The Water Mill and Northern Song Imperial Patronage of Art, Commerce, and Science

By Liu, Heping | The Art Bulletin, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Water Mill and Northern Song Imperial Patronage of Art, Commerce, and Science


Liu, Heping, The Art Bulletin


The Chinese painting of architectural subjects-buildings, boats, wheeled vehicles, and other mechanical apparatuses-is called jiehua.1 The term translates literally as "rulerlined painting," meaning that the painter uses not only the brush but also such tools as ruler and compass, square and straightedge, like a mason or carpenter. By 960, the founding year of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126), the practice of jiehua already went back more than a millennium. Since the time of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi (r. 221210 B.C.E.), this tradition was related to the building of real palaces and temples. Under Northern Song court patronage jiehua reached its zenith and, for the first time, gained recognition as an independent genre in contemporary art criticism.2 A rare example from this golden age is a horizontal scroll that represents a water mill, now in the Shanghai Museum. The artist is unknown, and the painting bears no original title. Although popularly known as The Sluice Gate with Freight Carts (Zhakou panche tu), it will be called the Shanghai Water Mill or The Water Mill for convenience (Fig. 1).3

The first celebrated Northern Song exponent of jiehua painting was Guo Zhongshu (ca. 910-977), canonized already in contemporary private and official biographical accounts.4 A child prodigy, he developed into an eccentric scholar-official and a brilliant painter of scientific learning. The eleventh-century art historian Liu Daochun (ca. 1028ca. 1094) reported, "Guo's paintings of architectural constructions, towers, and belvederes were unsurpassed in his time.... He completely mastered the principal methods of masons and carpenters and scarcely diverged from them."5 This was confirmed by another eleventh-century writer, the Buddhist monk-scholar Wenying (d. after 1078), who described Guo Zhongshu's encounter with the most famous early Northern Song architect, Yu Hao (active ca. 965-95):

Guo Zhongshu painted palaces and multistoried pavilions in row after row. Carpenters would measure them and could not find any flaws in the calculations. When Emperor Taizong [r. 976-97] heard Guo's name, he summoned him to the Agency of the Assistant in the Directorate of Construction. Before building the Great Pagoda of the Kaibao Temple, the Master Carpenter Yu Hao from Zhe [modern Zhejiang] prepared [a plan of] a thirteenstoried structure. Guo used a reduced-size design to check [the accuracy of] the pagoda's measurements from the ground floor up and found a calculating error of one foot and five inches that would be fatal to the construction. Guo then warned Hao, "You had better reexamine it." Hao, thereafter, could not sleep for several nights; he carefully checked his design and finally found the error, exactly as Guo had told him. One dawn, Hao knocked on Guo's door and knelt [before Guo] for a long time to express his gratitude.7

Clearly the Northern Song valued accuracy in measurement and exactness in drawing; in this story Guo Zhongshu surpassed the imperial architect himself in the mastery of mathematical and technical skills. The critic Li Zhi (1059-1109), writing in 1098, gave a more detailed account of Guo Zhongshu's facility;

As for painting architectural constructions, towers, and pavilions, Shuxian [Guo's alias] arrived at his own style, which was the most wonderful of all. [In his paintings] roof beams, girders, pillars, and rafters are shown with open spaces between, through which one might move. Railings, lintels, windows, and doorways look as if they could really be passed through, or opened and shut. A hao length [that is, 1/3 decimillimeter] is used to mark off an inch; a fen length [1/3 centimeter] to mark off a foot; and an inch to mark off ten feet; increasing thus with every multiple, so that when a large building is drawn, everything is to scale and there are never even slight discrepancies.8

The above description is borne out by Guo Zhongshu's only surviving work, Traveling on the River in Clearing Snow.

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