With wings outspread a goose descends in gliding flight to a shoal defined by tall reeds and grass; among the four birds that have already landed is one with outstretched neck and somewhat anxious air, presumably the mate of the late arrival. Organized around strong diagonal axes, the composition is a masterful display of technical virtuosity with brush and ink, with spatial recession and pictorial space defined primarily through manipulation of ink tonality. Gradients of detail, of size, and of brightness persuade the eye of the spatial reality of this scene, creating a mist-filled ambiance from which the images emerge as from nature itself.
The Buddhist monk Hui-ch’ung (965?-1017), the painter to whom this evocative painting traditionally has been attributed, was, according to his earliest biography, ‘from Chien-yang (in Fukien province). He was skilled at painting domestic and wild geese and egrets and was especially good at small scale scenes. He excelled in doing likenesses of wintry spits and distant banks, desolate and scattered in empty wastes-what other men with difficulty achieve.’ [Kuo Jo-hsu: T’u-hua Chien-wen Chih (late 1070s), Hua-shih Ts’ung-shu edition, vol. 1, p. 209.] During his relatively short period of activity, Hui-ch’ung traveled to K’ai-feng in the north and to Ch’ang-an in the west, major political and cultural centers in which note was taken of his significant creative skills in poetry, calligraphy, and painting. A prototypical literatus, Hui-ch’ung was especially appreciated during the later 11th century by those who sought then to redefine the goals of painting, to shift its emphasis from formal description to poetic evocation.
Ou-yang Hsiu (1007-1072) mentioned Hui ch’ung as one of nine famous monk-poets and he as well as Ssu-ma Kuang (1019-1086) recorded anecdotes about the artist’s life. Hui-ch’ung’s skill in writing in the style of Wang Hsi-chih (321-329) earned him a place in the Huang-Sung Shu-lu, ‘Record of Calligraphers of the Imperial Sung Dynasty,’ but it was as a painter that he was especially appreciated and gained permanent renown.
Huang T’ing-chien (1050-1110), one of the greatest of Sung poets and calligraphers, noted of a painting by Hui-ch’ung: ‘Hui-ch’ung and Pao-chueh (another 11th century monk-painter) both came from Ch’ang-sha. However, Chueh was marvelous with the character and attitude of living creatures and in this was superior to Ch’ung. But the way Ch’ung captured the idea of cold desolation over level distances is also one of the accomplishments of brush and ink.’ [Huang T’ing-chien. Shan-ku Chi, quoted in the P’ei-wen-chai Shu-hua P’u, ch. 84, p. 29.] For another painting by Hui-ch’ung the same author wrote a poem:
‘When Hui-ch’ung lowered his brush to paint,
he laid open the face of the river;
For ten thousand Ii the clear waves
face the descending rays of the sun;
Plum-blossom shadows slant across
unseen by men,
Mandarin ducks face each other,
dancing in red gowns.’
A couplet written by Huang’s good friend Su Shih (1036-1101) also suggests the nature of Hui-ch’ung’s paintings: ‘Beyond the bamboo are peach blossoms in two or three branches; during spring the river water warms, and ducks are the first to know.’ Such pictorial and verbal imagery inspired Wang An-shih (1021-1086) to coin the expression Hui-ch’ung hsiao-ching, ‘Small-scale scenes by Hui-ch’ung,’ and to declare in a poem: ‘Painting masters there have been in profusion but there is no use enumerating them; Hui-ch’ung appeared at the last and of him I most approve.’ [Quoted in Weng T’ung-wen: I-lin Ts’ung-k’ao, Taipei, 1977, pp. 15-16. This important discussion presents the evidence for the birth and death-dates used here for Hui-ch’ung.]
Given such high praise of Hui-ch’ung’s paintings by some of the most knowledgeable critics of the Northern Sung era, it is all the more disappointing that no extant painting can be associated with his original style and achievements with any degree of certainty. In any such discussion, however, the handscroll ‘Spring Dawn over River and Mountains’ must figure prominently. Bearing colophons by Tung Ch’i-ch’ang and other later critics, the painting, which is only attributed to Hui-ch’ung, seems at the least to represent the late Northern Sung stage in the evolution of his stylistic tradition. Our understanding of that lineage is complicated, however, by consideration of paintings associated with Chao Ling-jang (active ca. 1070-1100), a member of the Imperial Sung family who had studied with Su Shih, leader of the same literati circle as was so fulsome in its praise of Hui-ch’ung. The Sung writer Wang T’ing-kuei (1079-1171) noted that Chao Ling-jang ‘liked to do rivers, lakes, mountain groves, figures, and pitted and burrowed rocks. He painted level groves and distant waters with wild and domestic ducks in evening scenes which cause one on a single look to feel as though traveling through Chiang-nan. Where the banks end and the water descends stones protrude from the sand, and birds wait on waves as though about to start up in alarm’ (quoted in Pei-wen-chai, 1708). Paintings by or attributed to Chao are thus close in style to those associated with the earlier Hui-ch’ung, and there remain many questions of dating and creative priority.
Hui-ch’ung’s emphasis on small-format landscapes depicting rather close-up and level distance scenes in fan, album leaf, or handscroll format was continued during the Southern Sung era by such followers as Wang Tsung-yuan. According to the Hua-chi Pu-i of 1298, Wang ‘specialized in the study of Hui-ch’ung and did pond-embankments in small scenes which really have a rural flavor.’ [Chuang Su: Hua-chi Pu-i (1298), ch.3, p. 14.] Many of the later Sung paintings attributed to Hui-ch’ung , including the present painting, present even more close-up views of river scenery and most often feature geese descending on spits of land defined by reeds and grass. This innovation would seem related to the great popularity during the Southern Sung period of the cycle of paintings and poems known as the ‘Eight Views of the Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers.’ Known earliest in paintings done by Sung Ti (ca.1015-ca.1080), a friend of Su Shih, and in poetry by the monk Hui-hung (1071-1128), who also knew Su Shih and Huang T’ing-chien, the cycle provided a wealth of pictorial and verbal imagery for later artists, whose compositions might be greatly simplified and concentrated but were still able to evoke the connotations of the originals.
The present ‘Geese Descending on Sandbar’ is comparable to the mid-I2th century composition by Wang Hung, with more specificity and clarity than the similar passage in the composition by Mu-ch’i (ca.1220- ca.1280), painted probably during the 1270s. These comparisons would suggest that the present work attributed to Hui-ch’ung was painted during the early part of the 13th century. This was also the period during which Japanese monks began in increasing numbers to travel to China for advanced instruction; the paintings carried home by these monks graced many temples and palaces in Japan and provided the iconographic and stylistic foundation for much of late Kamakura-Muromachi period art. The present painting, of Japanese provenance, thus testifies to an aesthetic lineage that spans many centuries in time and several countries in space.