The controversial artist
Zhao Mengfu was a descendent of the Song imperial family who once served the conquering foreign Mongolian government in the Yuan dynasty. Because of the Confucian background of ancient Chinese culture, Zhao’s service to the Yuan court has made him a controversial figure in Chinese art history. Zhao was unlike a large number of literati, or the educated elite, at the time. In response to the drastic political change, other literati, such as Zheng Sixiao, Gong Kai, and Qian Xuan, settled in the southern area around Hangzhou and lived a reclusive life to show their determination of remaining loyal to the fallen Song dynasty.
The Southern Song dynasty collapsed when Zhao was in his mid-twenties. His decision to serve the Yuan court a few years later was not made easily. It was the result of his efforts to understand the contradictions of his circumstance and after considerable psychological struggle. Zhao’s experience as an official of the Yuan dynasty provided him with opportunities to go back and forth between the South and the North. This gave him access to masterpieces of ancient masters in the northern part of China.
Painting for a friend
According to Zhao’s own regular-script inscription, Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains was a painting for his close friend, Zhou Mi, who was one of those literati who refused to serve the Yuan court. Zhou was a connoisseur and painter who settled in the southeastern city of Hangzhou. Zhou’s ancestors were from Shandong Province in the northeast — an area to which Zhou had never been. However, as Zhao had travelled to Zhou’s ancestral homeland as part of his official duties, he was able to describe and share this experience with Zhou through his painting.
Painting from memory
Zhao painted Autumn Colors from memory, unlike a sketch created at the site. The Que and Hua mountains stand in today’s Jinan region. The shape of a pointed peak on the right represents Mount Hua and the rounded form on the left is Mount Que. In terms of textural strokes, Mount Que was rendered by the hemp-fiber textural strokes, which can be traced to the paintings of Dong Yuan, a tenth-century painter. Mount Hua was depicted by unraveling-rope textural strokes, which is an evolution of the hemp-fiber textual strokes that includes a twist in the line, made with the brush held at a slant.
The scattered yellow and orange are reminiscent of autumn. Closer observation reveals villages with huts, willows, pines, goats, and fishermen living in a primitive style. It evokes a sense of tranquility and simplicity. Form-likeness was not a core pursuit of a literati painter. Rather, the painting conveyed Zhao’s impression of Jinan in recognition his friend’s nostalgic longing for the ancestral homeland. The modest lifestyle of the villagers and the serenity of the area also suggest the ideal state of mind of the literati.
Later in Qing dynasty (1644–1912), the Qianlong Emperor travelled by a scenic spot that was similar to this painting. The Emperor asked his official to bring Zhao’s original painting from Beijing for his appreciation. On viewing the painting, he realized that the placement of the two mountains was incorrect and might mislead if used as a reference during wartime, though he did note that Zhao’s depiction resembled the mountains’ actual distinguishable shapes. The painting was, of course, not meant to be an exact record of the area, and certainly not a detailed map for battle!
Painting of guiyi and bimo
Zhao’s aesthetic and artistic pursuit in the early Yuan dynasty opened up possibilities for not only the Four Yuan Masters, but also literati painters in subsequent centuries. The most widespread and influential ideas of Zhao were “antique spirit” (guyi) and flavors of “brush and ink” (bimo).
With a regard for antiquity, Zhao discarded the Southern Song court style and referred back to the masters of the earlier Tang dynasty (618–907), Five dynasties (907–979) and Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). The application of the blue and green colors was a reference to landscape painting during the Tang dynasty. This can be seen in the blue and green colors of the low-lying ground in the middle of the painting and the two mountain-tops that echo each other.
There were also references to ancient masters such as Dong Yuan in the Five Dynasties period. Zhou Mi recorded that Zhao Mengfu brought back many paintings from the north in 1295, including a painting by Dong Yuan. Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains was evidence of the broad and wide spectrum of masterpieces that Zhao had seen. When compared to the hanging scroll Wintry Groves and Layered Banks attributed to Dong and painted three centuries earlier, Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains demonstrates similarities particularly in the depiction the low-lying ground, the kinds of trees represented, the reeds, and the village by the water.
Zhao highlighted that painting and calligraphy grow from the same root. In a colophon inscription attached to the painting, he wrote that the painting of the rocks was done by the technique of “flying white”; the portrayal of trees was like writing large seal script; and the depiction of bamboos was like writing clerical script. Apart from adding value to his idea of guyi, there was an interest in stressing the calligraphic sense in the use of brush and ink.
For Zhao, as a literati painter, the focus of the painting was not the physical resemblance to particular subjects, but rather the qualities of ancient styles of painting with brush and ink. That is one of the reasons why Autumn Colors on the Que and Hua Mountains looks more pictorial compared to the landscape paintings (shanshui) of the Five Dynasties, Northern Song, and Southern Song dynasties. These provide hints about how the inheritance of traditions had been emphasized in classical Chinese painting. Zhao’s preferences for adapting particular uses of brush and ink would influence generations of literati painters.
This handscroll at the National Palace Museum