Taoism and Chinese Landscape Painting

Taoism is one of the most important schools of thought in the period of Spring and Autumn and Warring States with representatives including Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi.

The term, Tao was firstly put forwards by Taoism. The original meaning of “Tao” refers to the path. It has been a very long historical process that “Tao” gradually changed into rule or law of natural world and universe. 。

Lao Zi was the founder of Taoism, he regarded Tao as the principle and common rule of universe, the law that governing all movements in universe. Due to the relationship between Tao and all things on the earth, Tao is the final guarantee for mutual existence of all human beings, it is the foundation for the mutual promotion and continuation, transformation, and development. It is suggested by the Taoism that though all things on the earth have various shapes, they have common origin, as the sentence said: “Heaven, Earth and I come into being together, and all things and I are the same.”

"Wu wei” is regarded as an important feature of Tao by Taoism, it means action through inaction. It is pointed out by Lao Zi in that: The strong is on the way to death, and the weak is on the way to life.” Lao Zi observed that all the new born things are fragile but they have abundant vitality, but when they grow up, they become strong, they start to ignore everything else, and then it leads them to failure. Therefore, Lao Zi suggested that we can be strong and live a long life only if we go back to the original pure status, keep a peacefully mood, get rid of all desires to sex, money, power and rights. Sometimes, when you think too much or do things too much, it will leads to a bad result.  An interesting example, a man who start to learn Kong Fu, he has a sword in his hand, he wants to defeat others with his weapon, for a man who’s really good at Kong Fu, he doesn’t need a sword in his hand, he has an invisible sword in his heart, he has the confidence and the skills the win, while for the Kong Fu master, he has neither the real sword in his hand nor an invisible sword in his heart. He doesn’t even want to defeat others. He respects everything in the world. To him, no win, no lose in this world, he knows that enough is enough will always have enough. The idea actions through inaction went through lots of Chinese art works, especially in landscape paintings, many landscapes in the Chinese landscape paintings look so peaceful and quiet, and everything was like going back to the original pure status.

Another important theory of Tao is that when a thing reaches its extreme, it reverses its course. For example, a person will become pride and arrogant when he is too confident in himself; if a person who is overly perceptive, he will have no friends.  All things on the earth have two contradictory opposites, such as high and low, long and short, difficult and easy, light and heavy, strong and weak, big and small, or even dead and live. These opposites rely on each other and make premise for each other.  Things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme. There are also many examples in Chinese history. As potential rule of historical development, one dynasty may begin to be in a decline when it has developed into a very prosperous status. Tang Dynasty and Qing Dynasty are two prosperous dynasties in Chinese history. As the most prosperous dynasty in the history, Tang Dynasty declined rapidly after An Lushan Rebellion. With numerous achievements in Qianlong period, Qing Dynasty declined rapidly due to uprising after Qianlong gage up the throne. Therefore, it is suggested by Taoism that it is truth that things will develop in the opposite direction when they become extreme.

Theory that man is an integral part of nature is also an important feature of Tao. Modern human beings are robbing and conquering the nature with the help of highly developed science and technology. However, Taoism in old China suggested that human beings are a part of nature, and human beings and the nature should live relying on each other, so that human beings and the nature will come into an integral and live peacefully without conquer and being conquered.

In the painting by Wei Heling, the trees are growing randomly on the rocks, the river flows near the mountains, the pavilions appear indistinctly in the cloud, partly hidden and partly visible, clear spring is flowing through wandering stone gully quietly and softly. The lofty landscape is like in a heaven. We feel the greatness of the nature from great momentum.


The landscape is animated with fluttering texture strokes, dots, and color washes. The artist used different brushes to create different qualities, a small wolf-hair brush that is tapered to a fine point was used to create even thin lines of ink for the details, such as the shades of the mountains and river; a large wool brush which can hold a large volume of water and ink, was used to create colors with naturally transition from gray to black, in the parts such as the sky and the mountain in the further place.

The artist used the colors black, dark green and dark brown on Chinese rice paper. All the colors transition to each other gently, which delivers a feeling that we are in a harmony with the rest of the world peacefully. In Tang Dynasty, the Taoist inspired painter aims to present a view of the world that human beings and the nature should live peacefully relying on each other. To achieve this, the artists created a subtle harmony of opposites, a balancing of human and nature, such as the pavilion and the mountain, human architectures and natural world.

In another landscape painting by Chengfu Li, it has the similar composition landscape with last one. This composition of the painting is really common among lots of landscape painting from Tang Dynasty to Qing Dynasty, in the painting, the mountain stands right in the middle, and the river flows under the mountain, this composition appeared a lot during that period, most of the artists were inspired by Taoism.


“Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river”, said Lao Tse, a great Taoist in ancient China.  It means a man should be as strong as a mountain, don’t let his emotions run wild, don’t keep changing his mind, be strong and still with your decisions; while sometimes he should go with the flow, be flexible, make changes to adapt himself into the world. Both of the painting by Wei heling and Chengfu Li show the theory “We Wei” perfectly, the difference is that the former one shows more on “flow like a great river”, while the later one focus on “be still like a mountain”.

It is something you will find beyond your expectation in the landscape painting. Just like the Top note, middle note and the base note of a perfume, the longer you look at it, the more you will get. Created by strokes of Chinese ink, the traditional Chinese realistic painting started from the stage of Qin Dynasty and Han Dynasty or even earlier stage contains Chinese spirit and belief of 5000 years, which is more than a simple painting art actually. Painters took themselves as part of the natural world, and then created the amazing landscape painting with their enthusiasm and love for the nature. They regarded the mountains and water as their friends, and regard the earth and nature as their home. It is the harmonious relationship between human beings and the


Due to limitation of our understanding, the Tao we mentioned there is only a part of Tao, which fails to reflect the essence of Tao for we can not know all of Tao. For example, we regard it as a table. However, what is it according to our understanding, a pile of woods, or a pile of atoms? Both reflect a part of it. The first chapter of “Dao De Jing” said at the beginning: “it will not be a true Tao if we can explain it by words, there is no definition that could describe the Tao correctly. But what we know is that Tao, as the principle and common rule of universe, have a great impact on not only Chinese landscape paintings, but also human beings, and the relationship of us and the whole universe.