Comments 68

Past Meets Present: Shan Shui Environmental Art

Early Spring

Early Spring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Literally translated as “mountain water”, Shan Shui is a specific style of Chinese landscape art that rose to prominence in the 5th century during the Liu Song Dynasty (wikipedia). In the depiction of pristine rivers, ethereal mists, and hallowed mountains, the artist’s ultimate goal is to capture the ch’i, or vital breath, of the world around them. This ch’i must be caught even at the expense of realism, for if the artist misses it, they have lost the very essence of the landscape. In this way, Shan Shui paintings are only expressions of art, but also provide insight into how the artist, influenced by culture and society, views the natural world.

I recently came across the work of a modern artist who sought to introduce modern human presence and impact into Shan Shui paintings. Commissioned by the China Environmental Protection Foundation, Yong Liang Yang utilizes the traditional art style in ads to promote awareness of major environmental problems. The paintings and the associated video highlight the effects of rapid industrialization and urbanization within a Chinese context, providing insight into modern cultural perceptions of nature, environmental protection, and sustainability. The following are my musings.

Industrial Pollution

Shan Shui Chinese Industrial Pollution

Let the Hills be Hills and the Rivers be Rivers, by Yong Liang Yang. Click to enlarge.

Viewing the painting from a distance, this appears to be a beautiful, dreamlike, and traditional Shan Shui painting. Upon closer examination, the markers of urbanization suddenly reveal themselves. Man-made objects have supplanted the natural world. Skyscrapers take the place of mountains. Construction cranes, a common sight in modern Chinese cities like Shanghai, populate the landscape in excess. The ethereal and purifying mists, a common element of Shan Shui paintings, is in reality a miasma of suffocating smog.

In this and the paintings to follow, I see the two sides of modern Chinese life juxtaposed against each other; the deep  roots that gave birth to Shan Shui philosophy, thought, and aesthetics are used to portray the modern reality of the megacity that has come to utterly dominate the landscape. For me, the transformation from scenic nature to a thoroughly artificial landscape conveys senses of shock and unease. The piece takes on a type of horrifying beauty.

Automotive Pollution

Shan Shui Chinese Automotive Pollution

Leave Nature Alone, by Yong Liang Yang. Click to enlarge.

In the piece titled “Automotive Pollution”, the spectre of congestion slowly creeps into the painting. As with the previous piece, the tranquility of the landscape from a distance is gradually replaced with chaos of urban life as one begins to notice the details of the painting.

“Leaving Nature Alone” is an interesting headline for the piece. It contains an idea rooted in notions of non-interference and preservation, and is intended to question the mantra of explosive expansion and development of modern-day China. I believe it to be a noble attempt to get people to think about protecting the pristine natural world, but I can’t help but wonder if this approach serves to further isolate people from nature. It reminds me of a quote from a previous entry: 

“We must leave nature alone, only to worship and respect it from afar. We begin to relegate nature as something out there, something that is foreign and not part of our lives. As nature becomes more and more removed from our daily lives, we quickly lose the ability to relate to it. We see this in real life. While we preserve stretches of lands in the form of parks and preserves, we are doing a very bad job with the rest of the world.”

– Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

The message of leaving nature alone says nothing about what people should do with the places that are no longer pristine. It says nothing about how we must interact with the world in a more sustainable way. It teaches us nothing about the importance of reconnecting with nature for our own health, or how we can live more harmoniously with the other lifeforms on this planet. After all, why should people “leave nature alone” when utilizing the resources of the earth has helped them escape poverty and provided them with everyday comforts and conveniences? How will we learn to care for things that we dismiss from our daily lives?

 Global Warming

Shan Shui Global Warming

Don’t Let Nature Come to an End, by Yong Liang Yang. Click to enlarge.

In this piece, Yong Liang Yang transforms rugged mountainous landscapes into the geometric creations of human beings. A forest of transmission towers powers the skyscrapers and megacities. Like the other illustrations, the piece possesses a terrible beauty to it.

For me, this piece highlights the difficulty of climate change communication. It is easy to depict tangible environmental issues – poisons that leak into rivers, smog that blanket cities, foods that sicken the populace – but the ramifications of climate change are multi-faceted and pervasive. The artist attempts to bring in the ominous threat of coastal flooding on the left-hand portion of the painting, but other ramifications such as desertification, shifts in precipitation patterns, increased temperatures, invasive species (all major concerns to China) are much more difficult to convey.

Let Nature Be

Like the paintings, the video brings a unique and striking visual style that captivates the viewer; the transmission towers in particular remind me a similar series of scenes in Flower, a videogame by thatgamecompany, and the evocative power of visual imagery. But as provocative as the video and the paintings are, I wonder if the campaign had any lasting impact on the general populace. China’s burgeoning middle class live within a society where the norm is to consume in order to gain status and prestige in the eyes of others. How does “letting nature be” fit into this lifestyle and mindset?

There is tremendous potential in harnessing the rich heritage of Chinese culture in order to educate and communicate environmental literacy to the general populace. But for the ordinary Chinese citizen, environmental discussions are still mainly revolve around immediate, tangible and local concerns such as clean air and safe food. The deeper explorations of the connections humanity has with nature or even global systemic issues like climate change have not percolated into the mainstream consciousness.

I believe that this is an example where the medium of delivery is good but the message is lacking. The focus needs to be on promoting integration and not alienation with nature, and demonstrating the pragmatic benefits of establishing a relationship with the natural environment in a way that achieves highly praised values of harmony and balance. Perhaps more of these kinds of messages, delivered through mediums that resonate deep within the Chinese psyche like Shan Shui paintings, can help broaden the debate, spark lasting awareness, and affect change on the complex issues behind most environmental problems.

These are, of course, only my impressions. Art is always subjective, and the stories and ideas these visuals convey are dependent on the worldview and life experiences of the viewer. I would love to hear your opinions on the paintings, their potential effectiveness, perspectives on Chinese culture and environmentalism, along with other possible ways to convey sustainability in deep, powerful, and lasting ways.

I’ll leave off this week with a few questions to ponder:

  • What kind of story do these pictures tell you?
  • What is the progression of emotions evoked within you with each painting?
  • What environmental ideas, themes and connections are portrayed by this series of pictures?
  • What element(s) throughout each of the pictures do you feel most attached to?

Next Up:  Action. Awareness. Food.

Related Ekostories:


Pollan, Michael. Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Kindle e-book edition. New York: Grove Press, 1991.

Shan Shui Environmental Art from China (2009). China Environmental Protection Foundation. Retrieved from

The Shan Shui campaign was developed at JWT, Shanghai, by creative director Yang Yeo, art director Lillie Zhong, copywriters Jacqueline Ye and Rachael Freire, designer Sean Tang, print producers Hester Lim, Liza Law, Joseph Yu, Tao Shen, with illustrator, photographer and art director Yong Liang Yang.


  1. I meant to comment on this post earlier. It’s great to see how an artist working within an established tradition is able to make it relevant for contemporary times. I wonder how many other Chinese artists are doing this? I see this as art that goes way beyond being a simple luxury object. For me, it is heart breaking to witness what is happening environmentally in China.

  2. I would really like to see more artists tap into the rich vein of Chinese culture to raise awareness and promote change. The thing is, if environmental issues ever become a priority in China, the will is there to drastically change course. The people are capable of making great and rapid change, more so than anywhere I’ve been to. It’s just a matter of getting the urgency of the message through.

  3. Isaac, It looks to me from reading your blog and looking at your digital art that Shan Shui is definitely Art creating new forms of contemporary art. That he is mixing both old century and modern art together. Do you feel that way?

  4. alexanderschimpf says

    I’m not sure there can be such a thing as “terrible beauty,” but in every other way (aesthetically, ethically, intellectually) this was a great post. Congrats on being fp!

    • I think I was trying to describe it as something that is simultaneously repulsive and appealing. Or maybe it was trying to describe the tragic nature of the beauty derived from such a despoiled landscape. It’s hard to remember what I was thinking when I wrote it. Thanks for reading!

      • Yes, there certainly is such a thing as “terrible beauty.” Yong Liang Yang’s works prove it. (Isaac and I mean “Terrible” not in the sense of “badly executed”, but in the sense of a grand, terrifying awfulness that also evokes a sense of awe– like the cruel, capable, elegant Tsar “Ivan the Terrible.” If you knew him, you’d wish he’d never lived, yet you’re glad you beheld him while he did)

  5. I always loved this type of art, so much passion and in such amazing details too. Your spot is right on target 🙂

  6. I liked your post and you bring up many interesting ideas. However, I do not like this art. It is well done, yes, but is very “gimmicky”. At first it is striking, but when you figure it out, it is repetitious and boring. The problem is that people will not get off their butts and go out into nature — that is why it is so foreign to most! And, yes, I believe large tracts of nature must be left alone. See the Nature Conservancy.

    • Hi Anita,

      I really appreciate your honesty – different perspectives are exactly what I had hoped to spark. I agree that a significant portion of the art’s value is the initial shock value. Once you get what the artist is going for, there’s not much depth to it. Keep in mind too that this was utilized as an advertisement.

      As for your second point, it’s sort of a circular problem, isn’t it? Nature is foreign because people won’t get off their butts, which in turn makes it more foreign. How do we break that cycle?

      One suggestion is to get people to see that nature is all around them. I explored that through another Ekostory, a non-fiction book called Rambunctious Garden, by Emma Marris:

      I would love for you to check it out and share your thoughts.

  7. Thanks for this – a thoroughly educational post! I’ve drooled over Shan Shui paintings (and Japanese Sumi-e) for years now… but have never seen anything quite like these before. I wonder how they were received by the Chinese establishment… and how much irony was involved in the execution? Fascinating stuff. I’ll def drop by again sometime. Thank you!

    • To be honest, I’m not sure the establishment cared too much, because while there is a bit of shock value to the art, I don’t think the campaign really inspired a lot of people to examine the context and impact of their everyday lives on the landscape. I don’t think the images are inflammatory enough to cause concern.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Appreciate it. If you’re interested in Chinese landscape art, I have another link on this blog on one made from garbage:

  8. I have always loved this art form. The sense of space in each landscape is soothing, like falling into the sky. I look forward to having something like this in my home.

    • They do have a meditative quality to them, don’t they? I’m not very well versed on art in general, but in Shan Shui paintings I know that the empty spaces are very important, perhaps more important than the landscape itself.

      • Couldn’t have said it better myself. Even in quantum physics, there is more energy contained in the places between matter. Cool beans.

  9. Pingback: Art, Nature and Motordom through Shan Shui | Price Tags

  10. Like the old paintings do, the new ones are evocative of emotion, as you described. I think emotions speak to us in a language not easily translatable at first, but after living with those emotions for a while, out of nowhere, one day, something useable materializes. Maybe it’s the idea that one can make small personal steps to treasure an environment they love and want to preserve. But that slow grind to understanding is what art allows. Sometimes the message has to be subtle to take root, and art looked at repeatedly can be that subtle champion of understanding and reflection.

    I read today that the best way to convince someone of something is to not try to convince them at all. Art is like that — it allows you to take it or leave it. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your ideas on this topic as well as the artwork.//mm

    • I wrote this in the beginning of another Ekostory titled Picture Poems: Window and Belonging:

      “Most of us have been touched by a particularly poignant painting, a soulful song, an intricate sculpture. In instances where the written word seems insufficient to describe the essence of an idea or a concept, art can bypass our rational centers to evoke resonance and convey meaning. Instead of thinking, we first feel it deep in our core, in our soul.”

      I love your idea that messages of subtlety sneak into our minds, taking time to compost before reemerging as something tangible, useable, and powerful. I think the importance of this subtlety goes beyond art. For author Angus Wilson, the real challenge and triumph of the novel is to “disseminate the moral proposition so completely in a mass of living experience that it is never directly sensed as you read but only apprehended at the end as a result of the life you have shared in the book.”

      Same idea of being sneaky :). Thank you for your fantastic comment.

      • Well said in your earlier post. And to think, with all the music, pictures, nature, etc. that touch us, we just fold it inconspicuously into our existing layers, with feeling stressed by it. And yes that subtlety goes beyond categories of art. Or if life is art, subtlety is richly present throughout. Thank you, thoughtful Issac!//mm

  11. freewillow says

    Wow this is really interesting love how art can Provoke so many emotions and visual attention.

    Always thought nature has a very dramatic look which can be easily personified and given human qualities.. But its very clever how the artist has done this to raise awareness and get a message across.. Certainity worked on me !!!

    • Interesting connection. Do you think that the wabi-sabi is destroyed in these altered Shan Shui paintings? After all, the proportions and sense of the aesthetics are still there from a distance. Is wabi-sabi exclusively derived from the natural world or does it involve human hands as well?

  12. dyefeltsool says

    Interesting concept. “Early Spring” is lovely! Thanks for sharing this style of painting and the present day impact.

  13. These are wonderful paintings. I wonder if one could make decent ink from industrial soot, just to add another layer to the work.

    • parepidemos1 says

      Hmm! A brilliant thought. I guess it would depend on which kind of soot… Any chemists out there have any good ideas? A risk with using industrial soot is the strong acid or alkaline compounds that some of them contain… how would those affect the paper or canvas over time? Perhaps in an unexpected and artistically interesting way. Or a disastrous way! Which would also convey the artist’s message, that industrialization without concern for environmental consequences can have appalling long-term consequences…

      • I really like these ideas – using the medium itself as a message, and incorporating the notion of long-term thinking into the art itself. Thank you both for those lines of speculation. It has made me think of another artist’s work (actually a photographer) that I might get around to writing about in the future…

  14. If I’m not mistaken, the cover of one of Gao Xing Jian’s novel, Soul Mountain, uses a paibting using this technique. I stared at it for long for its beauty. Complex and simple at the same time.

    • Looked that book up. The cover looks intriguing, but more importantly for me, the content sounds fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation!

  15. I share your sentiment. I hate what China (and many parts of Asia) has become, and how people seem not to care. It’s all about money, ano zero consideration for what is providence, like nature and beauty. I call Asia a fool’s paradise.
    You art is beautiful and sad.

    • People have been poor for so long that once China (and many parts of Asia) opened up to the world, they fully embraced growth and industrialization to find success on the global scale.

      Development is a good thing – more people have been lifted out of poverty than any similar period in history, but unchecked development has made people think that the environment is a side part that can be fixed once the country grows wealthy enough (like Europe and North America). That is no longer the case on a finite planet. Contaminated water, polluted air, eroded soils will cripple a country’s ability to not just grow, but to survive into the future.

      Thanks for your perspective.

  16. I am so fascinated by the emotional impression of these paintings. At first glance, we can feel how sad it is before we even notice the urban details (like the tiny cars in “Automotive Pollution”). As far as leaving nature alone, it is truly sad to thing to wonder if we can have a productive, enduring relationship with the natural world. Since we can’t be trusted to not ruin it, we have to abandon it? Tragic.

    • My own personal hope is that we are able to find a third path in which we can learn to live alongside nature to the benefit of both. Many of the narratives on Ekostories highlight themes of integration and reconciliation between the human and the natural world.

  17. davidmichaels20 says

    Elegant and inspirational writing and visual art. Thank you for sharing this.

  18. Pingback: Weekend Reads: WPLongform Picks — Blog —

  19. Wow! What a beautiful way to remind people about the dangers of pollution and other issues. Art as activism, but not in an in-your-face kind of way. It’s subtle.

    • Yes, exactly! The sort of “activism” which appeals instead of affronts. Beautiful, not destructive, even as it warns us of the kind of destruction that ill-considered construction leads to. If that makes sense. I find myself still pondering these paintings, attracted to them even though they remind me of unpleasant truths. Meanwhile, I’m sure I have either ignored or simply forgotten dozens of clumsier attempts to call my attention to industrial pollution and irresponsible overdevelopment. And I consider myself an environmentalist! Yong LiangYang and his team have, in this way, achieved the goal that so many others (myself included, sadly) fail to achieve: to convey a warning about over-industrialization that sticks in a person’s mind, haunting, reminding, recurring, simply because part of the mind does not want to push the message aside… it’s a lovely message!

      • Nicolas, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this and how it resonates with you. Very interesting that you note the aesthetic power of the piece actually helps it linger in the mind, and that makes it stay fresh.

        And “appeals instead of affronts”… What’s a great phrase!

    • I just discovered the “sticky” function on WordPress and thought I would cycle through a few of my older posts. Glad you like the art and messaging in this piece!

  20. This beautifully written essay carried a strong and powerful message. I have always enjoyed viewing Chinese brush paintings (sumi’e) but found the juxtaposition with our contemporary man-made landscape unsettling. This sort of presentation may be the perfect vehicle to wake everyone up to care for and appreciate the natural world that surrounds us.

    Thank you for visiting my blog.

    • Appreciate your thoughts on the piece. It does elicit a strong reaction from most people.

      Really enjoyed your short piece on your blog. Will be visiting more often 🙂

  21. Pingback: Humanities vs Science: Art History – Ecology is not a dirty word

  22. Pingback: global project: living in the Anthropocene | chika.K.L.

  23. Pingback: Past Meets Present: Shan Shui Environmental Art | Ekostories | Art links

  24. Pingback: Pièce de Résistance: Art Movements and their Power to Change the World - Social Space

  25. Pingback: Yang Yongliang : la peinture chinoise au risque de l’environnement – Geographica

  26. Pingback: Blog: Flower Power – by protecting nature we protect ourselves - EU NEIGHBOURS east

  27. Pingback: EU NEIGHBOURS: Blog: Flower Power – by protecting nature we protect ourselves - The RSS

Leave a Reply to Isaac Yuen Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.