The Four Yuan Masters: Background information when reading The Ten Thousand Things

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The Ten Thousand Things

by John Spurling

The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling X
The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2014, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2015, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Beyond the Book:
The Four Yuan Masters

Print Review

Writing Books Under Trees by Wang Meng

The primary protagonist in The Ten Thousand Things is modeled after a real-life Chinese landscape painter and government official, Wang Meng.

After the Song dynasty was overthrown, many landscape painters working during the Mongol Yuan dynasty that followed formed part of the "literati." These were artists who worked solely on cultural pursuits either as a result of a decrease in the availability of governmental posts or because they refused to serve the alien rulers. While not working for the Yuan dynasty was itself an act of political subversion, these artists went further, hosting retreats in their homes and using symbolism in their paintings to depict the constraints of life under foreign rule. For example, a person rowing a boat could be construed as an escape from the harsh political realities of the time.

Of these literati painters, four were particularly prominent and are now known as The Four Yuan Masters. Wang Meng is one of them, with the other three being Ni Zan (the friendship between Ni Zan and Wang Meng is one of the plotlines in The Ten Thousand Things); Huang Gongwang, and Wu Zhen. It is unclear as to who exactly anointed these four as the Masters, but the term came to prominence during the Ming dynasty (which followed the Yuan), a time during which the rulers particularly revered good art.

Water and Bamboo Dwelling by Ni ZanThe Yuan Masters were politically subversive - Wang Meng, in fact, was constantly conflicted between his work and his art and eventually did give up his governmental day job. What distinguishes the Masters however, is the novel touch they gave to the art of landscape painting. Up until the Four Yuan Masters, techniques performed by skilled craftsmen were focused on perfecting the literal reproduction of scenery. But these masters used the art form as an expression of their inner selves thus leading to different interpretations of the form. The Yuan Masters paid homage to earlier generations of painters through their art and in addition to using pieces to make statements about politics, also used them to express religious beliefs. For example, a cave was interpreted as the Daoist belief in hidden realities.

In terms of techniques, bold calligraphic brushstrokes and ink washes were common, as were the use of ink and paper as materials (as opposed to color on silk).

Image of Writing Books Under Trees by Wang Meng, courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art.
Image of Water and Bamboo Dwelling by Ni Zan, courtesy of wikimedia.

Article by Poornima Apte

This article was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the April 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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