Natural Symbols in Chinese Ink Painting

In celebration of September Asia Week, we’re delving into the centuries-old tradition of Chinese ink painting. Since ancient times, Chinese ink painters have been imbuing their works with symbols that act as subtle codes to communicate the artist’s deeper meaning.

Image: Xiangdong Chen, The Prosperous Water Lily, 2018 © Xiangdong Chen. Image courtesy the artist.

In the beginning, ink painting in China developed out of the art form of calligraphy because of the creator’s natural affinity for the ink and brush. During this era, around the eleventh century, mastery of calligraphy was a highly covetable skill, and those that excelled in calligraphy made up a new type of social elite called “scholar officials.” Through their training that consisted of copying Chinese characters repetitively and their deep understanding of Chinese history, these scholarly gentlemen gravitated toward depicting imagery that could be portrayed easily via an inked brush. Scholar officials were considered to be the keepers of the moral and aesthetic standards of the time, and continued to grow in both social and political influence.

This class of ink painters were proud to be self taught, distinct from the formal court painters of the time, and used painting as a method of expressing their inner thoughts and feelings through depictions of external scenes. Because of this emphasis on communication and not representation, ink painters largely opted out of using color in their works because it could be a distraction from the artist’s unadulterated meaning. This custom also reflected the Buddhist principles to reject any excesses that could be construed as lavish or indulgent. Along with Buddhism, the other dominating philosophies of the era were Taoism and Confucianism, and all placed particular emphasis on maintaining balance between mankind and nature. Natural elements had deeply wrought associations within Chinese culture and were infinite sources of inspiration and contemplation. Representations of nature served as a microcosm of the larger world; craggy rocks could be seen as towering mountain ranges, the streams of water flowing down those rocks likened to gushing rivers, tufts of greenery sprouting up symbolized ancient forests. Here, we explore a few of the natural motifs found frequently in Chinese ink painting and their deeper meanings. 

Image: Liu Guosong, Contemplation of Rocks, 1966. 

Mountains were sacred to the ancient Chinese and, even today, they remain symbols of heavenly sublimity. Every year troves of people ascend their cliffs to catch a glimpse of the realm of the gods. In Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, certain mountains were associated with specific deities and were believed to be vessels of spiritual power. For the ancients, mountains were forceful examples of the power of nature’s vitality and diverse ecosystems: they attracted clouds that eventually released rains that watered crops, their forests grew fruits and plants that could be consumed or harvested for medicinal purposes. Their physically imposing forms and life-giving abilities made mountains ideal examples of the harmonious cycles of nature.

 

Water lilies and lotus flowers are similar but distinct species of flowers that are both highly revered symbols in Chinese painting. They are of immense beauty and naturally symbolized this quality, but the unique ability of these particular plants to produce fragrant and clear blossoms out of mud-laden ponds also made them great symbols of purity. Lotuses in particular have strong associations with Buddhism. The lotus is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism and it was commonly depicted as a throne for Buddha. Beyond the flower’s physical beauty, the lotus also embodied the Buddhist ideals of enlightenment, because of its ability to grow high above the water’s surface, and detachment from earthly desires, because water slips so easily off its petals.

Image above: Xiangdong Chen, Lovely Water Lily, 2019. © Xiangdong Chen. Image below: Xiong Bing Ming, Crane, 1963. Image right: Zhang Daqian, Lotus in the Wind, 1948. 

While it may not be as famous as its mythic counterpart, the phoenix, the crane is often represented in Chinese ink paintings as well as antique tapestries. According to Taoist beliefs, when a Taoist priest died he would transform into a majestic crane. Because of the long lifespans the animals enjoy in nature and their white coloration which the Chinese considered similar to white, aged hair, cranes were understood to represent longevity and wisdom. The Chinese word for crane (guàn) is a homonym for both guān, meaning official, and guān, meaning hat or first place, and through this clever wordplay, the crane became associated with Imperial officials and were customarily represented on their regalia.  

Rocks and stones were deeply venerated by the ancient Chinese and as domestic gardens began to grow in popularity throughout China, exceptional stones were coveted and collected for display in these private sanctuaries of reflection. Called gongshi, or scholar’s rocks, they represented the transformative power of nature because of their association with mountains and their unique forms that were shaped over time. Stones were judged by aesthetic qualities rather than their size, and scholars favored asymmetrical or awkward shapes, perforations, resemblance to mountains, and glossy surface textures. Many of these stones were made of naturally occurring limestone, a soft stone, and years of water erosion contributed to the appearance of cavities and dimples, which closely resembled mountainside caves that were considered (in Chinese legend) to be the homes of immortal beings. Chinese artists, philosophers, and thinkers found such endless inspiration in gongshi, that the sourcing and display of these stones has developed into an art form itself, and modern generations continue to revere these evocative treasures of humble origin.

Image: Liu Dan, Yu Yuan Stone, 1998. 

The landscape of China has undoubtedly undergone massive change since the eleventh century, yet the Chinese people’s connection to nature has not wavered. To this day, artists working with all types of media continue to carefully select imagery that conveys a deeper meaning, providing modern context to elements with ancient connotations that have endured through the centuries.