Chinese Aesthetes: Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank

Chinese Aesthetes: Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank

Born c. 1140, Liang Kai was a renowned early 13th century Chinese painter popularly known for paintings that reflected his interest in Buddhist temples. Liang’s painting was characteristic of Southern Song era where the pursuit of painting greatly aestheticized people’s way of life. He learned to paint from Jia Shigu but was able to outdo his master in being able to convey the bearing and the grace of figures. His love for painting saw him move from an in-attendance painter in the court to a Buddhist temple where he spent his time painting. Like most of his other well-known paintings, his finest work, Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank conveys a spiritual intensity. In the tranquility of the landscape and under the great cliff, the solitary figure meditates on a deceptive world before him. In the Kai painting, the brevity of the spatial figure is the aesthetic choice. This paper seeks to briefly outline Kai’s biography as it examines his famous art work and its intended meaning.

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Liang Kai was a revered Southern Song painter. He was active in the early 13th century and used to call himself Madman Liang. Born c. 1140 in Shandong, Liang grew and worked in Hangzhou (which was then known as Lin An) (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016). He was known for his mastery in painting landscapes, figures and other different minor objects. He developed a style of paining known as sketch style, which was known as Xie Yi. The Xie Yi style is associated with abrupt illumination aspects. The main objective of Xie Yi was to create the atmosphere with little use of detail. The style required a philosophical mastery of painting skill with lots of concentration, but also allowed for accidental effects of beauty. Chang, who used to work at the court, later left his position and started practicing Chan Buddhism. He died c. 1210 in China although his work is revered more in Japan where Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank was more admired than in China.

Poet Strolling By a Marshy Bank

The Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank is a small painting by Chinese painter Liang Kai. The ink on silk painting can currently be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It measures 22.9 by 24.3 cm. The painting seems to illustrate a spiritual intensity where a lone figure seems to meditate on an illusory world before him. According to Liu (2013), the painting depicts a poet strolling in a marshy landscape that looks like the Martian planet. Across the river is a small embankment with few sketched lines of a distant mountain. The painting is very light with an airy composition. The painting’s subject matter is fairly conventional, although Kai treats it in a very unusual way.

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The painting challenges one’s discernment of reality as it reflects on Chan’s notions of the illusory nature of existence. According to Ortiz (2008), the 13th century saw the figure depicted in contemplation becoming a focal point of the landscape composition that is emphasized by its isolation in space. The isolated figure viewing nature often becomes the focus forcing the viewer to concentrate on the figure’s contemplation. From the painting, the pictorial space that surrounds the figure is one that conveys an impression of a dream. In fact, this is very true of Kai’s painting that depicts a small human figure in a mysterious landscape, which seems to be more haunting. In the painting, Kai shows a small human figure in the lower right corner while the other part of the painting is filled with an overhanging rock and in the far background, there is a misty sky. The rest of the scene seems to indicate floating air safe for a few washes below the rock. The terseness of the spatial expression in the painting is an aesthetic choice.

The landscape, which is one of the most disorienting Chinese art compositions, depicts a man strolling along the shore a river. The far shore recedes as it moves from a near ground embankment to marshy lowlands that is dotted with reeds and shrouded by mist hills. A closer look reveals that the unpainted part is solid and not mist with a massive rock behind it. It is an allegory that reflects a psychological weight of the stroller beneath it. However, the reader’s vantage point is challenged by the huge rock that is hanging above. The cliff too closes into a mist of distant peaks that seem to emerge out of nowhere. This leaves the reader wondering what may be lying in between. Usually, this kind of composition is mainly associated with the poet Qu Yuan. Qu Yuan was an important court minister who was devoted to the country and its ruler; however, he was exiled due to libel but drowned himself in a river because of his loyalty (Liu, 2013). Kai used the overhanging massive rock above Qu Yuan to show his emotional state. It is an indication that Liang felt some sort of affinity with Qu Yuan. Clearly, the painting depicts an idea about an illusory nature of what the eyes can see on the while the reality may be behind the mist, behind the clouds.

During the early 13th century, many paintings used a lot of empty space but this painting has a diagonal across the middle of the composition. As can be seen from the painting, there is a lot of space backing the lonely figure and this is confirmed as a dream landscape by the presence of the man in a meditative state. According to Ortiz (2008), the emphasis on an “I” , the viewer and on a landscape sight that arouses emotion is typical of Southern Song poetry. As can be seen from the painting, the atmosphere is misty while the light is soft and nature elements seem to merge. The landscape is used to reflect the dream of the poet. Additionally, there is a number of transitions in the painting that are fundamentally spatial changes utilized in landscape painting. The transitions include the river that merges with the lake, duckweeds that seem to move, or the lowering leaves. Mist is used as an understanding that governs Southern Song poetry to display a positive component of the painting. Kai juxtaposes some scene descriptions with that kind of feeling. This resulting painting is one of a vision of landscape that is more interiorized, more personal, and intimate than before.

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It is evident that Southern Song presents the viewer with a more contemplative Chinese art image. This is in contrast to the Northern Song landscape paintings that invite a sort of “dwelling in” participation, while the Southern Song landscapes are made for quiet meditation. According to Ortiz (2008), the Southern Song poetry has a naturalistic setting that has cleverly positioned figures inviting the viewers to the meditative nature of the painted figure. The painting’s space becomes a medium for the viewer to contemplate because of its poetic nature through which it evokes a connection between the inner and the outer worlds in between what is known as jing and qing (between scene and sentiment).

The Kai painting evokes sensitivity on the relationship between figures and landscapes where the figure is depicted within a landscape further contributing to the objectification of space. The figure on the painting draws the viewers’ attention to the infinite distance as well as a boundless past. Ortiz (2008) explains that in themselves, the unlimited view and the mist both invite a wanderlust and sad mood as they give a lyrical tone to the space. It is as though nature is corrected and depicted for its best viewing. The interplay between the mountain and the pergola draws the viewer’s gaze creating tension that helps the viewer to visualize the meditation and drawing the viewer into a deeper contemplative thinking. That is usually the intention of the Southern Song painting where the viewer is left to imagine a way some things would seem in a visual dream.


The Southern Song poetry became famous in the early thirteenth century with painters like Liang Kai seizing the moment. He was born c. 1140 and died c. 1210. He left a prestigious court job to become a Chan Buddhist and live in a monastery where he often painted. Kai was renowned for his mastery in painting landscapes with works such as The Sixth Patriarch Cutting Bamboo, Drunken Celestial and the most famous the Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank. The painting Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank depicts a solitary figure, a misty background, coupled with a sense of illusion that is typical of Kai’s mastery in landscape painting. The solitary figure often becomes the main focus of the painting with a misty sky over the huge hanging cliff. The arrangement of the images stimulates a viewer’s imagination managing to leave the viewer to meditate on its deeper meaning. The shift of emphasis back and forth to the viewer is indeed Southern Song that juxtaposes the reality of the view to the dream world beyond the gazes.

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