Landscape Painting Theory and Taoism

The Northern Song-treatise on landscape painting Lin quan gao zhi xu (The lofty message of forests and streams), considered the most important of its genre, was written by Guo Xi (after a. d. 1000-ca. 1090), who had studied Tao­ism in his youth and was the most famous Academy land­scapist of his time. In the section of this work titled “Shan shui xun" (Advice on landscape painting) Guo discusses the concept of woyou:

It is simply that, in a time of peace and plenty, when the intentions of ruler and parents are high-minded, purifying oneself is of little significance, and office – holding is allied to honor. Can anyone of humani­tarian instinct then tread aloof or retire afar in order to practice a retreat from worldly affairs? And, if so, will he necessarily share the fundamental simplicity of [legendary recluses such as [X]u Yu, associated with] Mount [J]i and the River Ying…?

Their songs, such as the “Ode to the White Pony”

and the “Hymn to the Purple Fungus” [the latter said to have been composed by the “Four Old Men,” who retired from the world in protest against the Qin dynasty, but reemerged to support the Han heir] are of what has passed away and is unattainable. But are the longing for forests and streams, and the com­panionship of mists and vapors, then to be experi­enced only in dreams and denied waking senses?

It is now possible for subtle hands to reproduce them in all their rich splendor. Without leaving your room you may sit to your heart’s content among streams and valleys. The voices of apes and the calls of birds will fall on your ears faintly. The glow of the mountain and the color of the waters will dazzle your eyes glitteringly. Could this fail to quicken your interest and thoroughly capture your heart? This is the ultimate meaning behind the honor which the world accords to landscape painting. If this aim is not principal, and if the landscape is approached with a trivial attitude, it is no different from dese­crating a divine vista and polluting the clear wind.9

Подпись: 80 The idyllic southern Chinese landscape (Guilin).
The critical aspect of this theory of landscape painting is that the idea of woyou—its underlying principle—has seclusion as its ideal state, with Chinese landscape paint­ing as an expression of an ideal world which allows the viewer to “sit to [his] heart’s content among streams and valleys.” And as expressed in the line “purifying oneself is of little significance, and office-holding is allied to honor,” seclusion always stands in opposition to duty and service, with landscape painting playing a part in both realms.

One critic simply states that the theory of Chinese land­scape painting “is rooted in Taoist philosophy.”10

A characteristic of Chinese painting theory is its duali­ty—on the one hand, the objective of painting is to edu­cate or advise in accordance with proper etiquette by Confucian standards, while the Taoist elements of cele­brating pleasure and freedom of spirit are also fundamen­tal to the art. This duality has remained the key influence in the development of the theory of Chinese painting. The antithetical philosophies of painting based alternatively on education and woyou have both played a part in the formation of Chinese painting theory. The former is the orthodox Chinese thought system based on respect for
custom that developed first into a philosophy of morals and later to an emphasis on “education” and “scholarship,” and that was established as a social and political creed premised on the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. The latter is related to the idea of wu-wei, (non-action, or “no action contrary to nature”), which developed into an opposing philosophy based on the teachings of Lao zi and Zhuang zi.

This idea of seclusion is different from the Japanese concept of a “recluse” in that it bears no relation to the lives of ordinary people, but only to that of the government official. It follows then that the ting yuan and yuanlin, with their origins in landscape painting theory based on Taoist philosophy, were the domain solely of the educated class (i. e., officials) and for that reason were a symbol of the elite. Obi Koichi investigates the history of seclusion in his Chugoku no inton shisd (The philosophy of seclusion in China):

Escape from the duties of service to the state by means of seclusion was a respected lifestyle choice in China from ancient times. A man went into seclu-

sion when he could not carry out his ideas in the way he wanted—in other words when his ideas were at odds with the accepted way of the world. Confucius calls this “the times when our path is not taken.” Implicit in this concept of seclusion as escape was reemergence into the world when circumstances improved.

Until the Three Kingdoms period (a. d. 220-265), escape from government service, where the danger of losing one’s life was constant, meant quite literally heading for the hills. There was then a shift from this simple flight to a philosophy in which it was consid­ered virtuous to withdraw from the service of the state and go into seclusion when things were not done in accordance with one’s beliefs. What had been an issue for the individual became a social cus­tom, the spread of which was encouraged by the ideas of Taoism.

Support for Taoism—The Confucian political principles which were the pillars of the Han empire were a set of rules which reinforced the position of those governing the state. To the person escaping from these rules into seclusion, Confucianism has no meaning—what that person seeks is the freedom of another world. Implicit in this freedom is the need to rid oneself of human artifice and exist with­in the principles of taking “no action contrary to nature” and being “without self or desire”—the basic philosophy of Taoism. Thus the idea of being “at one with nature” in seclusion came to be much admired.

Shamhui as sanctuary—Gradually the expression for “landscape” (shanye; literally, “mountains and fields”), which evoked an image of a wild, inhos­pitable place, changed to shanshui, (“mountains and water”), an expression more evocative of beauty and suggestive of sanctuary.

During the Jin dynasty, the growing popularity of Taoism made people come to think of enjoying one­self in nature as a necessary facet of the educated life of an intellectual. As a result, even for those who did not actually go into seclusion, the act of seclusion in nature was seen as an ideal, and esteemed as a way of finding peace.

The vogue for secluding oneself in natural sur­roundings gave rise to landscape poetry. Intellectuals actively opposed Confucianism, equating it with the world of the vulgar or “mundane,” choosing instead to act in a liberated and uninhibited manner. They set out to challenge the Confucian orthodoxy, with a philosophy exemplified by the “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” who advocated “escape from the constraints of custom.” This is clearly a movement for human liberation. The proponents of this philoso­phy of freedom placed themselves outside of and ignored the accepted conventions, since these con­ventions represented the world of officialdom root­ed in Confucian principles.

The scope of what was counterposed against seclusion expanded from officialdom to include the human world in general. The natural world came to be seen as the one with value, and as this viewpoint gained influence, nature and natural objects (shan – sui) were termed by the Taoists ziran (literally, “that which is so of itself’), and perceived as superior to the “mundane” social world.

Truth and beauty—The rural poet Tao Yuan – ming declared in the late Jin dynasty that truth could be found in the objects of the natural world. Landscape poet Xie Ling-yun looked at nature with admiration and declared that he could sense its “beauty.”

Подпись: П5

This perception of truth and beauty in nature—a product of Taoist philosophy and the idea of seclu-

Подпись: I 126

sion—spread during the latter half of the fourth and first half of the fifth centuries, taking root thereafter as the traditional Chinese way of looking at nature. By the Tang dynasty, there were people who posed at being in seclusion, with an eye on obtaining a position in the government—pragmatists who used seclusion as a means of entering politics. The development of seclusion into a means of attaining an official posi­tion is a surprising turn of events, given the origins of the practice.11

This passage charts the development of a view of the natural world whereby escape from official life was an anti – Confucian statement and a form of release from the con­straints of the mundane, and seclusion was key to the perception of nature as a worthy object of admiration, the embodiment of truth and beauty. In the realm of the arts, this concept of seclusion was invariably linked to land­scape painting as part of the unified entity of poetry and painting.

However, as was noted above, seclusion was also used

by officials to achieve their own more worldly objectives, a fact of major significance for this study, since the extant yuanlin constructed during the Ming and Qing dynasties are not direct reflections of woyou or of the ideology of the period in which this theory of landscape painting was developed, but products of a “prototype” of landscape gardens formed over a thousand-year period.

The concept of the yuanlin as a garden form separate from reality developed from the Taoist idea of wu-wei, or “non-action,” which arose to challenge the orthodoxy of Confucian social and political thought, giving rise in turn to the concept of woyou upon which landscape painting theory and the theory of painting as an expressive art are based.

The idea of seclusion was developed using composi­tional elements from the natural world to create a style of garden scenery in which views of mountains and valleys “could be enjoyed without leaving one’s seat.” The proto­type for these gardens was found in poems and paintings; however, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, as social conditions reduced the idea of seclusion to a shell of its former self, the interpretation of “seclusion in nature” became one formalized, widely recognized style. Techniques of garden construction such as those outlined in Yuan ye are thought to have developed freely in the private yuan­lin which survive today, within the framework of the prototype of this style.

Updated: October 7, 2015 — 3:15 pm