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Congyi, Cloudy Mountains

Met curator Maxwell K. Hearn on emptiness in Fang Congyi’s Cloudy Mountains, second half of 14th century.

Fang Congyi, a Daoist priest from Jiangxi, traveled extensively in the north before settling down at the seat of the Orthodox Unity Daoist church, the Shangqing Temple on Mount Longhu (Dragon Tiger Mountain), Jiangxi province. Imbued with Daoist mysticism, he painted landscapes that "turned the shapeless into shapes and returned things that have shapes to the shapeless."

According to Daoist geomantic beliefs, a powerful life energy pulsates through mountain ranges and watercourses in patterns known as longmo (dragon veins). In Cloudy Mountains, the painter's kinetic brushwork, wound up as if in a whirlwind, charges the mountains with an expressive liveliness that defies their physical structure. The great mountain range, weightless and dematerialized, resembles a dragon ascending into the clouds.

View this work on metmuseum.org.

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Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Video transcript

You hold this painting in your hands. You are leaving your world behind and entering the world of the picture. As you unroll the scroll it unfolds almost like a movie. The very first thing you see is a foreground promontory in which we can make out the roof of a temple surrounded by trees. From that temple we look into this vast, watery expanse that leads to distant mountains that are almost dissolving into the clouds. We move down to the very tip of this foreground spit of land. We see individual grass blades. Looking beyond that foreground into the distance, we see these mountains that emerge from the mist, we encounter trees that are far smaller in scale. Even though we’re moving just a matter of inches, we’ve actually covered an enormous distance. The mountain peaks all of a sudden leap into this middle ground space, like some huge dinosaur that rises up almost to the top edge of the scroll. The trees at the base of the mountains become smaller and smaller. The clouds rise further and further. The mountains seem to diminish in weight, in substance, until we see just a trail of faint blue ink that ultimately disappears so that the end of the scroll is completely blank. The water, the sky, the clouds merge together into a single, empty void. There’s not a single human in the scroll. Only that temple, and the familiar landscape of trees and rocks in the foreground, anchors us in reality. We’ve gone from the solid world into this confrontation with the ultimate emptiness of life. This painting takes us to a world that reaches all the way to eternity. So we’re really confronted with our own mortality. Life begins out of emptiness and ends in emptiness, and that brief period in between is what we have to live with.