The Tao of Painting

Wang Hui: Clearing after Rain over Streams and Mountains, 1662, ink on paper hanging scroll, 103½ by 24¼ inches. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


CHINA’S SINGULARLY gorgeous engagement with landscape began around 400 ce, a historical moment when China’s earth-based Taoist philosophy was melding with imported Buddhism to form Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. This interest in landscape first took artistic form in poetry, most notably in the work of seminal figures T’ao Ch’ien and Hsieh Ling-yün. Here, for example, is a poem by T’ao Ch’ien:

Drinking Wine

I live here in a village house without
all that racket horses and carts stir up,

and you wonder how that could ever be.
Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself

a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums
at my east fence, I see South Mountain

far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
heading home. All this means something,

something absolute: whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.1

Landscape painting itself arose three centuries later in the work of Wang Wei. Like virtually all artist-intellectuals in ancient China after 400, Wang Wei was a very serious student of Ch’an Buddhism. He was also one of China’s most famous poets, known especially for a series of twenty poems titled “Wheel-Rim River Sequence.” Each poem in the series is about a specific place in the mountain landscape around his home, and Wang painted a companion scroll depicting the same twenty sites.

A wonderful centuries-later “copy” of the painting preserves the simple style of Wang working at the beginning of the landscape tradition. One section of the long scroll includes, just above the landscape elements, the titles of poems corresponding to the twenty sites. In the portion illustrated here, the four titles (one slightly hidden above the bamboo and below the ridgeline) refer to the following poems—beginning, in traditional fashion, on the right and moving left:

Apricot-Grain Cottage

Roofbeams cut from deep-grained apricot,
fragrant reeds braided into thatched eaves:

no one knows clouds beneath these rafters
drifting off to bring that human realm rain.

Bamboo-Clarity Mountains

Tall bamboo blaze in meandering emptiness:
kingfisher-greens rippling streamwater blue.

On Autumn-Pitch Mountain paths, they flaunt
darkness, woodcutters there beyond knowing.

Magnolia Park

Autumn mountains gathering last light,
one bird follows another in flight away.

Shifting kingfisher-greens flash radiant
scatters. Evening mists: nowhere they are.

Dogwood Bank

Fruit ripening in reds and greens:
it’s like they’re in bloom again!

To keep guests in these mountains
just offer them this dogwood cup.

Great painters often copied esteemed works by their predecessors as a way of fully inhabiting the minds of those earlier artists, a way of mastering their insights—and when original paintings are lost, surviving copies by later masters are frequently revered as if they were the originals. This copy of Wang Wei’s scroll is just one of the more than 120 paintings in the splendid show “Streams and Mountains Without End: Landscape Traditions of China,” slated to fill the Chinese galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, not once but four times over the course of two years. Currently in its third phase (through January 6, 2019), the exhibition contains many kinds of objects—ceramics, tapestries and robes, scholar’s rocks, sculptures, brush holders—but painting clearly reigns supreme among them.

Wang Wei’s scroll reveals how landscape painting was, even in its nascent form, a manifestation of the Taoist/Ch’an principles that shaped the minds of China’s artist-intellectuals. Even a cursory glance confirms that Chinese landscape paintings are fundamentally different from their Western equivalents—especially in the former’s abundance of empty space and lack of realistic representation. Understanding these images requires some knowledge of the conceptual framework within which they operate. Otherwise, it’s like looking at Renaissance painting with no knowledge of Christianity. In fact, mountain landscape is only the apparent content of Chinese paintings like those on view in the Met show. Instead, the paintings render a Taoist/Ch’an cosmology that feels surprisingly familiar here in the modern West.

That cosmology begins with the Taoism of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (sixth century bce), the seminal work of Chinese spiritual philosophy and the book translated more often into English than any other. Tao, the central concept in Taoism, means most literally Way, as in a road or pathway. But Lao Tzu uses it to describe the empirical Cosmos as a single living tissue that is inexplicably generative—and so female in its very nature. As such, Tao is an ongoing cosmological process, an ontological pathWay by which things come into existence, evolve through their lives, and then go out of existence, only to be transformed and reemerge in a new form.

At its deepest level, the tissue of Tao is described by that cosmology in terms of two fundamental elements: Absence () and Presence (). Presence is simply the empirical universe, the ten thousand things in constant transformation, and Absence is the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of Presence perpetually emerges. And so Tao is the process through which all things arise and pass away as Absence burgeons forth into the great transformation of Presence. This is simply an ontological description of natural process, perhaps most immediately manifest in the seasonal cycle: the pregnant emptiness of Absence in winter, Presence’s burgeoning forth in spring, the fullness of its flourishing in summer, and its dying back into Absence in autumn.

In a Chinese landscape painting, empty space depicts Absence, the generative emptiness from which the landscape elements (Presence) are seemingly just emerging into existence or have half vanished back into the void. In the Wang Wei scroll, that generative emptiness takes the form of sky and river. But at the same time, the landscape elements also seem infused with it. Rather than being modeled realistically, they contain that same emptiness: raw silk with perhaps a faint wash. This makes philosophical sense because the concepts of Absence and Presence are simply an approach to the fundamental nature of things. In the end, they are the same thing: Presence grows out of and returns to Absence and is therefore always a manifestation of it. Or to state it more precisely, Absence and Presence are simply different ways of seeing Tao: either as a single formless tissue that is magically generative (Absence), or as that tissue in its ten thousand distinct and always changing forms (Presence).

This Taoist/Ch’an philosophical framework is felt even more strongly in later landscape paintings, where emptiness expands to include larger portions of the composition: not just river and sky, but also mist, cloud, lake water—all rendered not in realistic colors, but as a single blank background—a pale wash, raw silk or paper. And again, the ten thousand things of empirical reality appear as rivers-and-mountains landscapes emerging from that emptiness of mist and cloud, water and sky—emerging and hovering there, seemingly on the verge of vanishing back into it. This basic framework takes many forms in Chinese landscape painting (the term translated as “landscape” is literally “rivers and mountains”), where each work renders that cosmology in its own particular way.

In Retreats in the Spring Hills, by an unknown twelfth-century artist, the mountains seem suffused with that generative emptiness: windblown fog. And the way the pinnacles tower up and lean “downwind” makes the whole feel as though it is seething with dynamic energy. The landscape in Wang Hui’s Clearing after Rain over Streams and Mountains (1662) seems made of that emptiness, with an overall effect of cheery brightness. The unattributed thirteenth-century Waiting for the Ferry is quite the opposite, rendering a mindscape of stark serenity: the empty mind of an old sage-master that somehow includes all the sorrow of life.


FOR ANCIENT China’s artist-intellectuals, the goal was to dwell as an integral part of Tao’s eternal process: consciousness woven into the living Cosmos. Because they saw in the wild forms of mountain landscape the very workings of that Cosmos, the cultivation of that dwelling generally involved landscape. Artist-intellectuals found their spiritual home in mountains, thought of mountains as their teachers. They lived in cultivated reclusion among mountains as much as possible, and they built Ch’an monasteries there. They practiced meditation among mountains, either alone at home or with companions in monasteries. They wandered the mountains near their homes, lingering on summits, and they often made long journeys through China’s rivers-and-mountains landscapes, staying at Ch’an monasteries, which functioned as inns. They dreamed mountains, and they built their artistic lives around them.

Landscape painting is perhaps the most dramatic and immediate form of the Taoist/Ch’an spiritual practice of merging one’s consciousness with the landscape and Cosmos. The human element in these paintings is almost always small and well-integrated into the landscape, or there is no trace of the human at all. The lack of perspective makes the viewer feel somehow inside the work’s cosmology and able to wander there, rather than being a center of identity looking at the landscape from a single viewpoint outside the painting. Indeed, in a landscape scroll like the Wang Wei imitation, the rollers are held in each hand, and the scroll is viewed by slowly rolling it from one to the other, creating the effect of walking through the landscape.

But the most important way these paintings weave consciousness into the existence-tissue of landscape relates to the way they were meant to be experienced. Proper viewing of this art was determined by Taoist/Ch’an meditation practice, which was common among ancient China’s artist-intellectuals and is often referenced in landscape paintings where mountain monasteries appear. In Ch’an meditation, the stream of thought falls silent, and practitioners inhabit empty-mind. In this empty-mind, the opening of consciousness is a mirror allowing no distinction between inside and outside. Identity becomes whatever sight fills eye and mind: hence mind and Cosmos are woven together in the most profound way. And this mirrored perception was central to traditional landscape art.

In looking at a painting, one mirrored the painting, making its space the space of consciousness. So, ancient artist-intellectuals gazed into these pictures for long periods of time as a kind of spiritual practice—for the painting portrays the Taoist/Ch’an Cosmos in microcosm, and to mirror the image is to fill one’s mind with that Cosmos in all its depths. It was a discipline that returned consciousness to dwell at that cosmological origin-moment as a matter of immediate experience, a moment that filled one’s mind with a particular form of emptiness.

If landscape is where ancient Chinese artist-intellectuals inhabited Tao, the ongoing process of the Cosmos, calligraphy was perhaps the purest art form in ancient China: rather than engaging with landscape, it engages with that larger Cosmos directly. Calligraphy should be experienced not as fancy handwriting but as a form of gestural art whose closest counterpart in the West is Abstract Expressionism. Calligraphy is often included as an important element in landscape painting, usually appearing within the composition itself. But in Dong Qichang’s seventeenth-century album Landscapes and Poems, paintings are presented as independent panels alternating with panels of calligraphy.

Like Wang Wei, Dong Qichang was a serious Ch’an practitioner, and cursive-script calligraphy like this was intended to liberate the calligrapher from self-identity into a participation in the cosmological process. The brushstrokes are selfless and spontaneous, enacting the elemental forces of the Cosmos, which perennially tumbles through its myriad transformations: appearing out of generative emptiness as a dark ink-soaked stroke begins, twisting and folding as its form unfurls and evolves—sometimes headlong and sometimes lazy, sometimes thick and sometimes thin—through leaps and falls, writhing with the abandon of a dragon in flight (as the ancients might have said).

When engaged in the spiritual practice of viewing calligraphy, the ancients followed the dynamic lines flowing from top right down, as if the focus of awareness were the tip of the brush in motion. In tracing the movement of that brushstroke with the mirror-deep clarity of Ch’an empty-mind, they shared the calligrapher’s experience, inhabiting that originary moment where the ten thousand things well up into existence, thought and identity (manifest in text) returned to the cosmological cycle of Tao. They could participate in an unbridled mind soaring free of the complications that mired their lives in day-to-day concerns, a mind full of creative energy and elemental joy, wherein thought and identity and language are purified into the sheer energy of the Cosmos.

The calligraphic brushstroke was the basis of painting in ancient China. Great painting in the Chinese tradition was virtually always rivers-and-mountains painting, and its elements were rendered in the same expressive brushstrokes seen in calligraphy. In painting, as in calligraphic practice, the brushstroke always moves at that originary moment, an act of perpetual spontaneity by the artist, and this further infuses painted landscapes with the generative energy of the Cosmos. As in calligraphy, there is no reworking or revision. The work is created as spontaneous improvisation from beginning to end. (In calligraphy, the text already exists, but the content of the text is unimportant to the art.) And so, rather than rendering realistic landscapes, such paintings manifest in their every dimension the dynamic Taoist/Ch’an Cosmos: they render it in their rivers-and-mountains pictorial elements, and they enact it in their gestural execution.

In the painting panels of Dong Qichang’s Landscapes and Poems, the brushstroke moves with a relaxed and wandering spontaneity, indicative of the artist’s particular form of wisdom. This is perhaps most evident in the lone pinnacle at the upper center of the example illustrated here. The summit is a casually drawn rectangle that seems oddly tipped, as though we were seeing the summit from the top: a defiance of realistic perspective that helps the eye enter into and wander the landscape. And suggesting cliffs that seem laughably only half attached to the summit, long and lazy brushstrokes descend from it, bending impossibly right and ending in misty emptiness. The whole form seems alive, almost like a jellyfish, and full of quirky humor.

Viewing a landscape painting in ancient China was a meditative practice in which one might stand in front of a single work for hours, absorbed in its depths. And gazing at it with a mirror-deep mind, ancient artist-intellectuals were returned to that originary place where consciousness and landscape are woven together in a single cosmological tissue. They also mirrored that gestural energy of the Cosmos unfurling its perennial transformations. But all this wasn’t just a mental experience. The word for “mind” in classical Chinese is also the word for “heart”: (a stylized version of the earlier, which is an image of the heart muscle, with its chambers at the locus of veins and arteries). There is no ingrained distinction between the two. This empty-mind integration into a cosmological whole was also an emotional experience, an experience of the heart. And so, finally, landscape painting meant cultivating the inexhaustible complexity of an empty mind and a full heart.