Image of Crossing Rivers, Layered Mountains painting

Crossing Rivers, Layered Mountains

Zhao Mengfu’s handscroll Crossing Rivers, Layered Mountains enables viewers to travel across the landscape, with tree-topped rocks and faded mountains rising above the river. Zhao lived through the Mongol invasion and the establishment of the Yuan-dynasty (1271-1368). Despite his Mongol-appointed political post, he searched for meaning from earlier Chinese artists, attempting to reinvigorate tradition. The title thus suggests dynastic transition and tension between cultural traditions and later social unrest. In his painting, fishermen fulfill a restorative role of reconstruction by directly interacting with the natural world, depicting daily life despite disorder.

The poet Du Fu similarly witnessed political upheaval and the gradual decline of the once prosperous Tang dynasty (618-907). Due to the corrupted court, disillusionment sent him into solitude. In The Jiang and Han Rivers, he immerses himself in nature, removed from society. Standing “between heaven and earth,” the narrator is insignificant. The somber atmosphere – the decaying “setting sun” and “autumn wind” – highlights his loneliness, yet by comparing himself to the pure moon and clouds, Du expresses enduring ambition despite his isolation.

The poem’s narrator and painting’s figures thus demonstrate the contrasting yet codependent relationship between humans and nature. These river landscapes capture life’s cyclicity, ensuring us that the world will restore itself after destruction and bloom again – as the narrator states, “I remain ambitious at heart…I will recover,” like the war-torn world around him.

Poem selection and label by Ava Busto Schiff ’18, Xiaoqing Luo ’18, and Erin Sulla ’19