Abandoning the City: Studying Chinese Landscape in the Age of Climate Change

Colloquium | November 8 | 4-6 p.m. | 180 Doe Library

 De-nin D. Lee, Associate Professor, Visual & Media Arts, Emerson College

 Gregory Levine, Professor, Art and Architecture of Japan and Buddhist Visual Cultures, UC Berkeley

 Center for Chinese Studies (CCS)

In a 1999 lecture (published in 2005 in Archives of Asian Art), Prof. James Cahill offered thoughts on the history and post-history of Chinese painting. Not solely about landscape, nevertheless, his remarks were inextricable from his lifetime’s study of that genre. The field of Chinese landscape, he observed, produced on the basis of internal, stylistic developments a coherent canon. This canon constituted a significant art historical achievement, and for a time, vigorous debates drew new scholars to the project of mapping the field, filling the gaps toward a comprehensive history. Aware of more recent trends, however, Cahill lamented in metaphorical fashion that it seemed the practice of architecture had been abandoned before the city was built.

Taking Cahill’s lament as a point of departure, this talk attempts a return to studying landscape, albeit not landscape painting exclusively. Recognizing the geological concept of deep time and the felicitously stable circumstances under which the history of Chinese landscape painting was being written, I pose the question, “How have Chinese landscapes—whether painted or sculpted or otherwise represented—shaped attitudes toward the natural world and consequently facilitated anthropogenic changes to the environment?”

Because landscape images in China form a sequence stretching back some two thousand years, they offer an unusual opportunity to examine the long-term role of art in the interactions between humans and their environments. Contemporary artists, for example, may draw on imagery from several centuries ago to make rhetorical statements about damaged ecologies today and to warn of dire outcomes in the future. This talk issues from work-in-progress that uses a critical, eco–art history perspective to examine Chinese landscape paintings as well as contemporary artwork drawing on that tradition. It engages the work of historians and environmental historians, bringing their insights to bear on the interpretation of art. It builds a case for studying Chinese landscape in the age of climate change.


Shitao (Zhu Ruoji, 1642-1707), “Man in the Mountain,”from Album for Daoist Yu, late 1690s. Leaf L in an album of twelve leaves, ink and color on paper, 9 ½ x 11 in. The C. C. Wang Family Collection, New York