The Talents of Wang Wei
China History

Research Report
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This paper will explore Wang Wei and his many accomplishments.  He is famous for being not only a great artist, but also a calligrapher, musician and talented poet. Wang’s work is largely a reflection of the attitudes and culture of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).  The themes of the time period are prevalent in his creations.  Wang Wei is considered the founding father of landscape painting and during his lifetime created a new style of art called wen ren hua.  Wang Wei is an intricate part of Chinese art and literary history, leaving behind some four hundred poems and an entirely new style of painting.

Historical Background

Like nature, his favorite topic, Wang Wei is an important and mysterious part of China’s art and literary history.  There is no proof that he painted great works because none of his original paintings exist, but he is greatly revered in China’s history by art connoisseurs and colleagues alike.  Wang holds the title "founding father of landscape painting," and his style, or what is accepted to be his style, is greatly admired (Sullivan 175).  He was a man of many talents and accomplishments and is famous for being not only a great artist, but also a calligrapher, musician and talented poet.  Wang Wei’s work is largely a reflection of the attitudes and perceptions of the Tang Dynasty.  During his lifetime, Wang opened up the door to a whole new style of art and influenced many artists beyond his time. Wang Wei was born into a wealthy family in Shanxi Province in 699 (possibly 701) (Barnstone 30).  He spent all his life moving through high society’s political and social circles.  A devout Buddhist and political official, he was interested in many topics, including Buddhism, landscapes and the poetry of Tao Qian (Owen 385). He lived on an estate on the Wang River but never left his political position to lead a solitary life, like many artists of the time.  Because of this, many critics say his life was uneventful and even that his poetry and art were an escape from his own character (Barnstone 29).

Wang held the belief that, "A man’s painting, like his handwriting, should be a witness not to his skill with the brush, but to his quality as a man" (Sullivan 140).  Wang, skillfully and gracefully, combined his poetic and artistic talent by writing his poems in calligraphy on his paintings, creating a new style of painting called wen ren hua.  Wang is also credited with the development of mono-chrome landscape painting (Sullivan 140). One of his most famous works, titled Wangchuan Villa, is said to have the power to transport the viewer into his landscape and could even cure an illness (Harrist 74). Wang’s landscape paintings are renowned because of the feeling they arouse in the viewer, perhaps because he "immortalized one of the greatest creations of the literati class, the natural garden" (Harrist 74).  Nature itself arouses emotion in people and leaves them in awe.  Wang possessed the ability to allow nature to speak for itself. 

Research Report

In his poetry Wang is a master of illusion and can describe in one line a landscape so real that if you close your eyes, you can take yourself there.  Because he is a painter as well as a poet, he pictures the landscape when he writes and can point out those intimate details that pull and tug at your emotions, leaving you entranced while standing at the foot of his beautifully created mural.  Combining his amazing talent with words and his ability to paint a landscape so serene that it has “miraculous” effects, can create an illusion so real it may leave the viewer in a state of awe.  Su Shi, in the 11th century, wrote a poem comparing Wu Daozi and Wang Wei, and in it he said, “I have seen the two masters: both are divinely talented.  But as for Wei, I step back without a word” (Harrist 70).

Wang’s work is largely a reflection of the attitudes and culture of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Emperor Taizong (600-649) held the belief that “Literary arts and military arts should be employed by the state alternately” (Ebrey 115).  The Tang was a time of peace, which allowed art and culture to prosper.  The security of a stable environment created a nurturing climate for artists, scholars and poets alike.  The poetry that was written during the Tang Dynasty is so superior that it is used as a benchmark to judge all Chinese poetry both before and after its time (Yang  91).

A hallmark of the Tang Dynasty was the development of government. The state of Tang government is also be reflected in art.  For instance, the Tang Dynasty was the first in which exams were an important step to becoming an official.  The exams consisted mostly of memorization of the classics and literary composition, creating a higher need for education among officials.  This and the Tang Legal Code, issued in 653, provided rules and procedures for officials to follow (Ebrey 116).  The Code and the examination system created a very structured and strict political life encouraging officials to turn to art, poetry and literature as a means of relaxation and an escape from their everyday lives.  Wang, like many officials of his time and wrote of a life without the constraints and complications of political life.  Many of his poems create the image of a simple, but happy life.

A majority of Wang’s paintings are characteristically Chinese, in that they have many focal points, as opposed to the standard one focal point in Western paintings.  Multiple focal points provide the perception of softness and tranquillity.  Another reflective aspect of his style is the inclusion of a water landscape.  Many of the winter scenes have water, even though one would assume that water would be frozen over.  Water has a very calming effect that adds to the peacefulness of the landscape, many of which are in monochrome, bland colors.  This is also characteristic of the serene environment because the bland colors symbolize serenity and realism.  A landscape is a small piece of nature and it is characteristically peaceful; which could explain why landscape painting became so popular during this time period. 

Painting and poetry are both used to express feelings, so it is only natural that the two should be combined to express emotion of a deeper level.  However, this evolution relied on the Tang philosophy that scholars and officials were defined by their talent as writers and poets.  If writing and poetry were not of great importance in Tang culture, Wang might not have ventured to combine the two.  The freedom of expression that was present during this time is also a factor that allowed wen ren hua painting to become an important part of art culture.

During the Tang, Buddhism flourished.  Emperor Taizong, in the early Tang, believed “The Way” was spread through culture (Ebrey 115).  Wei Shou, a 6th Century Historian, wrote that one of the steps to attaining Buddhahood is practicing serenity (Ebrey 98). It is these Buddhist views that were to set the atmosphere for the Tang Dynasty and made culture an important part of Chinese life.

Wang used a very simplistic language that created “a vision of the world that was uniquely his own” (Owen 385).  This vision is established by Wang’s Buddhist perception that the world is only illusions of the human senses.  He wrote passionate poetry that played on almost all human senses: sight, sound, touch and smell.  Wang’s poem "Autumn Evening in the Mountains" displays his use of the human senses to create an illusion of reality and simplicity. 

Autumn Evening in the Mountains

After the rain
That covered these mountains the night air
Smells of fall

The moon gleams
Among long-needled pines
Rushing softly across its rocks
The creek

Bringing their laundry home
Through the bamboos
Women chatter

A fisherman poles his boat
Through the heavy lotus leaves

The spring flowers
And their heavy odors
Are gone

Stick around anyway
Old friend
For the beauty of fall.

The first line is simple, yet it sets the mood for the rest of the poem.  Everyone knows what it is like after the rain.  You can picture the last time you walked outside after it rained and you remember what it looked, smelled and felt like.  Even if the reader has never been in the mountains they can still picture the scenery of the poem and they can feel what it is like to be there because Wang creates a mood that everyone can relate to.  The third line is also very plain, but by using a familiar smell, he creates an image that is very real.  The oversimplification allows nature to speak for itself.

Sound is a sense that is sometimes over-looked in poetry.  In this poem Wang uses sound as a sort of background that helps bring the poem to life.  There are other people in the poem; women walking through the woods and a fisherman paddling his boat.  The combination of other actions and the sound of the women talking in the background, gives the reader the feeling of sitting still in the landscape while everything is going on around them. 

In this poem, Wang speaks of the uncomplicated lives of hunters, fishermen and farmers.  These were some of the first careers for men and although they involve hard manual-labor, which Wang does not elude to in his poems, they are simplistic and allow a man to live alone, among nature.  Wang perceives these careers and nature as pure, simple and perfect.  He has an idealistic perception of a simple life.

It is said that a great Chinese landscape painting has the power to let you escape from reality.  Landscape painting, also and poetry, is “recognized as a source of spiritual solace and refreshment,” which suggests officials can nourish their spirit by taking imaginary journeys through landscape art (Owen 385).  Wang, born in to a high position in society and had a political career, must have felt very constrained by the requirements of his hectic life. This stress is why he turned to poetry and art as an idealistic escape from his daily life and career.  Almost all of his poems about nature bring about a very serene, calm feeling, allowing him to use his art to escape his life.  Wang’s work is a direct contradiction of his lifestyle.  The landscapes and places he speaks of in his poem are not at all what he would experience at work or a high-society social gathering. 

Autumn Evening in the Mountains may be a symbolic cleansing of Wang’s life.  Wang portrays the purity and innocence of the country atmosphere once it has been cleansed by the rain, making reference to the idea of cleansing himself of the effects of being a political official.  “The heavy odors are gone” could be a reference to the corruption of the political environment that surrounded him.  It is logical to believe that poetry and art helped to cleanse Wang’s soul.

Historical Significance

Wang Wei is an intricate part of Chinese art and literary history, leaving behind some four hundred poems and an entirely new style of painting.  He has a very simple and unique form that helped to shape art and poetry for many generations.  Wang had a kind of passion and regard for words that flow out of his poetry and effect anyone who reads his work.  Although he never followed the trend of his time and left his position to live the life he created in his poetry, he actualized exquisite scenery and emotional poetry.  His poetry was an escape for him and a beautiful journey for thousands of others who enjoy his simple, serene verse.


Owen, Stephen. (ed.)  An Anthology of Chinese Literature.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1996

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (ed.) Chinese Civilization. New York: The Free Press, 1993.

Harrist, Robert E.  Painting and Private Life in Eleventh-Century China.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1998

Barnstone, Tony,  Willis Barnstone, and Xu Haixin.  (trans.)  Laughing Lost in the Mountains.  Beijing: Chinese Literature Press, 1989

Sullivan, Michael.  The Arts of China.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999

Yang, Xiaoshan.  Asian Thought and Culture.  New York:  Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1996

Web Resources - Assorted poems by Wang Wei - Classical Chinese Art, Calligraphy, Poetry, History, Literature, Painting and Philosophy - Asian History and Culture - Elibrary - Poems of Wang Wei in English, Pinyin and Chinese

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