The relationship between a Chinese painting and a Chinese poem is often very strong. Sometimes the poem is a response to the painting or the painting is a response to the poem. By relating one artistic representation of a theme with another representation, a deeper understanding of the artistic whole can be obtained. Shen Zhou created an artistic pairing of a painting and a poem titled “Poet on a Mountain Top.” Only with a study of both Shen Zhou’s painting and poetry can a complete understanding of the poet’s struggle with his conflicting desires for freedom in nature and attachment to humanity be gained.
By switching the focus of the poem from natural concepts to the longing the poet feels for humanity, Zhou uses the poem to express the conflict in the poet over his desire for freedom. The beginning of the poem only describes settings and objects from nature such as “white clouds”, “mountains,” and “stone ledge”. As the poem develops a sign of humanity, the “narrow road”, is introduced but only as part of the natural world. This introduces the conflict between nature, or freedom, and humanity, or captivity. Once the conflict is established, the poet is introduced as “alone”, he belongs to neither nature or civilization. In a parallel to the beginning of the poem, the last stanza ties the poet with some form of humanity, the “sound of your flute,” to establish the conflict between the poet and civilization. These parallels and conflicts force the reader to consider the relationship between being completely independent and completely attached to humanity.
The poet himself struggles with resolving his desires for the humanity in the flute player and freedom in nature. Even though the poet wishes he “could take the sounding stream” as a substitute for the music of the flute, he realizes the stream can not replace what he misses from being attached to humanity. His emotions as he “gaze[s] freely into the distance” do not remove the desire for attachment to humanity. However, the poet chose to pursue freedom by traveling the “narrow road” to a far away destination. This “narrow” and “far reaching road” is representative of the difficultly in balancing complete existence in nature and complete existence in humanity.
Shen Zhou also uses his painting to explore the theme of conflict between complete freedom and complete attachment. The two main components of the painting are nature and humanity. Nature’s presence in the painting is more obvious at first inspection: the trees, the stone ledge, and the mountains in the background. However, the presence of humanity, the man and the village, is very considered. The elements of humanity are positioned as surrounded by the elements of nature. Completely surrounded by strong and dense elements of nature such as the thick forest and clouds, the village seems very constrained. However, the man on the ledge is surrounded by elements such as the sky and open ground. This creates a stronger sense of freedom...