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On a mountain path in spring.

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On a mountain path in spring.
13th c Chinese Song Painting

MA Yuan (c. 1190 - 1279) Primary
13th c
Teipei. National Museum.
This 13th century painting from the Southern Song Dynasty illustrates a scholar seeking the simple delights of nature. Is he perhaps a banished bureaucrat, or is he a Daoist, a follower of LAO-ZI, another important philosopher who lived in the 6th century BCE? We know very little about Lao-zi, which means "Old Sage." According to tradition Lao-zi was an archivist at the Zhou court before he abandoned the world for the life of a hermit in the western mountains. He is said to have written the Daode Jing.The writings are romantic and anti-intellectual. "Those who teach don't know anything; those who know don't teach." "A wise man learns more from quiet meditation than from trying to reform the world." The vanity of human achievement is summed up in this poem from the Shi Jing, the Book of Odes compiled about 500 BCE: You have coats and robes, But you do not trail them; You have chariots and horses, But you do not ride them. By and by you will die, And another will enjoy them. You have courtyards and halls, But they are not sprinkled and swept; You have bells and drums, But they are not struck. By and by you will die, And another will possess them. You have wine and food; Why not play daily on your lute, That you may enjoy yourself now and lengthen your days? By and by you will die, And another will take your place. --translation by H.A. Giles An entire tradition of landscape painting and lyric poetry grew out of the Daoist tradition. The Jing, ( Classic of Nature and Virtue), encapsulated his wisdom in a mysterious and cryptic style. Landscapes like this show human beings in nature, depicted as just one element in the immensity of nature. The goal is to live in harmony with nature, to find and experience the deep sense of satisfaction that results from that harmony. The painters reflected that harmony in their delicate renditions of nature, and the poets expressed it in words like the following: I love to gaze alone at the dark grasses growing beside the river, When the orioles are calling in the thick woods. The spring tides come down swiftly swollen by the rains, By the deserted ferry the boat swings to and fro. --Wei Yinqu'u (translated by Soame Jenyns) The Tang poet Wang Wei wrote as a retired bureaucrat: In the evening of life tranquillity is my only joy, Ten thousands affairs cease to trouble the heart. I reflect there is no more excellent scheme than To give learning a miss and to return to the forests of my old home Where the wind signs in the pines I loosen my girdle. When the hill moon shines I thrum the lute. If you ask me why I don't care for the proprieties (I invite you to listen while) over the estuary is wafted to me the fisherman's song. ---translation by Soame Jenyns As one looks at the painting one can image that the old Wang Wei hearing the sound of the fisherman's song. The delicate brushwork and monochrome tonality of the painting create the mood of tranquillity that Wang Wei sought in the forests of his old home. The verses, which sum up the spirit of DAOISM, exalt nature as an impersonal cosmic force and deprecate human efforts. Both poem and painting express the Chinese view that human beings are a part of nature, not its masters, and that nature can provide us with profound spiritual sustenance.

Caption: MA YUAN | On a mountain path in spring. | 1220 | Chinese | Song

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