Early Snow on the River

Peter Zhang
Peter Zhang
Fishermen and fishing are popular subjects in Chinese painting, yet Zhao Gan's realistic rendition differed from later artists' approach. 

Peter Zhang
Peter Zhang
Early Snow on the River

In total, Zhao Gan created some 30 figures in the painting “Early Snow on the River.” In contrast with the travelers depicted on the riverbank, who wear warm clothes, we see the local fishermen toiling in the cold of early winter. 

Dating to the Southern Tang Dynasty (AD 937-975), Jiangxing Chuxue Tu or “Early Snow on the River” is an early example of Chinese landscape painting and the only extant work of Zhao Gan.

Little is known about the painter other than he was a native of east China’s Jiangsu Province and spent his life in the area south of the Yangtze River.

This masterpiece has been attributed to Zhao because of an inscription written on the right-hand side of the 25.9 x 376.5 cm ink-and-colors-on-silk handscroll.

Many art critics believe this inscription was penned by Southern Tang Emperor Li Yu, who ruled from AD 961-975. It reads: “Early Snow on the River by Student Zhao Gan of the Southern Tang.” In this case, a “student” was an official title.

Emperor Li Yu wasn’t a particularly powerful ruler, but he loved the arts and founded a painting school that attracted a number of renowned painters, such as Dong Yuan (AD 943-962); Ju Ran, who was also a Buddhist monk; Xu Xi, who passed away in AD 975 and Zhao Gan, who created the masterpiece mentioned above.

The “Early Snow” painting features a striking combination of landscape and figures. The balance between the humans and the setting, and also their close interdependence, reached “a degree that is hard to match in later painting,” wrote James Francis Cahill (1926-2014), one of the foremost authorities on Chinese art.

The water-filled scenery in the artwork betrays the fact that its creator was a native of Jiangnan, a lush area immediately to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

In total, Zhao created about 30 figures in the painting. In the middle of the painting are a group of travelers making their way along the riverbank, some riding on donkeys and others on foot. They are all wearing warm clothes and the expressions on their faces indicate they are braving a bitter wind.

However, the painter clearly spent more time depicting the local fishermen toiling in isolated expanses of water as they attempt to eke out a living in the cold of early winter.

Zhao’s fishermen are quite different from those seen in later landscape paintings, where “fishing becomes a leisure-time occupation for retired gentlemen, and real fishermen are given a kind of pastoral-like function,” wrote Cahill.

Early Snow on the River

Fishermen and fishing are popular subjects in Chinese painting, yet Zhao’s realistic rendition  differed from later artists’ approach. For example, in the painting by Wu Zhen of Yuan Dynasty (above), “fishing becomes a leisure-time occupation for retired gentlemen and real fishermen are given a kind of pastoral-like function,” according to art historian James Frances Cahill.

Zhao also painted fishermen huddled and shivering in a simple shelter. And toward the left side of the painting, a group of fishermen gather near several boats that had been drawn together.

From the scene part, the painter mainly used bare trees and dry reeds to show the season of the years and in addition to the large expanses of water, there are a few rocks and slopes.

In terms of technique, Zhao was probably among the first in China to use dry strokes similar to what later became widely known as “texture strokes” to create light and dark effects in his tree trunks.

However, one can see that the painter, unlike many later Chinese landscapists, didn’t apply the new technique to depict the surfaces of rocks and slopes.

In addition, Zhao rendered the reeds wavering in the wind and the flowing waters with meticulously fine yet firm lines. He painted the long handscroll with such great attention that it is said no one single line was drawn with a slack hand.

Finally, the painter sprinkled tiny dots of white pigment onto the painting to represent small snowflakes drifting in the cold air. This color sprinkling technique was later introduced into other genres of traditional Chinese painting, such as birds and flowers. It is still widely used today.

According to Cahill, this painting is both evocative and informative. On one hand, viewers can feel the sympathetic observation of the artist, while on the other hand, the painting also tells us a great deal about the lives of fishermen in the Jiangnan area.

Seals and inscriptions on the painting and its colophon reveal that this masterpiece has been in both private and imperial collection.

Today, it is housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Early Snow on the River

Artist: Zhao Gan

Year: Southern Tang Dynasty (AD 937-975)

Type: Ink and color on silk

Dimensions: 25.9 cm × 376.5 cm

Location: National Palace Museum in Taipei

Special Reports