Ideology & Subjectivity in Chinese Art

Ideology is essentially everywhere in any society, and the more traditional Chinese society that gave birth to tiehua is no exception. Chinese art was inherently influenced from all varieties of ideology prominent in society: these range from the visual, i.e. iconographic representation and symbolism, conventions for expressing one’s emotions and struggles, philosophy and spirituality, as well as individual subjectivity in a marketplace of ideological representations.

Iconography and Symbolism

Chinese artistic representations throughout history came to be heavily associated with nature. According to Miranda Shaw, the concept of landscape painting as we know it emerged in China during the Six Dynasties period (from 220 to 618 CE) (183). Interestingly, during this time there was a shift in Chinese thought about nature: beforehand it was simply a problematic part of life, but it became a place for pleasure. As asserted by Richard Edwards, “Chinese painting has moved … from a world in which distances and the realities they embraced were looked upon with apprehension and dread to a time of their complete acceptance as areas of contemplation, visual wandering and delight.” (qtd. In Shaw 184). Nature thus took on a self-cultivating purpose in Chinese consciousness rather than being somewhat a negative aspect of life.

Nonetheless, political turmoil and other struggles associated with increasingly complicated society further added to the idea of nature as a place to cultivate oneself. As stated by Sullivan, remote landscapes painted by many literati “drew on a long Chinese iconographical tradition of seeing nature as a retreat from a tumultuous civil society and represented self-portraits of their condition as inheritors of a culture who were forced to withdraw from the wider world” (411). In a difficult political and social situation, those keen on resisting and making something different of their lives often sought a secluded natural refuge.

Additionally, despite a state ideology that very strongly championed civil service and public official positions as the purpose of advanced philosophic education, it was still widely viewed as more honorable and representative of character to find oneself in nature and make their largest contributions to society while removed from its influences (Nelson 11). Clearly, a lot of cultural weight promoted the idea of nature as a place where a person could grow.

This admiration of nature is seen in the prose of Zhu Yunming (1461-1527), who in his poem Taking a Nap by a Mountain Window stated,

Resting my body in a monk’s could chamber, my dreams relax.

Pine trees and cranes rise between screen and pillow.

A beautiful pheasant makes a long song.

My hand pushes the window, and mountains fill my eyes. (qtd. In Barnstone and Ping 308).

A very common natural symbol, almost omnipresent in Chinese landscapes, is Mount Lu, also known as Lushan. In short, as asserted by Nelson, “Mount Lu was the site of one of the classic early acts of eremitism: early in the Zhou dynasty, in the eleventh century BCE, the proto-Daoist Kuang Su had gone into seclusion there to cultivate the arts of attaining immortality” (17). This foundation, along with many others, allowed the mountain to take a special place in Chinese art and mindset. Not only was it a Romantic symbol for eremitism, but it also gained spiritual significance all around China. Factors like this attracted religious figures and communities, made it a place in which many scholars, artists, poets, officials, and hermits sojourned, further adding to the mountain’s place in national identity and artistic value (Nelson 15).

Another individual strongly associated with Mount Lu is Tao Yuanming (365-427 CE), who spent much of his life secluded in the area. Nonetheless, this man is responsible for many poems about nature that solidified the Romanticism of secluded lifestyles, but also strengthened the idea of a personal garden as one’s own Mount Lu (Nelson 35).

In full, Nelson states,

As a haven over the centuries for people escaping from the world in quest of “essential meaning,” Mount Lu was rather like Tao’s garden on a national scale. And Tao’s garden was understood to be his private Mount Lu. At first a shelter from workplace vexations and a place for modest pleasures, it became his “hermitage mountain.” (35)

A final element in symbolism and iconography in Chinese art that will be covered is the role of empty space. While entire essays could be written on this topic, simply put, this symbolizes a bridge between worldly matters and cosmic matters. In analyzing the artistic strategies of Guo Xi, a notable Northern Song painter, Sullivan notes, “Guo’s paintings are replete with this mysterious blankness, like an embodiment of the primordial formlessness from which the ten thousand things emerge” (409). This obviously takes on a greater meaning than just empty space: there’s something mystic and cosmically significant here.

In further analyzing artistic renditions of the time, Sullivan notes,

It seems to have been a relatively short step, via Neo-Confucian and Buddhist orientations, to move from such allegorical representations to a more abstract notion of landscape space itself—the emptiness in which things reside—as a reflection of a dynamic, encompassing totality. We can see this space as a refined vision—one the painting allows us to experience as well—of the intersection between the painter’s inner state and the cosmic process (418).

These concepts are displayed in the pictured tiehua piece. Here, there is a detailed, rReal to Cosmicealistic edge of land, then a body of water, and mountains off in the distance. It seems that the island symbolizes earthly matters, whereas the mountains are cosmic matters. Additionally, the fisher is in the body of water, which as white space symbolizes the bridge between the two. It’s possible that fishing, as his livelihood and general flow, keeps him at peace and on a stable path towards the beyond. It’s also significant that this is all happening in nature, in the shadow of a mountain (possibly Mount Lu).

Expression and Resistance in Political Turmoil

As anyone familiar with the history of China knows, there were countless political shifts between dynasties and resulting hardships for those associated with a fallen dynasty.

Due to a lack of freedom of information and conventions for expressing political dissent, paintings and poetry did not directly comment on hardship, but focused on emotion. Wang states, “when poets and painters respond in a poetic manner to distressing and disturbing traumatic events and circumstances, they neither report, document, nor narrate. They simply emote” (185). Thus, an indirect approach was pursued when looking onto misfortune and complication.

An example of expression of political troubles and generic unhappiness is seen in the poetry of Ma Zhiyuan (c. 1260-1334)

A day is forever in the slow village to the west.

In the tedium, the first cicada buzzes,

sunflowers are poised

to open, and bees invade the morning.

Unconscious on my pillow, I chase a butterfly through my dream. (qtd. In Barnstone and Ping 292)

Nevertheless, Wang adds that poets and artists often sublimated to their new situations. He states that they sought to remain the masters of their situations despite any horrendous experiences through “transcendence and poetic streamlining, aestheticizing the unruly by creating a different order of experience” in order to make the most of the new (185-186). In this light, nature played a crucial role as a major source of said characteristics and the strong tendency of many former officials to retreat to nature when a dynastic shift occurs.

Negative commentary of sorts still managed to make its way into artistic representations. “A Mantis Assaulting a Cicada” as seen in the World of Vitality has very clear symbolism of the artist’s feelings about the Yuan Dynasty. Wang elaborates on this in great detail:

The pictorial disposition registers a symbolic act of violence upon the vulnerable cicada. The withering force of the autumnal or wintry season inclement to the survival of the cicada is here translated into its formal correlate: the coarsened traces of the cursory dry-ink brush strokes. The calculated use of the ink tonality solicits a synesthetic response. The coarsened spread of dry ink – with both visual and tactile qualities – conjures up a mood of the late autumn chill and barrenness, thereby fittingly enacting the scenario of the cicada struggling in the encroaching wintry chill and desolation (188-189).

It’s clear that in this depiction, the cicada can easily symbolize the Chinese people as a whole under their Mongol conquerors, which certainly triggered a period of darkness in their collective consciousness.

The concept of transcendence is seen in many examples of Chinese art through the years, which was, of course, most often pursued in nature. On one side of this, there was a definite appeal to audiences. For example, Ma Yuan’s (1160-1225) paintings often included scholars in nature pondering the moon or plum blossoms alone, which, according to Sullivan adds to a sense of expansion. He states, “…the actual subject, we might say, is this very experience of concentrating and then widening, a process that the viewer also undergoes” (412). Here, we see a clear connection to the painting and viewer: both sympathize with similar issues.

Moreover, this appeal to a resistant audience did not stop at scholars. Sullivan elaborates, saying, “Chinese landscape painting also often contains anecdotal elements—scholars wandering in abstraction, peasants farming or fishing, travelers winding along mountain paths” (417). With a variety of anecdotes to various social classes, all could perhaps find themselves and reflect on their circumstances in art. (A stronger association with the working class is what saved tiehua during the years of socialist realism after all).

Interestingly, in periods of mass exile (again, during the conquests and shifts in dynasties) the writings and paintings of others who retreated to a eremitic lifestyles gained extra popularity. Nelson adds to this, stating that periods like this brought attention to “historical figures known for their lot of exile or withdrawal during politically troubled times, and to Mount Lu, which had come to epitomize retreat culture” (21). Therefore, the influence of retreat culture only grew with politically difficult times (an example of which is discussed in another essay).

Tang Peng LandscapeRetreat culture is also seen in a tiehua piece by Tang Peng. In this example, there is a distinct lowland-like region, then mountains. Various signs of humanity are present, such as men in boats and modest settlements in the mountains. This helps demonstrate retreat: the settlements are small and isolated and the fishers are focused on the basic necessity of fishing. Also significant is the fact that everything seems to blend together—habitation, nature, mountains, and humans.

This inclination towards retreat was widespread. However, I’d prefer to discuss the experiences of two specific individuals. First, there’s Ni Zan (1301-1374 CE), who resisted the rise of the Yuan dynasty. As brought up by Sullivan, this former official-scholar decided to retreat from the backbone of governmental bureaucracy for an eremitic life, like many other Song elites who became monks or retired in country estates (410-411). Refusing to serve new Mongol conquerors, Ni left for the countryside to pursue a simpler life away from corrupting influences.

Adding to this is the experience of Qian Yuan (c. 1235-1307 CE), who also resisted the fall of the Song. Not only did he refuse to serve the new government, but he also burned all of his writings pertaining to real-world matters; all that remained were bird-and-flower style paintings, along with various writings and depictions related to eremitic life—the ultimate goal was to show a strong reaction while showing “absence of any hint of rankling and grievance” (Wang 187-188). Surely, Qian made his own commentary on what life would be like under Mongols, and his paintings solidify his argument. Surprisingly, this experience is a prime example of how individuals could resist while staying “politically correct” under new dynasties.

The widespread resistance of Han Chinese surely impacted the Yuan dynasty—in 1315, the civil service examination system was resurrected, which brought back the only way of life beyond eremitism that Han literati knew (Wang 191). This would give literati the opportunity to return to their old lives and have an ability to ascend the social ladder.

At the same time, though, some had unconditional positions of resistance against the Yuan dynasty and saw no reason in trying to rise within it. Sensabaugh brings up that some still stayed out of governmental careers, asserting, “Men like Yang Qian and Gu Dehui chose not to participate. They remained on their estates and sought the company of like-minded men and in so doing set new patterns that could be followed in later periods under very different conditions” (134). In this example, the resistance persisted even when the government gave resistors a bit of leeway.

Philosophical and Spiritual Implications

While the spiritual and philosophical factors that play into the ideology behind Chinese art are apparent by now, there is nonetheless some need for clarification on how exactly each major school of thought applies to this.

Undoubtedly, Confucianism and Taoism play a central role in the views on nature seen in Chinese poetry and painting. Taoism, however, garnered much more support for the role of nature in self-development. Mount Lu, for example, is listed among the “cave heavens,” making it sacred in this thought system (Nelson 16). In this sense, Mount Lu, a common symbol for a eremitic life in nature, has spiritual implications going far back into Chinese thought.

In Taoist thought at large, the key to spiritual cultivation, says Shaw, is “…a divesture of society’s erroneous values, a return to ignorance” (185). In this philosophy, the best strategy in attaining spiritual growth is to sequester oneself  from society and become uncorrupted.

Confucianism, while sharing characteristics of Taoism, differs when it comes to the role seclusion plays. This essential difference is explained by Shaw:

The contemporary Confucian tradition sought to cultivate increasing refinement and ritualization of human interactions within the social framework. Taoists, on the other hand, saw the social framework as a source of corruption of human beings’ essentially benevolent and trustworthy spontaneity (185).

At a fundamental level, Confucianism feels that a lifelong mission of knowledge acquisition within society and alongside fellow scholars is ideal, sharply contrasting with Taoism in this respect. Therefore, it is perhaps fair to say that elements like Mount Lu are more Taoist in nature, whereas the scholars as subjects are more Confucian.

A final important spiritual thought system in China is Buddhism, which differs due to its southerly origins, branching out of Hinduism. Despite what this might suggest, Chinese Buddhism was heavily Sinicized. A major figure in Chinese Buddhism, Huiyuan (334-417 CE), opened a monastery in the shadow of Lu Shan in 380 CE, which plays a crucial role in Chinese Buddhism (Shaw 194). From a major hub of Buddhism, imagery of Mount Lu would become a central symbol. In addition, Shaw states that this location “fulfilled the Buddhist monastic ideal of retreat from the world, while its mountainous setting reflected the Chinese and particularly the Neo-Taoist sense that mountains are the most suitable place for self-cultivation” (194). Interestingly, Buddhism, much like Taoism favored natural environments for self-cultivation, which would influence Chinese art through the centuries.

These thought systems would serve as the backbone for methods of resistance—many who felt alienated and fragmented in their lives would turn to these and pattern their resistance to coincide with them. However, those who retreated to the countryside could perhaps be better described as Taoist and Buddhist, though Confucian scholars were also hurt and thus resisted dynastic changes and the like.

The Inherent Subjectivity of Art

Certainly art has a slew of important roles in society beyond just being visually interesting: a lot of meaning is put into it. During various periods in Chinese history, a major purpose was involvement at controlled levels with various ideas and conflicts. As asserted by Adorno, “Contemplation without violence, the source of the joy of truth, presupposes that he who contemplates does not absorb the object into himself: a distanced nearness” (qtd. In Sullivan 414). In this thought, one could be engaged with something, yet also have the luxury of staying out. These were not always negative: for example, a natural landscape could act as an escape for exasperated literati.

But just how did literati express certain ideas through style? Well, this was done via what Powers refers to as “citation.” On a fundamental level, when an artist utilizes motifs of another’s work, this also requires the acceptance of it as a model of excellence; however, this is also done at a different time and through a different bias (Powers 745). By taking elements from another, one was able to make his/her own commentary on views held in at various points in the past. At a basic level this was a debate between more abstract and more naturalistic methods of depiction.

This practice also allowed artists to select from a marketplace of ideas, or artistic styles for that matter. As Powers puts it, “…one is free to choose from among any number of styles those that best exemplify one’s own, personal values. In this instance, the source of authority shifts from an absolute, timeless standard to a relative, personal one” (747-748). In this sense, then, artistic depictions were intensely subjective and specific to individuals’ own views, which were expressed through style in addition to countless other choices.

Due to the fluidity in style amongst literati paintings, some issues arise. Powers asserts, “literati paintings problematize time by introducing incompatible stylistic features from different historical periods into the same composition” (749). This mixing could make interpretation complicated and mesh Chinese artwork into categories difficult to categorize. At the same time, this shows a rebellious nature in literati: citation required the view that no style is timeless and that each is simply the product of a historical moment and its associated values (Powers 762). By breaking down the idea of set styles and using style to indicate values, literati were resisting through indicating views different than those popular at their own times.

DSC_0061The use of style and citation to indicate views is seen in the pictured tiehua piece. Clearly, the artist had a stronger preference for realistic representation, with this being a detailed landscape. In fact, this closely resembles Song landscapes—perhaps the artist preferred a return to simpler, Han-led times. Nonetheless, some spirituality makes its way into this painting—maybe the artist even wanted to be secluded in nature. Contradictory to this, though, is the fact that the landscape is quite advanced and not as expressive. At any rate, there’s still a clear line between the trees in the bottom of the painting and the mountains in the top—they are separated by empty space, a body of water. Again, this could signify the transition between real and cosmic matters. Also intriguing is the absence of humanity in this depiction—perhaps the artist preferred to only observe nature, but stay in society to self-cultivate in a Confucian model.

It is worth noting, however, that the practice of citation decreased after the fall of the song dynasty; less radical forms of pictorial commentary in expressive versus realistic styles persisted nonetheless (Powers 762). This would become relevant in the future, as seen in other posts.

On the other side of things, a commission market exerted influence over the content of art. Some artists in the Song dynasty, for instance, worked on commission for a variety of purposes, though their buyers are believed to be anonymous (Powers 755).   Though anonymous, artists were constrained by popular views, such as those of eremitic life, that others would have a desire for.

Adding to this, the open market led to a variety of styles intended for those all over the socioeconomic scale, with specific sets of values popularized in each group (Powers 755). Thus, the values of each class were reinforced by art, which interestingly contradicts the idea that it could be used as social resistance. On the other side of this, however, social resistance (the concept of eremitism) could be popularized in certain sects of society, like the literati.


Overall, Chinese art, like that of any society, was highly subjective and resistance was expressed in culturally normative motifs and concepts. The factors that influenced this were various iconographies and symbols (like Mount Lu), direct emoting but little documentation of political turmoil and retreat as resistance, common spiritual ideological methods of self-cultivation, and the inherent subjectivity of individuals in a marketplace of art.

Works Cited

The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. New York: Anchor Books, 2005.

Nelson, Susan E. “Catching Sight of the South Mountain: Tao Yuanming, Mount Lu, and the Iconographies of Escape.” Archives of Asian Art 52 (2000/2001): 11-43. Print.

Powers, Martin J. “The Temporal Logic of Citation in Chinese Painting.” Art History 37 (2014): 744-763. Print.

Sensabaugh, David A. “Fashioning Identities in Yuan-Dynasty Painting: Images of the Men of Culture.” Ars Orient 37 (2007): 118-139. Print.

Shaw, Miranda. “Buddhist and Taoist Influences on Chinese Landscape Painting.” Journal of the History of Ideas 49.2 (1988): 183-206. Print.

Sullivan, Mark. “The Gift of Distance: Chinese Landscape Painting as a Source of Inspiration.” Southwest Review 92.3 (2007): 407-419. Print.

Wang, Eugene. “The Elegiac Cicada: Problems of Historical Interpretation of Yuan Painting.” Ars Orient 37 (2007): 176-194. Print.