Notebook, 1993-

International Dunhuang Project --- Dunhuang Academy in China --- Central Eurasian Studies World Wide --- Celebrate the Silk Road [Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, DC] --- Dunhuang - Caves of the Singing Sands --- Silk Road to China

[From: De Silva, Anil and photographs by Dominque Darbois. The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting in the Caves of Tun-Huang. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1964.}

Foreword --- Inroduction --- 1. Pre Han Art --- 2. The Han Dynasty [206 B.C. - A.D. 220] --- 3. The Three Kingdoms and the Six Dynasties [A.D. 220-589] --- 4. The Sui Dynasty [A.D. 589-618]

The Art of Chinese Landscape
Painting in the Caves
of Tunhuang - Chapter One

NOTE: There are numerous plates and illustrations in the original text which are occasionally described here but which are not all included here.

Pre-Han Art
There are landscapes in which one can travel, landscapes in which one may gaze, landscapes in which one may ramble, and landscapes in which one may dwell; any painting which reveals one of these is in the category of the excellent. 1

Kuo Hsi [11th century A.D.]

China is one of the few countries in which there is an uninterrupted development of art from the Neolithic past. It may even be unique in this respect.

This study deals with the development of landscape painting in the frescoes of Tun-huang between the fourth and eleventh centuries A.D. To understand Chinese landscape painting, however, it is essential to grasp first of all how the Chinese - and indeed the Asian - approach to painting differs from that of Europe since the Renaissance.

The basic elements in Chinese landscape painting can be followed from the time of the Han dynasty [206 B.C. - A.D. 220], a period which marked the turning-point of Chinese art and which saw a solid foundation laid for a mode of expression whose development has yet to be equalled in the history of painting. In the Han dynasty the nameless monsters and bestial forms of Shang-Yin bronzes were relegated to the past - to an age of antiquity - and men freed their minds of their more fearful superstitions. Painters and poets breathed a new air. They observed life and expressed it with a new freedom, for 'the sun rose in the east and lit up the high dwellings' [Waley].

It is of this era that the eminent sinologist Professor Osvald Sirén remarks that in all Chinese history no other period so combined refinement with simplicity or displayed so well with simple line [p. 33] the beauty and character of objects. Yet as man grew out of his primitive state and entered an artificial environment of his own making, his intellectual consciousness developed and he became progressively more aware of his alienation from nature. It was this very sense of isolation that created the need for an intellectual and spiritual identification, or re-identification, with the natural things around him. The urge to identify himself with the whole of nature was a very strong one; man tried to recapture, by his intellect and spirit, in a conscious way, what he had lost by their growth. This search may lead to a very intense love of the terrestrial world.

In the concept that all nature, whether living or inanimate, is a manifestation of the divine spirit, and in the belief that life may be reincarnated in different forms, the Oriental finds an intimate fraternity with the whole universe.

Three centuries before our era Taoist thought expressed this feeling; and there is a close affinity between the stories of the Taoist immortals and the conception of landscape painting. A legend concerning one of the hsien - as the Taoist mountain hermits are styled - bears directly on this point. He was said to possess the extraordinary power of contracting the veins of the earth so that a stretch of a thousand li came within the limits of vision. It would seem that the concept of landscape painting embodied in the maxim 'a thousand li to a single inch' is derived directly from this legend.

In this manner a number of typical features are condensed within a small compass in one painting to give the impression of a vast and seemingly endless landscape. The hundred li of a river or of a mountain range are presented as a whole, yet on close scrutiny each detail of their multitudinous parts has its separate identity; but within and as part of the whole picture. Each detail, like man himself, is at the same time a separate entity and integrated with the natural world in which he lives.

To the European eye, used to pictorial representation from a single viewpoint, a fresco in the Ajantá cave-temples in India, for example, may at first appear as a haphazard composition with no spatial organization [Auboyer]. Only gradually does one realize that each group in the painting is distinct from the others and that the groups [p. 34] are divided in a perfectly natural way. Life is treated neither as an instant of time nor as the reflection of light from a given place at that moment, but as a continuous process working in the heart of man. 'Those of the audience who are appreciative are content to perfect the song in their own minds by the force of their own feeling,' as Tagore said. And this fact that the mind is necessary, that it is indeed the main essential in our understanding of nature, is extremely important in Asia.

The logical expression of this idea or attitude is the use of multiple perspective. The Chinese artist often paints landscapes using more than one perspective - sometimes aerial and frontal ones in the same picture. When the intention is simply to record what one person sees from one particular point, then of course the linear or 'scientific' perspective developed in Europe during the Renaissance is the appropriate means of expression. But if the whole conception of a landscape is in the mind, then a multiple perspective is natural.

In Europe linear perspective was finally rejected by the Cubists, who returned to various forms of the multiple view. Perhaps in this aspect they have something in common with Asian painting.

The spirit or inner tension of all living things was considered by the Chinese more important than any formal likeness. When Hsieh Ho laid down his famous Six Principles of Painting in the fifth century they were based on ideas and traditions which had existed for some time before him. The first and most important of these principles was the 'life movement' and 'the spirit resonance'; not outward appearance but the idea in the mind of the artist and the divine spirit [ch'i], the breath of life or vital rhythm - it was these that had to be revealed by natural form; 'the spirit has no form, yet that which moves and transforms the form is the spirit', said Wang Wei, one of China's greatest landscapists, who lived from 699 to 759. The same underlying principle is also found in Indian art theory, where it is called pram´┐Żna. 'The source of truth is not empirical perception [pratyaksha] but an inwardly known model which at the same time gives form to knowledge and is the cause of knowledge' [Coomaraswamy]. Art manifests life, penetrating beneath the surface, revealing the inner nature that lies beyond outward [p. 35] appearance. It is this essential truth which is the cornerstone of Chinese painting.

There is a Taoist saying: 'Only the truly intelligent understand this principle of identity.' But Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist accepted it as self-evident that deep insight, real knowledge of the object, whether man or beast, tree or mountain, were prerequisites for great works of art. These works were apparently accomplished without effort because their secret had been understood before fingers moved the brush.

Although the aim of the artist was to reach perfection - almost divine perfection [when painting has reached divinity, there is an end of the matter] - he was not thought superior to the discipline which governed ordinary man. Though supposed to be 'rich in inner character', he was not idolized as an extraordinary being and was therefore able to understand that rules should be thought of as the vehicle of spontaneity. For the 'activities of man are put forth by conscious effort, consequently the works to be done by man are defined in detail.'

One aspect in which the Chinese civilization differed from others was its early concern with nature. This instinctive feeling for nature, which had not yet found expression in the visual arts, penetrates Chinese literature from the earliest times, reaching its apogee in the poets of the T'ang and Sung epochs and the monochrome landscapes of the Sung artists.

Quite contrary to the attitude prevailing in medieval European literature, as well as in ancient Indian texts, Chinese literature is comparatively devoid of the fear of nature. In the Indian epic, the Rámáyana, a definite terror of the Great Forest is evident, and though the hero, Rama, gives a sensuous description of spring, identifying himself in an idyllic scene with the amorous feeling generated in all living matter, we are very conscious of the dark forest surrounding him and all its attendant horrors. In Europe the northern countries continued to express this fear until quite late [p. 36] in their history [Clark]. The Chinese mind, on the other hand, was surprisingly free from this obsessive fear of the forest, and when the Han painters observed the world about them and the existence of life against its background of landscape, it was the full life of man and his activities that predominated.

Chinese thought, starting from a basis common to most early civilizations, developed in two distinct directions: Taoism and Confucianism. Confucian doctrines were mainly of a social nature, more practical than philosophical. Society was founded on moral law, and filial piety and loyalty to the clan were all-important. For the Confucian man developed best by cultivating specific pursuits such as music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy [which included painting], mathematics and the study of the Five Classics. Taoist philosophy draws a distinction between the material and spiritual worlds and points its own particular way to liberation from the material. The Taoist Ideal Way [Tao] was the life followed by a recluse seeking unity with nature and living in such a manner as to arrive through this at self-knowledge. It was those elements of Taoist thought, and later those of Ch'an [Zen] Buddhism, which provided the spiritual basis for the development of landscape painting. These two currents of thought, the Confucian and the Taoist, the conformist and the speculative, fused. As in India where the abstract metaphysical tendency ran side by side with the pagan and the sensuous, so the two elements in Chinese life, Confucian restraint and the fullness and freedom of Taoism, the one complementing the other, formed the fabric of Chinese culture. These two complementary aspects could be thought of as the ancient ideas of yin and yang, the male and female principle, dark and light, heart and mind, reason and intuition. 'Painting, guided by the heart-mind [hsin], by means of skillful handling of brush and ink should thus exhibit thought and reflection, sensibility and intuition' [Waley].

Ancient texts give various definitions of hua, to paint. The Kuang [p. 39] Ya says that it has to do with drawing lines, engraving, depicting. The Erh Ya defines hua as giving form; and the Shuo Wên says it consists in drawing boundaries and the raised paths around the fields. The Shih Ming says hua is to trace, to lay down the appearance of things with the use of colours. In our plate the Wu-t'ai Shan, one of the sacred Buddhist mountains, is in fact painted in a manner corresponding to the definition laid down in the Erh Ya; it is a kind of pictorial map.

Among the main components of Chinese painting which are taken from the art of an earlier period, and now developed and transformed, are mountains and streams, clouds and dragons, together with the abstract motifs of early bronzes, lacquer and silk. Of these perhaps the most important is the mountain. Shan-shui, literally 'mountains and water', are the Chinese words for landscape painting. And since painting was considered a branch of calligraphy, it is interesting to observe that the characters for mountains, rivers and trees reproduce them pictorially in a simplified graphic form.

The motif of mountains and trees originated in earliest times, and it is traditionally said that among the twelve insignia of the legendary Emperor Shun [225 B.C. -according to legendary chronology] were the mountain, the dragon and the brightly-coloured bird. The great poet Ch'u Yüan [332-295 B.C.] tells of a princely family shrine in which he saw gods and the spirits of mountain and stream painted on the walls. One of the ancient classics, the Elegies of Ch'u, tells of ancestral temples of early kings and ministers painted with mountains, spirits, sages and monsters. One of the early emperors had his emblems embroidered on his robes and the custom appears to have continued, for in Tun-huang there are some statues with robes that are carved and painted with small landscapes of mountains, trees and streams, evidently to depict the actual embroidery on the robes.

It may be argued that these first representations of mountains were only in insignia. But this in itself is revealing, for every civilization has used symbols to represent the factors which it considered vital.

The impact of mountains on early Chinese man was an overwhelming one, for mountains were given titles and accorded sacrifices, while legends grew up around them. There were at first five important mountains in China - the Central, the Western, the Northern, the Southern and the Eastern - and of these the most renowned was the Eastern Mountain, or T'ai Shan, which was chosen as the most propitious place for the emperors to sacrifice to Heaven [cf. page 194].

Mountains were thought to be inhabited by Taoist immortals eating from marvellous jade utensils; and the mountains themselves had their own divinities which were equal in rank to the high officials at court. At first they were princes, but during the T'ang dynasty [618-906] they were accorded the title 'Kings of Heaven'. [p. 41]

Rivers and streams - 'the veins of the earth' - were the channels for life-giving water; the mountain peaks breaking through the clouds brought rain; and rain was a constant preoccupation in China, as in any largely agricultural country. Thus stylized clouds are among the first motifs of ritual bronzes during the Shang dynasty [c. 1500-1050 B.C.]. Sometimes clouds are shown as dragons, since the cloud and the dragon were closely associated as humid elements. It is these clouds which later transform themselves into mountains, and one of the earliest sources drawn on for the mountain image in landscape painting is the pre-Han cloud-scroll motif, derived from pottery and from bronze mirror designs. The cloud-scroll appears on silk, on lacquer and metal objects, and quite rapidly develops into primitive but realistic mountain ranges; it is the origin of the 'cloud-tipped mountain' encountered in Tun-huang in the sixth century.

Before we go on to describe the development of the cloud-scroll mountain [already studied by others], it would be interesting to study in greater detail Fig. 2, a rubbing from a recently excavated Han tomb in I-nan [193 B.C.]. Here we find various symbolic motifs, the cloud-scroll among them. All these elements--the triangle motif, the scales of the dragon's body, the clouds and the animals are extremely suggestive.

In the accompanying figures we see the development of the cloud-scroll mountain motif. The first example [Fig. 3] is on pottery from the Late Chou period [c. 250 B.C.]. Animals are seen around the scroll with a central figure [which might be a shaman dressed up for ritual with appendages of leopards' tails, etc.]. This appears to be an early example of rendering animals together with a human figure. Figure 5 is from an inlaid bronze shaft-fitting, also possibly dated to the Late Chou. It is a stylized landscape with the cloud-scroll, still used decoratively but with the conception of a range of hills; in between them are a deer, a dog and a wild boar depicted in full 'flying gallop'. The central scroll builds up into an early form of cone-shaped mountain, and we find a large bird on the summit with a leg on each peak; this motif is also found in the detail from Cave 285 at Tun-huang. In Figure 5 two tigers close in on a deer on one of the ridges and another animal is on the summit of the lower peak. The fine lines may possibly be interpreted as an effort to depict grass. This is taken a step further in Figure 7 and the plate on p. 37.

Figures 4, 6 and 7 are further developments of the cloud mountain. The last example has the added interest of architecture, trees, horsemen and a chariot, while the landscape in the background includes a range of cloud mountains with animals leaping and bounding in and out of them. Figures 4 and 7 are rubbings from newly excavated tomb reliefs in the Sian Museum. In the plate on p. 37 the mountains are continuous stratified horizontal ranges with animals appearing from behind the folds; the lower register has as a background trees and clouds, giving the narrow composition a sense of space. A huntsman and animals are shown in 'flying gallop'. In these illustrations we have some of the main elements essential to early Chinese landscape painting; to these we should add the mountain with trees along the ridges which also started in the Late Chou. We see a f urther development of this on page 92. The special characteristic of the cloud-scroll lent a wide sweeping [p. 43] movement to the mountain ranges in early Chinese landscape painting. It has been suggested [Soper] that the Han hunting scene is derived from Scythian and west Iranian origins [cf. plates on pp . 38, 46, 52] and the theme itself may well have come from there; but Scythian and west Iranian art places emphasis on animals [or men and animals] interlocked in combat. More often than not man is shown pitting his strength against beast. It is an actual physical combat more brutal than anything to be found in Han art. The difference between the two artistic concepts is very clear. The one is animal art first and foremost, while the other - Han art - aims at a panoramic landscape even to the extent of primitive stylized technique and execution. Both these tendencies in Han art can be seen in Fig. 8.

The horizontal composition of hills with figures of animals and men weaving in and out, placed like accents in the flow of a melody, is ever-present in Chinese landscape painting. Such a masterpiece as the scroll called 'The Han Emperor entering his capital of Chang-an', in the Boston Museum, exemplifies the highest expression of this harmonious development. [p. 44]

Among the animals the deer is seen more frequently among the earliest cloud-mountains, and all through Han, Wei and Northern Ch'i art - whether it be in stone, lacquer, silk, bronze or paint - it never ceases to appear, bounding in and out of the hills. Indeed the deer is still a symbol of everlasting life and is the only animal able to find the ling-chih, the plant of immortality [a kind of edible fungus]. Another characteristic early pose is that of an animal sleeping under a tree; we see this in a pre-Han bronze mirror from the freer Gallery of Art, Washington, and frequently in all periods of Han and Wei art as well as in Tun-huang.

The continuation of these motifs in Chinese art is characteristic. The symbolic linear forms that appear in the Shang bronzes [1500-1050 B.C.] with their original strength and intensity and with all their essentially Chinese quality, were employed over many centuries. As a leit-motif they did not lose their original concept and power with the passing of time and continual usage. The same whirling, dissolving movement of the pre-Han lacquer and bronze design is found again and again in the swirling draperies and scarves. [p. 45] of the apsaras and other flying figures in the Tun-huang mural paintings and in We and T'ang reliefs. The abstract quality of these decorative patterns and of mythical animals and cloud motifs is also continued and finally evolves into the perfect monochrome painting and calligraphy of the Sung dynasty in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

To realize to what extent the abstract swirling line is part of Chinese art one need only look at the apsaras of Indian art [whence they came to China]. The Indian apsarasis a sensuous creature with breasts like golden bowls, lotus-eyed, vibrant of flesh. The Chinese is fully clothed, a being of the mind, a spirit, a lute heard in the [p. 46] stillness of twilight. In the T'ang group compositions, however, central figures of the Buddha stand majestically still, while the apsaras and the celestial musicians and the nymphs fly headlong into space, their draperies blown by a violent wind. In Chinese art this very wind was one that continued to produce a special rhythm of its own. Wind was thought of as a positive factor in Chinese painting. It was one of the forces of heaven, that stirred things to life; as the wind moved through the trees, over water or around figures, a living quality passed through them, bringing with it the unifying factor of life movement [shêng-tung].

The earliest representation of trees comes from Late Chou times [cf. tree forms, pages 130f] but pre-Han bronze mirrors associated the tree with the mountain. Here we see its development from pre-Han to T'ang times.

Architecture is associated with landscape elements from the Warring States period [480-221 B.C.]. These drawings on the bronze basin in Peking show us not only the house, but the auspicious birds on the roof - another recurrent feature of Han art. The same bronze features flowing water with trees and birds; the water is depicted by wavy lines, as are used later on as the hsi [ch'i] chien hên i fa - 'rippling waves of shallow water'; they are slightly wavy, approximately [p. 47] parallel, and occasionally have the form of a sinuous S-curve. We see this technique used in the spring landscape in the T'ang period.

The composition of a certain style of landscape was for centuries influenced by the horizontal composition in registers found on large bronze vessels in early Chinese art. These vessels are decorated with hunting scenes in flat relief and are referred to as 'hunting bronzes'. The vertical scroll which developed much later was influenced to an equal extent by another indigenous Chinese art form, calligraphy. [p. 50]


1. A. Waley, An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting, London, 1923, p. 190.

[De Silva, Anil and photographs by Dominque Darbois. The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting in the Caves of Tun-Huang. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc. 1964.]



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