Hanging in the National Palace Museum in Taipei is “Countless Peaks and Vales,” an eight foot high scroll completed in 1693 by Qing Dynasty artist Wang Hui. A prominent and gifted painter in the 17th Century, Wang Hui first made his reputation by copying old masterworks. His style is a combination of detailed rendering and evocative calligraphic brushwork. Drawing on past influences he writes: "I must use the brush and ink of the Yuan to move the peaks and valleys of the Song, and infuse them with the breath-resonance of the Tang. I will then have a work of the Great Synthesis." The Song Dynasty saw the rise of the scholar literati class and marks the beginning of monumental landscape painting. Painting became a mode of personal expression; the literati painters began composing the landscape to show natural orders, which they believed were missing in active society. During the Yuan and Ming Dynasty, painting moved away from literal representation, instead calligraphic lines carried the life of a landscape. Wang’s mentor Dong Qichang stressed: "If one considers the uniqueness of scenery, then a painting is not the equal of real landscape; but if one considers the wonderful excellence of brush and ink, then landscape can never equal painting."
In “Countless Peaks and Vales” the colour palette is black, grey and the paper’s natural buff. The subject is a river gorge - a typical landscape in the regions south of the Yangtze river. Rocks and water are skillfully painted and placed, dividing the picture plane in various zones. Summits resembling spearheads are repeated successively from the top of the scroll down, stopping approximately at center; the cliff face bare, a stubble of shrubs scattered along the ridges. In the top half, the mountain pass is most visible from the left hand side, a close view in elevation, assuming two thirds of the scroll. The peaks dwindle in height and continue in the distance, disappearing behind the mist. Four long lines of calligraphy are written on the top right, mirrored by seven short lines of text on the top left. At center, rock and water intersect: at the far left water carves through the mountain eventually tumbling over of an edge, and a river rushes in from the far right, two fishermen paddling against the current. The scale changes, as if the scene is viewed from above. Clusters of trees line the river’s edge. Two villages appear: one beside the river, the other tucked inside a valley. The river divides the bottom portion in two halves, following an arcuate path. On the left bank a second waterfall appears, the route of flowing water continues as a dry path. Two travelers one old, the other young are trekking up the mountain. Needle shaped pines and gnarled conifers surround a monastery on the right bank. Three monks standing at the shore. Several trees left of the monastery interrupt the river’s flow, again water transformed into rock. The river becomes a quiet stream. Behind the monastery two travelers on horseback are rounding the corner on a second mountain trail. At the scroll’s bottom left corner, conifers and pines command the most attention. The trees in an upright stance contrast the ones bent over. Behind the trees is an island with a pavilion perched above. A small footbridge links the island to shore. None of the major motifs in Countless Peaks and Vales exists in fixed states. Water sublimates into air, flows through the veins of mountains, and boats skim over its surfaces. Plants grow in rock crevices and people walk on rock surfaces. The motifs coexist seamlessly, and permutations of rock, water, trees and people creates a broad range of variation.
There is a strong sense of unity in “Countless Peaks and Vales,” each element’s raison d'être is dependent on a counterpart. However, Wang’s painting is incredibly resilient against visual fragmentation. The painting overall tells the story of mountains stretching far in the distance and a river packed with charming vignettes along its shores. But if one considers only one half or one fifth of the overall work, another story unfolds. From the bottom-most section, a scholar and his two pupils stand at the head of a bridge. Both students are carrying supplies while their teacher points his staff towards a place across the water. Directly behind them, a stream appears, water rushing towards the quiet bay. The trio’s destination - the pavilion, is screened by a large rock, although one assumes that there are stairs leading up to the top. A boat is heading away from shore, reeds and trees sway right - showing that the oarsman is rowing against a headwind. Two people are resting in the pavilion, perhaps waiting for their friend. One man gazes at the peaks in the distance, while the other admires the rocks before him. The story progresses from right side to the left side. The bridge suggests a path and a destination, the upward gaze of the scholar extends the scene beyond his immediate context, while the wind resists the fishermen’s efforts of moving upstream. The motifs do not follow the usual conventions of scale and distance. Objects vary in size and level of detail even if positioned in same zone on the scroll. The trees behind and in front of the small pavilion are significantly larger. Wang Hui seamlessly stitches relates conditions. Although the lower section is but a fragment of the overall painting, there still exists a complete story.