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Evolution of Chinese landscape writing

GAO JIANXIN | 2019-01-03
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Details from “Mountains and Streams without End” by the Ming artist Shen Zhou (1427—1509) Photo: FILE


As a key form of ancient Chinese writing, landscape writing highlights the beauty of nature and the open minds of ancient Chinese people.


Moral interpretation
During the pre-Qin period (before 221 BCE), nature was considered mysterious, formidable and charming. People established their emotional links with nature in various ways. There were ritual ceremonies to honor gods of nature at that time.A profound faith in nature’s powers to uplift and nourish the spirit were shared by two great philosophers in China—Confucius and Laozi. Laozi viewed man as an inseparable part of nature, and highlighted man’s ability to adjust his rhythm to the pulse of nature and to eventually merge with it and prevail. Confucius had a particularly far-reaching influence upon the later generations. He saw nature as a counterpart of the individual, attributing human emotions—such as happiness, rage and sorrow—to mountains and water, thus considering moral standards as a core aesthetic standard within nature. From this ancient aesthetics perspective, objects in nature perceived as beautiful tend to represent part of human virtue. This profound emotional link between humans and nature laid the foundations of Chinese landscape writing.

Chinese landscape writing first emerged during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE—220 CE). Landscapes mentioned in the Classic of Poetry, Chuci (a compendium of ancient Chinese poetic songs during the Zhou Dynasty) and writings in the Han Dynasty served as the background for the texts, highlighting the characters’ images and creating an emotional setting that surrounded the readers. The aesthetic value of landscapes was neglected at this time.


Focus on landscape
Chinese landscape writing more fully came into being during the Wei, Jin, Southern & Northern Dynasties (220—589). Literati expressed more views on the beauty of nature. The Western Jin poet Zuo Si (c. 250—305) praised the beauty of nature’s sound over musical instruments in his poems. It signifies that the ancient literati’s natural aesthetic concepts began to rise as an independent aesthetic concept. The opinion that natural beauty was better than man-made beauty symbolizes the glimmer of landscape literature. The Eastern Jin poet Yuan Shansong came up with an idea that laid the philosophical and aesthetic foundations for Chinese landscape writing. According to one of Yuan’s poems, if mountains and water had souls, they would be pleased at seeing people who appreciated their beauty, just like meeting a bosom friend. He indicated that humans and nature would be truly connected when they admired each other.

After the fall of the Han Dynasty, there was a long period of social and political confusion, contributing to the rise of hermit culture. Many scholar-officials retreated in a tranquil and beneficent wilderness.  After the Yongjia Disturbance in 311, the northern people flocked to the south to escape the war, which provided the scholar-officials with opportunities to live in the spectacular scenery in southern China. During the Southern Dynasty (420—589), sightseeing was quite popular among literati. Natural scenery was no longer treated as a background conveying metaphorical or philosophical meaning. Instead, it developed into an independent entity within literary themes. Shuijing Zhu (Commentary on the Water Classic) by Li Daoyuan (472—527) represented the highest achievement of landscape writing at that time. Although it is a commentary on a geographic text named Shuijing (Water Classic) by an anonymous author, it is a magnificent prose written with great spontaneity and artistry. Its clear and vivid description of the natural scenery profoundly influenced the great Tang scholar Liu Zongyuan (773—819). The other literati of the later ages, including Li Bai (701—762) and Du Fu (712—770), were also inspired by the simple and flexible style of the Shuijing Zhu.


Divers styles
Landscape writing entered its prime during the Tang Dynasty (618—907). Several new features of the Tang landscape poetry are noteworthy. Particularly, the early Tang and the high Tang periods saw great stylistic changes with innovations in the writing of landscape.

Literati no longer focused on the detailed portrayal of a specific spot or object in nature. Their attention was drawn by the whole manner and atmosphere of the landscape. Compared with the literati of earlier ages, the Tang poets had deeper understanding of nature and the cosmos, as well as more skillful use of writing techniques. During the high Tang period, poets were able to depict magnificent scenery and convey overwhelming vastness. The Tang poets turned the exquisite refinement in the landscape writings of the Southern Dynasty into simpler panorama sketches.

In the Tang poems, landscape writing was endowed with the personal experiences of the author, characterized as more concerned with personal expression than surface representation, thus contributing to the diversity of the Tang landscape poems. The poems and paintings of Wang Wei (701—761) expressed the harmony between humanity and nature, while Meng Haoran (689—740) focused more on depicting the scenery of deepness and peace. The poems composed by Chu Guangxi (706—763) reveal his expectations about his life. During the high Tang period, the landscape poems of Li Bai and Du Fu were considered as towering figures. Li Bai often celebrated the joy of nature with brilliance and great freshness of imagination. Du Fu imprinted his concern for the country and his frustration over his inability to effect change into his poems, thus marking his poems with a touch of gloom.

Liu Zongyuan’s travel and landscape pieces represent the highest achievements in Tang landscape poetry. One can sense his profound love for nature in his writings. Liu incorporated his reflections on life and a general sense of humanity into his works. The landscapes so touchingly depicted strike a deep chord in the heart of every reader. When Liu was demoted to a military post in Yongzhou (a city in Hunan Province), he described in minute detail fantastic landscapes, whilst conveying his lofty ideas and unyielding soul against the rotten court in one of his famous prose essays, Yongzhou Baji (Eight Notes on Excursions in Yongzhou). Liu produced a great number of travel stitches in an artistic way of expressing his sentiments, thereby raising the artistry of landscape writing to a new level.

In the late Tang period, landscape writing tended to be implicit and introverted, revealing a sentimental attitude and gloom due to the decline of the country. Works at that time were short of grandness.


Spiritual cultivation
During the 1,000 years between the Song Dynasty (960—1279) and the Qing Dynasty (1636—1912), the Chinese landscape writing kept developing without being disrupted. One of its important driving forces was its independent natural aesthetics, keeping the writing traditions away from the social and political confusion. Moreover, self-cultivation in the beauty of the nature became an important criteria for assessing literati’s talents and achievements.

Su Shi (1037—1101) is one of the greatest landscape writers after the Tang Dynasty. All through his life he retained a natural honesty with himself, no matter what he suffered. Su enjoyed nature and was inspired by it. One can easily sense his attitude towards life in his works— “Better than a saddle I like sandals and cane./ I’d fain,/ In a straw cloak, spend my life in mist and rain” (translated by Xu Yuanchong)—that life was after all good and eternal, and he enjoyed it. Xu Xiake (1587—1641), the father of Chinese backpacking, traveled throughout China for more than 30 years, documenting his travels extensively in the Xu Xiake Youji (The Travel Diaries of Xu Xiake). This famous geographical treatise offers detailed descriptions of geography, hydrology, geology, plants and other phenomena in China. It is also respected for its literary qualities and for its historical value.

Chinese landscape writing has evolved through a long history of over 1,500 years, witnessing numerous outstanding writers and works. Among them, the Shuijing Zhu by Li Daoyuan, the travel pieces by Liu Zongyuan and the Xu Xiake Youji by Xu Xiake are praised as the most significant landscape writings. These works are known for being natural outpourings of the authors’ hearts, creating a carefree atmosphere and sheer delight towards life. They represent the highest realm of the Chinese landscape writings—harmony between humanity and nature.


Gao Jianxin is a professor from the College of Liberal Arts & Journalism at Inner Mongolia University.

​(edited by REN GUANHONG)