Fairyland – a Whispered Warning

Fairy Land, from the series Phantom Landscape III, Yang Yongliang 2007

Yang Yongliang, Fairyland, 2007


From a distance, or perhaps with only the most cursory of inspections, a viewer might see Fairyland, by contemporary Chinese photographic artist Yang Yongliang,[1] as a modern update of the traditional Chinese landscape. Apart from the fact that it is a work created by photographic and computer wizardry rather than by hand and brush, the obvious visual similarities might lead to the casual conclusion that Fairyland is simply another link in a long chain of landscape art that traces back to at least the Song dynasty.  Such a conclusion would be at best incomplete. What Fairyland actually is, what it actually is about, is rather more complicated than that.

It is argued here that Yang uses an ironic imitation of the traditional Chinese landscape painting to communicate an important social message. In particular, this paper maintains that Fairyland warns Chinese society of a danger to its very soul.

A number of factors are considered in arriving at this conclusion, each of which is briefly reviewed: the historical Chinese response to landscape art, the key aesthetic element of the traditional Chinese landscape painting, the societal role that photography has played since its introduction to China in the mid-19th century, and the environmental message coded into contemporary landscape photography. Fairyland is examined in detail and its apparent visual elements compared to those of traditional landscape paintings. Finally, after Fairyland is analyzed with respect to the factors noted above, an interpretation of its meaning is presented. It should be noted that no claim is made that this interpretation aligns with the intent of its artist.

The Chinese Response to Landscape Painting

“Landscape is the great subject of Chinese painting, and Westerners are properly amazed at the very early date of its first full expression.” [2]

Only since the fall of the European academy system in the nineteenth century[3] has the landscape genre achieved anywhere near the standing in the Western visual art tradition that it has held in the Chinese world for over millennia. As Chinese art historian Michael Sullivan notes “Next to the supremely difficult art of calligraphy, the Chinese have for centuries looked on the landscape painting as the highest form of visual art.”[4] However, to the Chinese, a landscape painting is more than an ‘Art’ object. Sullivan explains: “landscape painting in China is a language of extraordinary richness and breadth, able to embody the strongest emotional and poetic feelings and the profoundest philosophical and metaphysical ideas.”[5]

The landscape’s prominence in Chinese art is due primarily to its connection to nature. Landscape paintings were to become an important element of Daoist, Buddhist and Confucian-inspired art because all three philosophies were strongly influenced by the sophisticated Chinese conceptions of nature that predated the development (or in the case of Buddhism, the introduction) of these belief systems.[6] In fact, the “steady growth of a generally accepted philosophy of nature” in China was to provide a “perfect climate for landscape painting.”[7] So strong has been the landscape tradition in China that even with the numerous and large scale social and civil disruptions over the centuries, artists have maintained the tradition throughout the centuries. As noted by a Metropolitan Museum of Art essayist: “By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. The prominence of landscape imagery in Chinese art has continued for more than a millennium and still inspires contemporary artists.”[8] Yang Yongliang is clearly one of those contemporary artists so inspired.

The Aesthetics of Chinese Landscape Painting

“In China, only two arts are considered fine arts—calligraphy and painting—and the only tool employed by these sister arts is the Chinese brush, whose scope is truly unlimited.” [9]

There is more to the Chinese appreciation for landscape art than imagery that enables a virtual commune with nature. Almost, if not equally, as important to this appreciation is a valuing of the quality of the ‘brushstroke’ and the ‘hand of the painter’. As art historian Sherman Lee puts it: “To the Chinese the value judgment of a picture rests primarily on its brushwork as related to, and derived from, calligraphy. The nearest we Westerners can get to the essence of what a Chinese sees in a Chinese painting is our concept of touch. Touch differentiates one artist from another and the non-artist from the artist.”[10] With his hand and brush, the artist must control form, line, space, density, contrast and balance if his painting is to meet the highest standards of aesthetics.[11] Sullivan argues that this appreciation (of brushwork and the hand of the artist) explains why repeated themes in landscape art are not experienced as repetitious. He likens the experience of master landscape paintings to the experience of great music by different musicians; it is an aesthetic experience that can be repeatedly enjoyed because

“in the hands of a master interpreter each familiar work is born again, and much of our pleasure comes from the performer’s understanding of the theme, from subtle nuances of his interpretation and, above all, from his touch. In Chinese painting, too—particularly from the fourteenth century on—what matters is not the novelty of the theme … but the artist’s interpretation of it, and the quality of his touch.”[12]

A Closer Look at Fairyland

In Fairyland, craggy monoliths seemingly rise from mist and fade in recession, recalling Mi Yu-

jen’s 12th century Cloudy Mountains.[13] The size and grandeur of Fairyland’s steeply rising mountains are accentuated by trees Yang places in the left and right foreground, a scale and perspective strategy that references Ch’u Ting’s 11th century Summer Mountains.[14]

Fairyland is landscape in format as well as ostensibly in content; the landscape format references the scrolls of ancient Chinese landscape paintings. There too, on three of its corners, appear to be the traditional red seals of the Chinese artist and collectors.[15] In the upper right corner, flying high in the sky and seemingly untethered, is a kite—the traditional Chinese symbol of auspiciousness.[16] The entire image, save for the red seals, is produced in gray scale, thus alluding to the monochromatic paintings created with India ink. Finally, as were most traditional landscape paintings, Fairyland—as its title implies—is a scene found only in imagination. The traditional landscape painting may have been inspired by a real place and time, but it was not a representation of reality; it was an image of a perfect reality and timelessness.[17]

At this level of description and detail, Fairyland certainly seems to conform to the expectations of a Chinese landscape painting.


On the other hand, however much a landscape photograph may mimic the formal elements of a traditional Chinese landscape painting, the hand of the artist can never be part of its value. The photographer’s ‘hand’ can only be seen indirectly, through composition, selection of focus, aperture, shutter speed, and so forth. The unaltered photographic print is an object that is a product of chemistry or of electronics and mechanics; the artist’s hand does not directly manipulate silver crystals or digital pixels.

Therefore, Fairyland lacks the key aesthetic element of Chinese landscape art—the artisanal quality—the hand of the artist as seen in the brushstroke. Fairyland can never be appreciated by a tradition-savvy Chinese in the same way he or she can appreciate a Fan K’uan painting. This raises the question: How can Yang, a Chinese artist trained in calligraphy and traditional art, be satisfied with merely mimicking classic landscape art with photography, knowing such work cannot evoke from his fellow Chinese the same depth of response as would a brush and ink painting by his hand?

More questions arise when, upon closer inspection, Fairyland reveals that its evident subject is not nature after all. Its ‘trees’, so reminiscent of the trees in Tiger Hill, Suchou by 16th century artist Hseih Shih-ch’en,[18] are in fact power line towers; its monoliths are not ‘mountains’, but rather they are amalgams of modern high rise buildings. There is, in fact, no evidence of nature at all, save the mist. And—considering that the buildings and towers imply an urban setting and that choking pollution now plagues major Chinese cities—the ‘mist’ is likely smog.[19]  Fairyland is not a nature landscape; it just superficially looks like one. Is Yang lampooning the traditions of his earlier artistic training?

The Meaning of Fairyland

Understanding Fairyland requires consideration of two other perspectives: the primary role that photography has played in Chinese society since its introduction; and an awareness of the major trend in contemporary landscape photography since 1970.[20]

Photography was introduced into China soon after Daguerre’s announcement of his invention in 1839,[21] and the camera was soon put to work there. When early Chinese photographers attempted the landscape, they almost invariably tried to evoke the traditional painting. An example of such early landscape photography is Yan Ziling fishing platform, Fuchun River, Zhejiang, 1914, by Huang Yanpei. Of this image Chinese photography historian Dr. Claire Roberts writes: “His photography, with its calligraphic inscription, has a detached scholarly air, not unlike a Chinese brush-and-ink painting, and records memories and feelings associated with place.”[22]

However, photography’s ‘objectivity’, its faithfulness to a real place and time, made it a very different form of expression than the traditional landscape painting. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, the Chinese photographic artist has no way to express the artist’s ‘touch’ in landscape work. These two reasons alone may explain why the landscape was not consistent subject for Chinese photographers, and why portraiture and catering to Western traveler’s demands for souvenirs was to dominate the use of the camera for decades. When the landscape was photographed it was, often as not, for the purposes of attracting Western investment in a particular location.[23] This is not to say that photography did not have an impact on Chinese society, quite the contrary. As Roberts notes “In China photography has played an extraordinary role in the transformation of visual culture, touching on many aspects of people’s lives. Unlike the traditional form of expression, such as brush-and ink painting, the new technology offered a powerfully modern, seemingly objective representation of reality mediated through the lens.”[24] In particular, photojournalism, featured in emerging mass media, was to play a crucial role, in the 19th and 20th century, in shaping the national consciousness and identity, alerting the Chinese to the depredation of foreign powers, and “inspiring them to save their country and their culture.”[25]

In the 1970’s Robert Adams created groundbreaking landscape photography.  His New West landscapes “were not the pristine untouched-by-human-hands variety of an Adams of an earlier generation—Ansel Adams. No, Robert Adams captured landscapes undergoing assault by humans and their structures and detritus. Yet these images were not mug shots of muggings; the captivating thing about New West is that the images are beautiful in form and simultaneously tragic in content, simultaneously a feast for the eye and an ache for the heart.”[26] Today, environmental photographers in America[27]and around the world[28]take their cue from New West and create narratives about the damage inflicted on the environment by unchecked urban and suburban sprawl and a society blind to the damage caused by its uncaring throw-away culture. They do so by insisting on expressing reality over depicting myth, thus making a clear break with the early 20th century landscape photographers who portrayed majestic landscapes as if untouched by human hands. The key tool in conveying their message is irony, often in the form of the juxtaposition of the detritus of society’s sprawl amidst the beauty of nature.

Interpreting Fairyland in light of these two additional perspectives leads to an uplifting meaning of the work.

Yang’s apparent mimicry—and then unsettling reversal—of a beautiful and classic Chinese landscape is not parody, but irony. By using the outer form of traditional Chinese landscape painting, Yang sets the viewer’s, especially the Chinese viewer’s, expectation of a calm and calming scene of idealized nature. But closer inspection leads to the disconcerting truth; ‘trees’ are not trees but ugly high tension power line towers, ‘mountains’ are not mountains but high rise buildings crushed together, the ‘mist’ is no doubt the pollution created in streets clogged with fume-belching vehicles. What at first seems to be a scene of soul-easing tranquility reveals itself to be a metaphor for claustrophobic and frenzied urban living. While the wrenching dissonance caused by the irony may be felt by all who view the work, it must be especially painful to a Chinese viewer accustomed by culture to a much different metaphysical reaction to landscape art.  Yang utilizes this irony to make an environmental point that, again, must be most poignantly felt by the Chinese: What of the land now covered by streets and buildings and overlaid with smog? What has happened to the land so treasured by our historical culture and so important to the ancient philosophy of our people?

With this interpretation it is unimportant that Fairyland does not reveal ‘the hand of the artist.’ What is important is that it delivers a message by way of cognitive dissonance, the eye unable to deny the beauty in the scene, the mind unable to deny the horror of the damage to environment. With this interpretation, Fairyland is fine art, but its message also is consistent with the traditional role of photojournalism in China: alerting the Chinese to another depredation upon the land, this time a depredation of their own making.


Tapping into Chinese cultural memory and setting the viewer’s expectations by seemingly presenting the classic nature landscape, Fairyland suddenly reverses to an unsettling narrative when, upon closer inspection, comes the realization that its ostensive symbols of nature (mountains, trees, and mist) are actually symbols of urban sprawl. Eschewing cynicism that would diminish its message, and in the whispered voice of the great Chinese landscape paintings, Fairyland in this way speaks to the damage modern society is inflicting on nature. Fairyland is a landscape, but not because it superficially looks like one. Rather it is a landscape because ultimately its subject is nature—that is, nature in danger of being overwhelmed. If Fairyland falls short of the aesthetic standards of the Chinese landscape painting it more than succeeds in maintaining the traditional role of photography in China—alerting society of a danger. The danger is that China’s cherished natural landscape, so important to the traditional Chinese philosophy of life and so lovingly idealized by Chinese landscape artists through the centuries, is threatened by unbridled urban growth. Perhaps photography, as it has in the past, once again will inspire the Chinese to save their country and their culture.

[1] Yang Yongliang was born in 1980. He was born and currently lives and works in Shanghai. From an early age he was taught Chinese traditional painting, calligraphy and various art forms for ten years. In 2005 he started creating contemporary art, including modern ink painting, photography and video art. [This short biography is based on information from Yang’s website. The complete biography can be found at http://www.yangyongliang.com/Bio.html]

[2] Sherman E. Lee, Chinese Landscape Painting, (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1962), 3

[3] Laura Auricchio, “The Transformation of Landscape Painting in France”, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lafr/hd_lafr.htm (October 2004), (accessed September 16, 2013)

[4] Michael Sullivan, in Symbols of Eternity – The Art of Landscape Painting in China, (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1979), 6

[5] Ibid

[6] Department of Asian Art,Nature in Chinese Culture”, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cnat/hd_cnat.htm (October 2004), (accessed September 16, 2013)

[7] Lee, in Chinese Landscape Painting, (Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1962), 3

[8] Department of Asian Art.Nature in Chinese Culture”, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

[9] Kwo Da-Wei, Chinese Brushswork: Its History, Aesthetics and Techniques, (Montclair: Allanheld & Schram, 1981), xv

[10]  Lee, in Chinese Landscape Painting, 5

[11] Kwo Da-Wei, in Chinese Brushswork: Its History, Aesthetics and Techniques, 56-73

[12] Sullivan, in Symbols of Eternity – The Art of Landscape Painting in China, 2

[13] See Lee discussion of Mi Yu-jen’s Cloudy Mountain, in Chinese Landscape Painting, 28

[14] See Wen Fong discussion of Ch’u Ting’s Summer Mountains, in Summer Mountains – The Timeless Landscape, (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975), Plate 13

[15] “Introduction to Chinese Painting”, Long Island University, http://www2.liu.edu/cwis/cwp/but06/hillwood/chinese/essays/no_essay_02.html (accessed September 16, 2013)

[16] Malcolm Goodman, “Kite History of China”, The Kiteman, United Kingdom, http://www.kiteman.co.uk/CHINESE%20KITE%20HISTORY.htm (accessed October 9, 2013)

[17] Sullivan, in Symbols of Eternity – The Art of Landscape Painting in China,  6-7

[18] Lee, in Chinese Landscape Painting, 85

[19] Calum MacLeod and Sunny Yang, “China talks tough in war on smog”, USA Today, (September 13, 2013),  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/09/13/china-smog/2809669/, (accessed October 9, 2013)

[20] It is not an unreasonable assumption that Yang would be quite aware of both of these considerations. See his biographical information at: http://www.yangyongliang.com/Bio.htm

[21] Jeffrey W Cody, and Frances Terpak, Brush and Shutter: Early Photographs in China, (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2011), Foreward

[22] Claire Roberts, Photography and China, (London, Reaktion Books, Limited, 2012), 7

[23] Cody and Terpak, in Brush and Shutter: Early Photographs in China, 52-61

[24] Roberts, in Photography and China, 63

[25] Cody and Terpak, in Brush and Shutter: Early Photographs in China, 15

[26] Frank Mercado, “Robert Adams Retrospective: Almost Too Much of a Good Thing”, in Frank Mercado Photography, October 2011, https://www.frankmercadophotography.com/2011/10/robert-adams-retrospective-almost-too-much-of-a-good-thing/ (accessed September 23, 2013)

[27] Katherine Ware, Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment, (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2011)

[28] Mark Johnson, “Environmental Photographer Of The Year 2013: The Winning Shots”, International Business Times, (April 10 2013), http://www.ibtimes.com/environmental-photographer-year-2013-winning-shots-1182339, (accessed October 9, 2013)

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