Seeking Serenity in an Age of Digital Deluge


Smart phones may have tremendous potential as both educational and business tools as well as communication and entertainment devices. However, are we unleashing that power to gain knowledge, simplify our life and enhance our precious time or are we adding chaos and distraction to our increasingly busy lives?

Escapism on the Small Screen

Karl Marx said “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. In retrospect, television was, arguably, the opiate of the twentieth century. The Internet and mobile networks bring incredible potential but have they also become an opiate of the masses?

According to a 2019 report by QuestMobile, an internet-based data analysis and consultation firm, the average Chinese person spent six hours daily on smart phone use. Nearly two hours were consumed in watching short videos on apps like Tik Tok.

With smart phones, many inconveniences can be solved. Some say the Internet allows travel without leaving home as one can see and learn about distant lands with the click of a smart phone and travel to thousands of locations via the thousands of live streaming broadcast videos. If you do actually travel anywhere, one can find wherever they want assisted with GPS navigation, without stopping to ask a single person for directions.

Immersed in the era of explosive information growth, we rely on technology and the small screen to enrich life experience, but also use this “black-mirror” technology to retreat and disconnect from reality. From shopping online to handling business overseas, from playing video games to online dates, our sensual desires and demands transform into a misty cloud of Big Data that is applied to assail us with increasingly targeted marketing.

Photographed by Jude Jiang

By swiping the palm-size screen, hundreds or thousands of times each day, our attention on this single screen may lasts but seconds. A cost of these technology solutions is increased anxiety and an endless quest for more.

Objects of Contemplation

Traditional Chinese culture embodies an element of peace and serenity. This meditative aspect can be found inherent to many Chinese art forms, whose long histories remain relevant today. One form of traditional art, Shan Shui painting, seeks to go beyond the frame and create visions of vast proportions.

Idyllic water and mountain scenes offer more than a pretty picture.

As an ancient and venerable art form, Chinese Shan Shui painting has developed across many centuries. Because of its cultural heritage as much as its unparalleled beauty, Shan Shui art has been co-opted as pop culture and is commonly applied to commodities of various forms, from folding fans for tourist souvenirs to filling a video wall at upscale venues. Regardless of how popular Shan Shui painting is in modern Chinese culture, there is an underlying discontinuity in making this treasured art into trendy decorations and accessories. The true value of Shan Shui painting is not only in its surface beauty, but rather in an aesthetic ideal that runs deeper.

The first Shan Shui painting, Spring Excursion, by Zhan Ziqian.

When Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE) artist Zhan Ziquan painted Spring Excursion (游春图) it was unique from the works of his predecessors. It made a strong aesthetic statement with elements in the foreground that highlight the majestic mountains far in the background like flowing water and winding mountain paths. This work would begin a vibrant and enduring tradition in Chinese art. While depicting mountains (Shan) and water (Shui), as the name suggests, as distinctive features in Shan Shui paintings, these works also convey vastness of nature contrasted by the inconsequential importance of the individual.

This is not to say Shan Shui involves nihilistic belittling of mankind nor is it about elevating nature to epic grandeur, such as can be found in Hudson River School style landscape paintings, in which romanticized scenes of majestic mountains and sacred water may leave people in wonder, amazement and awe of nature’s majesty.

Sunset (California Scenery) by Albert Bierstadt, 1864. One of the Hudson River school painters. Courtesy of Digital Public Library of America

The core aesthetic value of Chinese Shan Shui is about conveying serenity, tranquility and peace through the painter’s point-of-view. What was painted on paper was not necessarily a realistic nor an objective depiction, but conveys an authentic beauty from painter’s subjective viewpoint. It’s not about seeing nature, but about contemplating the beauty in nature.

Peaceful Impressions of Reality

Out of respect for the majesty and mystery of mountains, Chinese painters through the ages journeyed to the famous mountains in China, seeking inspiration in their grandeur. Traveling in ancient times was arduous and even dangerous, but they undertook the experience as a sort of pilgrimage. Perhaps the last of these impressive pilgrims was modern day painter Liu Haisu (1896-1994).

As one of the most prominent contemporary Shan Shui painters, Liu visited the famed Huangshan in Anhui province ten times in his life time. He first visited there fresh out of school and started painting his impressions of the mountain. That experience would shape his career.

Huangshan Heaven Gate Hurdling Wind and Cloud by Liu Haisu.

He carried that inspiration with him to France where he developed rich experience through studying oil painting, especially in the impressionist style. When he returned to China, he created impressionist views of his beloved mountain that reveal a mix of traditional Chinese and Western styles. In the painting of Huangshan Heaven Gate Hurdling Wind and Cloud (黄山天门坎风云), he captured the temperament of the mountain rather than its realistic depiction.

In his golden years, at age of 90, he made his final pilgrimage. Despite enduring dramatic changes in Chinese society and hardship in his life, his works remained peaceful and serene, as if all chaos and distraction of reality were left behind on his canvas and paper.

Many Chinese painters like Liu adhere to seeking internal visions in the mortal world but depend on Chinese calligraphy, brushes and paper. They draw upon philosophy based in China’s mixed heritage of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Mountains and water appear to be the main content in their paintings, but at the core of these painters’ minds, they seek inspiration of nature, itself and develop their impressions of it.

Revival in New Visions

Shan Shui painting has 1600 years of history through many dynasties of Chinese history. It has made various and vast developments and transformations but its essence has thrived throughout centuries.

Will it endure in modern society? Young generations may have challenges in finding the aesthetic angles for appreciating Shan Shui paintings. Like calligraphy, Shan Shui relies on tinted inks and paper which gives everything a soft pastel color sense while modern painting styles use vibrant oil painting with dramatic hues and realistic colors.

A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains by Wang Ximeng.

There is a misconception that Shan Shui is an exclusive and elite pursuit of wise elder scholars. However, Wang Ximeng, a revered painter from Northern Song Dynasty (960—1127 CE) brought the vigor of youth to Shan Shui. At the age of eighteen, Wang spent six months committed into an eleven-meter-long artwork, A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains(千里江山图). During the same time, Zhang Zeduan made his famous work, Ascending the River on Qingming Festival(清明上河图), an exquisite work that shows an abundance of ordinary people and their realistic and dynamic details of daily life in the capital of the North Song Dynasty, Bian Jing, with the goal of creating a work of epic scale.

Wang had an entirely different vision. It was a rather an ode to nature. Not only was the painting focusing on depicting nature, but rather than only putting mountains and rivers on paper, Wang portrayed an idealized harmonious life in which humans peacefully co-exist with nature. Only by deeply contemplating Wang’s painting can one discover the variety of life portrayed, such as two friends drinking tea in a pavilion, surrounded by peaceful and harmonious mountains and rivers. As a noble gesture by Emperor Song Huizong, Wang’s masterpiece was presented to the prime minister Cai Jing to bond their alliance.

Part of A Thousand Miles of Rivers and Mountains.

The artist’s subjective vision is essential in Shan Shui painting. It reflects painters’ mindset, internal world and personality. Like Liu, who assimilated European influences, one of the most audacious Chinese painters, Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), was fond of making a colorful symphony on Shan Shui painting. When he depicted the autumn on Wu Mountain in Sichuan, he applied the full richness and variety of colors and dramatic composition, which made his work stand out amongst his peers.

The inspiration of Shan Shui lies not in realistic views nor objective nor is it confined to one single perspective. These works merit a period of contemplation to uncover the layers or meaning and content. Exploring them remains a peaceful and impressionistic elevation from the fast pace of reality.