The strange story of “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains,” the 14th century masterpiece by Huang Gongwang, does not deduct from its greatness.
by Massimo Introvigne
The National Palace Museum in Taipei is one of the largest museums in the world. A tour guide, perhaps exaggerating, once told me that it would take at least twenty days to visit it thoroughly. It owns more than six hundred thousand pieces spanning eight thousand years of Chinese culture. In fact, this Taipei institution is nothing more than a major part of the old Beijing Palace Museum, opened inside the Forbidden City after the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi was expelled from the throne, to display the treasures of the imperial family in Republican China. After he lost the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek managed to transfer much of the museum’s important pieces to Taiwan. What remains constitutes the present Palace Museum in Beijing, but it cannot rival its Taipei twin in terms of the richness and importance of the collections. China regularly protests with Taiwan over the “theft” of its treasures, although in the past joint initiatives have also been promoted.
Visiting the immense building, built in 1964 by architect Han Baoyu in a style reminiscent of Beijing’s Forbidden City and reopened in 2006 after ten years of arduous restoration, one is struck by the gathering of a large crowd of visitors—with locals and those from mainland China far outnumbering the Westerners—in front of two pieces from the collection. One is very small. It is the “Jadeite Cabbage,” only eighteen centimeters high, a sculpture carved from a single block of jade that depicts, in all its shades of color, a Chinese cabbage, with a locust and a grasshopper hidden among the leaves. The work, by an unknown author, dates from the 19th century and was part of the dowry that Jin, concubine of the Guangxu Emperor (who died in 1908), brought to the palace on the occasion of her enthronement as imperial consort in 1889.
Westerners see in this work only the technical skill of the artist, capable of deriving endless variations from a single material, but for the Chinese the “Jadeite Cabbage” has a deeper significance as an allegory of femininity. The white part represents purity, the leaves represent fertility, and the insects represent children.
Some regard the “Jadeite Cabbage” as the most important work of Chinese art. I disagree. During my visits I noticed that the largest gathering is often in front of the museum’s other main masterpiece, often compared in China to the Mona Lisa, not because it resembles it but because its importance in Chinese art is comparable to that of Leonardo’s painting in the West. It is “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” by Huang Gongwang, who died in 1354, a scroll originally 6.88 meters long.
In 1650 its owner, Wu Hongyu, the “mad collector” of the Qing Dynasty, ordered from his deathbed that it be burned so that no one could possess it after him. Wu expired soon after seeing the fire set to the painting, and one of his relatives managed to put it out but not to prevent a deep cut separating the first half-meter (the “First Mountain”) from the rest.
The two parts took different paths. The main portion ended up in the imperial treasury—together with a copy by a skilled forger, long considered the real version. From there, it went to the National Palace Museum in Taiwan—which also preserves the fake—while the “First Mountain” after several vicissitudes came to the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in Hangzhou, Mainland China, where it is still located today.
There is no record of the two parts of the painting ever being shown together until June 2, 2011, after China and Taiwan—following very complicated negotiations—had agreed that the museum in Hangzhou would lend the “First Mountain” to Taiwan for an exhibition of the entire work, reunited for the first time since 1650. I was fortunate enough to visit the exhibition that year, shortly after its grand opening.
Huang Gongwang, China’s greatest painter, was the “grand old man” of the school of the so-called literary painters, which would later spread from China to Japan with the Bunjinga school of the 18th and 19th century. They were intellectuals who later in life would turn away from public service to immerse themselves in the contemplation of nature and translate this experience into painting, music, calligraphy and the creation of puzzles and riddles. This attitude had a religious significance, which as is often the case in Eastern Asia combined Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Some of the literati became monks. Huang Gongwang himself, after retiring at the age of forty-five from public life, devoted himself full-time to the study of Taoism and for some time earned a living as an itinerant soothsayer.
Like all literati, Huang began to paint at an advanced age. “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains,” the only work that has survived to the present day that can be attributed to him with certainty, was painted when the artist was between 78 and 82. As it has been observed, this work dominated all subsequent Chinese art, which was never able to prescind from it. Painted in black ink, it takes the form of a monochrome scroll that combines the art of painting and calligraphy. The sequence of mountains, small valleys, trees and streams conveys a unique, extraordinary feeling of harmony, perfection and peace that is typical of Chinese culture.
For years it was believed that “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” was a realistic work, but more recently studies have shown that the landscape reproduced by Huang does not exactly exist in nature anywhere near Hangzhou, Zhejiang, where it was supposed to be located. Huang had therefore transformed elements of the mountains on the northern bank of the Fuchun (now called Qiantang) River into an “ideal landscape” suitable for contemplation and meditation. In the West, the works of 17th-century French painter Claude Lorrain, whose landscapes were also ideal or imaginary, come to mind.
A work that defines an entire culture, “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” is a unique hymn to harmony and the oneness of all things. There is no explicit religion in it, yet it is in fact a deeply religious painting, as confirmed by the biography of its author.
Making comparisons between cultures and asking what the greatest painting of all times is may be a futile exercise, one that submits art too to the competitive spirit of modern times. Yet, if we want to play this game, “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” is a credible candidate.