by Mu Xu

One of the major styles of Chinese painting, shan-shui first arose to prominence during the 5th century, the Song Dynasty (Soper). This style of painting depicts scenery or natural landscapes, using a brush and ink rather than more conventional paints. The literal translation of shan-shui breaks down into two words; shan is mountain or mountains, and shui which means bodies of water which includes waterfalls, rivers, and lakes. Most of the shan-shui painters produced large-scale landscape paintings, which were usually centered on mountains. Mountains have long been seen as scared places in China since the deities supposedly resided there and that they were closer to the heavens (Yee and Hsiung). Like many other styles of Chinese painting, shan-shui has a strong reference to Taoist imagery and motifs, as the symbolism of Taoism strongly influenced “Chinese landscape painting” (Northrop).

It has been noted that the Taoist stress on how minor the human presence is in the vastness of the cosmos, and this can been seen in shan-shui styled paintings, where there are often no human presence in the piece or human presence is greatly diminished by their size in comparison. Most dictionary definitions of shan-shui often assume that the term includes all ancient Chinese paintings with mountain and water images (Siren). Although contemporary Chinese painters feel that only paintings with mountain and water images that follow strict guidelines should be classified as shan-shui style. It should be noted that when Chinese painters work on shan-shui painting, they do not try to portray an image that they actually saw in nature, but how they felt from nature. Thus shan-shui painting is not actually depicting nature as how nature appears, but how the artist views the landscape (Maeda). According to Ch’eng His, shan-shui painting is more like a vehicle of philosophy.

Shan-shui paintings involve a complicated and rigorous set of almost mystical requirements for balance, composition, and form (Wicks). They should have 3 basic components: paths, the threshold, and the heart. The path has certain characteristics: it should never be straight; it should meander like a stream. This helps deepen the landscape by adding layers. It can be a river or a path along it, or the tracing of the sun through the sky over the shoulder of the mountain (Siren). The mastery of the path is not to create inorganic patterns, but instead to imitate the patterns that nature creates. The path should eventually lead to the threshold, which is there to embrace the viewer and provide him a special welcome. It can be a mountain or its shadow on the ground or its cut into the sky, but it must either be a mountain or its boundary must be clearly defined. The heart, which is separate from the path and the threshold, is the focal point of the painting and all elements. It is the meaning of the painting (Siren). The concept is that the painting should have a single focal point and that all natural lines of the painting direct inwards to this point. This style of painting was later characterized by a group of landscape painters, most notably Zhang Zeduan (Siren).

Zhang Zeduan, also known as Zheng Dao, was a famous Chinese painter during the 12th century, and was instrumental in the early history of this Chinese painting style. He was born in Dongwu, present day Shandong (means east of mountains). Thought to be a court painter of the Northern Song Dynasty, his paintings were criticisms of the new dynasty after the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty. Although most notably known as a shan-shui painter, his most famous painting is Along the River During Qing Ming Festival. The piece is painted on a wide handscroll and depicts life in a city and reveals much about life in China during the 12th century. The painting consisted of myriad depictions of different people interacting with one another and clues regarding the class structure and the many hardships of urban life as well. His painting also accurate displays of technological practices found in Song China, such as a river ship lowering its bipod mast before passing under the prominent bridge of the painting (Various). These accurate depictions allowed new insights to be formed about life in China during the 12th century.

The shan-shui style of painting has always had an aura of mystery surrounding it. The high mountains of China often were inaccessible due to fog and dangerously steep and rocky trails, and those who did venture up the hazardous paths often did not return. This created the aura of mystery. Thus some came to the conclusion that deities lived on the mountains, because those who did make it and return spoke of the most beautiful scenery one can imagine.


Maeda, Robert J. "Two twelfth century texts on Chinese painting." Michigan Papers in Chinese Studies (1970): 74.

Northrop, Filmer Stuart Cockow. Ideological Differences and World Order: Stodies in the Philosophy and Science of the World's Culture. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1949.

Siren, Oswald. Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles. New York: Ronald Press, 1956.

Soper, Alexander. "Textual Evidence for the Secular Arts of China in the Period from Liu Sung through Sui." Artibus Asiae. Supplementum (1967): 7.

Various. Zhang Zheduan. 26 November 2009. 13 February 2010 .

Wicks, Robert. ""Being in the Dry Zen Landscape"." The Journal of Aesthetic Education (Spring 2004): 112-122.

Yee, Chiang and S.I. Hsiung. The Chinese Eye: An interpretation of Chinese painting. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1964.