In search of the surreal landscapes that inspired the great painters of China's Sung dynasty

One of my most cherished, if illogical, fantasies is that I was one of those Chinese scholar-painters in a former life. I first discovered their ethereal artwork by accident when I stumbled across a Chinese landscape painting at the British Museum. It carried me aloft from a damp, dreary English day into a land of mountains and rivers and, most important, empty space. In a single revelatory moment I had an entirely new aesthetic experience. I was inside the painting, part of its atmosphere. By not filling up his canvas, the painter had left room for me—as, I later discovered, he had intended. Ever since then, I dreamed of visiting the places that inspired this art.

That was what led me to Beijing, about to embark on a journey in search of the landscapes portrayed by painters of the Sung dynasty, which prevailed between a.d. 960 and 1279. The crowds, dust, and noise of the capital could not have been further from the spirit I was after. From Beijing I would fly some 900 miles south to Guilin in Guangxi province, reputed among the Chinese to possess the "most beautiful mountains and rivers under heaven."

I was looking for an old China, a China of exquisite refinement, of spare, breathtaking elegance—the China of the poets and painters. Starting with the Sung dynasty, there were two kinds of artists in China: the professionals, who were trained to produce academic paintings for the emperor, and the gentleman scholars, or literati, who wrote poetry and painted as a means of personal expression. Mi Fu was one of the greatest and best-known of these literati in Chinese history, as well as a calligrapher, art collector, and sometime imperial administrator. Although he worked in the period between the Northern and Southern Sung dynasties, Mi Fu painted gentle, misty landscapes, precipitating the soft style that Southern literati later adopted. He disdained the elaborate polish typical of court painters, aspiring instead to a technique that seemed fresh and unstudied.

In the eleventh century, Mi Fu traveled to Guilin to observe its mountains and rivers. The resulting shanshui (literally, "mountain/water") paintings reflect his inclination toward what he called naturalness: they have a simplicity of design and brushstroke, a kind of easy spontaneity. Using the dot technique subsequently named for him, Mi Fu conveyed the soft qualities typical of Guilin landscapes.

Though the city of Guilin holds a great place in art history, I'd been advised to avoid it and go directly to Yangshuo, a small town about an hour and a half by bus down the Li River, where the hills are more majestic, the prices more reasonable, the merchants less venal. As my bus rattled to its destination, I caught my first glimpse of the famous karst hills: strange, massive shapes lit by a stunningly full orange moon. Behind them, a star-filled sky was draped like a theatrical backdrop. At last I felt myself moving in a Mi Fu dream.

I awoke the next morning in Yangshuo, disappointed to find it tacky, commercial, cast in concrete. Nothing could have been more at odds with the ethereal terrain surrounding the town, especially at dusk, when the landscape begins to vaporize before your eyes.

Still, Yangshuo is inexpensive and congenial, with enough approximations of Western food to satisfy the tentative traveler's palate. And it was a good base from which to explore the countryside, which I did often during the week I spent there. Most of the hotels rent bicycles for a dollar or two a day. Heading west out of town, the road winds through green terraced fields, past water buffalo, peasants in Mao blue, and stands selling grapefruit resembling huge drop pearls.

I spent my first day poking around town, determining to set out on my landscape quest the next. It was almost impossible not to strike up acquaintanceships in Yangshuo; it's a haven for the more adventurous breed of tourist: beautiful Danes, massive Australians exuding outback vigor. Everyone seemed young in spirit, if not in fact. That afternoon I took a stroll down Xi Jie, which is lined with Western-style cafés specializing in apple pie and Bob Dylan. Susanna's has the best food and the longest history, but I came to prefer Serena's Bar, where I quickly established rapport with Ebo, the sweet, helpful owner.

In the company of a sturdy Irishman, an even sturdier Australian, and, sturdiest of all, an Austrian clad in lederhosen, I departed the next morning by boat for a day trip to the Guilin countryside. I was relieved to discover that the commercialism of Yangshuo has not extended to the river landscape, which is still pristine: clear water, uncluttered riverbanks lined by delicate willow trees and stone walls. The wondrous karst hills loomed on either side.

It was a perfect day for a river trip, the weather warm and dry, the sun bright but not searing. Our boat was large enough to pick up steam when necessary, small enough to give us a sense of being close to the water. Bands of skinny-dipping boys hallooed to us from shore, saluting us with a wiggle of their bare bottoms. Progressing as on a royal barge, we passed ducks, geese, and egrets. Fishermen balanced on long, slender bamboo rafts, silhouetted against the blue wash of the hills. Here was precisely the sort of scene that had inspired the shanshui painters, giving tangible form to the Taoist idea that nature is a cosmic, living force in which humanity occupies merely a foothold.

The literati believed that painting was an expression of a man's character, of his very essence. They merely used earthly images to embody thoughts and feelings. All this they expressed with the most minimal of materials, which they called the Four Precious Things: inkstone, ink stick, brush, and paper. Restricted to monochromatic ink wash, the shanshui painter developed an elegant repertoire of brushwork, from the axe texture (a kind of slashing stroke) to the "Mi dot" ink blob (similar to the dots used in pointillism).

One day in Yangshuo, a receptionist at my hotel named Li Xiu approached me: she had heard that I was interested in landscape painting. "Everyone in my family is a painter," she told me. I asked her if I could meet them, and the next day I followed Li Xiu home, threading my way through a labyrinthine housing development built into and out of the karst rock and reminiscent of the slums in Fellini's Satyricon. Her granduncle, Li Tian Guan—painter, calligrapher, and poet—awaited us. Mr. Li spent most of his days in the unheated front room of the apartment, working and receiving friends.

He started the visit by copying one of my favorite Du Fu poems for me, then went on to tell how he had been jailed by the Communists for having worked in Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang government. Mr. Li is still denied a government pension, so he lives on the small income provided by his paintings. Yet he is kind and patient—not just to me but to the stream of guests who visit daily, soliciting his advice on their poems, their paintings, their lives. I left him busily editing a book-length manuscript of his poems, and I carried away the conviction that modern China has its ancient sages still.

Before leaving China, I wanted to see at least one of the more rugged and heroic landscapes characteristic of the Northern Sung, painted between 960 and 1126. While most travelers visit the famous Three Gorges in Hubei province, I had heard enough tales about water pollution and overcrowding to know that this was not the experience I sought. Then a Chinese acquaintance told me about Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan province.

The perfect launching pad for an excursion to the gorge is the city of Lijiang, spectacularly situated at the base of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, in Yunnan province. Before it was devastated by an earthquake in February of 1996, Lijiang had the only well-preserved old town left in all of China. Still, the government is rebuilding it in traditional style, as dictated by law. And some of the stone bridges and adobe-and-tile houses dating to the Tang dynasty (a.d. 618‚907) remain.

I stayed at the Sanhe Hotel, just inside the old town, where the staff was more than willing to arrange a day trip to the famous gorge. My guide and I hiked about half a mile on the dirt road that skirted its top, the black stone of the mountains towering over us. Their wildness and grandeur brought to mind the paintings of Fan K'uan, the great Northern Sung artist whose monumental style is the antithesis of the intimate Southern Sung technique.

We descended the long, slippery path, then there we were: at the bottom of the chasm, white water whipping about us as the sunlight slanted sideways overhead. Legend has it that at this spot, a tiger once leapt the 100-foot-wide gorge, leaving his pursuers dumbfounded on the other side.

As a surprise coda to my shanshui journey, I had the good fortune to arrive in Hong Kong in time to see a major exhibition of 20th-century Chinese painting titled "Tradition and Innovation." The East-West dialogue that began with the Post-Impressionist exploration of the flat, patterned space of Japanese prints and continued with the Abstract Expressionists' interest in the spontaneity of the Chan-Zen "flung-ink" tradition remains alive in China, where painters incorporate and discard Western techniques with equal abandon. According to a shanshui painter I met in Nanjing, the younger generation looked to Western art in the years immediately following the Cultural Revolution; but having satisfied their curiosity, many have since returned to the Chinese tradition. Today, the values and techniques that shaped Chinese land- scape painting are finding new life in a post-Mao China rooted in its past yet open to the next Mi Fu.

Barbara Confino, a New York-based writer and photographer, is a consultant at the Asia Society.
Fly into Kunming, a pleasant, midsize city in Yunnan province, southwest of Beijing. From there you can take either a 45-minute flight to Lijiang or, as I did, an overnight bus, which has reclining seats and is quite comfortable. To get to Yangshuo, fly west to Guilin from Kunming and take a one-hour shuttle bus.

Sanhe Hotel 4 Jishan Rd., Lijiang; 86-888/512-0891; doubles $20. Well-run and clean, but bathrooms are shared.
Grand Lijiang Hotel Xinyi St., Lijiang; 86-888/512-8888; doubles $45. Lijiang's newest hotel is sleek, attractive, even verging on luxurious.
Sihai Hotel 73 Xi Jie, Yangshuo; 86-773/882-4070; doubles $13. Spotless, if spartan, rooms and a friendly staff. Evenings can be noisy, however.
Zhu Yang Hotel 24 Pantao Lu, Yangshuo; 86-773/882-1601; doubles $35. Yangshuo's best hotel, with Western-style bathrooms and air conditioning.

Lisa's Xi Jie, Yangshuo; no phone; lunch for two $8. Famous for great Tibetan coffee and video screenings.
Susanna's 54 Xi Jie, Yangshuo; no phone; lunch for two $8. Good banana pancakes, apple pie, and basic Chinese food.
Serena's Café Xi Jie, Yangshuo; no phone; lunch for two $10. A menu similar to Susanna's, but the owner will cook things to order.