative interactions between the elements.

Two examples are Water, which produces Wood, and Wood, which produces Fire. Since the two go hand in hand, the colors are painted together. Some elements cannot be used together, and these are negative interactions. Water and Fire cannot be used together in a shan shui painting because Water douses Fire. Likewise, Metal (i.e., an ax) can chop Wood. They are not used together in a shan shui painting.

This painting by an unknown Japanese painter uses all the basic elements of a shan shui painting with a twist. It features a bloody battle being fought on the landscape at the base of the mountain, which is in the foreground.

This painting by an unknown Japanese painter uses all the basic elements of a shan shui painting with a twist. It features a bloody battle being fought on the landscape at the base of the mountain, which is in the foreground.

Famous Chinese Landscape Painters and Paintings

Ever since the Tang dynasty, there have been many famous landscape artists in China. Many of these influenced future generations that came after them.

A few of the many notable Chinese landscape painters from centuries past include the Tang painter Li Sixun, the Song painters Fan Kuan, Qu Ding, and Li Tang, the Ming artist Shen Zhou, and the Qing-era painter Wang Hui.

Chinese Influence on Asian Landscape Art

Chinese landscape art was a huge influence on the art of other Asian countries— primarily Japan and Korea. It was a huge influence on Japanese landscape, or sansui, art. From the time it was born, classical Chinese shan shui painters influenced the Japanese sansui artists, and these Japanese painters used the same exact styles, themes, and viewpoints.

Japanese Landscape

However, over time, Japanese landscape paintings began to take on a distinct identity of their own. They began to use more color than in Chinese paintings, and the people started to become bigger than the landscape features! Also, sansui paintings took on the Japanese values of wabi sabi, which installed in the painting a sense of imperfect beauty.

Many Japanese sansui painters, such as the Zen priest painter Tenshō Shūbun (active ca.15th century), his contemporary Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506), and the founder of the Kanō school of painting Kanō Masanobu (1434-1530), were all influenced by Chinese shan shui artwork.

Korean Landscape

In Korea, until the mid-Joseon dynasty (1392-1897), or the mid-17th century or so, when "true-view" landscape art began to take hold in Korea, the Chinese artists and styles of landscape were dominant in Joseon-era Korean landscape art. Many Korean painters painted landscapes very similar to those in Chinese paintings, with high, multi-layered mountains, tiny people, and breathtaking landscapes dotted with rivers, waterfalls, and buildings.

When "true-view" rose in popularity, landscape paintings took on a distinct Korean identity, with Korean—rather than Chinese—landscapes and cultural meanings being painted. Landscape paintings could also be found in traditional Korean folk art or minhwa (민화).

Thanks to the Silk Road, the influence of Chinese landscape art could be found as far away as Persia (modern-day Iran). Ancient Persian artists borrowed many of the Chinese landscape painting techniques, such as layered mountains with outlines and craggy rocks and trees silhouetted on the mountainsides.

Modern-Day Chinese Landscape Paintings

In modern-day China, the art of shan shui is still around, but Western-style contemporary art has gradually become more popular since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912. Also, after the Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949, the concept of "socialist realism" in Chinese art was introduced.

In modern-day China, many contemporary artists still paint traditional shan shui paintings, as well as artists who paint Western-style mountain paintings. Famous modern Chinese landscape artists from the past century include Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), Pan Tianshou (1897-1971), and Li Keran (1907-1989).

As the popularity of Eastern art grows in the West and Western artists attempt to learn the ancient art of shan shui, there have no doubt been many who have mastered its techniques.

A Timeless Art Form

Chinese landscape paintings have been around for thousands of years, but the techniques used to make these paintings, and the meaning behind these paintings, has not changed at all since shan shui started to take off during the Tang Dynasty. The paintings of ancient times are just as eye-catching and contemplative now as they were almost 2,000 years ago, and the meaning is still the same!

I hope you have learned something new about these magnificent paintings. Thank you for reading. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

Comments on November 09, 2019:

Very interesting article. Thank you

truefaith7 (author) from USA on June 02, 2018:

You're welcome. :-)

marty on June 01, 2018:

thanks for the great info it helped me a lot with my assiments

Paul Levy from United Kingdom on February 15, 2016:

Having spent time among the Yellow Mountain in Anhui province, I can appreciate the beauty of these landscapes. I saw a number of talented artists spending days on their drawings and paintings sat in the same spot to ensure an accurate picture. The discipline and dedication that goes into some of these is fascinating. Thanks for providing such a relevant and touching hub on this

gloria on September 10, 2014:

i , am wondering if you can explain the from, value of texture and use of shapes in the "summer Mountains"

truefaith7 (author) from USA on April 28, 2014:

Thank you!

Anna Sidorova from Russia on April 28, 2014:


truefaith7 (author) from USA on January 09, 2013:

Glad you enjoyed the hub and found it informative Maralexa! I agree. Shan shui is a very mysterious art form and it's amazing how they capture every single detail of the mountain and landscape, as well as the "chi" and "wabi sabi" (in Japanese sansui art). Feel free to browse my other hubs and hope you enjoy them!

Marilyn Alexander from Vancouver, Canada on January 09, 2013:

Superb hub!!! I particularly like Chinese art. The mystery and intricate details are stunning. I appreciate the artist's painstaking effort to capture the 'chi' of his subject. Thank you so much. I'm off to read your other Chinese art hubs!