In Cloudy Mountains, an Impossible Realm

Intersecting with Eternity



Intersecting with Eternity is an occasional series in The Tower of Reading that features essays, poems, art works, music, video and miscellanea that speak beyond their time. Our assemblage is an idiosyncratic selection that allows the reader/ viewer to leave, even for a moment, the ‘dusty world’ of contemporary concerns to skirt the ineffable. The eternity to which these works grant access is not there and then, but here and now.

Qian Bo, a calligrapher of the fifteenth century, describes just being transported by a work of art into an environment that is 絕境非凡境 — ‘not of this realm, as of another world’. Qian does so in a poem he composed in appreciation of a scroll painting made by Fang Congyi, the subject of this chapter in Intersecting with Eternity.

Fang Congyi (方從義, 1302-1393) was an artist of the late-Yuan and early Ming dynasties. Cloudy Mountains 雲山圖 is a hand-scroll painting by Fang in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York. In the video below, Maxwell (‘Mike’) K. Hearn, head of the museum’s Asian Art Department, discusses this painting.


Thanks to Lois Conner, the artistic muse of China Heritage, we enjoy a tangential connection with Mike Hearn.

In 2010, Nancy Berliner invited me to deliver a keynote address to Artful Retreat: Garden Culture of the Qing Dynasty, a two-day symposium jointly organised by the Peabody Essex Museum and Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and Department of History of Art and Architecture that was held in November that year. The symposium offered an academic introduction to a special exhibition of art objects and architectural and garden elements from what is popularly known as the ‘Qianlong Garden’ 乾隆花園 at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

My talk, titled ‘The Fishing Terrace 釣魚臺: Reclusion and Power in the Post-imperial Life of a Qing Garden’, was illustrated with photographic work made by Lois Conner as part of our long-term collaborative project on Beijing and the Garden of Perfect Brightness. Following my presentation, Mike Hearn introduced himself and shared his enthusiasm for Lois’s work, examples of which are included in the MET’s collection. The three of us subsequently met up at the museum, including one unforgettable occasion in the Met Dining Room, which overlooks Central Park and Cleopatra’s Needle.


In the second-last colophon on the scroll painting discussed below, Zhan Jingfeng (詹景鳳 1532-1602), a noted calligrapher of the Late Ming, writes that Fang Congyi’s Cloudy Mountains:


… will light up the ages, a rare work for any who see it.

(The collection of The Met also contains Zhan Jingfeng’s calligraphic version of the Thousand Character Classic 千字文.)


In Chinese, a number of expressions are used to describe the longevity of artistic achievement. We will conclude with two that seem to be appropriate to our anthology on the theme of Intersecting with Eternity. They are: 流傳千百年 and 邈矣悠哉,古往今来.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
30 April 2024

Cloudy Mountains

雲山圖 卷


Fang Congyi


Fang Congyi (方從義, 1302-1393), courtesy name Wuyu 無隅, sobriquets Fanghu 方壺, Bumang Daoren 不芒道人, Jinmen Yuke 金門羽客 and Guigu Shanren 鬼谷山人, was a famed Yuan-era artist.



(Note: for a high-resolution view of the scroll, see here.)


Fang Congyi, a Daoist priest from Jiangxi, traveled extensively in the north before settling down at the seat of the Orthodox Unity Daoist church, the Shangqing Temple on Mount Longhu (Dragon Tiger Mountain), Jiangxi province. Imbued with Daoist mysticism, he painted landscapes that “turned the shapeless into shapes and returned things that have shapes to the shapeless.”

According to Daoist geomantic beliefs, a powerful life energy pulsates through mountain ranges and watercourses in patterns known as longmo ([龍脈] dragon veins). In Cloudy Mountains, the painter’s kinetic brushwork, wound up as if in a whirlwind, charges the mountains with an expressive liveliness that defies their physical structure. The great mountain range, weightless and dematerialized, resembles a dragon ascending into the clouds.

Fang Congyi, Cloudy Mountains, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


An Appreciation by Qian Bo

Not of this realm, as of another world
If Penglai were but a breath away
In the depths of a silent glade, a hut
A rustic bridge over a languid stream
Birds on the wing merge at heaven’s edge
As clouds retreat over empty mountains
Few frequent this lone and distant spot
Moss growing untrammeled on pine paths

— Qian Bo
One in the Clouds
trans. GRB

A poem inscribed on the scroll painting by Qian Bo (錢博, 1441-?), a Ming-dynasty literatus known for the comforting fluency of his calligraphic hand.


Master of Gourd Heaven Fang

Fang Hu 方壺 is one of Fang Congyi’s artistic names, or sobriquets 號 hào. Like the mystical realm of Penglai, mentioned in the poem above, 方壺 fānghú, ‘square gourd’, is the name of magical island inhabited by immortals.

The Cloudy Mountain scroll starts with the words ‘A Veritable Work by Fanghu’ 方壺真跡 in the hand of Cheng Nanyun (程南雲, fifteenth century), a Ming-dynast official who, among other things, officiated at lectures on the Confucian classics organised for the imperial court. He was celebrated for his mastery of both Seal Script and Clerical Script 篆隸 zhuàn lì. Below is the name Fanghu in Seal Script from the scroll: