In no other cultural tradition has nature played a more important role in the arts than in that of China. Since China’s earliest dynastic period, real and imagined creatures of the earth—serpents, bovines, cicadas, and dragons—were endowed with special attributes, as revealed by their depiction on ritual bronze vessels. In the Chinese imagination, mountains were also imbued since ancient times with sacred power as manifestations of nature’s vital energy (qi). They not only attracted the rain clouds that watered the farmer’s crops, they also concealed medicinal herbs, magical fruits, and alchemical minerals that held the promise of longevity. Mountains pierced by caves and grottoes were viewed as gateways to other realms—”cave heavens” (dongtian) leading to Daoist paradises where aging is arrested and inhabitants live in harmony.
From the early centuries of the Common Era, men wandered in the mountains not only in quest of immortality but to purify the spirit and find renewal. Daoist and Buddhist holy men gravitated to sacred mountains to build meditation huts and establish temples. They were followed by pilgrims, travelers, and sightseers: poets who celebrated nature’s beauty, city dwellers who built country estates to escape the dust and pestilence of crowded urban centers, and, during periods of political turmoil, officials and courtiers who retreated to the mountains as places of refuge.
Early Chinese philosophical and historical texts contain sophisticated conceptions of the nature of the cosmos. These ideas predate the formal development of the native belief systems of Daoism and Confucianism, and, as part of the foundation of Chinese culture, they were incorporated into the fundamental tenets of these two philosophies. Similarly, these ideas strongly influenced Buddhism when it arrived in China around the first century A.D. Therefore, the ideas about nature described below, as well as their manifestation in Chinese gardens, are consistent with all three belief systems.
The natural world has long been conceived in Chinese thought as a self-generating, complex arrangement of elements that are continuously changing and interacting. Uniting these disparate elements is the Dao, or the Way. Dao is the dominant principle by which all things exist, but it is not understood as a causal or governing force. Chinese philosophy tends to focus on the relationships between the various elements in nature rather than on what makes or controls them. According to Daoist beliefs, man is a crucial component of the natural world and is advised to follow the flow of nature’s rhythms. Daoism also teaches that people should maintain a close relationship with nature for optimal moral and physical health.
Within this structure, each part of the universe is made up of complementary aspects known as yin and yang. Yin, which can be described as passive, dark, secretive, negative, weak, feminine, and cool, and yang, which is active, bright, revealed, positive, masculine, and hot, constantly interact and shift from one extreme to the other, giving rise to the rhythm of nature and unending change.
As early as the Han dynasty, mountains figured prominently in the arts. Han incense burners typically resemble mountain peaks, with perforations concealed amid the clefts to emit incense, like grottoes disgorging magical vapors. Han mirrors are often decorated with either a diagram of the cosmos featuring a large central boss that recalls Mount Kunlun, the mythical abode of the Queen Mother of the West and the axis of the cosmos, or an image of the Queen Mother of the West enthroned on a mountain. While they never lost their cosmic symbolism or association with paradises inhabited by numinous beings, mountains gradually became a more familiar part of the scenery in depictions of hunting parks, ritual processions, temples, palaces, and gardens. By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. The prominence of landscape imagery in Chinese art has continued for more than a millennium and still inspires contemporary artists.
Department of Asian Art. “Nature in Chinese Culture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cnat/hd_cnat.htm (October 2004)
Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.