Aesthetics of Traditional societies

Introduction Click here
Pre-historic view of landscape Click here
Aboriginal view of the Australian landscape Click here
Māori landscape beliefs Click here
Chinese landscape painting Click here
Tibetan mountain beliefs
Click here
Conclusions Click here
References Click here


The Western view of landscapes is by no means the only way by which landscape quality may be viewed. For countless generations, traditional societies developed very sophisticated and complex interpretations of the landscapes around them. Four such interpretations are examined here – the Australian Aborigine, New Zealand Māori, the traditional Chinese, and the Tibetan. These are examples of traditional societies in which landscapes are viewed in symbolic terms, their physical features being taken to represent other entities such as ancestral beings and deities or philosophical concepts. The examples exhibit aspects of the richness of human interaction and interpretation of landscapes of which the Western view is but one view.


Prior to the written word and art, cave paintings provided the dominant medium by which the early people on earth could permanently record and reflect on their environment. Although we now take it for granted, it was a staggering conceptual advance to represent the world by the image of a small picture.

Lascaux .jpg     Cave paintings in the Lascaux caves, France. 20,000 years old

If we hope to find from this, however, early indications of human delight in the landscape, these hopes are soon dashed. Of the thousands of pre-historic cave paintings in Europe, Africa, the Middle East or the Americas, none portrayed scenery or the background or vegetation (Laming, 1959; Beltran, 1982; Burenhult, 2003).  Rather, the galleries of the caves display pictures of animals of all descriptions: horses, wild oxen, goats, chamois, reindeer, ibexes, bison, mammoths, lions, bears, rhinoceroses, birds as well as human figures (Laming, 1959; Beltran, 1982; Ruspoli, 1987). A few are suggestive of ruffled water with deer swimming but overall no deliberate effort to indicate vegetation, a horizon, or any kind of landscape was ever made (Laming, 1959).


Living in Australia for at least 50,000 years, Australia’s Aborigines developed strategies which enabled them to live, survive and thrive in an often hostile environment. A key strategy was the sophisticated mythology and symbolism in their Dreamtime through which they viewed the surrounding landscape. The Dreamtime is the mystical past of the Aborigines and is the basis of their religious beliefs and creation stories. The Dreamtime, or alcheringa, was a “sacred, heroic time long ago when man and nature came to be as they are” (Stanner, 1979).

Kimberley art
Aboriginal art, Kimberley

Across Australia, Dreamtime stories differ, but they always have a strong bond to the land. Their spiritual beings shaped the land, created the first people, set them in their territories, and established their laws and rituals. At the completion of the act of creation, the mythical beings returned into the earth, the actual Dreamtime ended and now survives only among the Aborigines as the “Dreaming”. Animals, plants, astronomical bodies and land features however, are associated with the Dreamtime, and rituals are re-enacted at certain sacred sites in order to maintain the life of the land.

While described as an Age of Heroes, it is incorrect to view the Dreamtime as a Golden Age or Garden of Eden. The world as seen by the Aborigines was vibrant with supernatural or mythic beings and their agents or intermediaries (Berndt, et al, 1982).

Inland Australia, with its unpredictable and highly variable rainfall resulting in its whimsical bounty and famine,.. .explains the richness of Aboriginal ceremonial and mythological life, the rigidity of their social controls and their intimate knowledge and attachment to their land (Mulvaney, 1975). Similarly, the anthropologist, Norman Tindale, believed that the creation mythology apparently embodied empirical wisdom, gained from trial and error, intended to ensure survival; it endowed tribal territories with an organic relationship with their owners. (Mulvaney, 1975).  Western concepts such as wealth and poverty were alien to the Aborigine whose preoccupations are much more with the intangible world of religion and law (Flood, 1997).

Rainbow serpent
Images of the rainbow serpent

A common myth surrounds a dangerous snake or serpent that dwells in rivers, waterholes and lakes. The Rainbow Serpent, a huge snake which was a creative spirit and was often associated with waterholes, rain and thunder. Belief in the Rainbow Serpent occurs over much of Aboriginal Australia and is the reason Aborigines avoid camping too close to water. It goes by numerous names in regions across Australia, e.g. Bunyip in western Victoria, and Arkaroo in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, but was named the Rainbow Serpent by Professor Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, a British anthropologist, whose paper in 1926 commenced: There is found in widely separated parts of Australia a belief in a huge serpent which lives in certain pools and waterholes. This serpent is associated, and sometimes identified with, the rainbow… Of relevance to the landscape is the severe impact that such a belief would have on the innate human delight in water. And this in an often arid desert environment where water is so precious.

Over the millennia, the 400 groups of Aboriginals across Australia have developed languages, beliefs, myths and legends. Although it is difficult to classify these due to their diversity, The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia observes: One intriguing feature (of Aboriginal mythology) is the mixture of diversity and similarity in myths across the entire continent (Horton, 1994).

Ab signs
Figure 1 Aboriginal symbols related to the landscape

Aboriginal rock art, which is the oldest recorded in the world, has the distinction of continuity with the present population. There are over 100,000 recorded painting sites across Australia (Flood, 1997), probably only a tiny fragment of the original number, but none depict landscapes in a representational form but only as symbols. They show humans, birds, bird tracks, reptiles, fish, the sun, as well as geometric designs, including angular patterns, zig zags, concentric squares, circles and line grooves symbolic of the landscape. Waterholes are portrayed as concentric circles and various shapes represent foliage, trees, watercourses, burnt-out country and so on (Berndt et al, 1982). Painting the landscape and the life within it had great symbolic significance, and the artist was compelled to conform to traditional styles and designs that were relevant to his group (Figure 1). The aesthetic quality and the beauty of a painting related to how well the artist reflected the cultural style and his familiarity with design – Beauty was epitomized in conforming to or within a particular local art style (Berndt et al, 1982).

Arid areas may “appear empty and inhospitable to those who do not know them, but to the Aboriginal groups who inhabit those areas, the lands created by their ancestors and infused with the powers, are places rich in spiritual meaning and physical sustenance. Across this landscape spreads a web of ancestral paths travelled by the supernatural beings on their epic journeys of creation in the Dreaming, linking the topography firmly to the social order of the people” (Miller, 2003).

A wide empty land – but not to the Aborigines.  Far north of South Australia near Marla

All landscape features have their origins in Dreamtime creation stories (Smyth, 1994) but special places, known as sacred sites are of particular significance being sites of Dreamtime events, burial grounds or ceremonial meeting places. Sacred sites are defined by the Northern Territory Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority as:

“places within the landscape that have a special significance under Aboriginal tradition. Hills, rocks, waterholes, trees, plains and other natural features may be sacred sites.  In coastal and sea areas, sacred sites may include features which lie both above and below the water. Sometimes sacred sites are obvious, such as ochre deposits, rock art galleries, or spectacular natural features. In other instances, sacred sites may be unremarkable to an outside observer.  They can range in size from a single stone or plant, to an entire mountain range.” (NT Govt., nd).

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation describes Aboriginal myths as follows (Smyth, 1994):

“… they generally describe the journeys of ancestral beings, often giant animals or people, over what began as a featureless domain. Mountains, rivers, waterholes, animal and plant species, and other natural and cultural resources came into being as a result of events which took place during these Dreamtime journeys. Their existence in present-day landscapes is seen by many indigenous peoples as confirmation of their creation beliefs…”

“The routes taken by the Creator Beings in their Dreamtime journeys across land and sea… link many sacred sites together in a web of Dreamtime tracks criss-crossing the country. Dreaming tracks can run for hundreds, even thousands of kilometres, from desert to the coast and may be shared by peoples in countries through which the tracks pass…”

Dreamtime jourmey
Dreamtime journey

Inga Clendinnen, an anthropologist, described the complex world of the Aboriginal mind:

“They … developed steepling (i.e. like a steeple) thought-structures – intellectual edifices so comprehensive that every creature and plant had its place within it. They travelled light, but they were walking atlases, and walking encyclopaedias of natural history… Detailed observations of nature were elevated into drama by the development of multiple and multi-level narratives: narratives which made the intricate relationships between these observed phenomena memorable. (Clendinnen, 1999)

The image of Aborigines trudging through the desert as walking atlases and walking encyclopaedias is particularly powerful.

The tracks of Dreamtime beings moving across the landscape and can be thousands of miles in length, extending across the country, linking the tribes by “song lines”. Aboriginal clans and tribes are defined by the location of sacred sites and by the Dreaming tracks.

Aboriginal people have profound spiritual linkages with the land which is of prime importance as the source of nurture, both physically and spiritually. The land is dense with meaning – with song and story and with living spiritual representatives manifested as features of that countryside. Most Aboriginal art is a statement concerning land: not just any piece of land but specific stretches of land substantiated through identified mythological associations.

(Areas may) “appear empty and inhospitable to those who do not know them, but to the Aboriginal groups who inhabit those areas, the lands created by their ancestors and infused with the powers, are places rich in spiritual meaning and physical sustenance. Across this landscape spreads a web of ancestral paths traveled by the supernatural beings on their epic journeys of creation in the Dreaming, linking the topography firmly to the social order of the people” (Miller, 2003)

Aboriginal myths can have their origins millennia ago, referring to landscapes long disappeared. One describes Port Philip Bay when it was dry which occurred in the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago (Dixon, 1972). A similar myth describes a former coast south of Cairns on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, an area now covered by the sea. Areas of Central Australia, now desert, are described in myths as fertile, well-watered plains and the area near Lake Eyre as a garden. Geologists confirm a wet phase in the early Holocene epoch (11,700 years ago).

A myth cited in the World Heritage nomination of the Wet Tropics Rain Forests as an unparalleled human record of events dating back to the Pleistocene era tell of the origins of crater lakes on the Atherton Tableland in Queensland, with eucalyptus forest instead of the present tropical forest, a myth confirmed by sampling of fossil pollen from the crater floors:

“It is said that two newly-initiated men broke a taboo and angered the rainbow serpent Yamany, major spirit of the area …” As a result, “the camping-place began to change, the earth under the camp roaring like thunder. The wind started to blow down, as if a cyclone were coming. The camping-place began to twist and crack. While this was happening, there was in the sky a red cloud, of a hue never seen before. The people tried to run from side to side but were swallowed by a crack which opened in the ground….” (Dept of Env., 1988).


The Māoris are a people who reached New Zealand from the Polynesian islands about 1280 CE and who settled across the North and South Islands, principally in the North. They are a warrior people and fighting between the tribes was endemic. In their pre-contact culture, infanticide, cannibalism, slavery and trophy head hunting were common.

According to Māori cosmo-genealogical narratives, all life derives from the union of the Earth Mother, Patatūānuku and the Sky Father, Ranginui. All the natural resources of their world, the fish, forests, water, soils and animals were all derived from this union. All life possesses the life essence – mauri.

Mauri must not be altered to the degree that it is no longer recognizable. Harvesting of natural resources must not change the essential character of the mauri. Removal of even one tree from a grove of trees would remove part of its vital essence (mauri) and change its character. This applies to trees, water, land and even people.  Since both Māori and the tree descended from Tane (the husband), removal of a tree to build a whare runanga (house) required that the tribe perform placatory rites before the tree could be slain (Cumberland, 1949).

Maori art
Māori art

The people of the land, tangata whenua, had a reciprocal relationship with Patatūānuku whereby they were responsible for the mauri of the world in return for gaining its fruits and foods. These customary practices associated with caring and looking after the environment are now known as kaitiakitanga which is synonymous with guardianship and stewardship of the environment, but this captures only part of the concept. Te Heuheu, a leader of the custodians of the Tongariro National Park area, expressed the meaning when he said:

“The physical, cultural and spiritual ties that bind my people, Ngatiati Tuwharetoa, and Tongariro are real. Management systems may change over time but the one constant is the affection and association for this landscape.… man passes but the land endures. Te ha o taku maunga ko taku Manawa (The breath of my mountain is my heart).” (quoted by Kawharu, 2009).

Tipa (2009) notes: “Māori see themselves as being part of the environment. No distinction is made between the inanimate and the animate or between abiotic or biotic”.

The relationship Māori have with each other is influenced by whakapapa or genealogy, which extends back to cosmological ancestors (Farmier, 2013). Whakapapa largely determines the rights to use, access and manage the natural resources. It is implemented through kaitiakitanga – the expression of a two-way relationship that involves obligations to give, receive and repay (Meurk, et al, 2012). The land, water, mountains and valleys, rocks, trees and even traditional routes which have been passed down from the ancestors are all part of the Māori collective identity and are fiercely protected. However, the individual tribes, hapu, and the larger Māori body, iwi, can differ significantly in their attitude to resource management and development issues.


The relationship of Māori to the landscape is well expressed in their view of water. Rain is Ranginui’s tears at being separated from Papatűänuku and mist is Papatűänuku’s tears for Ranginui. Water has its own mauri as it is regarded as a living thing but the mauri changes according to the nature of the water. Fresh water is waimori and salt water is waitai. Estuarine water where the two are mixed is waimtaitai. There are three states of water:

  • Waiora is the water of life and includes rainwater, tears, springs, holy water, and water from special places.
  • Waikino is bad water and describes dangerous places such as flooding, rapids or snags in a river, or water that is polluted physically or spiritually.
  • Waimate is dead water where the mauri has been lost such as stagnant pools, which cannot support humans or food and can affect other water.

Based on this view of water, it is obvious that the waters of different mauri should not be mixed by piping water from upstream to downstream, or using water to convey slurry from a mine and discharging it into the sea. These practices would mix the mauri and be unacceptable. Extracting water for human use, however, does not affect mauri. The brief but rich Māori description of the Taiera River as a living entity is contrasted below with the dry geographic description from Wikipedia.

Taiera River

New Zealand

A second example is the Waikato River in the North Island, and at 264 miles (425 km), New Zealand’s longest river. To the tribes along the Waikato, including the large tribe of Tainui, the river is the source of pride, or mana. They are river people with five centuries of continuous occupation of its banks. In 1999, a power company applied to use more of the river water in its power station. Use would increase the water temperature by 2ºC and this was regarded as damaging to the river’s mauri, thereby affecting the local Māori well-being (Muru-Lanning, 2009). In evidence, Mrs. Iti Rangihinemutu Rawiri of the tribe expressed to the court: when people abuse the river it is the same as people abusing our mother or grandmother. She continued, people must respect our river ancestor which must be put back to good health. Another tribal person, Carlson Wirihana, said: Now we have never maintained that we own the river. As far as we are concerned the river owns us.

Mountain landscapes are generally regarded by Māori as sacred – tapu. As explained by Garrard (2006), The Māori relationship with such landscapes has a psychological significance known as turangawaewae, which is explained by Hirini Moko Mead as the: right of a person to be counted as a member of an iwi and thus establishing a person’s sense of belonging to the land and people that occupy the land.

To Māori, therefore, viewing landscapes aesthetically is conditioned by a range of factors:

  • Whether or not the viewer is part of the people of the land, mana whenua – the legitimate group that exercises authority over a specific area; if so their relationship to it will be more intimate than if it is not their iwi;
  • The life essence, mauri, of the landscape, and the extent to which this has been lost or altered;
  • The degree to which the landscape has been protected, kaitiakitanga, by its mana whenua;
  • The sacredness of the landscape, for example, mountains, battle sites, burial areas;
  • The ancestral landscape represented by the physical landscape of natural features; is the landscape regarded as an ancestor, even a mother, of the iwi?
  • The relationship of the landscape to the wider whenua (land), for example, a river is a tupuna (ancestor) with great mana (natural force derived from a supernatural agency) regarded as a single entity – ki uta ki tai (mountains to sea) which cannot be divided into parts.
  • Viewing a landscape and rating its aesthetic quality may be considered as taking from the land, and based on the principle of kaitiakitanga creates an obligation to repay.

The foregoing is by no means definitive; they are my interpretation of Māori beliefs as applied to the landscape. Even if they are correct, there is likely to be a range of Māori interpretations and applications of them. Māori conception of the aesthetic will be similarly determined by such factors.

Maori hosing
Maori housing, Queen Charlotte Sound, 1780s

Shaun Awatere of Māori descent issued a pertinent word of warning (Meurk et al, 2012):

“Quantitative assessment should be used with a cautionary note. The danger in co-opting Māori values into this type of method is that Māori values are then seen from within the framework of Western knowledge systems… This is a problem because quantitative assessment may de-contextualise the indigenous perspective, rendering it malleable and conducive to the agenda of power brokers…Quantitative assessment is helpful for decision makers but is it equally important for iwi/hapū? Who are the decision makers and what roles do iwi/hapū have in natural resource management? Iwi/hapū are not stakeholders whose views should be considered within the context of quantitative tools such as multi-criteria analysis or cost–benefit analysis, they are tangata whenua – treaty partners – and their role in the management of resources should be made explicit.”


Mist & Mt Lu
Wu Zhen, Mist in the mountains and Shen Zhow, Lofty Mount Lu

Landscape painting has been regarded as the highest form of Chinese painting for at least one thousand years and is still so regarded. Commencing in the late Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), landscape painting progressed through the Northern and Southern Song dynasties (907-1279) in a period known as the “Great Age of Chinese landscape,” and survived and thrived through the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

During the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), paintings of fruit, flowers and animals, together with narrative paintings that depicted a story became popular although some painters continued landscape painting in the Song and Yuan traditions. From the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), greater individualistic painting emerged and in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese art came under the influence of Western art. 

Chinese landscape paintings often had a Taoist basis, a characteristic being to depict humans as tiny insignificant figures in the vast natural landscape. The paintings also often sought to portray an inner harmony between man and nature in accordance with both Tao and Buddhist principles.

Song dynasty
Early Chinese paintings of the Song Dynasty

Because the Chinese had not learnt the principles of perspective, their paintings lacked a vanishing point towards which all the forms and lines were directed thereby providing depth and perspective. Instead, the eye moves about the landscape and a river or a mountain towering above it may both seem to be at eye level. Pathways and links in the painting lead the viewer from one level to another.

Chinese paintings 1
Chinese paintings

Many of the Chinese landscape paintings were of shan shui, shan being mountains and shui being water with the paintings displayed both mountains and water. Mountains have long been regarded as sacred objects in China being the home of immortals and close to heaven. The paintings are not realistic but rather display the scene from the painter’s mind, what he thinks about it, comparable to a philosophical statement. 

Shan shui paintings have three parts:

  • Paths – they are never straight but meander, which adds depth to the scene. The path can literally be a path but is more likely to be a stream, the sun viewed through mountains, or other natural patterns.
  • The threshold – the destination of the path, welcoming the viewer. It may be a mountain, its shadow, or its appearance against the sky and is always clearly defined.
  • The heart – the single focal point or meaning towards which all elements lead.

Shan shui paintings display the five elements of Chinese elemental theory: earth, fire, metal, water and wood. Each of these represents ideas and emotions, a specific direction, and a color, all of which are used in paintings as summarized in Table 1.

Table 1 Meanings of Shan shui painting

Table 1

There are positive and negative interactions between the elements. Positive elements are: wood produces fire; fire produces earth; earth produces metal; metal produces water, and water produces wood. Painters use positive combinations, for example, earth (tan or yellow) complements fire (red) and metal (white or gold) so the artist can combine red and yellow, or red and white.

Negative interactions are: wood uproots earth; earth blocks water; water douses fire; fire melts metal, and metal chops wood. As metal (white or gold) would react negatively with wood (green) and fire (red), the artist would not mix gold and green or red and green.

autumn color
Zhao Mengfu, 1254 – 1322, Yuan Dynasty.  Autumn colors on the Que and Hua Mountains

In the northern Song Dynasty, the paintings were of towering mountains, painted with ink wash with strong black lines while in the southern Song Dynasty, the paintings were of rolling hills and rivers, more peaceful scenes painted with softer brushes. Gradually more subtle landscapes appeared with blurred outlines, mist obscuring the mountains, an impressionistic approach many centuries ahead of its appearance in France. The spiritual qualities became paramount. Often using only ink, brush and paper, artists produced many variations of a theme of mountains, waterfalls, streams and lakes, mists, skies, and trees.

Zhao Mengfu
Zhao Mengfu, 1254 – 1322 Yuan Dynasty.  Crossing Rivers, Layered Mountains
Huang Gongwang
Huang Gongwang, 1269–1354, Yuan Dynasty. Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains

Many of the Chinese painters were not professional artists but were educated and cultured government officials with sufficient wealth and leisure to indulge in painting. They often met with others to discuss paintings and poetry.

Viewed from today’s perspective, Chinese landscape paintings were not so much about the landscape as about the artist and their feelings, perceptions, position in society, and their philosophy about life. Though technically superb, the paintings do not convey an accurate image of the landscape but rather an impression of the grandeur, power and majesty of nature, and of the insignificance of man.


Shangri-La County
Figure 3 Shangri-La County (pink) (Zhongdian) and Diqing Prefecture (yellow) in Yunnan Province in south-western China

When James Hilton published his novel, Lost Horizon, in 1933 the world discovered Shangri-La, a beautiful hidden valley somewhere in the Himalayas, a land of complete bliss, delight and peace isolated from the outside world where the inhabitants were happy and content and lived long lives. The place had a Tibetan culture and the Buddhist religion.

In 2002, the Chinese, with a view to Western tourism, claimed Shangri-La to be located in the Yunnan Province, a Tibetan county in southwest China, in a place known as Zhongdian in Chinese (or Gyeltang in Tibetan), the capital of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Figure 3).

Mt Kawa

Located at an altitude of 10,800 feet (3,300 m), it is in the heart of the Hengduan Mountains on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau with the Mekong and other large rivers flowing through the area. Within the Hengduan Mountains is a range known in Tibetan as Mainri Snow Mountains (Meili Xue Shan in Chinese) with thirteen main peaks which are over 20,000 feet (6,000 m) high. Access is restricted because of dangerous conditions and, because they are sacred to the Tibetans, have never been climbed. In 1991, a Japanese/Chinese climbing team was all but wiped out with 17 members killed by an avalanche when attempting to climb Meili Mountain, a tragedy interpreted by the locals as revenge of the deities upon the intruders of a sacred mountain. In 2001,  local government passed laws banning all future climbing attempts on cultural and religious grounds.

The other reason is that some are sacred mountains to the Tibetans, in particular, Mt Kawa Karpo (also known as Kawagebo though the Chinese prefer the name Meili). According to trekkers, it is one of the most beautiful snow mountains in the world. Flowing off the mountain is the Mingyong Glacier, also sacred, a 3 mile (5 km) long river of ice described as a silvered dragon descending from heaven (Wikipedia).

Tyler Denison of the University of New Hampshire has researched and visited the region to understand the Tibetans’ perception of the mountain landscape. To the Tibetan, the environment is sacred as it is alive with spirits and deities that must be respected and appeased continually. In order to make a living, the Tibetans must farm and develop the land but to avoid angering the deities and the religious authorities, the lamas, they must establish a physical boundary between lands that can be inhabited and the spirit world. This rigua or “sealing the mountain” boundary prevents certain activities in the sacred area – harvesting of mushrooms or herbs, hunting or killing wildlife, grazing of stock, felling trees or building structures. Even on the inhabited side the spirits must be convinced to coexist with humans.

According to Denison (2006), “The spirits that inhabit mountains are usually the most powerful in the area, and thus the rigua lines are set in relation to the mountain deities and are found at a certain elevation on the mountainside. For example, in Yubeng, the rigua line is about a two-hour hike uphill from the village, at 11,152 feet (3,400 meters) in elevation.”


Tibet scholar, Toni Huber, wrote that mountains have, without a doubt, been the most venerated and culturally significant feature of the Tibetan landscape throughout space and time (Huber, 1999).

Miancimu Goddess Peak
Sam Smith                       Miancimu Goddess Peak, the wife of Meiri Mountain

While many Tibetan mountains have resident deities, there are eight mountains that are the néri, or “mountain abodes” of the deities, and one of these is Meili Mountain. These are considered: places of residence and activity of certain important …‘defenders of Buddhist religion,’ a class of (protector) deities that constitute a large section of the rich Tibetan pantheon (Huber, 1999).

The Meiri Mountain is an important pilgrimage destination with thousands of Tibetans making the journey every year to pay their respects to the mountain deity. Denison notes that the snowy mountains of Kawa Karpo and his followers dominate the Deqin landscape as a physical representation of the deity and his power. Pilgrims (and trekkers) circumambulate the mountain, a strenuous trek that takes 12 days, or visit sacred waterfalls and temples near the Mingyong Glacier. A group of tourists wanted to visit a small, glacial lake that is situated under the mountain believed to be Kawa Karpo’s uncle. It was raining, and the locals explained that Kawa Karpo was angry that outsiders had camped at the lake the previous year. The rain, their guide explained, was a sign to the visitors that they should not visit the lake at that time (Dennison, 2006).

Dennison describes the Tibetans’ belief in the enduring perception of the landscape as a ritual cosmos. He believed Chinese occupation or by the influx of tourists from the West had not diminished this belief. Dennison wrote: The locals explained to me that the tourists coming to the area are also, in a way, pilgrims. One man, who works as a guide in Yubeng, eloquently stated his understanding of the changes:

‘We bring the Chinese and outsiders (waiguoren in Chinese) to see the sacred sites, and they see what is important to us. Yes, making money is important, but I feel that by bringing people to see Kawa Karpo, I am also becoming closer to him (Kawa Karpo), and that is very important.’”


Traditional beliefs about the landscape are intimately linked to the prevailing religious view whereby the landscape represents the world, the cosmos in the view of that culture. Aesthetics barely intrude into this religious view of landscape; rather the landscape is the abode of spirits and deities, of symbols speaking into or affecting human lives, of dangers and risks ever present, of knowledge and understanding barely comprehensible to the Western mind but complete and meaningful to the traditional mind.

  • To the Aborigine, the landscape was vibrant with supernatural or mythic beings and their agents or intermediaries (Berndt et al, 1982).
  • To Māori, the life essence, mauri, derived from the union of the Earth Mother, Patatūānuku and the Sky Father, Ranginui. All the natural resources of their world, the mountains, lakes, rivers, ocean, forests, water, soils and animals came from this union.
  • To the Chinese, landscape paintings sought to reflect their Taoist belief with humans depicted as tiny insignificant figures in the vast natural landscape. Their paintings also portrayed the inner harmony between man and nature in accordance with both Tao and Buddhist principles. Their shan shui paintings of mountains and water, combined the sacredness of mountains and of water.
  • To the Tibetan, the environment is sacred as it is alive with spirits and deities that must be respected and appeased continually.

The way in which the landscape was represented by the Aborigine, the Māori, the Chinese and the Tibetan reflected their world view of the landscape as the abode of their beliefs, and it speaks of, and reinforces these beliefs and traditions.

These traditional cultural views of landscape as being the abode of spiritual beings are not so far removed from the pre-eighteenth century European notion of mountains being the haunts of devils, cursed by God with blemishes on God’s perfect creation because of the fall of man and indicators of the earth’s decay through age. Mountains were also an affront to the classical ideals of harmony, proportion, smoothness and symmetry. While all this changed in the early eighteenth century, prior to this, European views of mountains paralleled those of other traditional cultures.

In Europe in the seventeenth century, Descartes’ separation of “what is out there” from “what is in here”, separating nature from the mind, birthed aesthetics as a subject separate from the religious view. The same separation has not occurred in traditional societies.

What was the place of aesthetics in this traditional perception of the landscape? There appears to be no place for it. Certainly in Europe, the view of the mountains was so abhorred that some individuals traveled through the Alps blindfolded to avoid seeing them. However, in cultures such as the Chinese and Tibetan, mountains were regarded as sacred and held in esteem. This was a religious perception, not an aesthetic one. When the Tibetans beheld Meiri Mountain or the Chinese their mountains, did they feel any aesthetic response, appreciating it for its beauty? As for the Aborigine and the Māori, perhaps not, since their view was so influenced by their religious outlook, just as for pre-eighteenth century Europeans, there was no place for aesthetics.

This might suggest that viewing landscapes in purely aesthetics terms is a relatively recent phenomenon, at least in Western cultures, and that it does not exist concurrently with a strong religious conviction that accords specific properties to the landscape.


Cave paintings

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