Education About Asia

An Environmental Ethic in Chinese Landscape Painting

Download PDF

Landscape painting in Western art did not develop into an important category of painting until the seventeenth century. In contrast, landscape painting in China was already a prized art form by the ninth century. (note 1) In fact, when Chinese art was systematically introduced to the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the prominence afforded nature—as opposed to humans— in Chinese art startled Western audiences. One reviewer of a pioneering exhibition of Chinese art at the British Museum on view from 1910–12 exclaimed that “no classical European master ever expressed the structure of mountain and rock as it is expressed here.” (note 2) Another observer claimed that Chinese artists painted rocks and streams “as seriously as Rembrandt painted the portrait of a man.” Of the geese in a Chinese landscape painting, a British critic wrote: “The subject seems nothing to us, but [the Chinese painter] proves that it meant all the world to him.” (note 3)


1. For more discussion on the early development of landscape in China, see Sherman E. Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting: The Cleveland Museum of Art(London: Prentice-Hall International, 1975), 3, 9.

2. Zhaoming Qian, The Modernist Response to Chinese Art: Pound, Moore, Stevens (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2003), 12.

3. Ibid., 71.