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Jing Hao – Mysterious Landscape Innovator

    Jing Hao’s (ca. 855 – ca. 930 AD) (pronounced ‘jing how‘) life and work is still a bit of a mystery today. 

    He lived during tumultuous and difficult times. 

    And there are only two surviving paintings attributed to him. Both are of uncertain authenticity.

    But his influence on Chinese landscape painting is unquestioned. 

    He is one of the earliest and most important influences on the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) golden age of landscape painting (which came shortly after his lifetime).

    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]), courtesy name Haoran, was from Henei (today’s Qinyang, Henan Province).

    He lived during the late Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) and the early Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (907 – 979 AD) (often called the Five Dynasties period for short).

    He worked as a painter for the short-lived Liang dynasty (907 – 923). This controlled most of northern China before it fell to the even shorter-lived Later Tang (923 – 937 AD).

    In part due to the political fragmentation and uncertainty of the times, records and art from the Five Dynasties are not well preserved.

    However, no original artistic masterpieces from the Tang dynasty survive either.

    Two centuries after Jing’s lifetime, the imperial collection of art was documented in the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (1120 AD). This work also documented known biographical details about the painters

    On Jing Hao’s entry, it remarks:

    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

    ‘Broad Valley’ refers to the Taihang Mountains. Jing appears to have lived there in seclusion, perhaps hiding out from the political turmoil.

    One source has it that he lived in Qinshui (today a county in Shanxi Province), which is about 62 miles (/100 km) from his hometown of Qinyang.

    Many details about his life, including precise dates for his birth and death, remain uncertain. 

    Fragments of stories about him still survive. For example, we know that he traded a painting for a poem with the monk poet Ta-yü. Jing allowed Ta-yü to describe the kind of painting he wanted Jing to paint.

    Fortunately, some of his writing has survived and two of his paintings, even though the latter have not been confirmed.

    Jing Hao’s painting

    Jing Hao’s place in landscape painting development

    The Joy of Angling by Jing Hao
    The Joy of Angling by Jing Hao (ca. 900), hanging scroll, ink and light colour on silk. 189.4 x 125.9 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    During the Five dynasties period (907 – 979 AD), something happened to landscape painting. Jing Hao has long been recognised as one of the influential causes of this change.

    However, the lack of surviving original paintings from the time means this development is hard to understand in detail.

    Jing’s student was the equally influential landscape painter Guan Tong (ca. 907 – ca. 960). Guan’s surviving paintings display a clear influence of Jing’s style and themes.

    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)

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings remarks in Guan’s entry:

    画山水早年师荆浩,晚年笔力过浩远甚 […]
    [Guan] studied landscape painting under Jing Hao during his [Guan’s] early years. In his later years he [Guan] surpassed Jing […]

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, scroll 10

    They were both living in the North of China. Their paintings resemble one another in several aspects.

    Their influence can also be seen in work of later acknowledged master of early Song dynasty landscape painting, 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)

    In southern China, a distinct ‘Jiangnan’ (the eastern area immediately south of the Yangze river) style of landscape painting was developing. Its earliest masters are recognised as:

    Riverbank by 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)
    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)

    We know his artistic philosophy from his writing, which also suggests an earlier stage of exceptional development in landscape painting.

    Jing Hao’s artistic theory (and Notes on Brushwork)

    Jing wrote an influential treatise on painting now known as Notes on Brushwork (笔法记 [Bǐfǎ jì]) (also sometimes called to as Notes on Landscape Painting [山水画论著]). 

    This relatively short work (in the form we have it in, it’s approximately 1,880 characters) just iss a highly influential work in the history of Chinese art theory.

    It is written as a dialogue between an artist and the author in which the former explains six principles of painting. 

    These are clearly based on Xie He’s 6th-century treatise on the six principles of painting, which Jing implicitly argues against.

    Jing’s six principles (or ‘six musts’ [六要]) are: 

    • Vital force (or life force) (气 [])
    • Rhyme (or charm) (韵 [yùn])
    • Thought (思 [])
    • Views (or scenery) (景 [jǐng])
    • Brush (笔 [])
    • Ink (墨 [])

    The artist also emphasises the importance of truth (真 [zhèn]) over form-likeness (or resemblance) (似 []):

    If you fail to master this art, you might mimic likeness but you will not reach truth in your pictures.

    Jing Hao, Notes on Brushwork

    Investigation of things

    Jing applied the principle of ‘the investigation of things’ (格物致知 [géwù zhìzhī]) to the study of nature for landscape painting.

    This concept has its roots in the Confucian classic the Great Learning (大学 [dàxué]):

    The ancients that desired luminous virtue to shine forth in everyone first prioritised an orderly state; 
    desiring a well-ordered state required first establishing a well-ordered household;

    desiring a well-ordered household required first cultivating themselves;
    desiring self-cultivation first required first setting their heart on what was right; 
    setting their heart on rightness required ensuring their intentions were honest;
    ensuring honest intentions required broadening their knowledge; 
    and broadening knowledge lies in the investigation of things.

    – The Great Learning

    Jing’s painting style

    Jing’s painting style has most of the distinguishing features of the latter Song style of landscapes. 

    Firstly, it features large, dramatic and awe-inspiring mountains. Their peaks protrude through mist and cloud, and their steep outlines are punctuated with jagged rock, trees, waterfalls, and vegetation.

    Jing appears to have only used light colours for his work, too. Later on, many Song dynasty landscapes became completely monochrome (i.e., just different shades of black ink).

    The evocation of an entire dramatic yet placid mystery world comes to mind. Subtly placed human structures in the painting highlight the enormous scale of nature.

    Jing’s artistic afterlife

    Jing’s influence grew and persisted long after his lifetime, especially in Song dynasty painting and artistic theory. 

    In the Mongol-run Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368), the great reviver and unifier of Chinese painting (and calligraphy)Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD) once wrote in a cursive inscription on a painting: 

    During the Five Dynasties, the brushwork of Jing [Hao], Guan [Tong], Dong [Yuan], and Fan [Kuan] was comparable with the ancients. My painting may not equal the work of the ancient masters, but compared with more recent paintings, I dare say mine are quite different. 

    – Zhao Mengfu