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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Ni Zan and his associates Li, Jin


Ni Zan (1301-1374) has been regarded as the paragon of Chinese scholar-painter since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by critics and scholars. He was praised as one of the four great masters of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). He was also an accomplished poet. His paintings are characterized by highly generalized simple compositions with minimal use of dry-ink brushstrokes. Stories and legends about his lofty personality and obsession for cleanliness were written by his contemporaries. Most of contemporary studies of Ni Zan tend to follow the conventional Chinese biographical approach, sometimes isolating the artist from his contexts. Ni Zan's internal aspects such as his personality, genius in art are over stressed while the external aspects such as the historical context and his associations with people around him have not received enough attention. This paper attempts to reconstruct a contextual picture, making the connections between some aspects of Ni Zan's art with the historical facts of his time and his social relationships with some important scholars and artists to explain the development of his landscape painting. Ni Zan lived in the Jiangnan region from the mid-Yuan to the beginning of the Ming. Born in one of the wealthiest families in Jiangnan, he engaged his time and energy in studying of art and literature, participating in and hosting literati activities in his earlier half life. During this period his associations with some of the important scholars and painters. For instance, Zhang Yu (1283-1350) and Huang Gongwang (1269-1354) had great impact on him in the formation of his aesthetic taste and in the direction of his style. As the results of natural disasters and political power struggling, there was an out-break of bandits throughout the nation in the early 1350s. Facing financial difficulties and increased taxation, Ni Zan longed for dedicating himself to the arts. He chose to leave his family and estate behind, and began his second period of life as a wandering scholar painter in 1352. The dramatic change in life style also brought alternation in his associations, which prompted the artist to view his art and his relationship with other literati from a new perspective. He found his distinctive style in landscape painting and produced his best works in the following two decades. The writings of Ni Zan and his contemporaries, be it a poem or inscription on a painting, provide the evidence of political and social contexts of his time, reveal Ni Zan's views on art and literature, and tell us about the artist and his life. By reviewing some of his works and other sources, I argue that both Ni Zan and his art were the products of his time. Without the influences from his associates, especially in his earlier career, he would not have become the artist he did. Nor would he have developed and established his personal style.

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