"Confucius coined the phrase that "the wise take pleasure in rivers and lakes, the virtuous in mountains" (Analects). Mountains and water are central to the Daoist conception of the world. This school of thought views man as an inseparable part of the universe. Harmony is attained if each individual's energy is attuned to the energy of cosmos at large. Intimate encounters with natural phenomena are the path leading to this goal. Tranquility induces a relaxed condition in which the workings of the universe may be fathomed. In a state of heightened spiritual awareness, man's ability to adjust his rhythm to the pulse of cosmos and to eventually merge with it will prevail."
|Which gardens do you tend?|
|Where do you find tranquility?|
by Karin Albert
Mountains and water play prominent roles in Chinese art. Over the centuries, Western painters have boldly explored new themes and media, continuously striving to transcend the familiar and challenge the unknown, while their Chinese counterparts have relished the creation of timeless natural sceneries. Painting scrolls feature towering mountain peaks and torrential waterfalls, slopes receding far into the distance and gently rolling streams. No classical Chinese garden would be complete without mountains and water. In the creation of rock landscapes (landscape penjing), miniature vistas arranged on a tray, both elements are equally vital.
To some extent, China's geography offers an explanation. Mountainous terrain makes up most of the country, water is abundant in the Central and Southern regions, and three of the world's greatest streams, the Yellow River, the Yangtze and the West River, define much of the land. Her natural environment has shaped China's culture and traditions and molded the minds of her people.
Ancient Chinese mythology abounds with tales of mountain mysticism. Outstanding peaks were believed to be the abodes of immortals, spurring man's imagination and fuelling his desire to command the elixir conferring eternal life. Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (141-87 B.C.) sent an expedition to the Three Blessed Isles of the Eastern Sea, a group of island mountains off the coast said to be a favorite haunt of immortals, in the hope of partaking in their secret. His envoys never returned, but Emperor Wudi, in an effort to entice those elusive immortals to take up residence with him, commemorated the magic islands by having three peaks set up in the lake of his luxurious garden Shang Lin (Great Grove). Albeit different in purpose and aesthetic appeal, Wudi's garden and similar imperial parks built during the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.) may be viewed as an embryonic form from which the garden of the scholar-official, the mainstream of the classical Chinese garden as we know it today, evolved.
A profound faith in Nature's powers to uplift and nourish the spirit and to purify the soul has been shared by the two great philosophies indigenous to China, Confucianism and Daoism. Although Confucius (b. 551 B.C.) was mostly concerned with the ordering of social and governmental affairs rather than metaphysics, moral integrity and the continuous perfection of man through learning are cornerstones of his ideal of family and state.
Confucius coined the phrase that "the wise take pleasure in rivers and lakes, the virtuous in mountains" (Analects). Mountains and water are central to the Daoist conception of the world. This school of thought views man as an inseparable part of the universe. Harmony is attained if each individual's energy is attuned to the energy of cosmos at large. Intimate encounters with natural phenomena are the path leading to this goal. Tranquillity induces a relaxed condition in which the workings of the universe may be fathomed. In a state of heightened spiritual awareness, man's ability to adjust his rhythm to the pulse of cosmos and to eventually merge with it will prevail.
Mountains not only offer a life in seclusion, devoid of restraints. A wealth of stimulating shapes, a multitude of colors and the ever changing moods so typical of mountaineous surroundings- impressions of this kind are apt to reveal the all-pervading spirit of the universe to the perceptive mind. Nature's sheer power and grandeur is more easily comprehended in a setting with rugged peaks capped by misty clouds.
The Daoist notion of water is yet more essential. In their efforts to describe the Dao, the Way of the Universe, Laotzu and Chuangtzu, the major personages of early Daoism, employed water as their chief metaphor. Water is omnipresent, embracing all living things with no trace of partiality or ulterior motives. It is the great mediator between contrasts, forever seeking balance.
Continuously dissolving and solidifying, it attains an infinite number of fresh manifestations of unity by way of perpetual transformation. The superior qualities of water are to be emulated by man: It follows its own course and always fills the bottom level, equivalent to the wise man being true to himself and maintaining a low profile. Water is the emblem of the unassertive. Taking the path of least resistance, always yielding, its effectiveness is unsurpassed.
The third great philosophy which has formed the traditional Chinese mind, Buddhism, was introduced to China by monks from India, Persia and Kashmir in the declining years of the Han Dynasty. With an unerring sense for scenic grandeur, Buddhist monks set up monasteries in the pristine mountain wilderness. These sites became gathering grounds for those seeking spiritual enlightenment, islands of hope for the deprived and the disheartened. The narratives of pilgrims spread the word of the magic spell cast by China's great mountains, of the healing powers of Nature on the soul.
Buddhism began to find widespread acceptance in China at a time of political and social upheaval known as the Six Dynasties (220-589 A.D.) During this period, the Confucian scholar, greatly esteemed and entrusted with high government posts in the preceding Han Dynasty, found himself at odds with a political situation rife with intrigue, nepotism and corruption. For some high-minded literati, seeking refuge in the mountains became the only alternative to compromising their ideals. Individuals who were willing to sacrifice careers and luxuries in an immoral world for a frugal, pure existence in the mountains became models and were immortalized in poetry and painting for centuries to come.
The Six Dynasties period, then, was a time when a large number of people came to view Nature as a refuge, in a spiritual or political sense. It was also the time when Nature as a motif entered the arts. Landscape painting as a genre was born and would soon outstrip all other forms. Poetry began to extol the contemplative life to be found in beautiful natural surroundings. The poem "A reply " by the great Tang poet Li Bai (701-762 A.D.) exemplifies the prevailing mood of the time. Tastefully laid out country estates, the forerunners of the urban gardens of the scholar-officials we associate with garden art today, proliferated. Nature had captured the artistic spirit.
Whether creating landscape paintings, gardens or penjing - Chinese artists have not sought to recreate Nature in a realistic manner. Never has outward resemblance been a major objective. A superior piece of art possesses the quality to transmit life, to convey the very spirit inherent in Nature. In pursuit of this goal, the artist concentrates on the essential, leaves out all superfluous detail, eliminates anything that would distract the viewer's attention.
In the arts dealing with Nature, mountains and water are fundamental compositional elements. Mountains and water are viewed as the very quintessence of Nature. Drawing an analogy between the earth and the human body, the Chinese have referred to mountains as the 'bones', to water as the 'blood' of the earth. The fact that both elements are considered inseparable constants in Nature is clearly reflected in the Chinese language: 'shan' (mountain) and 'shui' (water) combine to denote landscape ('shan shui').
Since ancient times, the Chinese have conceptualized the universe as consisting of two poles of cosmic energy, the yang (positive) and the yin (negative). The two are opposites yet interdependent; denying one would entail a negation of the other. Yang and yin are mutually generative and mutually supportive, and the key to ultimate wisdom is held by those who know how to keep both principles in their proper balance.
Yang and yin are associated, among other elements, with heaven and earth, the masculine and the feminine, the light and the dark, the solid and the liquid, the firm and the yielding. Mountains and water form such an ideal yang-yin pair. They are polar principles joining to constitute one entity, contrasts uniting to form perfection.
Creating mountains and water as essential manifestations of Nature, Chinese artists have made generalized philosophical statements. They have translated a deeply felt fundamental truth into visual images.