The Urbanization of China’s Landscape Art: Contemporary Artist Yang Yongliang Reimagines the Ideology and Style of the Northern Song’s Landscapes

Written by Madeleine Cruickshank
Edited by Muhan Zhang

The formal elements of a landscape artwork can contextualize its artist both historically and ideologically. By the tenth century, landscape had become “the great subject of Chinese painting,”[i] and today it continues to be explored by many contemporary Chinese artists. Landscape, or shanshui hua in Chinese, literally translates to “mountains and waters”[ii] or “mountain-water picture,”[iii] and while this indicates the literal subject matter of many Chinese landscape paintings, it is less revealing of the philosophical views that guided their stylistic evolution. In traditional Chinese art, the “steady growth of a generally accepted philosophy of nature provided a perfect climate for great landscape painting.”[iv] This awareness of the natural landscape was once ubiquitous among Chinese artists, but a loss of this tradition in recent history has coincided with China’s rapid industrialization. Contemporary media artist Yang Yongliang uses his work to draw attention to the discrepancy between China’s urban development and its artistic traditions. While Yongliang’s style draws on practices of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 to 1127),[v] it should be critically assessed as a product of its contemporary framework instead of a seamless restoration of ancient practices. Thus, while his artwork may inform new viewers of the history of Chinese landscape art, it also explores how the relevance of traditional Chinese landscape has changed in the context of today’s China.

From December 2013 to April 2014, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hosted its “first major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art,”[vi] Ink Art, in which Yang Yongliang’s View of Tide (2008) (Figures 1-2) was displayed. Curator Maxwell K. Hearn articulated The Met’s intention behind the exhibition in this manner: “the curatorial argument is that, by examining [the artworks] through the lens of Chinese historical artistic paradigms, layers of meaning and cultural significance that might otherwise go unnoticed are revealed.”[vii] While it is satisfying to assume that these contemporary artworks exist “as part of the continuum of China’s traditional culture,”[viii] Meiqin Wang argues in her book Urbanization and Contemporary Chinese Art that the curatorial concept [of Ink Art] is nonetheless problematic,” and that The Met’s exhibition “appears to be based on a willful assumption about and attempt to present contemporary Chinese art as developing within a long and unbroken historical trajectory of Chinese cultural tradition, rather than understanding it as an active component of the contemporary global art scene.”[ix] Wang argues that The Met misunderstood the motivation behind Yongliang’s art because, unlike traditional Chinese landscapes, Yongliang’s work acknowledge and engage with their Western audiences.

Fig. 1 Yang Yongliang, View of Tide (2008), Inkjet Print of Composite Photograph, 45 x 1000 cm, M+ Sigg Collection, M+ Museum of Visual Culture, Hong Kong.
Fig. 2 Yang Yongliang, View of Tide (2008), detail.

The typical Western understanding of landscape art from the European art historical tradition assumes two-dimensional forms are a true-to-life representation of what is in the natural world. But the ancient Chinese were ideal painters; they used aesthetically ideal forms to recreate the landscapes they saw in real life.[x] Sherman E. Lee explains in his book Chinese Landscape Painting that “the Chinese landscape is primarily a complex of brush symbols for nature…intended to be taken as an aesthetic and ideal re-creation. One could not copy nature, one could only create a landscape painting.”[xi] The Chinese landscape tradition valued idealism over verisimilitude, whereas the Western tradition stands in direct opposition. Wang, therefore, makes a valid assertion against The Met’s curatorial argument; the fact that Yongliang’s work operates within the Westernized art world has significant ramifications on how it can be interpreted and regarded by the public that views it. One must additionally consider Yongliang’s own personal artistic motivations.

Yongliang was born in 1980 in the historical Jiading district in present-day Shanghai. Established in 1217, Jiading was known for its famous historical sites, but the county was hugely impacted by the urbanization of nearby Shanghai in the early 1990s.[xii] Since Shanghai needed more land to fuel its growing economy, Jiading was incorporated into the jurisdiction of Shanghai’s municipal government, making it officially classified as “urban” and thus eligible for legal development.[xiii] Wang explains that as a result, “the beautiful landscape [was] destroyed to make way for apartment complexes, commercial structures, and tourist sites.”[xiv] In a 2012 interview with Vice, Yongliang explains that “The speed at which [Shanghai] has developed in the last twenty years is unimaginable…And there’s also a big contradiction happening between the city’s changing image and traces of its historic past.”[xv] This contradiction between the city’s past and present is what Yongliang seeks to capture in his work.

Fig. 3 Yang Yongliang, Bowl of Taipei No. 04 (2012), Composite Photograph.

Yongliang deliberately pays homage to the history of traditional landscape art while simultaneously showcasing how it can operate within the modern context of industrialization. He describes the difficulty of taking historical ideologies of Chinese art practices and making them relevant today: “ancient Chinese art has always been a form of artistic expression detached from commercialism and functionalism. We call it “literati painting,” which…resides in a system that is in opposition to the Western art system.”[xvi] While the Western art tradition focuses more on the “social and functional meaning” of art, Chinese art “is more about having an internal dialogue, which is a side effect of self-cultivation.”[xvii] This process of internal self-cultivation does not easily fit into the Western commercial structure, which tends to focus on the external appearance and function of art objects. Yongliang explains that “Chinese art, with its thousands of years of history, is about to become extinct. In the future, we’ll only be able to see traditional Chinese art and calligraphy in museums because the structure of our current living conditions and changing cityscape won’t allow this art form to survive. I’ve been thinking of a way to get Chinese art to thrive and continue in a new vein.”[xviii] This has led to works like Bowl of Taipei No. 04 (2012) (Figure 3), which is a composite photograph of modern day Taipei that references the decorative origins of Chinese landscape art. The work features a shallow bowl with drawings of human figures, clouds, mountains and trees visible on its outer surface.[xix] Yongliang’s work falls under the category of contemporary art, but it is impossible to separate it from its formal and stylistic ties to traditional Chinese painting.

Yongliang’s other works directly resemble traditional Chinese landscapes, namely those from the artistically experimental Northern Song Dynasty. View of Tide, for example, is a collection of composite photographs layered and arranged to resemble a series of mountains rising out of a body of water, presented on a long horizontal sheet of paper (1.5 by 33 feet). This particular format is a direct reference to silk handscrolls, which were originally introduced as a medium for calligraphy in the Northern Song. Handscrolls were designed to be “read” from right to left as the viewer unfurled the long roll of silk. One famous example of this “unique and almost musical format,”[xx] as Sherman E. Lee describes it,  is Streams and Mountains without End (Anonymous, 1100-1150) (Figures 4-5).[xxi] Approximately one quarter of the scroll’s eleven metres is illustrated with mountains and forests, while the rest of the space is annotated with forty-nine seals (stamps impressed upon the surface of the scroll with vermilion red ink) and nine colophons (the earliest on this scroll dating back to 1205).[xxii] The jaggedly topped mountains are layered with intricately detailed trees, bushes, rocks, hazy clouds, and man-made structures, including modest houses, fences, and bridges. There are human figures as well, miniscule in comparison to the tremendous mountains. This is visible in Figure 5, where a canoe carrying two people approaches a dock. The blank space that runs along the bottom edge of the scroll conveys water, while at the top edge it conveys clouds and open sky.

Fig. 4 Anonymous, Streams and Mountains without End (1100-1150), Handscroll; Ink and Slight Colour on Silk, 35.1 x 1103.7 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Hannah Fund, Cleveland.
Fig. 5 Anonymous, Streams and Mountains without End (1100-1150), detail.

The compositional balance of the work is noteworthy. The illustrations are painted with thinner brush strokes near the bottom edge to convey closeness and clarity, while darker and thicker strokes convey depth where the mountain ranges are most dense with foliage. Northern Song painters used compositional strategies to enhance the balanced formal aesthetics of their work; “fore and middle grounds are united, but clearly separated in space from the distant mountain masses whose bases are lightened so as to silhouette and separate nearer details. The recessions in space are accomplished by series of flat rock or mountain planes placed parallel to the picture plane.”[xxiii] This attention to balance contributed to what Peter Sturman calls the “macrocosmic landscape”[xxiv] style of the period. Streams and Mountains without End succeeds at capturing the mountain ranges entirely from their foundational rocks and grasses to their cloudy peaks. The artist did not let the narrow width of the handscroll, almost fourteen inches, limit the scroll’s equal investment in foreground and background details.[xxv]

At first glance, Yongliang’s View of Tide has a striking resemblance to Streams and Mountains without End and conveys an ideal representation of China’s environment, just like traditional landscapes. But upon closer inspection, the aesthetically pleasing natural shapes reveal themselves to be man-made formations. In an interview with CBS, Yongliang’s work is described as “a serene Chinese landscape, the way nature intended. But look closer…Everything from the trees to the jagged cliffs are created from images of today’s China. On large computer screens, Yang zooms in to reveal how he layered thousands of tiny photographs to create and comment on another world.”[xxvi] This other world is contemporary urban China, replete with  skyscrapers and transmission towers. While deliberately using the same horizontal format; monochromatic colour scheme; and idealized shapes of mountains, trees, and waters as Northern Song landscapes, Yongliang redesigns the subject of Chinese landscape to depict China’s current metropolitan environment.

Fig. 6 Yang Yongliang, View of Tide (2008), detail.

Historical art forms and new environmental ideologies intertwine in Yongliang’s work, but existing literature on his work tends to lean too far in either one direction. View of Tide’s museum label at The Met reads as follows; “What initially appears to be a pristine image of nature’s grandeur is suddenly exposed as an entirely man-made environment…through Yang’s distinctive method of “painting” with digital photography, the seemingly harmonious traditional landscape becomes a subtle yet critical response to urbanization.”[xxvii] With phrases like “seemingly harmonious traditional landscape,” descriptions such as this one get dangerously close to describing Yongliang’s work as if it were a traditional Chinese painting. While the exhibition does emphasize Yongliang’s work as portraying a “New China,” the distinction between old and new traditions of landscape remains ambiguous. This is unsettling to contemporary art historians like Meiqin Wang, who explains that “the historically characteristic continuum of Chinese cultural tradition, which was profoundly rooted in a nature-bound and countryside-oriented society, has been broken in contemporary China now dominated by the ideology of global urbanism.”[xxviii] Characterizing Yongliang’s work as related directly to ancient ideologies of the environment, philosophies that date as far back as the eleventh century B.C.E. with the Book of Odes,[xxix] is assumptive and inaccurate.

During the Northern Song period, several landscape painters wrote about the motivation behind their artistic practices. Guo Xi, who painted Early Spring (Figure 7), wrote of how landscape artwork reflected an idealized version of human life in his famous “Essay on Landscape Painting:” “A virtuous man takes delight in landscapes so that in a rustic retreat he may nourish his nature, amid the carefree play of streams and rocks, he may take delight…The din of the dusty world and the locked-in-ness of human habitations are what human nature naturally abhors.”[xxx] Guo Xi defines the natural environment as a “carefree” space to escape to, but today’s dominant ideologies perceive the environment as a resource to be exploited for economic and political gain. It is not simply time and Yongliang’s choice of computerized medium that separates View of Tide from the Northern Song paintings, but also significant philosophical differences between the two eras.

Fig. 9 Guo Xi (Kuo Hsi), Early Spring (1072), Hanging Scroll; Ink and Slight Colour on Silk, 158.3 x 108.1 cm, National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Yongliang is not trying to perfectly recreate the traditional landscapes of the Northern Song, and his artworks are not unaware of the fact that they exist within their own autonomous artistic sensibility. Rather, they are landscape artworks that draw on preceding traditions to create something entirely new. Meiqin Wang claims that “the works of this Shanghai-based artist can be fully and meaningfully understood not in the Chinese historical artistic paradigms but in the contemporary urban living environment and cultural ambience of China in general.”[xxxi] This may be one aspect of Yongliang’s work, but it is more accurate to describe it as a meditation on both old and new art practices and the shifting ideologies that influenced them.

Yongliang seeks the same sense of awareness that traditional landscape artists of the Song dynasty sought. In the eleventh century, “nature’s principles [existed] for their own sake with no ulterior or fathomable motives;”[xxxii] however these principles have decayed over time due to environmental destruction and the gradual Westernization of art practices in China. Yongliang does not simply copy traditional landscape paintings, nor does his art exist purely for the sake of operating within the global urbanism of the current art world. Instead, it recalls traditional Chinese landscapes, exhibits the urbanization that has weakened the ideologies of these landscapes, and reimagines the artistic and ideological process of creating landscape artwork so that the practice can meaningfully operate within a contemporary context.


[i] Sherman E. Lee, “Chinese Landscape Painting,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 41, no. 9 (1954):3.
[ii] Peter C. Sturman, “Landscape”, in A Companion to Chinese Art, ed. Martin J. Powers and Katherine R. Tsiang (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2016), 178.
[iii] Sherman E. Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, 2nd Ed. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1962), 4.
[iv] Ibid., 3.
[v] Ibid., 23.
[vi] The Met, “Ink Art: Past and Present in Contemporary Chinese Art Exhibition Overview,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[vii] Meiqin Wang, Urbanization and Contemporary Chinese Art (New York: Routledge, 2015), 119.
[viii] Wang, Urbanization and Contemporary Chinese Art, 119-120.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, 5.
[xi] Ibid., 5-6.
[xii] Wang, Urbanization and Contemporary Chinese Art, 122.
[xiii] Ibid, 122-123.
[xiv] Ibid, 123.
[xv] Creators, Saving Chinese Art From Extinction | Meet Yang Yongliang (Vice: YouTube, July 26, 2012).
[xvi] Erica Huang, “Yang Yongliang Brings Chinese Landscape Painting Into The 21st Century.”
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Creators, Saving Chinese Art From Extinction | Meet Yang Yongliang.
[xix] Christopher Jobson, “The Silent City: Digitally Assembled futuristic Megalopolises by Yang Yongliang,” Colossal.
[xx] Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, 23.
[xxi] L. S. Y., “Review: Streams and Mountains Without End,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 18, no. 3/4 (1955): 495.
[xxii] Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, 137.
[xxiii] Ibid., 21.
[xxiv] Sturman, “Landscape,” 189.
[xxv] Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, 28.
[xxvi] CBS This Morning, The Art of Development: Chinese artist evokes the old to criticize the new, Television (Beijing: CBS, April 1, 2014).
[xxvii] The Met, “Exhibition Objects: View of Tide,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[xxviii] Wang, Urbanization and Contemporary Chinese Art, 120.
[xxix] Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, 9.
[xxx] Hugo Munsterberg, The Landscape Painting of China and Japan (Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1955), 6.
[xxxi] Wang, Urbanization and Contemporary Chinese Art, 120.
[xxxii] Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, 4.

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