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Immortal rivers in traditional Chinese art and poetry

by | Sep 17, 2020 | Latest Post

Rivers are a common motif in traditional Chinese art and poetry. This should come as no surprise. According to the first national census of water, China had 22,909 rivers which had catchment areas of at least 100 sq. kilometres at end-2011. The longest of the seven major rivers — the Yangtze River (6,397 kms.) and the Yellow River (5,464 kms.) — were cradles of Chinese civilisation. Thousands of rivers are thought to have disappeared before the 2010-2011 census was taken. The culprits: rapid economic development, misuse and climate change. But China’s rivers will never really die. They have been immortalised in paintings and poems.

Water Album – The Yellow River Breaches its Course
Ma Yuan (c. 1160–65 – 1225)
Courtesy of Wikiart: Visual Art Encyclopedia

Clouds over the River before Rain, 1504
Shen Zhou (1427 – 1509)
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago


When freshets cease in early spring
and the river dwindles low,
I take my staff and wander
by the banks where wild flowers grow.
I watch the willow-catkins
wildly whirled on every side;
I watch the falling peach-bloom
lightly floating down the tide.

Wei Ying-wu, 8th century (translation by Herbert A. Giles)

On the other side of water, 1694
Shitao (1642 – 1707)
Courtesy of Wikiart: Visual Art Encyclopedia

Parting at the Jing River, undated
Shen Zhou (1427–1509)
Courtesy of Wikiart: Visual Art Encyclopedia


The tide in the river beginning to rise,
Near the sad hour of parting, brings tears to our eyes;
Alas that these furlongs of willow-strings gay
Cannot hold fast the boat that will soon be away!

Chao Ts’ai-chi, 15th century (translation by Herbert A. Giles)

Xiao and Xiang Rivers, 10th century
Dong Yuan (c. 934 – c. 962)
Courtesy of The Palace Museum, Beijing via Wikimedia Commons

River Landscape with Boatmen, Ming dynasty (?) (1368–1644)
Unidentified artist, in the style of Xia Gui (active c. 1195–1230)
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art


I wander north, I wander south,
I rest me where I please
See how the river-banks are nipped
beneath the autumn breeze!
Yet what care I if autumn blasts
the river-banks lay bare?
The loss of hue to river-banks
is the river-banks’ affair.

CK’eng Hao, 1032—1085 (translation by Herbert A. Giles)

~ Barista Uno

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