Ni Zan. The Pictorial Diary

A Chronological Interpretation of the Work of a Yuan Master

Term Paper, 2011

43 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Remarks on the Form


1. Historical Background

2. Biographical Background

3. On the Style of Ni Zan's Painting

4. Chronological Interpretation of Ni Zan's Work - The Pictorial Diary

5. Conclusion

i. Glossary of Chinese Names and Terms
ii. Bibliography
iii. List of Figures
iv. Figures
v. Picture Credits

Remarks on the Form

In order to clarify the structure of this paper I have decided to include some notes on it. Firstly, there will not be any Chinese characters in chapter 1 to 5, neither in the text nor in the corresponding notes. Chinese titles, names and terms are transcribed using Pinyin and Wade-Giles for exceptions like author names the transcription of which I do not intend to change at any point. Chinese characters for all titles, names and terms are provided in the glossary and bibliography. The notes have the form of semi-simplified bibliographic entries, giving the last name of the author and the title for every note, but leaving out any other information. Complete entries can of course be found in the bibliography. Figures are only listed in List of Figures, additional information can be found under each figure.


Ni Zan is one of the most famous figures in the history of Chinese painting and together with the other three of the „Four Great Masters of the Late Yuan“1 - Huang Gongwang, Wang Meng and Wu Zhen - formed the favored model for later landscapists. His influence on and appreciation in later times as well as his position among his contemporaries have been discussed on various occasions and should not be my main topic. My focus is on Ni Zan himself. Following the fall of the Song Dynasty to the Mongols under Kublai Khan in 1271, the Yuan Dynasty was established2. That year marked the beginning of a period of turmoil and suppression all over China, but especially for the Chinese intelligentsia and the Yuan dynasty, although comparatively short, caused massive changes in cultural creativity, bringing forth painting styles that would persist and be quoted in the art scene of all later centuries3.

Taking a look at Ni Zan's paintings one cannot but notice certain elements that keep on appearing throughout all of his oevre. Once he settled on a certain compositional type he kept repeating it. At closer inspection one can see his painting style slightly changing, although keeping to some fixed elements. This change in Ni's work is subtle, but noticeable and also readable. The readability of his landscapes is the basis for this paper and will become clearer when going through Ni Zan's life, along with the events surrounding his time and simultaneously reading his paintings as the Chinese term du hua (to read painting) suggests. That way I will show how Ni Zan's paintings can be seen as a journal and thereby now provide us with room for interpretation and insight into his life. I should note that the main inspiration for this paper came from Maxwell K. Hearn, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I therefore quote the term he used for this phenomenon by titling this paper The Pictorial Diary 4.

Historical Background

As I have mentioned in the introduction to this paper, the Yuan dynasty was a period of suppression for Chinese scholars. Having a legitimate suspicion that the Chinese intelligentsia was still loyal to the fallen Song dynasty, especially those from the southern region of the Yangzi River (Changjiang) - also called Jiangnan region - the Mongols under Khubilai Khan tried their best to keep them out of any governmental affairs until they realized they had to stick to parts of the Chinese system in order to properly maintain the state. However, only some intellectuals were invited to serve for the government and even less accepted the invitation5. Because the career of an official was the only thing Confucian scholars strove for and because of the new circumstances, making it impossible to both serve under the new regime and still be a respectable Confucian, many Chinese literati saw the only alternative in reclusion. So the Jiangnan region, which was the economically richest region of China at the time, became a center for artists, i.e. painters, calligraphers, poets, etc., who could maintain a certain lifestyle by selling their art to people who were, due to their wealth, willing to pay high prices.

The financial hardship of the Mongol regime was not only caused by over 100 uprisings in the early 14th century, which required enormous resources to suppress6, but also by natural disasters that struck China several times, becoming a heavy burden in the 1330s and 40s. Since the Jiangnan region was the richest of China, it was also the region most heavily taxed by the Mongols to accumulate the vast amounts of financial means needed to cope with the situation. By the mid- 1330s even the richest part of China fell victim to droughts, floods, and locusts, endangering several hundred thousand families7, so the wealthiest families were taxed even heavier. Rulers in China were supposed to legitimate their right to govern the country by having the Mandate of Heaven (Tianming), meaning that they functioned as mediums between heaven, earth and mankind8. Thus, natural calamities occurring on a seemingly regular basis and the governments inability to handle them appropriately could cause the people to lose their faith in the legitimacy of their ruler. Therefore, after another severe flood in the north of China in 1351, what started as uprisings across China, turned into full-scale rebellions all over the country9. The leaders of two rebellious formations were Zhu Yuanzhang and Zhang Shicheng. In March 1356 Zhu went north

across the Yangzi River and took Nanjing while Zhang went south and took Suzhou10 as well as other areas at Lake Tai, where he established an imitational administration and formed his government with scholars from the area of Suzhou and Lake Tai11. After that Zhang stopped his efforts of taking any more ground and settled in Suzhou, enjoying his wealth and power without keeping „his avaricious subordinates at bay“12. This resulted in Suzhou and the region around Lake Tai becoming an area of war, i.e. plundering soldiers, besieged cities and an overall precariousness until Zhang Shicheng surrendered to Zhu Yuanzhang in 136713. The latter went on to become the founder of the Ming dynasty in 1368 and turned out to be an absolutist ruler who, coming from the peasantry, distrusted most educated scholars14 and even persecuted and imprisoned them, ultimately even had many of them killed15.

This short outline of the historical background surrounding Ni Zan's life time can merely be introductive and focused on a few certain events but should suffice to later understand how his life and art correspond in my interpretation of his work.

Biographical Background

In order to properly show how the pictorial diary of Ni Zan works and how it can be seen, his life needs to be discussed shortly. This is therefore the first of three steps, the other two being the historical background of his life time and finally combining the first steps while looking at his paintings.

Ni Zan's life is well recorded in several epitaphs written by Wang Bin (ca. 1345-1380), Zhou Nanlao (1308-1383) and Zhang Duan (1320-1380)16. Apart from those and a few historical records from dynastic histories, Ni, being also a poet, left us with many autobiographical poems, helping us retrace parts of his life.

Born into a wealthy family in Wuxi in 1306, a town located in the north of Lake Tai in present day Jiangsu, Ni Zan had the privilege of leading a quiet life. After his father died when Ni was still young, his older brother Ni Zhaogui (1279-1328) continued to raise him until his own death. Ni Zan inherited the responsibility to manage the family estate and take care of his younger brother Ying, but because of his family's wealth he was able to keep to a lifestyle of mostly collecting and studying books, paintings and works of calligraphy in his Pure and Secluded Pavilion (Qingbige). The epitaph of Zhou Nanlao enlightens this particular aspect of his early life:

Where [Ni Zan] lived there was a two-story building called Qingbi, which was quiet, remote, and spotless. In it he kept thousands of volumes of books, which he had personally annotated and collated - classics, histories, and anthologies, as well as Buddhist, Daoist, and medical texts, which he read all day long. There ancient ritual tripods and vessels and well-known Qin [zithers] were displayed. Around the building grew pines and cassia trees, orchids, bamboo, and chrysan- themums; beyond these were great hardwood trees and bamboo groves, which were luxuriantly thick and fine. This is why he called himself Yunlin [Cloudy Forest]... He had no other hobby outside of his love of collecting scrolls of ancient calligraphy and painting. Dealers came and sold them to him for hundreds of cash - but he never minded the prices.17

This lets us know that Ni must have known a considerable amount of paintings, both those by his contemporaries like Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), Wu Zhen (1280-1354) and Wang Meng (1308- 1385) - the other three of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty - and those of earlier painters like Mi Fu (1052-1107), who he passionately admired18. There is also no doubt about the fact that Ni and his contemporaries not only knew but also met each other on several occasions, inscribed scrolls together and exchanged paintings19. The influence this had on Ni' own paintings and the development of his style will briefly be discussed in the following chapter. During the 1340s Ni started selling off parts of his family property, probably for three reasons: to get rid of the responsibilities he had to manage the farm property of his family, to accumulate more money in order to buy more works of art and to have more time to focus on and study said works. This is mentioned in an epitaph by Wang Bin:

At the beginning of the Zhizheng era [in the early 1340s], even before insurrections broke out, he started to sell of his family's farm properties. He never worked at what wealthy people usually do, but instead worked hard at being a poet.20

This point is strengthened by poems we wrote in the 1340s. One of them is called „Speaking my Thoughts“ (Shuhuai) and will suffice as an insight into what Ni's desires actually were and what troubled him all his life until the 1350s:

Pity me that I lost my father in childhood. I was raised by my eldest brother.

I was determined to pursue the life of a scholar.

To live by righteous deeds and to uphold pure principles...

Noble positions and great wealth I disdained: I wished only to leave behind a good name. Suddenly my eldest brother died, And our mother soon followed...

I fished and farmed, and kept company with my own mother, But public and private affairs daily troubled me. I strove hard for twenty years - Now the whole world is in great confusion.

I pay taxes until I am bled dry.

I handle government business while worrying about a sick child. I am truly depressed by squalid, vulgar problems; Unruly disputes upset and frighten me.

Giving everything away, I must bow to government clerks. Under starlight I wait in the magistrate's courtroom. In days past I have known the glories of springtime - Now I struggle to survive in frozen snow.

How can I not think of running away from all this? But the thought brings me deeper emotions: I am afraid of causing my mother worry, So how can I leave on a long trip? Even if I gave away my family's inheritance,

I would have to swallow my sorrow and remain to till the land. It is not that I want to live like an ant;

My real desire is to sail away into the vast sea...[...]21

There are several aspects about Ni Zan's character that are revealed in this poem. He thought of himself as a scholar, one who determines his life not to hard labour or governmental business, but to leading a quiet life focused on the study of literature and painting. He also mourned the death of his older brother and mother, who in this case is his father's official wife22, not his biological mother who is mentioned later. Another troubling point for him was that after he had borne twenty years of responsibilities for his family's heritage and had worked hard to support his family and maintain their property, everything they owned was now disintegrating due to high taxes. What troubled him the most was certainly the discrepancy between wanting to leave it all behind and his obligation to filial piety and therefore being unable to leave his own mother.

In 1352 he finally set sail, taking some of the possessions he hadn't already given away, with him on his boat and moved from one friend to another, never resting at one place for too long. This went on for about a year until he sent for his family in early 1353 and settled down with them for ten years from 1356 to 1366 at a place he called „Snail Hut“ (Guaniulu)23. The urge to settle down somewhere stemmed from the dangers of the nomadic life that were also increased by his attempts to sneak back to his ancestral home in Wuxi24 at which he once got caught and severely beaten, which is told in one of his poems25.

On the 18th day of the 9th lunar month in1363 Ni Zan's wife Jiang Yuanming26 died shortly after she had fallen ill.27 Because of the lack of any mention of his youngest child28 he was apparently alone after that and due to the political circumstances mentioned in the previous chapter, he had to leave his hermitage once again. After several more years of leading a nomadic life on his boat he eventually returned to his hometown Wuxi in 1374, where he died at the home of a relative.29

On the Style of Ni Zan's Painting

In order to place Ni Zan in the tradition of Chinese painting he was inevitably part of, I will briefly show what Ni himself thought of painting and how his style changed throughout his life. Though there are no records of the way Ni learned to paint we can safely assume that he did so by copying from the multitude of scrolls he owned and stored in his Pure and Secluded Pavilion.30 Whereas one can see predecessors of his early period, those similarities to older models as well as to contemporaries seem to vanish into his own distinctive style. I should note that this chapter will mainly focus on stylistic aspects of painting of the discussed painters and therefore lack the description or even mention of the artist's inscription, colophons or seals. However, some inscriptions of Ni Zan will be mentioned and shortly discussed in the next chapter. Before turning to Ni's and others master's paintings, a brief discussion of his own painting theory is necessary to appropriately understand the development in his painting style. What is known of his views didn't come from a dedicated treatise on painting, but from several colophons on paintings of others31. In one of them he stated:

What I call painting does not exceed the joy of careless sketching with the brush; I do it simply for my amusement32.

Another important aspect about his view is the fact that he didn't seek formal likeness33, meaning that he didn't strive to depict actual figures, bamboo, rocks or landscapes but „simply to express the untrammeled spirit in [his] breast“34. From these brief comments by Ni himself we can already define the kind of painting he was trying to create. The most important feature of his painting should be the expression of feeling, the abandonment of the pure reproduction of nature and a certain spontaneity, looking for a sketch-like painting as an ideal.

Another more easily visible feature of his painting is the constant use of pine trees in his composition, which became a popular symbol for the Gentleman (Junzi) in Chinese landscape painting, especially after Jing Hao's (ca. 870-930) A Note on the Art of Brush (Bifaji)35, including a poem called „Eulogy to an Old Pine Tree“ in which the virtues of the Junzi are confered upon pine trees36.

As I already pointed out, Ni Zan and the other three of the Four Master of the Yuan (Yuan Sihuajia) knew each other and in the special case of Wang Meng (1308-1385) became even more as acquaintances. Sharing not only corresponding life spans but also the area of origin - Wang Meng was born on the opposite side of Lake Tai (Taihu), in Wuxing37 - their relationship grew into a deep friendship, being displayed in several colophons and inscriptions on each other's painting scrolls38. Their styles, however, developed into such opposing directions that they can now be considered, as Richard M. Barnhart calls them, „the Yin and the Yang of late Yuan art“39. In a discussion about Chinese painting of the Yuan dynasty, one cannot but mention Zhao Mengfu, to whose innovations all later literati painters were indebted40. His theories on painting are not extant in any coherent form but in the form of colophons. There is further a certain scholar-official by name of Tang Hou, who served at the capital around the same time Zhao did and so made contact with him. We can therefore assume that his literary work on painting theory is mostly based on Zhao's views41. One of his works also seems as the first one to mention terms like „hemp-fiber stroke“ or „hemp-fiber texture“ (mapicun)42, which can from that time on be found in other writings on landscape painting such as Huang Gongwang's „Secrets of Landscape Painting“43, which many later painters also used as a basis for their painting technique. Another prominent figure in the history of Chinese painting is Dong Qichang (1555-1636), a painter, calligrapher and writer of the Ming dynasty, whose influence as an art critic determined the way his contemporaries as well as many later generations saw the history of Chinese painting44. He deemed the Yuan dynasty as the climax of Chinese painting, praising the works of Ni Zan and Huang Gongwang and providing us with the Five dynasties (Wudai) landscapists who he thought to be the predecessors for the style of Yuan literati painting. Those painters' names are Dong Yuan (d. 962) and Ju Ran (active 960-980), whose painting style would later only be called „Dong-Ju- Style“45.

Figure 1 illustrates the most important points about Dong Yuan's painting style. It is a landscape painting called Wintry Trees by a Lake (Hanlin Chongting)46, attributed to Dong Yuan, although probably painted by a follower around the 12th and 13th century47. This hanging scroll shows a landscape in monochrome ink, leading the viewer into the picture coming from the bottom and going up to the horizon line. At the bottom lies a patch of shrubs, horizontally arranged and cut off from the shore by an also horizontal water space. Then follows a relatively flat hill with pines and other indications of vegetation behind which a housing area is located. Providing a connection and leading to the hill and houses is a bridge on the right side of the scroll, at around one third of the height of the scroll. The buildings seem secluded and protected by the pine grove that extends around them and onto the hill. Behind the housing area there comes another water space, horizontally seperating the scroll into two halves. This way the image is strictly divided into foreground, the patch of shrubs, middle ground, the housing area surrounded by pines and located behind a hill, and background, which is another set of hills and houses, partly located in a small bay, leading away into the distance by several layers of flat vegetation. The horizon line is not in the image, but to be imagined above the hanging scroll. The landscape appears to be flat with rock formations not high enough to be called mountains. The distinctive points about this painting are the three sections, strictly seperated from each other, the high perspective, because of which we cannot see the horizon line, but most of all the way rocks are depicted. This method - called hemp-fiber stroke as mentioned above - is a distinct feature of Dong Yuan and was, starting in the Yuan dynasty, always attributed to him and made into a main feature of the Dong-Ju idiom48. Another feature of this idiom is the use of „alumn-crystal“ dots or what I will from now on call moss dots (fantou)49. Figure 2 shows one of Ni Zan's first extant painting - Enjoying the Wilderness in an Autumn Grove (Qiulin Yexing Tu), dated 1339 - and prominently displays his early style when his painting technique was still based on contemporaries and earlier masters. The viewer is presented with a landscape of rather flat hills. The foreground is made up of a rock formation that is surrounded by water. Standing on top of those foreground rocks are several different trees, some of them pines. Also situated on the small peninsula is a simple pavilion harboring two figures. One of them, Ni himself, is seated in the middle of the pavilion, gazing into the landscape in the background of the painting, so his back is turned against the viewer. He is attended by a servant boy50. The background is seperated from the foreground by - compared to the painting attributed to Dong Yuan (Fig.1) - a relatively narrow strip of water, made up of flat hilltops and fades out into the horizon.

There are two things to notice in this painting: Firstly, the texture of Ni's rock formations is worked „Wintry Trees and Layered Riverbanks“.


1 Cahill: Hills Beyond a river, p. 85.

2 Rossabi: The reign of Khubilai Khan, in Franke: The Cambridge History of China vol. 6, p. 459.

3 Cahill: Hills beyond a river, p. 3.

4 Hearn: How to Read Chinese Paintings, p. 98, 100.

5 Cahill: Hills Beyond a River, pp. 6 & 15.

6 Xiao: Mid-Yüan Politics, in Franke: The Cambridge History of China, p. 551.

7 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 107.

8 Ross: Flood Control Policy in China: The Policy Consequences of Natural Disasters, p. 209.

9 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 110; Dardess: Shun-ti and the end of Yüan rule in China, in Franke: The Cambridge History of China vol. 6, p. 576.

10 Dardess: Shun-ti and the end of Yüan rule in China, in Franke, The Cambridge History of China, p. 583.

11 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 112.

12 Hearn: The Artist as Hero, in Fong a. Watt: Possessing the Past, p. 316-17.

13 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 112; Hearn, The Artist as Hero, in Fong a. Watt: Possessing the Past, p. 317; Gernet, Die Chinesische Welt, p. 330.

14 Gernet: Die Chinesische Welt, p. 333.

15 Cahill: Hills Beyond a River, p. 120-21.

16 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 105; Zhu: Ni Zan Zuopin Biannian, p. 11-13.

17 Zhou Nanlao: Yuan Chushi Yunlin Xiansheng Muzhiming; in Zhu Zhongyue: Ni Zan Zuopin Biannian, p. 11.Translated by Fong in Images of the Mind, pp. 105-6.

18 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 106

19 The exchange between Ni Zan and his contemporaries can be seen in detail in a paper by Lü Shaoqing, Yuandai Huajia Ni Zan Shuhua Jiaoyou Kaolüe, p. 29-34. These pages contain a well-arranged table of occasions of meeting with e.g Huang Gongwang and Wang Meng and also inscribing a painting by Wu Zhen for someone else, p. 32.

20 Wang Bin: Yuan Chushi Yunlin Ni Xiansheng Lüzang Muzhiming, in Zhu: Ni Zan Zuopin Biannian, p. 13. Translated by Fong in Images of the Mind, p. 108.

21 Ni Zan: Shuhuai, in Qinding Siku Quanshu Huiyao Jibu - Qingbige Quanji, Juan 1, pp.14-15. Translated by Fong in Images of the Mind, p. 109.

22 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 108.

23 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 112.

24 Hearn: The Artist as Hero, in Fong a. Watt: Possessing the Past, p. 316.

25 s. Ni Zan: Zhizheng Yiwei Suyi Shi, in Qinding Siku Quanshu Huiyao Jibu - Qingbige Quanji , Juan 1, p. 2. Translated by Fong in Images of the Mind, pp. 111-12.

26 Fong mentions the name of Ni Zan's wife as „Jiang Yuanzhao“, s. Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 112. This name seems to be a combination of her courtesy name Jizhao and her posthumous taboo name Yuanming; Ni Zan: Ti Jizhao Jiang Jun Yixiang, in Qinding Siku Quanshu Huiyao Jibu - Qingbige Quanji, Juan 7, p. 219; Rachewiltz a. Wang: Repertory of Proper Names in Yüan Literary Sources, p. 442.

27 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 112; Ni Zan: Ti Jizhao Jiang Jun Yixiang, in Qinding Siku Quanshu Huiyao Jibu - Qingbige Quanji, Juan 7, p. 219.

28 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 112.

29 Ibid.

30 Cahill: Hills Beyond a River, p. 116.

31 Sirén: The Chinese on the Art of Painting, p. 110.

32 Ibid.

33 Translated from the term buqiu xingsi, s. Zhu Zhongyue, Ni Zan Zuopin Biannian, p. 9.

34 Bush a. Shih: Early Chinese Texts on Painting, p. 280.

35 Fong: Images of the Mind, p. 116.

36 Jing Hao: Bifaji, in Zhongguo Shuhua Quanshu, vol 1, p. 7. Translated by Munakata in Ching Hao's Pi-fa-chi, p. 16.

37 Barnhart: Along the Border of Heaven, p. 148.

38 Lü Shaoqing: Yuandai Huajia Ni Zan Shuhua Jiaoyou Kaolüe, p. 25.

39 Barnhart: Along the Border of Heaven, p. 155.

40 ibid.; See also p. 118-20 for more notes on him breaking new ground and founding later Chinese literati painting.

41 Bush a. Shih: Early Chinese Texts on Painting, p. 241.

42 Based on Yuan-texts on painting theory I chose “mapicun” over “pimacun”, another term that is mostly used in contemporary literature, meaning “brushstrokes like spread-out hemp fibers”, s. Mai-Mai Sze: The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, p. 135-36, 150.

43 Huang Gongwang: Xie Shanshui Jue; in Gong Xian et al.: Shanshuihua Shuo, p. 120.

44 Sirén: The Chinese on the Art of Painting, p. 129.

45 Cahill: Hills Beyond a River, p. 36.

46 Title translation used by Cahill in Hills Beyond a River, p. 37. However, a more accurate translation would be

47 Cahill. Hills Beyond a River, p. 37.

48 s. note 41.

49 s. note 41, the fantou technique is mentioned on the same page in the same essay by Tang Hou.

50 Hearn: The Artist as Hero, in Fong a. Watt: Possessing the Past, p. 313.

Excerpt out of 43 pages


Ni Zan. The Pictorial Diary
A Chronological Interpretation of the Work of a Yuan Master
University of Heidelberg  (Institute for East Asian Art History)
Arts of the Yuan Dynasty
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1995 KB
China, Art, Painting, Ni Zan, Yuan, Mongol, Dynasty, Chinese, Ni Tsan, Yüan Dynasty, Yuan Dynasty
Quote paper
Tony Buchwald (Author), 2011, Ni Zan. The Pictorial Diary, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Ni Zan. The Pictorial Diary

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free