A Touch of Red - Part I of IV

A blog series on the evolutions of Shanshui painting, Chinese impressionism and a pioneering artist.

Updated: August 11, 2015

Forward: Why study art?

Because it tells a story—our story. Art is an integral part of human history because it reveals the psychology and emotions of a people and a time period. And in an age bursting with culture and expression, an age fraught with conflict, it is our responsibility to know and tell the story of our hearts, the hearts of those before us, and of those to follow.

The following posts are a four-part blog series highlighting the history of Chinese landscape painting, contemporary abstract art and our founding artist, Chang Yi. Although brief and far from complete, these digests offer a holistic insight into what has evolved into contemporary liuli art. Follow this series and stay updated on Facebook for Chang’s upcoming and never-before-seen collection—“A Touch of Red.”

Part I: A brief history on the roots of Chinese Shanshui (landscape) painting

“Our souls must become expanded by the contemplation of Nature’s grandeur, before we can fully comprehend the greatness of man.”

                              -Heinrich Heine (1797 – 1856)

Through Loretta H. Yang and Chang Yi’s exploration of crystal art in the past three decades, LIULI’s identity has become associated with “art for the good of the heart.” But what exactly does this mean? In order to understand this concept, we must trace the roots of Chinese art a little over one millennium.

山水墨畫 (Shanshui muo hua) literally, “mountain water ink,” reaches as far back as the 5th century A.D. However, the art form did not truly reach the peak of its expression until the Song Dynasty (c. 960 A.D. – c. 1279) when the steady disintegration of the Tang Dynasty brought the Chinese literati to nature’s recluse. This no-mere coincidence of a retreat to the natural world became the foundation to Chinese landscape painting. As social disorder abounded, the harmony and balance of nature’s grandeur stood in direct contrast and became the focal point of the zeitgeist. Mountains, valleys, and rivers became the leitmotifs for poets, painters and scholars alike.

Notice, unlike typical Western paintings up until the 17th century, landscape here is not a backdrop. It is the main theme. Perhaps the most famous Song Dynasty painting, “Travelers among Mountains and Springs” demonstrates this concept. The painting uses sharp lines and soft brushwork to accentuate the magnificence of a towering mountain. In the foreground, hardly noticeable, are travelers and mules adding to the effect of being lost in eternal mountainscape. But this isn’t the only difference that distinguishes Eastern art from Western.









Fan Kuan’s “Travelers Among Mountains and Springs”
Image source: China Online Museum
Currently held at The National Palace Museum, Taiwan

Travelers Among Mountains and Streams

Yes, Shanshui paintings of the Song Dynasty were characterized by blurred lines between mountain and water—impressionistic approaches that express the relationship between man and nature. In essence, this philosophy emerged from the pursuit of self-cultivation and cultural ideals. The movement gained even more momentum in the Mongol Yuan Dynasty as many educated Chinese were ostracized, thus forming an alternative culture of their own. So the question to ask is: Were they really painting and writing of mountains, river valleys, and gorges? Or something else?

Dong Yuan’s “Xiao and Xiang Rivers”

Dong Yuan’s “Xiao and Xiang Rivers”
Image source: Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias
Currently housed at The Palace Museum, Beijing

As with many things Chinese: Yes. And no. It is that philosophy of self-cultivation that the Song and Yuan masters were painting. Because, in a way, Shanshui paintings are very much an exercise in spiritual growth. As the movement evolved from Song to Yuan, landscape impressionism no longer became a practice of depicting the visible world. Rather, it transmogrified into the apex of self-expression. It became the practice of depicting the inner landscape of the mind and heart. In other words, painting mountains was a means rather than an end. Thus, it has always been: Art for the good of the heart.

That cultural renaissance happened one millennium ago. And although the Song virtuosos’ masterpieces are still gorgeous to behold, they could not translate into the context of the 20th and 21st century. The East has met the West, foreshadowing the dawn of a new renaissance….


(To be continued…)

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