The Constitution of Shanshui: Landscape and Geomancy

The Prince's Foundation School of Traditional Arts China Centre
2018.12.17 - 2018.12.28
Ding Xiyuan Lin Haizhong

Part one: in three dedicated lectures, Prof. Ding Xiyuan will analyse the formation of Chinese landscape painting (shanshui), explain the ‘five elements’ theory embedded in shanshui art, and introduce theories of geomancy reflected through shanshui. The lectures will include an analysis of historical masterpieces, which will allow a deeper insight into the history and thought of the above-mentioned narratives and theories. This will be a valuable learning opportunity both for practitioners and lovers of shanshui art. 

Part two: this course focuses on the compositional structure of Chinese landscape painting (shanshui) as the key thread in establishing a foundational understanding of the genre. Specifically, concentration will first be on brushwork formation, and then continue to the study of painting techniques for the two most fundamental elements of Chinese landscape art—rocks and trees—through both copying old masters paintings and sketching from nature. The next topic of study is the methodology of placement in the composition, which is the core of shanshui painting, and the means by which the ancients encapsulated the formal codes of the natural world. Within a period of two weeks, students will have completed two study projects: a study of rocks and trees based on copying, and a landscape composition created by painting in nature.


An interview with Mr. Ding on his session on Fengshui and geomancy by PFSTA Magazine in London.

Q:Could you summarise the practices of fengshui and geomancy?

A:Fengshui (literally, ‘wind and water’) is a theoretical framework that examines the relationship between humans and Nature. Humans are part of Nature and should be cognizant with and act according to its principles. In a concrete sense, fengshui is about making decisions with regard to what kind of geographical features are suitable for living. These features include the water source and its flow, fertile land, being protected from the wind, facing the sunlight, ease of access and transportation, etc. The theories behind these factors are philosophical texts that date back to the earliest classics.

Geomancy is the practical application of fengshui principles and literally means surveying and mapping the land. It refers to specific procedures and methods of making judgments about the fengshui of particular locations.

Q:Could you describe some of the techniques and processes you will be teaching?

A:This course examines fengshui principles as manifested in traditional Chinese landscape paintings. I will introduce the theory of qi, energy or life force, which generates the elements of fenghshui: for ex., qi in its moving form generates wind, and in its concentrated form becomes water. Understanding the relationship between qi and fengshui is of fundamental importance. In this course we will cover the following points:

- How the ‘flow’ of qi is expressed within landscape painting, most particularly in the structure of mountains and water.

- The principle of the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth), and how these influence a painters’ aesthetic choices in terms of mountain forms, as well as his personal cultivation and living environment. I will also discuss the placement of paintings and how they relate to the interior space.

- The inner structure of shanshui composition, in particular the pattern of linked mountains known as the ‘dragon vein’.

Q:What are the skills students will need to master to succeed?

A:The students should be able to analyze the principles of fengshui manifested in landscape painting. In order to achieve this goal, students not only must have a firm grasp of the theories of geomancy and the concept of qi, but also have a grounding in classical theories and techniques of landscape painting, such as different kinds of brush strokes, and the use of ink wash, colors and hues to express light (yang) and shadow (yin).

Q:What makes your subject unique to China?

A:Chinese landscape painting and fengshui theory are expressions of Chinese aesthetics and tradition. Chinese civilization developed a particular view of nature that emphasizes harmony and living in accordance with natural laws. Fengshui theory evolved from a social and intellectual development unique to China. 

China’s long history as an agricultural society also has shaped people’s experience: the ancients developed the lunar calendar and the 24 solar terms to adapt to the conditions of nature. Intellectually, landscape paintings and gardens are reflections of the Chinese understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. Fengshui and geomancy are thus traditions closely tied to the Chinese experience and offer very different perspectives vis a vis Western traditions.

Q:How can students practise and enhance their skills after the programme is finished?

A:Training and knowledge in three areas are needed for a more advanced study of fengshui in landscape painting. First, learn to read landscape paintings and study from the historical masterpieces of landscape art; second, read relevant writings in the classic texts such as Yijing and theories of art; third, observe nature in reality and paint from nature.



Tutor biography

Ding Xiyuan

Ding Xiyuan, Renowned art historian Prof. Ding Xiyuan’s main research areas include modern Chinese painting and early Chinese painting from the Jin to Yuan dynasties. Prof. Ding completed his graduate studies at the Chinese National Academy of Arts in 1978, where he studied painting with Cai Ruohong and Wang Chaowen, and Chinese aesthetics and painting theory with Zong Baihua and Wu Lifu, among others. In his eminent career he has conducted research and lectured in academic and museum institutions in Japan, Europe and the United States. From 1985 to to 1995 he was vice-director of the Shanghai Academy of Art, where he expanded intellectual and artistic exchanges with scholars, theorists and artists from around the globe. Currently he is a senior researcher at the Shanghai Art Museum, part-time professor at Fudan University, professor of painting at Shanghai Chinese Art Academy, and vice director of the Lin Fengmian Research Society.

Lin Haizhong

Dr. Lin Haizhong, studio name Woxiasan, is a professor and doctoral advisor in the Chinese Painting department of the China Academy of Art, and deputy director of the CAA’s Centre for the Authentication of Painting and Calligraphy. As an ink painter, Lin Haizhong is strongly influenced by Zen philosophy and advocates the possibility of painting as a practice of spiritual enlightenment. His works can be found in the collections of the British Museum and the National Museum of China, and in Lingyin Temple.