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Art dance revives interest in tragic Song Dynasty painter

  • A teenage painter’s extraordinary skill marked him out for a great career, but fate had other plans.
  • The “Emperor of Art” who mentored him came to an even sadder end.
  • That happened 900 years ago, yet the story of the boy and his royal teacher, and the one painting he created, has inspired a modern show.
  • That in turn has triggered an outpouring of enthusiasm for classic Chinese culture among modern young citizens, Emily Zhou reports.

AUDIENCES IN CHINA were stunned by a recent televised stage performance in which tall, slender dancers in green and blue-grey moved and swayed elegantly in front of a parchment-colored background.

The hit show was an extract from a work called “Only the Green” and became the highlight of the 2021 Bilibili New Year’s Eve party. The following month, the show caught the attention of even more people as part of the Spring Festival Gala.

Seen by hundreds of millions of people, its popularity has made Song Dynasty aesthetics popular again across China—because the artwork that inspired the show was more than 900 years old.

The dance captures the spirit of mountains and rivers, said director Han Zhen. Picture: CCTV


It’s a strange story. During the Song Dynasty, one of the most curious leaders to arise in China took the throne. Emperor Huizong took the throne in the year 1100. Unlike most rulers, he had no interest in conquering lands or even seriously defending his own kingdom: a risky position to take.

This portrait of the Emperor is from the National Palace Museum of Taipei. Via Wikimedia Commons

Instead, the ruler was enraptured by art. Huizong believed that there was nothing more wonderful than the human ability to capture reality in writing and illustration. He was wealthy, of course, and could have hired artists to paint for him.

But instead, he devoted himself to learning the skills himself. He started with the calligraphic arts that all Chinese scholars of the day used, but graduated to writing his own poems, and then became a master painter himself.

An example of the Emperor’s calligraphy

Always looking for inspiration, his courtiers helped him find teachers and other artists to work with, who could keep his appetite for artistic creation satisfied.


One day, Emperor Huizong was introduced by a courtier to a teenage boy who, it was said, had a remarkable ability to paint. The young man, whose name was Wang Ximeng, quickly showed a high level of skill, and the Emperor became his mentor.

When he was 17, Wang Ximeng was given a huge canvas to begin working on a major piece of art—and spent six months on it, finishing when he was 18.

This is just a small portion of Wang Ximeng’s famous work

The result was a masterpiece: a painting 12 meters (39 feet) long, showing a transfixing landscape of blue and green mountains, dotted with rivers, bridges, houses and people. The picture shows undulating peaks and rivers covered by vast waves and fog.  

The painting, generally known as “A thousand miles of rivers and mountains”, was completed in the year 1113. It was even more spectacular than the works of Emperor Hui himself, but this seems to have been no problem. The Emperor also created several great works of art, such as the piece below.

His painting “Auspicious Cranes”(瑞鶴圖) is still on display in the Liaoning Provincial Museum. The ruler’s painting skills were so fine that later generations and even modern artists struggle to meet his standards. In terms of calligraphy, Emperor Hui’s characters are unique, and are known by experts as the “slender-gold-style(瘦金體).

And what of the young prodigy? There was much excitement about what the Wang Ximeng would achieve as he grew older, but alas, it was not to be. The young man fell ill and died in his early 20s. No other work of his has ever been found, but his one painting was enough to earn him a place in the pantheon of great Chinese artists.

“A Thousand Miles…” can now be seen in the famous Palace Museum of Beijing.


Now we fast-forward 900 years. The classic painting by the teenage prodigy, and the art style of the Song Dynasty, inspired the creators of the performance piece mentioned at the beginning. The sleeves and the cut of the dress evoke the shape of the mountains, and the colors are similar to those used in the painting.

The success of “Only The Green” has been linked to the growing enthusiasm of Chinese young people for their own culture. In the past, many youngsters were filled with admiration for Western culture. But in recent years, the West has lost its allure, and Chinese people are taking more pride in their culture and history.

Influencer Li Ziqi with her grandmother: they live in the mountains and cook traditional food

On social media platforms, an increasing number of youngsters are promoting traditional art and clothing. Fans include Li Ziqi (李子柒), a KOL (a term used in Hong Kong and mainland China for “influencer”, derived from the initials of the term “Key Opinion Leader”).

Her own clothes and the dishes she cooks are made using traditional Chinese techniques, and the home in which she lives with her grandmother in the mountains seems to be a paradise infused with Chinese heritage.


But while today’s art lovers can be grateful to Emperor Hui for his mentorship of young Wang Ximeng, the ruler’s personal story was a sad one. He may have created an amazing collection of 6,000 works of art by himself and others – but he really should have spent more time doing his job.

His Kingdom was invaded by an enemy group called the Jin, and Huizong and the rest of the ruling family were put into captivity. He spent his final years in jail.

For more stories on Chinese history and culture, visit our culture section

Picture at the top comes from CCTV

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