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Li Cheng – Chinese Landscape Painting Master

    Many consider Song dynasty (960 – 1276 AD) landscape painting as the pinnacle of all Chinese painting.

    And its acknowledged master is Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD).

    His influence on Chinese painting cannot be overstated. His talent even led some to wonder whether he was an immortal…

    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)

    Biography

    Family background

    Li Cheng (李成 [Lǐ Chéng]), courtesy name Xianxi, was from an aristocratic family of officials. The Li’s were related to the former Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) ruling family (who shared the same surname).

    His father was a scholar-official, as was his grandfather, Li Ding. The latter once held the high-level position of censor in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.

    Li was born shortly after the collapse of the Tang dynasty, in a period known as Five Dynasties period (907 – 979 AD).

    Detail of a temple from A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks (ca. 960) by Li Cheng
    Detail from 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’s family had fled the former Tang capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi province) during the violent disorder of the Tang dynasties’ collapse.

    They had relocated to Yingqiu (in today’s Changle County – a part of the city of Weifang, Shandong Province).

    Because of where he grew up, Li would later on often be referred to as ‘Li Yingqiu’.

    The nearby mountainous landscapes and rocky coastlines clearly deeply influenced his painting.

    Early life and education

    Being from an aristocratic family had meant a lot during the early Tang dynasty. But its importance had declined by the time Li was born.

    Li was given a classical education by his family. He was said to be talented at both prose and poetry writing. But with no stable, ruling dynasty around, it was difficult to find a career as an official.

    His biography in the great Song dynasty compilation of paintings in the royal storehouse, the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (1120 AD), notes:

    善属文,气调不凡,而磊落有大志。因才命不偶,遂放意于诗酒之间,又寓兴于画,精妙初非求售,唯以自娯于其间耳。
    [Li] was good at writing, his prose has unusual subtlety. He was upright, honest and ambitious. Because he did not meet the chance to express his talent, he satisfied himself by writing poetry whilst drinking, and by creating exquisite paintings that he wouldn’t sell. His simply did this all for his own amusement.

    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, Chapter 11
    Detail from Thick Forests and Distant Peaks (ca. 960) by Li Cheng
    Detail from 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)

    Later life

    Not a lot is known about Li’s life. This partly linked to the chaotic times he lived most of his life through and his lack of a government career.

    However, anecdotes about him have been passed on, including in the Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings.

    Anecdote about merchant trying to obtain Li’s paintings

    尝有显人孙氏知成善画得名,故贻书招之。成得书且愤且叹曰:”自古四民不相杂处,吾本儒生,虽游心艺事,然适意而已,奈何使人羁致入戚里宾馆,研吮丹粉而与画史冗人同列乎?”
    Once, there was a prominent man named Sun. He knew of Cheng’s reputation for painting and so sent him a letter of invitation.
    When Cheng received it, he was indignant and sighed.
    “Since ancient times the four classes have kept separate,” Li said. “I am originally a Confucian scholar. I have partaken in art, but it is only for my own satisfaction. Why should I enter the guesthouse of a nobleman […] and be considered on the same level as professional painters?”

    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, Chapter 11

    Later on, Li eventually accepted Sun’s invitation to meet. However, when he arrived at Sun’s house, he saw his own paintings in the guest’s quarters. 

    This showed to Li that Sun had been deceptively obtaining these paintings through others. Angered, Li stormed off.

    Sun was not the only wealthy patron who tried to induce Li to paint for him. Others are also said to have tried.

    Li’s commercial disinterest in art is a trait that would eventually become a defining feature of the concept of ‘literati painting’ in China (see below).

    It is reflects Li’s background as an aristocrat in a world where that was increasingly less valued (though certainly not irrelevant).

    Wanderings and death

    Li is said to have spent his “later years enjoyed travelling around the rivers and lakes” (“晚年好游江湖间” [Xuanhe Catalogue]). He died at an inn in Huaiyang (today a district of Zhoukou, in Henan Province).

    His son, Li Jue, served as a scholar for the Hanlin Academy (an official centre of higher learning that shaped interpretations of the classics).

    Li Jue also gave lectures to the first Song emperor, Taizu (r. 960 – 976 AD).

    Li Cheng’s landscape painting

    Thick Forests and Distant Peaks (ca. 960) 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)

    Li Cheng was clearly respected as an artist in his lifetime. But his reputation really grew soon after his death.

    His landscape painting inspired painters up until the end of the Song dynasty and beyond.

    His style likely built on many earlier Five Dynasties period paintings now lost to us. Either way, it was distinct from earlier Tang landscape painting, which relied on colour and accurate depictions of scenery and objects.

    By contrast, Li’s monochrome (i.e., just black ink on silk or paper) landscapes don’t accurately depict scenes. In fact, they appear to purposely create mysterious, almost dream-like scenes.

    They filled with evocative atmosphere, which is created using skilled painting techniques and features.

    For example, Li created bare, weathered trees clinging to rocks, waterfalls disappearing into rising mists, orderly temples sitting nestled in the mountains…

    The authors of the Xuanhe Catalogue had access 159 of Li’s works in the royal collection of 1120 AD. They described his work as:

    故所画山林、薮泽、平远、险易、萦带、曲折、飞流、危栈、断桥、绝涧、水石、风雨、晦明、烟云、雪雾之状,一皆吐其胸中而写之笔下。
    His paintings had mountain forests, lakes and ponds, level distances, narrow passes, coiling paths, river bends and jagged rocks, falling streams, dangerous mountain steps, broken bridges, sever ravines, wet rocks, wind and rain, gloom and brightness, mist and clouds, snow and fog. All of these were stored in his breast and then released by his brush.

    – Xuanhe Catalogue of Painting, Chapter 11

    Today, only two copies of Li’s work survive – both of which are given above in this article.

    The direct attribution of these to Li is questionable. However, many art historians agree that they are either copies of originals by Li or paintings directly inspired by his original work.

    Li’s influence on Juran and early Song court painting

    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)

    The Buddhist monk Juran (active ca. 960 – 985 AD) was the only known Five Dynasties painter to make it to the early Song dynasty court in Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province).

    Juran was directly mentored by the early landscape painting innovator Dong Yuan (d. 962). Together, they were leading representatives of a southern style of landscape painting.

    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)

    This simultaneously emerged in parallel to a northern style. Li is remembered today as the leading figure of this northern style.

    But other Five Dynasties northern painters such as the Chang’an-based Guan Tong (ca. 907 – ca. 960) and Guan’s mentor Jing Hao (ca. 855 – ca. 930) (‘the master of the Broad Valley‘) were also big influences.

    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)

    When viewed side-by-side, the earthy, water-filled scenes in southern paintings often contrast with the more mountainous, harsh landscape paintings of the north.

    However, when Juran arrived in the Song court, he was able to see Li Cheng’s paintings, which clearly inspired and directly influenced his own work.