A flowing theme of harmony
Those who have lived in delta country, or in lowlands reclaimed from the sea, know that particular exhaltation, that lifting of the heart which the sight of a line of boats coming up a canal under full sail brings. From a little distance the embankments and dykes seem to fall away, and the sails to sweep above the fields in a majestic pageant of line and color, self-sustained, aerial. We are given such a view in this album leaf of Tao-chi, a very small picture, but a masterpiece. In its breadth of vision the scene seems vast. As the junks go forward they seem to rise from the mist, in a countryside where tall willows grow. The willow in China, as in the West, is one of the most beloved of all the trees, admired for its luxuriant and graceful foliage, and associated with romantic legends. "Sing Willow Willow Willow" is a line which needs no interpretation there.
Tao-chi lived for much of his life in the Yangtze Valley, often either at Nanking or at Yangchou. The latter city being the southern port of the Grand Canal, he must, many times, have observed the junks on that noble waterway, the most imposing of the network of canals which lace the region. On the picture the artist inscribed these lines: The cargo junks comr 10,000 li/From Heaven down to the Old Palace./ A half-wall is as beyond the water/ The great gate carved on the waves./ Men know the grains of the river and lake/ The tide flies after the sun-moon arc./ Year on year intent on this/ Neither fisher nor farmer is empty./
The "Old Palace" may refer to that of the Mings in Nanking, for a time their capital, before they succumbed to the historically irresistable impulse to establish themselves at Peking -- always a magnet for the rulers of the country. Nanking, so centrally located, on the mighty Yangtze, and in the heart of a great agricultural region, seems the logical site for the capital, but it has never had the magic of Peking, it has not been able to satisfy its rulers.
Equally the city might be Yangchou with the grain junks setting out -- or it may not be any specific place. What is important here is the line of sails and the sense of water implicit in the study. It is done with an inspired economy of line which presents the walls and gate of a flourishing town, yet keeps these elements subordinate to the main theme.
In the artist's discussions on painting we read: "As for the painter, the value lies not in the vastness of mountains and water, but in their controllability, not in their number and quantity, but in their flexibility in change. . . .The function of the brush is not in the brush, but in something of value created; the function of ink is not in the ink but in its receptivity and response. Likewise the functions in mountains and water lie not in themselves, but in their respective silence and nobility. . . .
"So in speaking of these functions, one sees that they are laws of growth and life. The One controls All, and All are controlled by One -- not by mountains, nor by waters, not by brush and ink, not by the ancients, nor by the moderns, nor by the sages. . . ."