Chinese Scenery


Once November arrives in Beijing, the landscape changes. Beautiful golden 秋叶 (qiū yè), autumn leaves fringe the streets. It is 秋天 (qiū tiān), autumn, the season of burning straw in the fields after the harvest. This explains why 秋 has two parts – 禾 (hé), standing grain, and 火 (huǒ), fire. In northwestern Beijing香山 (Xiāng shān), literally Fragrant Hill, is robed in flaming 红叶 (hóng yè), red leaves, and becomes charming 风景 (fēng jǐng), scenery.

When we say “Chinese landscapes” there are two possible meanings: 山水画 (shān shuǐ huà), Chinese style scenic paintings, and 中国的风景 (Zhōng guó de fēng jǐng), the natural scenery of China. 山水画, literally “paintings of mountains and water,” is a key component of 中国画 (Zhōng guó huà) or 国画 (guó huà), traditional Chinese paintings. It is distinguished by the fluid 画法 (huà fǎ), painting technique, from the Western style of landscape painting. This genre includes several styles such as 青绿山水 (qīng lǜ shān shuǐ), green landscapes, which features predominance of green hues, and 水墨山水 (shuǐ mò shān shuǐ), paintings using only black ink. Chinese scenic paintings differ from Western styles in the use of 布局 (bù jú), composition, the use of 层次 (céng cì), layers, and the complete absence of perspective.

Landscape paintings arose in about the same historical period as the birth of 山水诗 (shān shuǐ shī), landscape poetry, of which the poets Wang Wei (701-761) and Xie Lingyun (385-433) are the best-known examples. Far from being solely contemplative, this style of poetry has effectively become a space for expressing poetic sentiments. In this, it is often compared to the romantic poetry of Lamartine, for example.

风景 is a natural scene. The first character of this phrase –风 (fēng) – means wind, and the second – 景 (jǐng) – means sunlight, and is also a synonym of 影 (yǐng), shadow, in ancient Chinese. Because any landscape includes a 明暗对比 (míng àn duì bǐ), contrast between light and shadow. Thus it is with an ultimately artistic eye that the Chinese appreciate their natural surroundings.

Since Chinese artists say, “every landscape painting must be inspired by a real place,” let us speak a little about real landscapes. Natural scenery can be expressed as 山河 (shān hé), mountains and rivers, or 江山 (jiāng shān), rivers and mountains. In general these are metonyms for the great rivers and mountains of China, including the famous 黄河 (Huáng hé), Yellow River, the 长江 (Cháng jiāng), Yangtze River, and the 大运河 (Dà yùn hé), Grand Canal. There are also the five sacred mountains 五岳 (Wǔ yuè), of which 泰山 (Tài shān), Mount Tai, is considered the most powerful. 山 (shān), mountains, is a character resembling three peaks and is a popular subject for Chinese painters. A must-have in traditional Chinese 园林 (yuán lín), gardens, is a rockery – 假山 (jiǎ shān), literally “fake mountain.” In Chinese, as in English, mountains have “feet” – 山脚 (shān jiǎo), foot of the mountain, and sides – 山腰 (shān yāo), hillsides. The character 峰 (fēng), peak, is often used in masculine names.

Expressions related to scenery abound in the Chinese language. Among the most common are 山清水秀 (shān qīng shuǐ xiù), beautiful mountains and rivers, 山水如画 (shān shuǐ rú huà), picturesque mountains and rivers, and 风景秀丽 (fēng jǐng xiù lì), a charming landscape. If the surroundings are flowery, and full of songbirds, you can say you are in the middle of 鸟语花香 (niǎo yǔ huā xiāng), birdsong and the fragrance of flowers. At the shore of a crystal lake under a clear sky, it is often said that the water and sky are the same color – 水天一色 (shuǐ tiān yí sè). Sometimes we also lend our own feelings to the scenery as in the saying 柳暗花明又一村 (liǔ àn huā míng yòu yì cūn), “behind the shadowy willows and bright blooms, a village appears.” This signifies that after passing through many difficulties, we have finally reached a Garden of Eden or 桃花源 (Táo huā yuán), Valley of Peach Blossoms, in China, connoting a change for the better.