In China, the early development of a distinctive cosmology positioned mountains as divine conduits, or sites of communication between heaven and earth where immortals were believed to dwell. Successive Chinese emperors paid frequent official visits to sacred mountains in order to confirm their divine status and legitimate their imperial rule. The adoration of mountains was also strong among the scholar-gentlemen or literati, who valued mountains as places for reclusion and poetic meditation removed from their secular living environment. The tradition of shanshui hua 山水画, or landscape painting, does not attempt to faithful depict existing mountains, but rather is meant to be an idealized representation that expresses the scholar’s inner qualities. For this reason, shanshui hua often combines a variety of viewpoints and seasonal subjects within a single composition, leading to a fascinating multiplicity of time and space.
In Japan, the impact of Chinese culture has continuously shaped distinctive artistic traditions employing ink and brush. During the 17th century, the craze for Chinese literati culture flourished as a response to the suppressive social rule through Confucianism instituted by the government. In Japan, the lack of a scholar official class similar to China granted literati painters more freedom from social structures. Many people, including those without formal academic backgrounds, favored the spontaneity afforded by the Chinese literati style.
Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain, was believed to be a divine site among Japanese people during ancient and medieval times. As the only mountain with perpetual snow in the region, it was seen as a place that transcends the flow of time. A poem in Tale of Ise 伊勢物語 compares the spotted snow capping Mt. Fuji, which lingers even in summer, to a young deer’s white spots. Although the image of Mt Fuji in extant painting dates back to the 11th century, the image acquired extraordinary popularity in Japanese visual culture after the 18th century, especially among wood-block ukiyoe 浮世絵 printmakers. By this time, the representation of Mt. Fuji as a mysterious, divine mountain began to shift in popular consciousness.
In 1603, the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo (present day Tokyo), about 65 miles northeast of Mt. Fuji. The proximity to Mt. Fuji gave it primacy as one of the capital’s most famous tourist views. Mt. Fuji was also associated with auspiciousness. When seen in hatsuyume 初夢, or the dream of New Year’s night when people foresee their fortune, it represented a good omen. During the early modern period, the eruption of Mt. Fuji became far less frequent than ancient times, with its last eruption in 1707, a fact which also contributes to Mt. Fuji’s auspiciousness.