Prototype of Ting Yuan and Yuanlin — Chinese Landscape Painting Theory

… Though man-made, [gardens] will look like something naturally created… like a painting…1

The Chinese garden—from buildings, to mountains and water, plants and trees—is a harmoniously syn­thesized work of art; it expresses the spirit of poetry and painting. Though man-made, the imitation of mountains and water must become real. Alas, just what is the proper correlation of mountains and water? In short, it should be modeled on nature. Not, however, by merely making scale-reduced scenes from nature, but rather by fully grasping the essen­tial aspects of natural scenery—which is the same principle that applies in painting.

… [T]rees are not planted to merely provide greenery, but are based on the spirit of painting, that is, they are to express the essence of nature.2

These are but short passages from two Chinese garden treatises, but in fact most Chinese theories of garden design start from a concept of the oneness of gardens and land­scape painting.

In his book Zhong guo yuanlin yishu (The art of the Chinese yuanlin), Chinese garden historian An Huai-qi writes: “The creation of gardens in our country is exactly like literary and pictorial creations, before handling the brush, you have first to fix and determine your spiritual will.”3 Creating a Chinese garden is deemed to be no dif­ferent than creating a work of literature or a painting, and the creative realm of the garden designer no different than that of the writer or artist. Some works even apply Xie He’s “Six Laws” of painting theory to the construction of gar­dens.

The essence and philosophical context of paintings referred to in Chinese garden treatises relate to the land­scape paintings and theories of landscape painting of the Southern Song period, when landscape depiction reached its height of realism and idealism (Figure 78). This vein of painting theory was steeped in Taoist thought and contra­dicted orthodox painting theories which held that painting was to be valued above all for its use as an “educational tool.”

Now, painting is a thing which perfects civilized teachings and helps social relationships. It penetrates completely the divine permutations of nature and fathoms recondite and subtle things. Its merit is equal to that of the Six Classics, and it moves side by side with the four seasons. It proceeds from nature itself and not from [human] invention or transmis­sion… Without doubt, [painting] is one of the things which may be enjoyed within the teachings of Confucianism.4

The above is excerpted from the introductory chapter, “On the Origins of Painting,” from the Tang-dynasty encyclopedic work, Li-dai ming-hua ji (Record of famous painters of all the dynasties), compiled in about a. d. 847, which is the main repository of facts about Tang and pre-

Prototype of Ting Yuan and Yuanlin — Chinese Landscape Painting Theory

78 A late-Song-dynasty Academy land­scape painting by Ma Yuan, Feng-yu shan-shui tu (Landscape in wind and rain). The Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo. National Treasure.

Tang artists. This passage expounds on the idea that the real significance of painting lay in its usefulness as an “educa­tional tool.” In the Jin-dynasty (a. d. 265-420) Lie-пи zhuan fu-juan (Volume of illustrations for the biographies of hero­ic women), for example, a subliminal element of didacti­cism may be detected in genre paintings and paintings of beautiful women.

Li-dai ming-hua ji goes on to comment:

At that time writing and painting were still alike in form and had not yet been differentiated. Standards for their formation had just been created and were still incomplete. There was nothing by which ideas could be transmitted, hence writing proper came into existence. There was nothing by which shapes could be made visible, hence painting came into being. This was the intent of Heaven, Earth, and the sages.5

Statements of this sort suggest that even as the theory of writing and painting as a single entity (that is, painting as a Confucian moral, didactic tool) was developing into one of poetry and painting as a single entity (or painting as an art that transcends formal representation), an under­current of utilitarianism and practicality remained funda­mental to Chinese painting.

“The concept that helped liberate the appreciation of paintings from their educational role, was that of woyou (travel by imagination),”6 which arose with the advent of landscape painting during the so-called Six Dynasties period (a. d. third through sixth centuries).

In what does a gentleman’s love of landscape con­sist? The cultivation of his fundamental nature in rural retreats is his frequent occupation. The carefree aban­don of mountain streams is his frequent delight. The secluded freedom of fisherman and woodsmen is his frequent enjoyment. The flight of cranes and the call­ing of apes are his frequent intimacies. The bridles and the fetters of the everyday world are what human nature constantly abhors. Immortals and sages in mists and vapors are what human nature constantly longs for and yet is unable to see.7

This idea of woyou—of always being close to and enjoy­ing nature—became the pivotal concept underlying land­scape painting. It was during this same period that the theory of writing and painting as one (i. e., painting as a didactic tool) developed into a theory of poetry and paint­ing as one (painting as an expressive art), as is suggested in this poem by late-eleventh-century poet and theorist of literati painting (Su) Dong-po (Su Shi):

When one savors Wang Wei’s poems, there are paint­ings in them;

When one looks at Wang Wei’s paintings, there are poems…

[D]u Fu’s writings are pictures without forms,

Han [Gian’s paintings, unspoken poems.. ,8

Poems were seen as formless paintings, and paintings as poetry with form. Painting was firmly embedded in the world of literature, and this idea evolved into the primary tenet of Chinese landscape painting.

Landscape painting—its visual and imaginative realms— unfailingly referred to in the introduction of Chinese gar­dening treatises as the fundamental creative stimulus for garden construction, has its roots in the theory of painting as an expressive art, which in turn is based on the idea of woyou. It follows then that the prototype of the private yuanlin is found in the circumstances and spirit of Chinese landscape painting (Figure 79). This fact alone, however, does not explain the sharp delineation between the living quarters and the garden, or between the everyday and the unworldly, in the Chinese residence. For this it is neces­sary to examine the factors linking the origins of yuanlin and the concept of woyou, by considering the social and

ideological background of woyou and the influence of those factors on the composition of Chinese dwellings.

Updated: October 7, 2015 — 12:40 pm