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Five Dynasties period Landscape Painting

    The Five Dynasties period (907 – 960 AD) was a time of civil war between short-lived states.

    For half a century, each fought over the carcass of Tang dynasty’s (618 – 907 AD) empire.

    Yet remarkably, it was a time of great development for Chinese landscape painting.

    A lot is still unknown about exactly why and how this development occurred. 

    Given the chaos of era, perhaps this will forever remain unknown. 

    However, what is known is well worth examining…

    Thick Forests and Distant Peaks by Li Cheng
    Thick Forests and Distant Peaks (ca. 960) by Li Cheng, detail of a handscroll, ink on silk, 45.4 x 141.8 cm. Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Pre-Five Dynasties dynasty landscape painting

    Before the Five Dynasties period, landscape painting was a developed and popular genre.

    During the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD), a distinct landscape style appeared. It often made use of blue and golden colouring on handscrolls.

    Private patrons and the imperial court would employ professional painters. The latter would often do this through the Academy of Painting, which would train and employ artists.

    The concept of painting being deeply linked to poetry and calligraphy also developed. 

    Take the famous Tang poet Wang Wei (699 – 759 AD), for example.

    By the early Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD), he would be considered the paragon of the artist-scholar whose paintings and poems come from the same cultivated and well-educated source.

    Landscape painting during the Five Dynasties period

    Wintry Groves and Layered Banks by Dong Yuan
    Wintry Groves and Layered Banks (10th Century), attributed to Dong Yuan, hanging scroll, ink and light colour on silk, 181.5 x 116.5 cm. Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures, Nishinomiya, Japan. (Image source: Alamy)

    The Five Dynasties period (or, more fully: the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms [五代十国]) followed the collapse of the Tang dynasty.

    China was broken up into competing and short-lived states. Many of these states established courts that employed court painters.

    But this is a difficult period for art historians because of its fragmented and disordered nature. Records and surviving original paintings are relatively scarce.

    Despite this, it was clearly a time of great progress and innovation in landscape painting. At least some of this must have developed during the late Tang dynasty.

    By the end of the Five Dynasties, the genre essentially had all of the main features that would define it during the Song dynasty.

    And its greatest exponent would have lived out his life…

    Up until the Tang (and beyond), Northern China was still where most political power was held.

    Northern painters during the Five Dynasties

    Both the primary Tang capital, Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi Province), and its Eastern capital Luoyang (Henan Province), were based in the north. 

    So, too – for now – was most of China’s population. (In the following centuries, a gradual shift of population, wealth, and power to the south took place).

    Jing Hao (ca. 855 – ca. 930 AD)

    Mount Kuanglu by Jing Hao
    Mount Kuanglu by Jing Hao (ca. 900), hanging scroll, ink and light colour on silk. 185.8 x 106.8 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Jing Hao (荆浩 [Jīng Hào]) is perhaps the earliest prominent northern landscape painter from this time. 

    Not a lot is known about his biography. He was born during the late Tang, when the empire was quickly and obviously declining. 

    (Many argue that the Tang dynasty never did fully recover its past glory after the civil war that took place in its mid-point, the An Lushan Rebellion (756 – 762 AD)). 

    And for a period, he lived in seclusion the Taihang Mountain range between Henan and Shanxi Province. The Song Dynasty Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (1120), written two centuries after Jing’s lifetime, states:

    自号为洪谷子。博雅好古,以山水专门 […]
    [Jing Hao] called himself the Master of the Broad Valley. He was a learned and genteel man who loved antiquity and specialised in landscape painting […]

    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, scroll 10

    His landscapes already carry many of the hallmarks of the distinct Five Dynasties and later on Song Dynasty landscape style. 

    Namely, the awe-inspiring yet calming scene dominated by a mountain, populated with vegetation, and set against a misty horizon.

    Guan Tong (ca. 907 – ca. 960 AD)

    Autumn Mountains at Dusk by Guan Tong
    Autumn Mountains at Dusk (ca. 925) by Guan Tong, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 140.5 x 57.3 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Guan Tong (关仝 [Guān Tóng], sometimes written as 关同 or 关穜) was a student of Jing Hao’s. And in many art critics’ eyes, he would go on to surpass his teacher.

    His dramatic, rugged landscapes encapsulate the northern Chinese environment he lived and travelled in.

    Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD)

    a solitary clearing amid peaks by li cheng
    A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks (ca. 960) by Li Cheng, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 111.4 x 56 cm. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. (Purchase: Nelson Trust). (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Li Cheng (李成 [Lǐ Chéng]) is the most important figure in Five Dynasties landscape painting if not any period. 

    He was an educated aristocrat descended from the same clan as the Tang imperial family (all Tang emperors were also from the same Li family).

    The surviving works attributed to Li are considered by many to be copies of originals. Even so, his striking originality and skill is clear to see.

    Li’s style of landscape painting would go on to adopted by Song Dynasty court painters and a semi-official ‘Li linage’ emerged. Guo Xi was one example of a painter who purposely and openly worked in a ‘Li style of painting’.

    Southern painters during the Five Dynasties

    A distinct southern landscape painting style emerged simultaneously to the northern style during the Five Dynasties.

    Painters from both regions were obviously cut off from one another by geography and politics. However, they could well have shared similar influences from the late Tang period.

    Southern vs northern Five Dynasties landscape painting

    The southern style of landscape painting naturally reflects the different geography of the region.

    The term ‘jiangnan’ (江南 ’south of the river’) is often used to describe the area just south of the Yangtze between approximately Nanjing and the eastern coast. 

    Paintings from this fertile and commercially prosperous area often reflected its geography, with undulating hills and waterways lined with lush vegetation. This contrasted with the often harsher, starker scenery of northern landscape paintings. 

    However, the two regions’ paintings also shared some similarities. For example, a tendency towards muted colours or monochrome (i.e., no colours), and emphasis on the contrast between natural and man-made elements.

    Dong Yuan (d. 962 AD)

    Riverbank attributed to Dong Yuan,
    Riverbank (10th century), attributed to Dong Yuan, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 220.3 x 109.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Image source: Alamy)

    Dong Yuan (董源 [Dǒng Yuán], sometimes written as 董元 [same pronunciation]) worked as a court painter for the Southern Tang  (937 – 975 AD) state, based in what is today’s Nanjing (within the Jiangnan region).

    He appears to have developed in style and skill as his career progressed. His later paintings become simpler and almost more abstract.

    Today, perhaps his most well-known painting is Riverbank, which was owned by many well-known politicians, princes, artists and collectors over the centuries. 

    Juran (960 – 985 AD)

    Distant Mountain Forests by Juran
    Distant Mountain Forests (ca. 980) by Juran, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 144.1 x 55.4 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Juran (巨然 [Jùrán]) was a Buddhist monk and court painter who, in as far as we know, was the only prominent Five Dynasties painter to make it to the Song imperial court.

    Once there, he was able to access paintings by Li Cheng, which unlike Li had made it to the court, too. 

    These paintings influenced Juran, who himself had studied under Dong Yuan. This enabled Juran to help create an imperial landscape style that synthesised both northern and southern painting styles.

    The Five Dynasties’ impact on Song dynasty (960 – 1279) painting

    After the Five Dynasties period, the Song dynasty unified China. And with each state it conquered, it also obtained their painting collections and painters.

    So, Five Dynasties landscape painting had a direct and profound influence on the genre during the Song. 

    Today, the Song period has long been seen as the peak of landscape painting. But it would not have been possible without the innovation during the Five Dynasties. 


    During the Five Dynasties period (907 – 960 AD), Chinese landscape painting flourished despite the political chaos.

    Previously, Tang dynasty landscapes featured prominent blue and golden hues. However, during the late Tang and Five Dynasties, a distinct style emerged. 

    In short, it was characterised by dramatic landscapes dominated by misty mountains in subdued colours or monochrome. 

    Painters from this period are sometimes grouped by geography. Northern painters like Jing Hao and his student Guan Tong often depicted rugged, mountainous scenery. 

    As Li Cheng – the acknowledged master of the genre.

    In the south, painters like Dong Yuan captured the fertile and less stark ‘Jiangnan’ region.

    Despite these regional differences, both northern and southern styles shared a focus on natural elements and subdued colours. 

    And eventually, both were merged by Dong Yuan’s student, the monk Juran, when he made his way to the early Song court and saw Li Cheng’s paintings…