Look down on vulgar things, bow to ambitious words;
Wealth means nothing, think to leave good name.
——Express My Feeling by Ni Zan of Yuan Dynasty
As one of the outstanding literati painters, Ni Zan started a new wave of paintings in Yuan Dynasty. His works also have far-reaching impact on the later generations. In the late Ming and early Qing Dynasty, gentries in south area of the Yangtze River judged a good person depending on whether he or she had a painting from Ni Zan. Ni Zan was born in an extremely wealthy family and brought up by his brother Ni Zhaokui who was the upper-class pursuing Taoism and invited the Taoism immortal Wang Furen to mentor Ni Zan. Growing up in such environment, Ni Zan developed a unique character of being aloof and proud, self-controlled, and ignoring secularity.
Ni Zan had a three-story library called Qingbige where housed a collection of books and famous calligraphies and paintings including Zhong Yao’s A Letter of Recommendation for Ji Zhi (Pinyin: Jian Ji Zhi Biao), Mi Fu’s Marvelous Spectacle in Hunan Province (Pinyin: Xiao Xiang Qi Guan Tu, also called Hai Yue An Tu), Dong Yuan’s Landscape in Hunan Province (Pinyin: Xiao Xiang Tu), and Li Cheng’s Forests and Hills (Pinyin: Mao Lin Yuan Xiu Tu). He was immersed in figuring out and copying the charm and spirit of these master pieces. He also went out to paint from life and observe the mountains and waters in the natural world. In this way, he learnt merits from others’ works and created his unique ones.
Ni Zan experienced family misfortunes in his middle age. His brother, mother, and mentor passed away successively, turning him from a rich person to the man of the family. His mindset greatly changed. At that time, he began to believe in Quanzhen School of Taoism and had a thought of escapist fantasy which can be reflected in his works. Take Six Gentlemen as an example. The work presents a pursuit of simplicity, serenity, and aloof. In the painting, six trees including pine tree, cypress, camphor tree, Phoebe zhennan, locust tree, and elm stand straight, which is a metaphor of the integrity character of a gentleman. It is a major characteristic of literati paintings in which authors imply their ambitions via objects.
Then Ni Zan began to travel in areas around Lake Tai with no determined whereabouts. After he experienced the fickleness of the world and inconstancy of people's relationship, his works presented a tranquil and profound style of selflessness. The three-section composition style of "one river and two banksides" was formed at that time. Rongxi Studio which is called the last work of Ni Zan is the representative one of such style. In the painting, there is only a pavilion and tree but no passerby. An emotion of "things do not change but people change" revealed in the painting.
At the afternoon of October 17 (Saturday), we will hold the tenth lecture of “Read the Art·Read the Painting”. Wang Zhaoyu, associate professor of School of Art of Soochow University will lead us to learn about the painter Ni Zan who has great influence on the future generations by appreciating Six Gentlemen and Rongxi Studio at Heart Hall of Pearl Art Museum. Let’s interpret how Ni Zan changed the traditional pattern of painting and created his unique masterpieces.
Qibao Spring & Wash the Phoenix Tree
Ni Zan whose art name is Yun Lin Zi was remembered not by his works but also his mysophobia that was recorded in Yufu Miscellany: Yun Lin Anecdotes. He lived at Mr. Xu’s home in Guangfu County for some time. One day he went hiking with Xu and occasionally drank the water in Qibao Spring which tasted sweet. Then Xu send people to take two barrels of the spring water home for Ni Zan who drank one barrel and washed his body with the remaining barrel. Xu’ house was 2.5 kilometers away from Qibao Spring, but he kept taking the spring water home every day for half a year.
After Ni Zan went back to his home, Xu paid a visit to see him. Xu admired and asked for visiting Ni Zan’s library “Qing Bi Ge”. But he had a cough and spit on the ground outside the library. Then Ni Zan asked his servants to find the sputum inch by inch. After a long time searching, the servants failed to locate the stained area. Ni Zan began to search himself and finally found it next to the root of a phoenix tree. He let the servants wash the tree immediately. Xu felt ashamed and left the house silently.
After his family declined, Ni Zan began to travel in areas around Lake Tai. Later he suffered from a disease and received treatment at his close friend and famous doctor Xia Quan’s home. Finally, he cannot recover and passed away with peculiar smell in his body.