A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains

Peter Zhang
Peter Zhang
As stunning as the work itself is the fact that "A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains" was created by a teenager in the 12th century.

Peter Zhang
Peter Zhang

Since its creation in the 12th century, “Qianli Jianshan Tu,” or “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains,” has been held up as a masterpiece of traditional Chinese painting. But perhaps just as stunning as the work itself is the fact that it was created by a teenager.

Measuring 51.5 by 1,191.5 cm, this sweeping ink-and-color on silk scroll painting is the only extant work from Wang Ximeng (1096-1119).

According to available historical records, Wang entered the Imperial Painting Academy as an apprentice when he was in his early teens. During his apprenticeship, he doubled as the personal librarian of Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) of the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127).

Emperor Huizong, himself an accomplished painter and calligrapher, is said to have discovered the boy’s extraordinary talent with a brush and personally taken charge of his education as a painter.

By the time Wang was 18, he had already mastered the latest painting techniques and began to develop his own unique style. Over a period of six months in 1113, he devoted himself to the sprawling landscape work for which he is still remembered today.

Unfortunately, Wang died only a few years later at the age of 23, placing him among the celebrated ranks of great artists who passed away before their time. His life was even shorter than most of his Western counterparts who died young, such as Masaccio (1401-1428), who died at the age of 27; Giorgione (1477-1510), 33; Raphael (1483-1520), 37; Parmigianino (1503-1540), 37; and Caravaggio (1571-1610), 39.

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A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains

At the tender age of 18, Wang Ximeng spent six months painting “A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains” in 1113. This painting is the only surviving work from Wang, who died at 23. Though almost 12 meters in length, the painting is prized for its finely wrought details as well as its sweeping grandeur.

In the title of Wang’s masterpiece, the word li is a Chinese unit of measure equal to about 0.5 kilometer. The fixed phrase a thousand li (qianli) is a metaphor to describe something as extremely long or expansive.

In the painting, the artist used bright blues and greens on a dark ochre background, a style typical of Green and Blue Landscape painting, a genre that first appeared during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

A variety of dry brush techniques — particularly the so-called ax-cut texture stroke and the hemp fiber texture stroke — are used to depict the rough surfaces of rocks and mountains and build up credible, three-dimensional forms.

Wang included scenes from both the north and south of the country into his painting, deploying pingyuan (level distance), gaoyuan (high distance) and shenyuan (deep distance) compositions to create a sense of perspective.

The long painting can be roughly divided into six sections, which are linked with detailed images of lakes, boats, cottages, pavilions, bridges and figures. But the focus of each section is invariably its striking mountains. 

With bright colors and exquisite brushwork, the painting has any obvious visual appeal. Its harmonious composition is also seen as a representation of the state’s well-being at the time of its creation.

Stretching nearly 12 meters in length, Wang’s masterpiece is impossible to take in all at once. Standing too far away, one loses its fine details. Getting too close though, one misses its grandeur. Instead, viewers are rewarded for careful observation at multiple points and distances.

According to Chinese artists and scholars, long landscape paintings of this sort should be “read” from right to left. When handling such scrolls, one should unroll and study them one section at a time. It is also advised to review the image from left to right when the scroll is rerolled.

Some scholars claim that, with practice, one can use this viewing method to visualize entire panoramas.

Wang’s consummate landscape is today in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.

千里江山图 (Qiānlǐ Jiaāngshān Tú) 

Artist: Wang Ximeng

Year: Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127)

Type: Ink and color on silk

Dimensions: 51.5 cm x 1,191.5 cm

Location: Palace Museum in Beijing

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