Wang Ximeng, Detail of A Thousand Li of River, 1113, ink on silk, 2’ x 39’ (full scroll size), Palace Museum, Palace Museum, The Forbidden City, Beijing, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

How to Read a Chinese Landscape Painting

Wang Ximeng was a prodigy artist working in China during the Northern Song Dynasty during the early twelfth century.  He painted his masterpiece, A Thousand Li of River, a long landscape scroll painting, when he was only eighteen years old in the year 1113 CE.  (He died only a few years later at the age of 23.)  According to one legend, Emperor Huizong of Song taught the young artist how to paint.  The landscape scroll is the only work of art by Wang Ximeng that survives and it is considered to be one of the greatest Chinese paintings of all time.

In a general sense, the natural harmony in A Thousand Li of River is symbolic of the well being of the state; however, there is a bit more to it than that.

The long landscape painting, created mostly with bright blues and greens on a dark ochre background, depicts mountains and lakes, villages, bridges, ships, and people. It takes time to take it all in and it’s hard for western audiences to know where to begin.

Chinese landscape paintings are “read,” meaning they are viewed, from right to left.  Ideally, a viewer unrolls a section of the landscape at a time to experience the landscape in real time.  Scholars of Chinese art have determined that one also can reread the landscape from left to right as it is rolled up again for a more comprehensive understanding of the image.  Most recently, scholars have established that a final, sophisticated level of reading is when a viewer can visualize the whole panorama, or the “grand view,” and comprehend the universal significance of the image.

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