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The use of ancient styles is one of the most common features of Chinese paintings. A painter will often explicitly state that the work was done in imitation of an ancient work or style. Connoisseurs also frequently discuss paintings with respect to a particular painter or school of the past. So why did painters use styles of the ancient masters and how did they do so? How are viewers supposed to know? This section takes Zhao Mengfu's "Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains" as an example of this salient aspect of Chinese painting.

 Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains

Zhao Mengfu and Zhou Mi: Painter and Recipient

Zhao Mengfu painted "Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains" for his friend Zhou Mi, a gifted literary figure who also had a large collection of painting and calligraphy. Zhou was therefore quite familiar with ancient art. His ancestral home was in Shandong, but his family had moved to the south more than two generations previously.


Zhao Mengfu, who had gone north to the court to serve as an official, received the order to serve as "Associate Commander of the Jinan Route". He helped govern an area that included Mt. Qiao and Hua. Consequently, he was able to see Zhou Mi's homeland, which Chou himself did not have a chance to visit.


Zhao Mengfu, who took up the post in the north, was named Assistant Commander of the Jinan Circuit in 1292. Regions under his jurisdiction included those in which the Qiao Mountain and the Huabuzhu Mountain were located. Therefore, he had an opportunity to witness sceneries that Zhou Mi had not.

Zhao Mengfu's Qiao and Hua Mountains Versus the Actual Scenes

The content of the inscriptions indicate that Zhao Mengfu did not use a realistic approach and paint "Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains” in Shandong. However, his service as an official in the area allows us to deduce that he must have been very familiar with the local scenery. Consequently, he perhaps did this painting from memory after having already returned to the south. Actual views of Mt. Qiao and Mt. Huabuzhu (Mt. Hua) today show them indeed to beshapedlike a loaf of bread and a cone, as seen in Zhao's rendition. Therefore, Zhao's memory of the external appearance of these two famous mountains was not significantly different from reality (figure 4).

Qiao Mountain

Huabuzhu Mountain


However, Zhao Mengfu's depiction of Mt. Hua includes numerous stringy lines (figure 5), which obviously do not appear in photographs of the mountain. These lines do not describe the undulating features of Mt. Hua, but something totally different.

Similarities between "Autumn Colors" and the Dong Yuan Style

Do these wavy lines that awkwardly adorn the surface of the painting mean that Zhao Mengfu was not skilled in painting? No, these simple forms are actually related to the style of the important Five Dynasties master Dong Yuan from the tenth-century. Paintings done in the Dong Yuan style are rendered throughout with numerous lines for the ground.

The characteristic features of Dong Yuan's style are as follows:


Grasshopper boats and fishing nets

Since Dong Yuan's paintings were mostly of the watery landscape of Jiangnan in the south, small boats and fishing nets often appear in his paintings. One of the small boats appearing quite frequently has raised ends, representing the unique "grasshopper boat" of Jiangnan. Fishing nets are also hooked up to a framework by the bank, so when immersed in the water, only a few of the supporting poles are seen.


Long and gentle texture lines

This is the trademark of Dong Yuan's style. Rendered in layers, they are piled up to form a rolling surface. On top of these lines, one sometimes finds some moss dots that represent vegetation growing on the surface.


Triangular and rolling mountain forms

The same soft texture strokes were also applied to render distant mountains and riverbanks. The forms of riverbanks and distant mountains are basically built from repeated and rolling triangular forms. This simple shape was often used in Dong Yuan's works, where almost all the simple mountain forms are composed of layers of semi-circular forms. When compared to Leng Qian's "Mount Baiyue" (figure 7) with its design of ever convoluted mountain forms, Dong Yuan's style appears quite simplistic. Indeed, this simple mountain form is not the ideal medium for a highly skilled painter to show his abilities.

Although these repeated layers of strokes do not give much variation to the painting surface, they nonetheless impart a sense of relaxation and tranquility. In fact, they were originally used to describe the rolling scenery of the south, in contrast to the imposing and monumental peaks in Fan Kuan's "Traveling Among Mountains and Streams" (Figure 8) of the north.


The similarities between "Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains" and works by Dong Yuan are not limited to the three above features; besides the "grasshopper" boats and fishing nets, the representation of surface and the simple mountain forms all deserve attention. These many points of similarity allow us to almost certainly conclude that Zhao Mengfu consciously used many elements of Dong Yuan’s style in his "Autumn Colors".


Reasons for the Use of the Dong Yuan Style in "Autumn Colors"

What is unusual, however, is that Zhao Mengfu chose the Dong Yuan style associated with the south—even depicting the "grasshopper" boats which only appear in the south—to depict Zhou Mi's homeland, which is located in the north. Although Zhao Mengfu certainly considered the external appearance of Mt. Qiao and Mt. Hua when painting Zhou's homeland, the actual scenery was not his only concern. Zhou Mi, possessing a vast knowledge of painting and calligraphy, certainly understood the classical status that the Dong Yuan style represented in Chinese painting and was able to appreciate the archaic simplicity and blandness of Dong Yuan's paintings.


Zhao Mengfu must have truly understood the background and interests of his friend, so he treated Zhou Mi's homeland in the manner of Dong Yuan's paintings. Although a distant view of the scenery—actually quite far away when he painted it, but Zhao was still able to express Zhou Mi's view of his homeland in intimate terms. Perhaps one could also say that the style and subject represent something in common between these two figures. A painting in the Dong Yuan style therefore served as a metaphor, praising Zhou Mi's homeland as possessing the same peace and tranquility as that found in the works of Dong Yuan. One could almost imagine Zhou Mi opening this handscroll done by his friend Zhao Mengfu and the mutual feelings that they must have felt towards the past, paintings, and friendship.

"Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains" not only is Chao's rendering of Zhou Mi's homeland, but is also the praise for the Dong Yuan style and the mutual bond between two friends.