Excerpt from An Introduction to Wang Lü and his Mt. Hua Album

Kathlyn Maurean Liscomb


In 1381 a middle-aged Chinese physician named Wang Lü undertook an arduous journey; he scaled the peaks of Mt. Hua, the Sacred Mountain of the West.  Although this mountain had long been an important center for religious Daoism, Wang did not climb it as a religious pilgrim.  Instead, he braved the dangerous ascent of this rugged mountain in order to witness its natural marvels with his own eyes and to commune personally with its magnificent spirit.  He wanted to escape for a time the burdens of a life that was cramping his spirit and to share the experiences of authentic recluses.

A painter by avocation, Wang recorded his experiences in an album that included forty paintings, 150 poems, a travel record, and several essays articulating his theory of art.  In one essay he wrote, “I take my heart-mind to be my teacher.  It takes as its master my eyes, which in turn revere Mt. Hua as their teacher.”  Ordinarily, painters take human beings to be their teachers, not mountains.  What did Wang Lü mean?  His proclamation concludes an essay in which he not only presents his ideas with the usual allusions to earlier authorities, but also provides the reader with valuable information regarding the process that led to his insights.  He wrote that climbing Mt. Hua and trying to paint it dramatically transformed his approach to painting.  He became convinced that no earlier painters had depicted this sacred mountain’s unusual topography adequately and concluded that he had no recourse but to rely on himself to capture Mt. Hua’s unique forms and spirit.  Whereas in the past he had learned by copying earlier paintings – the usual practice during his lifetime – he began to try to learn directly from Mt. Hua.