After the Empty Mountain

After the Empty Mountain
By Hu Fang


At first, even lacking the greenery of trees, the desolate mountains – vast, impassive – still have their own self-possession. Downstream from the ravine, a circular wall appears out of nowhere, like a stage in the middle of the desert. Although its builder is long dead, it hints at the presence of others, and an opening invites us in. The space is closed, but also open, like the cosmic gate in the “Bǎihé” chapter of the Guiguzi.[1]

Moving on, we come to another enclosure where the remnants of the columns are scattered like the remnants of history, and it seems as though in a flash we have passed from the start of civilization all the way to its ruins. It is only through this trek that we can arrive to the “outskirts” – the “outskirts of history” – where the bamboo shadows begin, and the countryside first appears.

Reaching the end of the Scroll of The Virtuous Being, the boundless sky’s blue begins to disperse, and an illusory space, a dense atmosphere on the verge of material formation, spreads to the edge of the scroll and gradually seeps into reality, the same way the moss’s green overtook the poet Wang Wei’s garments. If we were to now slowly roll up the scroll, would we still be able to return the way we came, like a reversed image – would we still be able to find our way back to the empty mountain again?


(小)full image 2 (小)full image 4 (小)full image 8Hao Liang, The Scroll of The Virtuous Being, ink and color on silk, hand scroll size: 40 × 1312 cm details (this art work is meant to be viewed from right to left)

This is Wang Wei’s garden, Wang Shizhen’s garden, and also the public parks of today. Historical space-time has been concentrated in this plot on the basis of Zong Bing’s fundamentals of painting,[2] but it is no longer space-time in the classical sense.

In “Virtuous Being” it is not so much that Hao Liang is infatuated with turning the “garden” into the subject and structure of the painting as it is that he is obsessed with how the literati spirit that produced the garden/literati space is integrated with its existential conditions today. It is through this fixation that Research for The Virtuous Being, in tandem with the Scroll of The Virtuous Being, becomes the basis for the structure of the landscape, with both entering contemporary reality together.

In contrast to the expression of personal feelings, Hao Liang is more concerned with understanding the things that have to be “thought,” and in this process his research is a means for slicing into reality, while the reconstruction of space is one of his narrative methods. This detour into the genealogy of Chinese garden painting is a way of interrogating and intervening into the individual psyches of different historical moments. As such, “Virtuous Being” is not only about the reconstruction of long-gone literati gardens, it is also about seeking out and rebuilding the long-lost perceptual mechanisms behind Chinese literati painting. It is in this sense that Hao Liang re-encounters Dong Qichang,[3] the enlightened philosopher of the mechanics of Chinese painting. It was he who announced the awakening of individual painterly sensibility in the midst of revivalist representation, and saw the individual art histories that all artists carry within them as the key to the transmission of Chinese painting.

So what happens after the empty mountain? Under Hao Liang’s brush, the world after the empty mountain is no longer as Zong Bing desired, a world of individual solitude where, “opening the paintings to face them in silence, I probe the earth’s ends from my seat, plunging into far-off forests, seeking only uninhabited wilds.” In contrast, after the empty mountain is where we begin to meet the masses/people – the crowds one inevitably encounters after crossing the wastelands of history to enter modern space-time – and it is also the true destination of the “Echoes of Lin Quan.”[4]


The owner of “Yanshanyuan,” Wang Shizhen,[5] once made an appearance in Hao Liang’s From Xian to Gui I, perched gracefully upon a bamboo branch. In Wang Shizhen’s personal correspondences (their calligraphic beauty and ordinary pragmatism perfectly complementing each other), we can see how a “scholar” who had a profound influence on his contemporaries shifted between affairs of state and domestic, artistic and routine matters. The historical view he put forth, that “there is nothing that is not history,” was not only an innovation of historical theory in the mid-Ming dynasty’s revivalist culture, it also turned singular encounters into the lifeblood of historical divination.

In the works of “From Xian to Gui,” Hao Liang attempts to arrive at another aspect of the genetic structure of the literati spirit by cutting open portrait painting: if the shanshui landscape approximates the way of the universe by giving form to nature, then the portrait tries to capture the essence of nature by giving form to humanity. Accordingly, portraiture also shares a similar concept of “verisimilitude” in the lineage of Chinese painting, and, indeed, included among the Qing-dynasty treatises on realistic painting can be found Jiang Ji’s Secrets of Verisimilitude.

The figures chosen by Hao Liang include both those who are historically verifiable and those who are fictional, but through special techniques of portraiture they all evolve into likenesses with more universal psychological qualities. Hao Liang mines different intellectual resources in this vein, both ruminating on the true significance of the mògŭ technique[6] developed by Zeng Jing at the end of the Ming dynasty, and examining the working method practiced since the Ming-Qing period of literati collaborating with commercial painters to complete their figurative paintings. In such collaborations, the internal spirit to be communicated by the portrait was modeled by the literatus, while the painting itself was completed by the artisan, and the paradigm of reciprocal painting this established both gave posterity a key for accessing the interior world of the “scholar” and produced a unique Chinese aesthetics of portraiture. Coincidentally, the collaboration between literary and artisanal sensibilities is also the tradition when it comes to building Chinese gardens, where it both enables esoteric ideals to find a means of obtaining form in reality and also entails the search for the proper means of harmonizing thought and action.

While it was not until the modern era that the self-portrait would achieve more prominence as a mode of figuration, it was already fully embodied in the person of the late 17th-century “eccentric” Shi Tao[7], such that one could say self-portraits charted the course of his entire life. In 1674’s Small Self-Portrait Planting a Pine, Shi Tao depicts himself as a monk sitting on a rock beneath a pine, with a boy and a smart-looking monkey approaching him from the left of the composition. In fact, this person who asserted his “originality” by proclaiming, “No ancient whiskers mark my features, no ancient organs settle in my gut,” was still responding to the voices questioning how to establish the autonomy of the artist, which had been long extant and continuously raised throughout Chinese art history. The difference is that he was sensitive enough to anticipate the arrival of modernity.

Shi Tao’s self-portrait provides the archetype for the figure in From Xian to Gui II, but under Hao Liang’s brush the bamboo staff he holds becomes an ambiguous tool, while the drapery of his robes and the texture of the rock blend into each other, so that it almost seems the “stress” of “modernity” slowly dissolves into the background’s blank space, into the thick layers of ink there. It is then that the figure quietly emerges, neither as an “individualist” nor a member of the crowd, but instead as an autonomous medium for experiencing the world.

由仙通鬼2 绢本重彩 61 x 135 cm(装裱后 94 x 178 cm) 2015

Hao Liang, From Xian to Gui II , 2015, ink and color on silk, mortise and tenon structure, painting size: 135 × 61 cm.


“I, as a medium for experiencing the world” – if you want to truly depict someone, then it would probably look like this: there would be no differentiation between the drapery of his robes and the veins of the mountain or the ripples of the water; his gestures would correspond to the movements of the wind; and both his form and the background would ultimately return to the earth, so that far from being a subject distinct from the shanshui landscape, he would instead be a part of the whole world. If you want to truly encounter someone, an “other,” then, among the wastelands of history, amid the differing, entangling, yielding, conflicting, inherited and divergent paths of survival, you might come across Wang Shizhen in his bamboo grove. “He” allows us to experience art as a kind of breathing method, allows us a new return to “grace.”

In a certain sense, the spatial medium by which Chinese painting unfolds – the scroll – itself shares the structure of the Chinese garden space. This is not only a construct for converting the shanshui theme of Chinese painting into the gardens of the real world; on a fundamental level, both interrogate, in the relations between art and reality, whether it is possible to attain a state of freedom between the limited conditions of existence and the unlimited visions of life. They are not only spaces for diverse images, they are also sites for endlessly responding to the crises of humanity.

If art suggests the possibility of a world that can be realized without resort to the expectation of a particular “place” – in distinction to religious ideas of the afterlife, or the metaphysical transcendence of philosophy – then between the imagery of Chinese painting and the invisible forces controlling the fate of humanity, what kind of genealogy would allow us to continue following the errant trajectory of human life?



Hao Liang, Aura – Collotype Facsimile of the True View, 2015-2016, collotype printing, details.

Between 1840 and 1841, Wang Zirou[8] poured his last life’s energy into carving his facsimile of the Yan Shi (History of the Inkstone), but, as though to hinder a project that could penetrate the mysteries of fate, a series of tragic incidents hounded him during this time. Following the loss of his mother and a long illness, his child also took sick and died. Even then, Wang Zirou wrote, “Even attending to the sickbed, I cannot hold my hands still.”

In his last letter to Wang Xiang – the patron and sponsor of the Yan Shi carving project – we find the following scene: on the fourth night of the new year, just recuperating from a major illness, and having completed the ritual feasts, Wang Zirou is at last able to sit down at his usual carving place, as though this alone is the true altar of his passions, and as the knife scrapes the stone’s surface, he gradually gains a sense of calm and stillness, his coughing lessens and his temper eases. Entering a dialogue with the past through the innumerable marks of the knife, he is so driven and energized that he pays no mind to the approaching dawn. Then suddenly he feels a burning in his heart and all at once the blood wells up uncontrollably; it is only after he has filled two large bowls that it ceases, and he dejectedly goes to sleep. One can imagine that the carving of the Yan Shi proceeded haltingly amid the mutual resistance between stone and mettle.

Prior to this, Wang Zirou had made 120 Han Stele, selected copies of the finest Han inscriptions, but his own assessment was that it was of a “flawed beauty.” It could be said that the carving of the Yan Shi was a struggle into which Wang Zirou, aware of his imminent demise, directed all his energy – although what he was trying to save far exceeded his life’s capacity.

And was not devoting himself to the facsimile carving project itself already a kind of inevitable choice? Facsimile carving is the corroboration of the “monumentality” of the stele inscription against the personal moment within the scope of individual feeling. This does not mean that the work becomes a personal monument, but it does synthesize (and necessarily so) those inarticulable, unspeakable moments in individual destiny – those moments that engage in close combat with historical destiny. When Wang Zirou accepts with his own body that monolithic historical legacy (his escalating sense of cultural crisis and the dissipation of his life force seemingly progressing in sync), it is also the exact moment that the Chinese ethnic culture finds itself in an existential crisis, and China is forced to embark upon the course of modernity.

ACD take 7

Hao Liang, Aura – Collotype Facsimile of the True View, 2015-2016, collotype printing, details.


Without Wang Zirou’s Yan Shi transcription, we would have lost a secret passage to art, and the crisis of that loss would have swept up many other things we have no way of sensing today, too. Compared to the aphasia and obsession of times of epochal change, Hao Liang uses a “light” method to materialize his mental state, which collides with different historical moments. The source images for the collotype prints in “Aura” all come, without exception, from his encounters, whether at museums or in friends’ collections, with “antiques” that emerge from the mass of historical relics. Any one would trigger the desire to see the ages, circumstances and destinies behind it, and Hao Liang is situated right on top of the intersections of these multiple times.

If it’s really as the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard says – that “the work of art as such calls for a rational reading, whereas the antique does not: antiques partake of ‘legend,’” so that the time into which “antiques” lead us, “is neither internal nor external, neither synchronic, nor diachronic, but anachronistic[9] –      then Hao Liang responds to these “antiques” through his scroll painting Non- Monk, Non-Daoist, Non-Scholar, as though to echo “anachronism” through a “confusion of identity.” This picture “strays” into the “Aura” series of images by “revivalist” means, in response to the portrait of a Dutch monk painted by an unknown artist (Portrait of Evert Zoudenbalch,1500-10).

The term “aura” originates from Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in which Benjamin perceived the death of the aura in the rise of technologies of mechanical reproduction. While he had no way of predicting the constant acceleration of today’s digital technology, it seems possible that those same technologies of mechanical reproduction could actually now recuperate the capacity for “aura” through the perceptual collaboration between man and machine. And, as one of the few remaining technologies that can capture “aura,” the reproductive printing technique of the collotype is now continued as a craft – a technological “antique” – which explicates the life behind the image by “anachronistic” means. In fact, as with carefully preserved “antiques,” the use of the collotype to experience the utmost printing craft of mechanical reproduction is not only a “survival” from times past, it is also “a part in modernity,”[10] and so we are able once again to shuttle back and forth in the temporal maze produced by modernity.   


“Your history starts to haunt you more than you ever thought possible.” In his essay on modernity, “Monster as Geomagnetism,” the American writer Brian Kuan Wood describes how today’s cultural production is “on the prowl for another terrain of capture”: “It begins to take hold of time. But not time in the abstract, and not labor time or leisure time or production time, but another time that is stickier and longer – time as a means of accumulating historical identity.”[11]

Amid the contemporary crisis of cultural identification, the so-called “roots” might become an object of nostalgic consumption, but they could also be a path for seeking variation. The intrinsic qualities of Chinese ink painting were what decided that its orientation would be “abstract,” concerned not with representation but rather comprehension. The modern scholar of Chinese painting, Wen C. Fong, wrote that in the traditional Chinese cosmology the universe had no external will, and was governed simply by its own production and transformation. As such, instead of pursuing a telos, the model of history turned to the ultimate effort to grasp the nature of the “Dao.”[12]

Although this historical outlook was thrown into crisis by the impact of modernity, it has also been constantly renewed and altered in the conversion process, gradually shaping the historiography of Chinese art. This is where perpetual antiquity and perpetual rebirth continuously intersect. In accordance with this vision of space-time, the tradition of Chinese ink painting has never intentionally distinguished between “portraiture” and “the way of the world.” As such, the portrait and the shanshui landscape both have the chance to breathe – all products of energy can potentially appear as images of the cosmos.

Among the constellation of images in “Aura” are those containing both rising and falling postures, upturned and downward gazes; the indescribable zones between mountains and water, sun and moonlight; forms shaped by nature and shapes carved by humans; text and image, letters and pictures; moments of stillness and tragicomedy. As sensible movements, as labor (and not only a technical method), the marks of the collotype are a distant echo of the “images of the mind,” which discern and anticipate the intentions of the world in the traces of the interactions between self and other.


The scroll continues extending beyond our field of view, never assuming that we will have a definite position when we encounter the landscape. Conversely, it always contains our movements within it, and so continuously defers bodily movement, continuously invites us to pursue those “extraneous” times together – those forms whereby “a range in profile turns into a peak in front.”[13]

The surrounding reality is still dense, concrete. The shadows of the trees outside the window shake, stirring up an inexpressible mood, and we unconsciously reexamine our own place and timing. Both an enclave and an exile, the scroll gives release to our attachments to and stories of, concerns and sighs for the surrounding world. Time flows. As the scroll slowly closes, everything in the picture vanishes into time’s folds like things in the dusk, and then what comes to mind is ultimately the question: With what words could I reach the world?

It is only in this opening and closing that it seems everything is able to begin speaking. 


Text © 2018 the Author and The Pavilion
All works of art by Hao Liang © the Artist
Courtesy of the Artist and Vitamin Creative Space 

[1] A Daoist treatise on rhetoric and politics which is thought to date to the Warring States period (475-221 bce). The first chapter of the treatise, Bǎihé alludes to the image of “opening and closing” a gate. (Trans.)

[2] Zong Bing (375-443) wrote what is considered to be the first treatise on shanshui landscape painting. (Trans.)

[3] Also known by his courtesy name Xuanzai, Dong Qichang (1555-1636) is one of the most distinctive painters of the Ming dynasty, famous for his expressive renditions of the landscape. He also wrote theoretical texts on Chinese art. (Trans.)

[4] Bai Qianshen’s inscription on the frontispiece of the Scroll of The Virtuous Being

[5] Wang Shizhen (1526-1590) was a Ming-dynasty scholar-official known for his poetry and literary writings. (Trans.)

[6]墨骨法: literally, “ink bone” technique; not to be confused with the “boneless” wash technique for figurative painting, which has the same pronunciation but is written with different characters. (Trans.)

There are conflicting views on the connection between Zeng Jing’s portrait painting and Western painting. The artist Chen Shizeng (1876-1923) and the Japanese art historian Omura Seigai (1868-1927) maintained that he was influenced by Western painting techniques introduced by Matteo Ricci, but in recent times the scholar Li Xiaoan and the Japanese researcher Hidemi Kondo have argued that Zeng Jing arrived at his “new portrait painting” entirely from within the context of Chinese painting.  

[7] Lived between 1642 and 1707. (Trans.)

[8] Lived between 1788 and 1841. (Trans.) 

[9] Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (New York: Verso, 1996), p. 80.

[10] Ibid., p. 73.

[11] Brian Kuan Wood, “Monster as Geomagnetism,” in Death and Life of Fiction – Modern Monsters: Taipei Biennial 2012 Journal (Taipei: Taipei Fine Arts Museum and Leipzig: Spector Books, 2014).

[12] Wen C. Fong, Images of the Mind: Selections from the Edward L. Elliott Family and John B. Elliott Collections of Chinese Calligraphy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984). 

[13] A line from a poem by the Song-dynasty writer Su Shi (1037-1101), “Inscribed on the Wall of Xilin Temple,” addressing the relativity of perception. (Trans.)