Mountain-Water City: an aesthetic way to environmental ethics, by Lei Lixi

Since 1990s, some scholars in China have actively participated in discussing the concept of mountain-water city, “Shan Shui Cheng Shi” in Chinese, literally meaning a city with natural mountains and waters, hopefully to solve such big problems as environmental deterioration and the loss of traditional cultural uniqueness in the process of city modernization.

In China, the idea and environmental model of mountain-water city indeed were put forward in the pre-Qin period. In the middle of the Hanjiang River, Xiangyang city established in the Han Dynasty is a typical model of mountain-water city, which is surrounded by the Hanjiang River and the Jingshan Mountains,creating a history of mountain-water literature and art. Of course, it is also not difficult for us to find many foreign cities similarly environed by natural mountains and/or waters, for instance, Paris of France and Stuttgart of Germany. From the view of environmental aesthetics, we must recognize the similarity and commonness of the world cities with environment
of natural mountains and waters.

However, why is such a city of China, rather than a foreign city, called a mountain-water city? Perhaps, we may understand the differences in Chinese and foreign cities from the point of environmental ethics. In China, a city called a mountain-water city is not only encircled with natural mountains and waters, but also becomes a historical tradition of mountain-water literature and art which usually concerns with the city’s mountain-water environment. In other words, the environment of a mountain-water city does not simply have the natural scenery of mountains and waters. In fact, a mountain-water city should embody ethical relations between human and nature, such as the harmony of man with nature, and the harmony of man with society. For the harmony of man with nature, many Chinese thinkers in ancient times especially emphasized the basic role of the relation between Yang and Yin, and the relation between Sky and Earth; while, for the harmony of man with society, many people generally paid attention to the important function of the relation of political status, the relation of social grades, and the family relations (e.g., the relations of husband and wife, parents and children).

According to such ethical principles, the layout of an ancient mountain-water city would be designed as an enlarged home, having similar fundamental frameworks of a house for a family. The room of the householder was the center of his house, and in like manner, the city hall was the center of the whole city. So we can say that in ancient China a city was like an enlarged house, and the whole country was like an enlarged city; and then, to experience the environment of a mountain-water city was just like to experience the ethical system made of physical and spiritual elements, and to enjoy a building of this city was just like to enjoy the ethical relation(s). That is to say, the environment of a mountain-water city (e.g., Xiangyang) embodies a huge and complicated system of environmental ethics, in which there is not only a natural system of mountain-water ethics, but also a social system of building ethics.

From foregoing discussion, a conclusion may be reached that we need to intellectually apply the designing principles of traditional mountain-water cities to modern city construction.

Lei Lixi, Xiangfan University, CH

Harvard Citation Guide: Lei, L. (2012) Mountain-Water City: an aesthetic way to environmental ethics, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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