Shan shui

Shan shui

Shan Shui (zh-c|山水 lit. "mountain-water") refers to a style of Chinese painting that involves the painting of scenery or natural landscapes with brush and ink. Mountains, rivers and often waterfalls are prominent in this art form.


Shan shui painting first arose to wide prominence during the 10th and 11th centuries,Textual Evidence for the Secular Arts of China in the Period from Liu Sung through Sui by Alexander Soper] in the reign of the Song Dynasty. It was characterized by a group of landscape painters, most of them already famous, who produced large-scale landscape paintings. These landscape paintings usually centered on mountains. Mountains had long been seen as sacred places in China, which were viewed as the homes of immortals and thus, close to the heavens. Philosophical interest in nature, or in mystical connotations of naturalism, could also have contributed to the rise of landscape painting. The art of "shan shui", like many other styles of Chinese painting has a strong reference to Taoist (Daoist) imagery and motifs, as symbolisms of Taoism strongly influenced "Chinese landscape painting". [Northrop, Filmer Stuart Cuckow. "Ideological Differences and World Order: Studies in the Philosophy and Science of the World's Culture". Yale University Press. 1949. p. 64.] Some authors have suggested that Daoist stress on how minor the human presence is in the vastness of the cosmos, or Neo-Confucian interest in the patterns or principles that underlie all phenomena, natural and social lead to the highly structuralized nature of shan shui.Two Twelfth Century Texts on Chinese Painting by Robert J. Maeda]


Most dictionaries and definitions of shan shui assume that the term includes all ancient Chinese paintings with mountain and water images. Contemporary Chinese painters, however, feel that only paintings with mountain and water images that follow specific conventions of form, style and function should be called “shan shui painting.”Two Twelfth Century Texts on Chinese Painting by Robert J. Maeda] When Chinese painters work on shan shui painting, they do not try to present an image of what they have seen in the nature, but what they have thought about nature. No one cares whether the painted colors and shapes look like the real object or not.

According to Ch'eng Hsi:

Shan shui painting is a kind of painting which goes against the common definition of what a painting is. Shan shui painting refutes color, light and shadow and personal brush work. Shan shui painting is not an open window for the viewer's eye, it is an object for the viewer's mind. Shan shui painting is more like a vehicle of philosophy.Two Twelfth Century Texts on Chinese Painting by Robert J. Maeda]


Shan shui paintings involve a complicated and rigorous set of almost mystical requirementsWicks, Robert 1954- "Being in the Dry Zen Landscape"The Journal of Aesthetic Education - Volume 38, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 112-122 ] for balance, composition, and form. All shan shui paintings should have 3 basic components:

"Paths" - Pathways should never be straight. They should meander like a stream. This helps deepen the landscape by adding layers. The path can be the river, or a path along it, or the tracing of the sun through the sky over the shoulder of the mountain.

"The Threshold" - The path should lead to a threshold. The threshold is there to embrace you and provide a special welcome. The threshold can be the mountain, or its shadow upon the ground, or its cut into the sky.

"The Heart" - The heart is the focal point of the painting and all elements should lead to it. The heart defines the meaning of the painting.

Elements and Colors

Shan shui draws upon Chinese elemental theory with five elements representing various parts of the natural world, and thus has specific directions for colorations that should be used in 'directions' of the painting, as to which should dominate. Early Chinese Texts on Painting by Susan Bush, Hsio-yen Shih. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR), Vol. 7, No. 1/2 (Jul., 1985), pp. 153-159]

Positive interactions between the Elements are:

*Wood produces Fire
*Fire produces Earth
*Earth produces Metal
*Metal produces Water
*Water produces Wood.

Elements that react positively should be used together. For example, Water complements both Metal and Wood; therefore, a painter would combine blue and green or blue and white. There is a positive interaction between Earth and Fire, so a painter would mix Yellow and Red.

Negative interactions between the Elements are:

*Wood uproots Earth
*Earth blocks Water
*Water douses Fire
*Fire melts Metal
*Metal chops Wood

Elements that interact negatively should never be used together. For example, Fire will not interact positively with Water or Metal so a painter would not choose to mix red and blue, or red and white.Textual Evidence for the Secular Arts of China in the Period from Liu Sung through Sui by Alexander Soper]



The art form has been popular to the point where a Chinese Animation entitled "Feeling from Mountain and Water" uses the same art style and even uses the term for the film's title.


When combined, the two characters of shan shui (山水) form the word "frontier". This is also the name adopted by "Shanshui Limited" to promote trade, sports, entertainment and culture between the UK and China.


The term Shan Shui is sometimes extended to include gardening and landscape design, particularly within the context of feng shui.

ee also

* Chinese art
* Ink and wash painting


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