Feelings of Mountains and Rivers: Minimalism and Monumentalism in Motion

By Rebecca Liptay and Shannon Brownlee

Feelings of Mountains and Rivers (Shanshui qing, Te Wei, 1988)[1]  is the last of the four analogue ink-painting animations (shuimo donghua) made at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. All but one of these were directed or co-directed by legendary animator Te Wei,[2] and all were filmed by Duan Xiaoxuan, the cinematographer who, in the late 1950s, developed the animation technique for capturing the aesthetic of ink on mulberry paper.[3] This technique creates soft, diffuse edges and gradients of value very different from the crisp lines of cel animation. Ink-painting animation essentially adds the dimension of time – and with it, movement and sound – to the aesthetic of ink painting. All four films are philosophically indebted to the ink painting tradition, but Feelings of Mountains and Rivers, in particular, thematizes the minimalism and monumentalism of shanshui or landscape painting.   

Shanshui and Visual Style

The film’s story is simple: when an old man collapses from illness, a boy who has just ferried him across a river nurses him back to health. As he recovers, the man teaches the boy to play the zither (guqin), gifting the instrument to his student when he departs. What makes Feelings of Mountains and Rivers profoundly beautiful, however, is how it prioritizes calligraphic expressiveness over mimesis, in keeping with traditional Chinese art,[4]as it explores principles of monumentality, universality, unity, and the delicate balance of nature. As the old guqin master and the boy move through landscape, they are often dwarfed by the vastness of their surroundings. Travelling by rushing river between towering mountains (Fig 1), they appear almost as small as the fish swimming together in a shot a moment before (Fig 2). The film consistently juxtaposes images of animals with the two figures, prompting viewers to connect humans’ and animals’ places within the landscapes. They are at the mercy of the forces of nature and yet their life forces are entwined with it. Rendered in the bleeding ink, the landscapes blend into one another and small animals appear throughout, moving in time with the music and making their mark through their own sounds. The film is distinctly melancholic, and the vastness of the landscape seems to hint at the loneliness of nature but also its inherent comfort and peace. The characters, both human and animal, all exist within nature’s delicate balance, wavering as gently as the vibrato of the guqin. It is a film of dialectical relationships: between the old man’s guqin and the boy’s flute; between the musical instruments and the sounds of the natural world; and between close-ups on flowers and leaves and wide shots of the landscape. From the quiet, bucolic atmosphere of the beginning of the film to the dramatic storm that accompanies the old man’s departure and the boy’s demonstration of virtuosity on the guqin, the natural landscape is a powerful character in dialogue with the human drama.

Fig 1: The old man and boy are tiny in comparison to their surroundings.

Fig 2: Fish in the river.

The film is overtly inspired by the intersection of philosophy and visual art. Its title, which translates literally as “Mountain Water Feeling,” contains the characters shan (mountain) and shui (water), the combination of which (shanshui) denotes both a physical landscape and the genre of landscape painting. Daoist and Confucian philosophers understand the qualities of the two natural essences, mountains and waters, as metaphors for human virtues.[5] As Confucius states: “The wise find joy in the water; the benevolent find joy in the mountains.”[6]Shanshui as an art form developed in the fourth century[7] and was traditionally a literati art which intellectuals pursued non-professionally.[8] To ancient Chinese philosophers, different elements of nature operated as a unified whole, and shanshui painting emerged as an expression of this unified nature.[9]Shanshui painting expresses the way one feels in nature: the paintings represent vastness and distance which guide the eye into infinity and bring about the spiritual experience of self-liberation.[10] In Feelings of Mountains and Rivers, the spiritual benefits of rejoicing in water and mountains are inextricable from the old man’s recovery from physical illness as well: he sits on the shore to fish and stands on a hillside to watch the flights of birds as he regains strength, even as the shanshui style of the film provides the viewer with a corresponding restorative experience.

The vastness and monumentality of shanshui is achieved in Feelings of Mountains and Rivers on one hand by the use of liubai, or empty space, and on the other by pomo, or splash-ink painting.[11]Through its use of liubai, spaces without ink can represent anything from sky, water, and hillsides (Fig 3) – thus emphasizing the interconnectedness of the natural elements – to the walls of the boy’s home (Fig 4). The liubai also allows the viewer’s imagination room to roam. As art theorist Zong Baihua writes, “empty space” is not dead space, but “space that allows us to breathe”; it is “full of vivacity, spirit and creative imagination.”[12]And, while all four analogue ink-painting animations use liubai extensively, Feelings of Mountains and Rivers adds the complementary effect of pomo (Fig 5), in which ink is first splashed onto paper or silk and then details applied with a brush turn the abstract shapes into more recognizable features, usually of landscapes. Just as the empty spaces of liubai can signify many different things, the bleeding ink constantly shifts between representations of sky, water, mist, and mountains, causing the film to operate as much as a study of bian, or transformation, as of one of loss. Even in the film’s moments of stillness, the liubai, pomo, and brush-based techniques imbue the visuals with a sense of flowing life or breath, exemplifying the first of Xie He’s Six Principles of Paintingqiyun shengdong (“breath resonance” or “spirited breath”). Edward Ho writes that qiyun shengdong is “the manifestation of flow of vitality in a finished artistic product, with the union of yin and yang.[13]Although the characters are recognizable types and have their own charm, the viewer is drawn into the film primarily by the spaces of the natural environment represented with a degree of abstraction that requires the viewer to become a co-creator through an act of imagination.

Fig 3: The use of liubai shows the interconnectedness of sky and water.

Fig 4: The empty space can also represent human-made elements such as the walls of the hut where the old man recovers.

Fig 5: splash-ink painting techniques emphasize abstraction

The use of shanshui in Feelings of Mountains and Rivers can be seen as a culmination of themes and principles that permeate the previous ink-painting animation films made at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio. As Panpan Yang writes, “Few will disagree that most frames of ink-and-wash animation, if they are frozen, are landscape paintings.”[14] While the inaugural ink-painting animation, Little Tadpoles Look for Mama[15] (Xiao kedou zhao mama, Te Wei and Tang Cheng, 1960), tends to emphasize close-ups due to the small size of its characters, its subject matter is, like Feelings of Mountains and Rivers, the natural world as interpreted through painting: it was directly inspired by Qi Baishi’s painting, Frogs Croaking Out of a Stream For Ten Miles.[16] The second film, The Herd Boy’s Flute[17] (Mudi, Te Wei, 1964), was inspired by the painting of Qi’s student, Li Keran,[18] who was influenced in turn by Chan Buddhist ox-herding paintings.[19] Like the other analogue ink-painting animations –The Deers Bell (Tang Cheng and Wu Qiang, 1982) as well as Feelings of Mountains and Rivers – The Herd Boy’s Flute features extensive landscapes. Yang argues that ink-painting animation encourages the viewer to approach it meditatively far more than narratively, and indeed that “it is the audience’s gaze that frees the animated landscape setting from its service to the story.”[20] This is particularly true of Feelings of Mountains and Rivers, which also thematizes the loss of this form of animation in the parting of the master and student at the end. 

Movement and Sound

While directly inspired by shanshui painting and by ink painting aesthetics more broadly, ink-painting animation extends and even transforms the form by adding the dimensions of movement and sound. In so doing, it transforms landscape and the way the viewer – now a viewer-listener – interacts with it. Feelings of Mountains and Rivers not only exemplifies but also, at times, thematizes this process of transformation.

In its references to shanshui painting, Feelings of Mountains and Rivers plays with the dialectic between stillness and movement that is fundamental to animation and to film more broadly. Although the animation of characters and natural elements is full rather than limited, there are limited moments of full animation. A few shots are entirely still, and the motion of many results only from the movement of whole, otherwise still images in relation to the camera on the animation stand. For example, in a sequence of two shots, the camera pans right over a still image of bamboo (Fig 6), then dissolves (Fig 7) into a tilt up on another motionless stand of bamboo (Fig 8 and Fig 9). Thus, the camera movement performs that of a painting: while painting does not literally move, we commonly talk about the ways brushwork, composition, and other elements lead the eye around a picture.

Fig 6: The beginning of a pan right over a still image of bamboo.

Fig 7: A dissolve from one shot of bamboo to another creates a different sort of “movement.”

Fig 8: The beginning of a tilt up over the second still image of bamboo.

Fig 9: The end of the tilt up over a still image of bamboo.

Such movement within the frame is especially true of shanshui painting. Rather than presenting a monocular perspective, it presents a scattered perspective: different parts of the painting represent views from different locations.[21] 5th century painter Zong Bing evokes this mobility when he says he can “travel while lying down” by putting his landscape paintings on the wall.[22] Yang argues that point of view shots are one of the most effective ways that ink-painting animation films reveal the autonomous landscape,[23] and while Feelings of Mountains and Rivers occasionally uses this strategy, as when the old musician observes birds of prey wheeling in the sky (Fig 10 and Fig 11), in the sequence with the bamboo and many others, the camera movement is anchored to no diegetic point of view: the perspective on nature is de-individualized. This places the viewer directly in relation to the natural elements, unmediated by narrative or character. The movements of the pan and tilt are more mechanical and less lively than the darting of a human eye around a frame, but they also lend that movement a focus and calm that the human eye often lacks. This creates dialectics not only between stillness and movement, but also between the camera stand’s mechanical movements and the more spontaneous, organic movements of the eye. In a way, the smooth camera movements across the landscapes meditate for the viewer, calming the monkey mind by slowing the monkey eye. 

Fig 10: The second of three entirely still shots of the old musician that establish the point of view from ground level. Only the last of this sequence, the fourth, includes motion as the man looks away from the sky.

Fig 11: One of several shots of birds of prey wheeling in the sky.

A few of the film’s most striking moments of movement integrate live-action cinematography to depict a universe characterized by spontaneous creation and bian, or transformation. These concepts are present thematically: as the musician recovers his strength, we see the passing of the seasons and the cyclical movements of nature. Perhaps more remarkably, though, they are present technically: in the final section of the film, just after the musician has gifted his guqin to his apprentice: we see ink painting created in front of our eyes, ink images being born and bleeding in real time (Figs 12-15). Duan explains that the filmmakers wanted to “capture the freehand impressionistic nature” of pomo but realized it would be very difficult to animate frame by frame. Therefore, they used a live-action camera to film some shots of ink being diffused, in real time, into mulberry paper.[24]By pulling back the curtain on the process of painting, the process of production, the film identifies the form of ink-painting animation with cycles of transformation in nature.

Figs 12-15:Ink painting created in real time.

Just as the film reflects what Yang calls the meditative mode of spectatorship inspired by shanshui painting, Feelings of Mountains and Rivers, like The Herd Boy’s Flute before it, also thematizes the addition of music and sound effects to shanshui. Like all four of the ink-painting animations produced at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, Feelings of Mountains and Rivers contains no dialogue. As Daisy Yan Du observes, this erasure of speech, along with the liubai, reinforces the narrative themes of absence and loss in all of them.[25] It also emphasizes shanshui’s preference for expressing the feeling of being in nature, as opposed to a mimetic depiction of what is seen by the eyes – or what would be heard by the ears, if one were present at a music lesson with the old man and the boy. The absence of dialogue deepens the contemplative space and elevates the music of the guqin, the flute and the sounds of nature. The music for Feelings of Mountains and Rivers was composed before the images were created, so the animation follows the music’s rhythm.[26] Music cannot, then, be seen as a mere addition or afterthought to the landscapes in motion: it determines the pace and perhaps even the textures of individual moments of the film. Nonetheless, despite how narratively and tonally important the music is, the sounds of the natural world are just as integral to the piece. The film’s dialogue is between the boy’s flute and the master’s guqin on one hand, and on the other, between the musical instruments and natural sounds such as wind, running water, the lapping of waves, and the voices of many types of birds. The second dialogue is even more important than the first, situating the film not only within the physical landscape but also within a space of contemplation of landscape. This is especially clear when sound of crashing waves during the storm at the end blends with the sounds of the guqin in a soundtrack that is uncluttered despite its intense feeling: in their minimally mimetic evocation of a monumental landscape, music and the sounds of the natural world, no less than the spaces and graded ink of liubai and pomo, leave breathing space for the viewer-listener’s imagination.

National Film Style and Legacy

This post-Cultural Revolution film revives the techniques and style of a form developed before the Cultural Revolution. In the earlier era, one of the main aims of ink-painting animation was to establish a specifically Chinese cinematic character. Du explains that Little Tadpoles Look for Mama epitomized the national style when it was released in 1960, but by the time The Herd Boy’s Flute was released in 1964, it was viewed as being insufficiently aligned with political priorities of the time.[27] This is reflected in the awards the two films won: Little Tadpoles won Best Animated Film at the first Hundred Flowers Awards as well as international prizes,[28] whereas The Herd Boy’s Flute won only one foreign award and no Chinese awards.[29] In the 1980s, Feelings of Mountains and Rivers, like The Deer’s Bell (1982) before it, revived the classical aesthetic of the pre-Cultural Revolution ink-painting animations, but as the context had changed, so had its significance. While the overt aestheticism and rather melancholic tone of the pre-Cultural Revolution ink-painting films contrast with the didacticism, strict moral codes, and political optimism of much Mainland live-action film of that time, by the late 1980s, the live-action filmmaking of the Fifth Generation, with its political ambivalence and striking aestheticism, may be seen to have “caught up” to the animation style – although this similarity is one of concurrence rather than causality. The renewed approbation of the 1980s ink-painting animations is reflected in the fact that both won Mainland awards in addition to foreign ones: The Deer’s Bell won both Golden Rooster and Hundred Flowers awards,[30] and Feelings of Mountains and Rivers won Golden Rooster and State Broadcast, Film, and TV awards.[31]

The enduring interest in ink-painting animation demonstrates both its potential ossification and commercialization and its ongoing significance. Its analogue form was abandoned after Feelings of Mountains and Rivers due to cost, but attempts were made to revive it as soon as digital animation became viable in the 1990s.[32] Since then, as both Du and Yang argue, ink-painting animation in the digital era is an ambiguous signifier of “Chineseness.” Du writes that “the computer-generated hypervisibility of ink-painting animation belies the very absence of this form, much like the role of the panda, an animal threatened with extinction, in promoting Chinese identity on a global stage,”[33] and Yang states that “in TV production, ink-and-wash animation is remembered only as a style, which, like a sticky note, can be pasted on whatever object that needs to show China’s unique cultural identity.”[34]There is a strong nostalgic – perhaps even conservative – dimension in such uses of the form today, and the role of landscape is central to that nostalgia. Yang, following Tim Ingold, interprets animated landscapes as “conduits to memories”[35] and argues that the nostalgic landscapes of ink-painting animation films are “inextricably linked to the time that these [analogue] films were made, the planned economy period. A roseate view of that time as it might be, it is true that it is a time of slower rhythms, when people could exist in an attitude of temporal ease: you go to work ‘on time,’ but you don’t need to worry how much work you can finish.”[36]Nonetheless, Yang writes enthusiastically about digital, experimental uses of ink-painting animation that look little like the analogue works but that demonstrate that the style does have a future. Furthermore, though many of these experimental works do not focus specifically on landscape, she argues that traditional shanshui has influenced them nonetheless through the aesthetic of abstraction.[37]While Feelings of Mountains and Rivers closes a chapter of ink-painting animation with the apparently decisive image of the boy watching his old teacher depart forever, this is by no means the end of the story for the style more broadly. And, in this last of the analogue films, the form goes out with a flourish in a storm of waves, rainclouds, and a landscape in the throes of nature’s power.

[1]Panpan Yang translates this title as Feeling From Mountain and River (see Panpan Yang, “Animating Landscape: Ink-and-Wash Animation, 1960-2013,” <https://www.academia.edu/9964693/Animating_Landscape_Chinese_Ink_and_wash_Animation_1960_2013>, accessed May 20, 2020), Rolf Giesen uses Feeling From Mountain and Water (see Rolf Giesen, Chinese Animation: A History and Filmography, 1922-2012, North Carolina: McFarland, 2015),and there are other possibilities such as Feeling of Mountain and River. The film can, as of August 2020, be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsXof3p5l3U, https://vimeo.com/65464332 and https://www.1905.com/vod/play/1435163.shtml?spm=a2h0c.8166622.PhoneSokuProgram_1.dtitle.

[2] Giesen points out that Little Tadpoles Look for Mama’s “tedious animation process was supervised by Te Wei’s associate [and co-director], Ms. Tang Cheng, with Te Wei claiming almost all credit for himself” (Ibid., 35). Tang has also only recently been restored as the co-director, with Wan Laiming, of the landmark Uproar in Heaven (See Daisy Yan Du, Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation 1940s-1970s, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2019, 8). It is important to recognize both the creative work of women like Tang and Duan Xiaoxuan and the extent to which that labor has been overlooked. 

[3] Du, 133.

[4] Wen C. Fong, “Why Chinese Painting is History,” The Art Bulletin 85, no. 2 (June 2003): 263.

[5] Sophia Suk-mun Law, “Being in Traditional Chinese Landscape Painting,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 32, no. 4 (August, 2011): 371, doi: 10.1080/07256868.2011.584615.

[6] Cited in Ibid., 371.

[7] Ibid., 370.

[8]Weili Shi, “A Generative Approach to Chinese Shanshui Painting,” IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications 37, no. 1 (January, 2017): 16, doi: 10.1109/MCG.2017.13.

[9] Law, 371.

[10]Ni Wei, “Establishing a New Scopic Regime: The New Landscape Painting of Mao’s Era,” Cultural Studies 31 no. 6 (2017): 896, doi: 10.1080/09502386.2017.1374429.

[11]For Duan’s discussion of the ways pomo contributed to ink-painting animation in Feelings of Mountains and Rivers, see Duan Xiaoxuan, “Walking Our Own Path and Making Innovations in Chinese Animated Filmmaking,” trans. Nick Stember, accessed August 9, 2020.

[12] Cited in Yang, 2.

[13]Edward Ho, “Aesthetic Considerations in Understanding Chinese Literati Musical Behaviour,” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 6 (1997): 38.

[14] Ibid., 1.

[15] In English, this film may also be called Where is Mama or Tadpoles Looking for their Mother, or other variations on this theme.

[16] Du, 132.

[17] Also known by The Cowboy’s Flute, The Buffalo Boy’s Flute, and other names.

[18] Du, 135.

[19] Ibid., 144.

[20]Yang, 7.

[21] Shi, 16.

[22] Cited in Yang, 3.

[23] Ibid., 7.

[24]Duan.

[25]Du, 133.

[26] Chen Junjun. Interview with JinFuzai. “Composer JinFuzai: Where is the Innocence of Children’s Music?” <https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_7666064>, accessed July 12, 2020.

[27] Du, 140.

[28] Giesen, 35.

[29] Ibid., 46.

[30] Ibid., 65.

[31] Ibid., 73.

[32] Daisy Yan Du, “Socialism and the Rise of the First Camerawoman in History of Chinese Animation,” <https://blog.animationstudies.org/?p=977>, accessed May 20, 2020.

[33] Du, Animated Encounters, 134.

[34] Ibid., 390.

[35] Yang, 18.

[36] Ibid., 18.

[37] Ibid., 11.

Bios: 

Rebecca Liptay recently completed a Combined Honours degree in Cinema & Media Studies and History at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. With a long history of education in the visual arts, she has a particular love of painting and art history. For her Honours thesis she wrote about landscape representations in painting and film with a special focus on Canadian aesthetics and questions surrounding adaptability, resilience, ownership, and national identity.

Shannon Brownlee is an Associate Professor of Cinema & Media Studies/Gender & Women’s Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. She has presented and written on animation from China, Canada, the USA, and Europe, including articles on LEGO stop-motion in Film Criticism and in Cultural Studies of LEGO: More Than Just Bricks (Eds. Rebecca Hains and Sharon Mazzarella, PalgraveMacmillan, 2019). 

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