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Guan Tong – Chang’an Landscape Master

    Like so many artists and scholars from his period, much of Guan Tong’s life is a mystery to us.

    It’s almost as if he vanished into the landscape paintings he left behind…

    Paintings that are some of the most brilliant and influential in Chinese history – which is why it’s worthwhile searching for traces of the artist in them.

    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)

    Life and times

    Guan Tong (ca. 907 – ca. 960), (关仝 [Guān Tóng], sometimes written as 关同 or 关穜 [both same pronunciation]), courtesy name unknown, was from Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi Province).

    He lived during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdom’s period (907 – 979 AD) (often referred to as the Five Dynasties period for short).

    This was a period of competing political states between the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) and Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD)

    His hometown (Chang’an) had been the capital of the Tang dynasty, and probably the largest city in the world at the time (with a population of over two million at its peak a couple of centuries before).

    Not a lot is known about his life. The tumultuous times he lived in could have – and likely did – conceal many talented painters from the purview of history. 

    Art historians suspect this because the work of Guan’s teacher the painter and art theorist Jing Hao (active ca. 870 – 930 AD) presents a clear and enormous jump in development from previous landscape painting.

    Guan Tong’s painting

    Travellers in a Mountain Pass by Guan Tong
    Travellers in a Mountain Pass (10th century) by Guan Tong, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 140.5 x 57.5 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    The famous Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, which gives us great insight into traditional Chinese art and art theory, praises Guan highly:

    画山水早年师荆浩,晚年笔力过浩远甚,尤喜作秋山寒林,与其村居野渡,幽人逸士,渔市山驿
    [Guan] studied landscape painting under Jing Hao during his [Guan’s] early years. In his later years he [Guan] surpassed Jing. [Guan] particularly liked painting mountains in autumn and forests in the winter, which featured village residences and rural passes, recluses and men hiding out, fishing markets and mountain lookouts

    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, scroll 10

    The result, the author of the Catalogue writes, is something deeply evocative for people who see Guan’s paintings:

    使其见者,悠然如在灞桥风雪中,三峡闻猿时,不复有市朝抗尘走俗之状。
    All of this gives viewers otherworldly perspective and sense of saying goodbye on Ba Bridge in the middle of a snowstorm, or listening to howler monkeys calls in the three gorges, rather than simply struggling away in the dust of this world. 

    – Ibid.

    This puts in a category with other high arts:

    而深造古淡,如诗中渊明,琴中贺若,非碌碌之画工所能知。
    Creates ancient air, like the poems of Tao Yuanming or the qin [a musical instrument] of Heruo. This is something only skilled painters can understand.

    – Ibid.

    By the time the Catalogue was written, painting’s status was close to that of poetry and calligraphy (sometimes collectively called ‘the three perfections’).

    Northern ‘stony’ vs southern ‘earthen’ landscape styles

    Guan’s style belongs to the northern ‘stony mountain’ (石山 [shíshān]) variety. Jing Hao and the legendary Five dynasties and Early Song landscape painter Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD) also belong to this category.

    A Solitary Temple amid Clearing 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)

    By contrast, painters from southern of China (which also came under different dynasties and kingdoms) had more ‘earthen’ (土山 [tǔshān]) style. 

    The earliest known southern master of this new kind of landscape painting was Dong Yuan (d. 962 AD). His most famous pupil, the Buddhist monk and painter Juran (active ca 960 – 985 AD), followed shortly afterwards.

    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)

    Once the Song dynasty was unified, painters (and their paintings) were transferred to the Song court in Kaifeng.

    This meant that until the Song dynasty was split in half in 1126, artistic styles and trends across the empire were more universal.

    Later on, China was unified again under the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty. Artists like Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD) then studied art from both the north and the south of China.

    Guan Tong’s painting technique

    None of the paintings attributed to Guan are signed by him. However, from what exists, the basic elements are clear: dramatic, rugged landscapes featuring hard rocks and hardy trees.

    The Xuan Catalogue of paintings remarks: 

    盖仝之所画,其脱略毫楮,笔愈简而气愈壮 […]

    Tong manages to conceal traces of ink paper and brush within his paintings, and as his brushwork got simpler his qi [vital force] became stronger in the work […]
    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, scroll 10

    It’s also worth noting that Guan apparently did not paint figures in his own paintings. He had other figure painting specialists add these into his landscapes.

    Guan Tong’s artistic reputation

    In his History of Painting, the Northern Song artist and art critic Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD) wrote of Guan:

    工关河之势,峰峦少秀气。
    His technique is as powerful as a river, but his peaks lack signs of scholarship

    Mi Fu was famously outspoken and opinionated, so these remarks should be perhaps taken with a pinch of salt…

    The Qing dynasty painter Wang Hui (1632 – 1717 AD) wrote in his inscription on his own painting Colours of Taihang:

    余从广陵贵戚家见关仝尺幅,云峦奔会、神气郁密,真足洞心骇目。予今犹复记忆其一二,遂仿其法作太行山色
    In the home of a distinguished relative in Guangling, I saw a small scroll painting by Guan Tong. Cloudy peaks rushing together in an oppressive and dense atmosphere, it really pierced by heart and astonished my eyes. Today, I follow its method and paint this Colours of Taihang.

    Wang Hui, inscription to Colours of Taihang
    Colours of Taihang by Wang Hui
    Colours of Taihang (1666 AD), by Wang Hui, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 72.2 x 35.6 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)