Guo Xi: Wenren Painter


Essay Question #2


November 17, 2003


Guo Xi is an important figure when comparing the scholars of the Song that use the mountain motif. Guo Xi’s exceptional ability to relate emotional mountain scenes to the ideals of Neo-Confucianism and represent the Emperor Shenzong adequately is amazing. He uses many images to convey man’s quest for li, the principal of the Way of Heaven in the paintings. Specifically in his painting titled “Early Spring” does Guo Xi inspire an instant aesthetic response and show his loyalty to the Emperor.


Upon first impression “Early Spring” is humbling because of the overpowering mountain. As “Poetry and Painting in Song China” states, the general appearance of the mountain is of “a great lord glorious on his throne and a hundred princes hastening to pay him court, without any effect of arrogance or withdrawal”. This shows the great power and high respect that everyone gives to the Emperor, which is well portrayed in Guo Xi’s painting.


This image of the mountain is accompanied by many symbols of the hierarchical system of the Song period. There is a peasant and a fisherman at the very bottom of the page, which symbolizes the base of society. These peasants are regarded very poorly and are not given much attention, like the foundation of a building. However, without this base to build everything else off of, nothing would be possible beyond the nomadic ways of the Neolithic era. The workers that make the specialized items that are not integral to life, but serve as a luxury for the elite. There is a woman and a child who look up the mountain in awe. They are the next rung on the social hierarchy. Above them are a group of monks that are walking to the monastery higher yet in the painting. Finally, there are the Emperor’s official. This official is flanked by two servants that are not important enough to ride horses, but still higher than the peasants.


All of these people in the painting are either making their way up the mountain or working below it, but it is clear that they are overshadowed by the greatness of the mountain. Not one of the groups in the social hierarchy ladder are near the central peak, they are all less than it. Two monasteries lie in between the people and the peak if the mountain, which conveys the idea that the Neo-Confucianism is very important to the lives of the people as well, but it still does not compare to the greatness of the Emperor. Guo Xi’s paintings express a strong sense of loyalty towards the Emperor. This is apparent because not only are all of the subjects of Emperor Shenzong pictured way below him, but also the monasteries are shown below the Emperor as well. This implies that to the subjects, the Emperor is held higher than any other, worldly or otherwise, value.


However, Emperor Shenzong was not liked by all. Without doubt he took advantage of the peasants and enforced heinous taxes to keep himself living a life of luxury. One of the main scholars to speak out was Zheng Xia. Zheng Xia stated that “the incentives of fame and fortune were driving officials to wanton acts of bribery and fast profits, threatening the very life of the dynasty”. This direct disapproval of the Emperor’s ways had Zheng Xia banished to the south, but the criticism stayed long after he left. Zheng Xia had been an eyewitness to the horrid acts of the Empire, which made his paintings more effective. The paintings of Zheng Xia helped the Emperor to see, through Zheng Xia’s eyes, the atrocities that were occurring. However, these paintings were accepted by the Emperor and as a result of Zheng Xia taking a stance against the actions of the officials, Emperor Shenzong “authorized substantial reductions in the guild-exemption and market usage fees in Kaifeng and ordered that the Finance Commission to investigate the implementation of the New Policies that affected trade”.


When the Emperor looked at Zheng Xia’s painting, he was said to have “sighed deeply time after time”. This is evidence that the painting was much more useful in presenting the problem than doing so using any other