The sublimity of forests and rivers (selection)
by Guo Xi

Why do we take landscape paintings our pleasure? Hills and gardens are where a Taoist used to resort; springs and rocks are what a bohemian used to enjoy; fishermen and woodmen are whom a hermit used to go with; apes and cranes are whom a scholar-official used to make friends with. Being fed up with day-to-day trifles, we begin to miss the fairyland's misty hills where ancients roamed. We wish to live in mist and clouds in the twilight as ancients did; however, the dream is hard to fulfill. The reason is that in a piping time of peace, when family duty and court service are expected, travelling far and away to live in solitude seem unrealistic for a kindheared man. The aspiration for forests, rivers and misty hills lingers day and night, though. Now with a fine piece of painting, though remaining seated, we travel to far away waters and valleys, participating the hooting of apes and the singing of birds, drinking in the scenery of a lonely mountain and the ripples on a clear river. Isn't this pleasing?

We categorize a landscape by how it strikes us: inaccessible, traversable, wanderable, or inhabitable. Though a superb work can belong to any of these categories, a painting of a forbidding outlook or a mountain pass is less significant than those whose mountains seem wanderable or inhabitable. Why is this? Mountains stretch for hundreds of miles, but only a small part of which are accessible to mankind or suitable to live on. Taking mountains a friendly environment is the very reason why we enjoy landscapes.

A painting should be based on such a conception; a viewer should appreciate it accordingly.

Mountains look different in shape from different distances and angles. Painters must study them accordingly in order to combine different shapes into a single form. Besides, mountains look different in appearance from different seasons and times too. So painters must observe it accordingly in order to combine different appearances into a single expression. Draped in a veil of vapor, spring mountains appear inspiring; shaded by woods in full bloom, summer mountains appear in comfort; fading in through sparse foliage, autumn mountains appear solemn and thoughtful; enveloped in murky haze, winter mountains appear silent and lonesome. Having such a feeling on viewing such a scene is how paintings affect us by. We think of a journey on seeing distant mist and a road stretching afar; we think of sightseeing on seeing sunset glow over a gentle river; we think of an excursion on seeing deep gorges and murmuring springs; we think of a solitary dwelling on seeing mountaineers and recluses. Having such an idea on viewing such a scene is how paintings inspire us with.

Mountain depends on river for blood, forest for hair, and mist for spirit. Therefore a mountain looks vigorous by having a river at the foot, lush by being covered by forest, graceful by having mist around.

Guo Xi (1023 - 1085)
Snow mountains
ink on rice paper

Essays on Chinese painting

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