Chinese Landscapes of Tranquility

Inspired viewers record their impressions over time
May 29, 2019 Updated: May 29, 2019

On a certain autumn evening in the late 16th century, the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) scholar-official Li Minbiao (1515–1581) passed by the home of a friend who possessed a handscroll that contained a small landscape painting by Zhao Yuan, a painter who lived two centuries before Li’s time. As was customary at the time, a handscroll had a large section of blank space to the left of the painting for a colophon, a space available for literary men and connoisseurs to write down their commentaries or responses to the artworks they viewed. Impressed by Zhao’s work, Li wrote a short poem in the colophon to record his transcendental viewing experience:

“… On a mundane market day
I saw the bearing of this picture of stream and mountain;
With a chill wave I suddenly sense my mind opened,
Attacked by harsh frost, when the foliage took leave of the branches…”

Li was a literatus, a man of letters who had earned a post in the Ming government through official literary examinations. In these verses, he praised the genius of the painter who had managed to depict every detail of a beautiful landscape in a mere eight-inch-tall picture. He specifically noted his own emotional response of refreshment and tranquility in the presence of the work.

His viewing of Zhao’s landscape took him, for however brief a moment, out of his busy routine and away from the worldly troubles that had haunted his mind. Through this visual interaction, he was able to mentally enter the painting and feel the peacefulness conveyed by the stream, the mountains, the vegetation, and the secluded residence—an idealized hermitic lifestyle that many literary men like him desired.

Art in an Age of Political Turmoil

The painting that Li Minbiao viewed was created by Zhao Yuan, also a literatus, but one who lived in a turbulent age, when China was ruled by the Mongol court (1271–1368). Particularly known for his painting, Zhao worked in a landscape tradition that dominated literati circles of the time. In the preceding dynasties of the Tang (618–917) and the Song (960–1279), the genre had gradually come to embody the longing of educated men for nature and their desire to escape the mundane world that they inhabited, in search of higher spiritual pursuits.

However, as the Song court came to be infected with severe corruption and eventually ceded control of the country to the Mongols, the conventional Confucian career path in civil service became increasingly limited for the literati. As a result, their political ambitions diminished, and the escapist sentiments among these men of letters intensified.

Unattainable was the ideal of achieving high government positions through intensive study so as to manage the state and establish just rulership in the realm. The scholar-gentlemen who had previously held government positions now resolved to live a life of seclusion, in which they tried to refine their own behavior and thoughts and those of their families in accordance with traditional moral standards. Their desire for a serene existence found an expression in the literati entertainments of poetry, calligraphy, and painting—especially that of landscape painting for its tranquil qualities that reflected their peaceful states of mind.

Zhao Yuan’s ‘Landscape’

In this piece, untitled, as many of the genre were, Zhao Yuan followed the traditional model for landscape paintings that was perfected during the Song Dynasty, but he added a modern 14th-century tone of calligraphic expressivity.

The intense visual drama of nature contrasts strikingly with the peaceful inaction of man, as shown by the monumental and awesome mountain in the center and the quiet residence over which it towers. Situated in nature’s wondrous sublimity, the tiny human figures are able to conduct themselves in such leisurely serenity that they appear untroubled by all worldly matters.

A detail from Landscape by Zhao Yuan
A detail showing the residence under the mountain in “Landscape,” late 14th century, by Zhao Yuan. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As a seated figure reads in a pavilion, another figure slowly paces about in the courtyard, while yet another roams the woods in solitude, perhaps in silent observation of nature. Indeed, a look at this painting seems to bring the viewer into the picture—into a world where the whistling wind gently strokes the leaves above and where the stream flows below, where birds chirp, and where the forest is filled with the humid aroma of the earth. In short, the painting calms the viewer.

One Scroll, Two Paintings

Mounted on the same handscroll is a contemporaneous piece by Shen Xun that depicts a bamboo grove by the water. The work is entirely devoid of human presence, with a mountainous backdrop barely visible in the distance.

Bamboo Grove by Shen Xun
“Bamboo Grove,” late 14th century, Shen Xun. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

According to another comment in the colophon, the two paintings were put together in 1562 for some “essential similarity in aura and taste,” despite their completely different subject matters and pictorial compositions. Zhao’s heavy landscape nearly fills the pictorial plane, while Shen’s bamboos stand delicate and light, leaving ample negative space and giving the painting a capacity to breathe.

The atmospheric similarity for which the two pieces were combined might have referred to their shared nature of tranquility. The stillness of the bamboos and the inaction of the human figures seem to speak a common language that conveys a sense of quietude experienced by the artist-literati living in seclusion: They are able to entertain themselves with nature, knowledge, and art, and at that moment neither fame nor fortune mattered.

Thus had the two artists expressed their mental state in their works. Such depth of stillness portrayed in the pictures could only have been authored by those with tranquil hearts. In fact, this tranquility had moved the 16th-century viewers so much that they decided to mount the two paintings together.

In 1734, another scholar decided to commemorate the combination of these two pieces by adding to the handscroll a frontispiece of four characters written in an antiquarian style that reads, “Zhao and Shen joined in harmony.”

Frontispiece on Landscape
“Frontispiece,” 1734, Wang Shu. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The handscroll is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Gallery 211. It is part of the exhibition Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China, which will run until Aug. 4, 2019.

Antony Yuefeng Wu is a student of Renaissance art who entertains himself with Chinese painting, calligraphy, and world literature.

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