Rui Zhang

Constructed Reality: Chinese Landscape Art Finding Its Function in the 21st Century

Class of: 2021

Major: Fashion Design BFA

Medium: Paper

Faculty: Sharyn Finnegan

Prompt: A research/visual analysis term paper based on the one or few works from a provided list of chosen museums or galleries. Discuss in depth on the visual elements of the chosen paintings and be as detailed and informative as possible.

Specifically, I chose the “Art of the Mountain: Through The Chinese Photographer’s Lens” exhibition that was happening in Chinatown as my research focus out of my strong interest in interpreting and sharing the magnificence of Chinese traditional landscape art. Born and raised in a traditional Chinese family, I found this topic to be extremely related to my previous experience and practice with Chinese landscape art and calligraphy since I was a little girl. The magical balance between ink and water and the precise control between applying brushstrokes together form a deliverable landscape painting. There are so many secrets inside Chinese landscape painting that are remained unspoken, but the world should be aware and appreciate. Therefore, I wrote this paper, to not only spread this knowledge of Chinese landscape art to the world but also discuss its possible significance and function to our very current reality-21st century.


If you ever have the chance to travel back in time to Chinese Qing Dynasty under the reign of Qianlong in the late 18th century, you won’t catch a harmonious and private scene of each family celebrating in their house or Qianlong in his palace cherishing the moment of celebration with his concubines, ministers, maids, eunuchs on a Chinese New Year’s Eve. Instead, they will all gather in an enormous assembly and kneel down for the higher majesty in their minds-Nature. Qing Dynasty under the control of Qianlong is recognized as one of the most prosperous periods in Chinese ancient history and it is also when the Chinese rigid system of feudal society had reached its most glowing time and started to have a rapid downfall afterwards. As a emperor with such enormous power over its people and even upon the whole world at his time, Qianlong never recognized himself as the ultimate ruler of the universe, instead, he worshiped the principles the higher natural world had given and had always carried a humble heart facing nature like many other emperors in Chinese history. Therefore, on any important holidays or seasonal solstices, Qianlong and all his people would go to Temple of Heaven in a big organized ceremony and together pray for a better season and better time for the upcoming future. (1)

In fact, this value of worshiping nature has always been a core value of Chinese ancient society — “Tian Ren He Yi”, a theory originated from great Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zi, meaning the integration of human and universe, is recognized as the root of ancient Chinese feudal government system and the very explanation of Chinese traditional various types of art forms. (2) No matter it is literature, poetry, calligraphy, paintings, drawings, music or dance, all traces to this one key value- Chinese’s people worship of nature. Among all of the above, landscape art as one of most symbolic expressions of individualized Chinese art forms, shares its very intimacy on revealing the magnificence of nature by its graceful balance of water and ink, precise touches of brushstrokes, subtle control of humidity, which we seldomly catch in other cultures. Nowadays, in 21st Century, the landscape art can still draw on this Chinese culture tradition to express itself by adapting its form and ideology, elevate and reassemble itself to make us recognize a deeper problem with our current society.

In the ongoing exhibition Art of the Mountain: Through The Chinese Photographer’s Lens happening near Chinatown in New York City at China Institute Gallery, various photographers and artists try to rebuild this connection between traditional Chinese Landscape art and today’s world to show us the possibility of its value finding its place in the 21st century chaotic art world. The artist Yang Yongliang stood in the lead. His Peach Blossom Colony, done in 2011, is a black and white photographic digital manipulation piece that echoes with the elementary structure, composition and aesthetic of Chinese traditional landscape art. However, at the same time, it strictly discriminates itself by relating to the rising usage of technology, abrupt growing of skyscrapers and the fast-paced exhaustion of our natural environment. The Peach Blossom Colony is done in inkjet print and sized in 33 3/8 by 92 1/8 inches. At a first glance, the whole very horizontal painting gave its audience a strong illusion of a constructed fairyland. The wide spread extending skyline gave us a strong relief from our crowded, fast paced reality, quickly drawing us into a different dimension of consciousness. The sense of stepping back into a different time zone when there was not an interruption in the skyline, but only magnificent nature and mountains. The abrupt standing of a few steep mountains from a far distance, pushing off the horizon line, covered in faded effects by the natural magic of fog, gives us a mysterious, powerful image of nature. The wandering fog is a form of Qi, the element put in landscape art in Chinese tradition to harmonize the vital energy of nature. Qi is growing on the mountains, breathing in and out of the mountains, healing the whole landscape, elevating the involvers’ spiritual world. Their existence makes sure a connection built between nature and us, and we are relying on each other. Surrounding by Qi, the mountains are revealing but not fully showing. The far distance also gives us a breathing space, therefore they are magnificent but not scaring, grand but not imposing. soaring but not intimidating. The mountains behave like part of us, embedding us in the whole landscape, breathing, growing and thriving with us in a connected system. Just like renowned Taoism pivotal thinker Zhuangzi has wrote and expressed in The Identity of  Contraries, “the universe and I came into being together; and I, and everything therein, are ONE(天地与我并生,万物与我为一).” (3) The well kept distance between the viewers and mountains lessen the deterrence and hostility of nature might provide. Therefore, we gain a  peaceful image of us living with the mountains. A respect for them appreciating their powerfulness far away, not interrupting it, allow us to lie peacefully in this painting.

(1) William T. Rowe, Chinas Last Empire: The Great Qing (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009).

(2) Ralph Weber, “Oneness and Particularity in Chinese Natural Cosmology: The Notiontianrenheyi,” Asian Philosophy 15, no. 2 (2005): doi:10.1080/09552360500165379.

(3) Chuang Chou and Herbert Allen. Giles, Chuang Tzǔ (Chuang Chou). Mystic, Moralist, and Social Reformer. Translated from the Chinese. By Herbert A Giles (London, 1889), 23.