©Barbara Bornet Stumph, 2020


Dear Teacher Friends, and All,

      Why am I writing?  During this period of COVID-19, while some of us are self-isolated, I am composing what Chinese Scholar-Poets call in Mandarin, “Mountain Water” (“Shan Sywe”) landscape painting.  Would you stroll with me? Perhaps, after we return, you will peruse your art books or take up your dusty brushes again.



       How do we walk in a Mountain Water landscape painting?  

       Many Californians are familiar with Lingnan style landscapes by famed artist, Zhao Shao-ang, donated by his family to a room in the San Francisco Asian Art Museum.  Or do you recognize Chang Ta Chien’s splash ink of Monterey, mountain seascapes, which are executed in jewel tones of azure blue and jadite green?

        If not, that’s fine.   You don’t have to know anything about Chinese art to follow along with me in a landscape painting.  Are you ready to begin?



     Let’s walk.  

     See rain droplets pierced by pine needles, European cut diamonds in the sunlight.  

      Circle a tree.  Slowly.

      Breathe in…( three steps)…breathe out…(three steps.)  A Chinese way.

      Awaken to pine scent.  

      Did you notice rugged bark decorates this tree?   I must remember as I paint, to include ink dots on the tree trunk for hanging bark, moss, and cubby holes where saddleback birds will hide.

      Traditional ink artists in China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Southeast Asia are known as Scholar-Poets, because they are lofty in studies of Confucian Classics and the erudite language of ancient poets.  These men, and a few women, believe painting begins with keen observation like these we are seeing and more, as we gather artistic memories.

       Would you mind walking along the pathway from the lower right of the painting, past the hidden village, upward along the vertical stairs, hidden by bushes, and along a ridge of the rocky bluff?  Let’s find a hermit’s hideaway.  

       Let go of the “dust of the world.”  

       Did you hear the water of a brook cascading, as we pass?

       Here in the front is the older, male “Host Pine” of my landscape. 

       His shorter female friend in the back, a “Guest Pine.” 

      These two, central trees are opposites: the older one leans left/younger leans right; one is darker/one is lighter; one denser/one sparser; one wetter with ink/one made of drier brush strokes.  These opposites will restore harmony to the painting, according to Xie He, Chinese Master teacher, who left us Six Principles of Ink Painting in the 6th Century A.D. 

        ( I recall that I sent a photograph to my teacher, Celia Chou Huddleston, who suggests gently, “Would you make your Host Pine a bit bolder and more colorful?”  “Yes. I’ll try to do so.”)

       Here are rocks along the shoreline. Boulders.  Islands. Peninsulas.

       Tame, inhabited space with a suggested village is better than wild wilderness.   Scholars say, “We won’t feel frightened by the forest when we view the houses.”

       Empty space is where the mind wanders. 

       I breathe.

       I need a suggested pathway — a bridge over the stream—will take us to the village. 

      (I paint a few water ripples at the end.)

       Upward thrusting rocks are eroded by storms, causing a canyon in the mists.  A hidden path carries our eyes skyward. We hope there is a dynamic S curve marking the steps of our stroll.

       We see a boat shrinking in size below, as we walk the cliff’s edge.



        Study ink lines up close and afar.  

        Four Chinese magnets hold the wet painting onto my fireplace chimney, so I can view the painting from afar.

       We must rest now. 

       There is no hurry.

        Slow down.

        What is next?

        Let’s see how the Mountain Water is shaping up.

        Let’s sit.

         Lie on the couch, feet up.

         Day dreaming. 

         My husband reads, as I alternately nap…viewing this unfinished, newest work.      


        I re-enter my painting.

        Let’s walk inside again. Shall we?

        Do you envision a bay with promontories and silhouetted pines?

        Fog is rolling in?

        Do you see a Chinese peasant fishing along the shoreline?  

        (Ancient philosopher, Chuang Tze was asked, “Would you like to be an emperor or a turtle?”  To be called a ‘turtle’ was an insult. “I’d rather be a turtle dragging my tail in the mud….” replied the old Taoist hermit.  When Chinese Scholar-Poets grew tired of running the bureaucracy in the Imperial capitol, they often painted a Mountain Water landscape to escape…to be Chuang Tze for a while, dragging their tails in the mud… especially if there were a megalomaniac emperor.)

        Some artists composed twisted trees, as they vented their anger in creative, ink Mountain Water scenery.  Unearthly, weird rock formations emerged. Teetering, darkly inked landscape are ominous. Viewers of some works were shocked. 

       Sometimes scholars’ poetry was filled with references to historical allusions or poetic phrases that only a few knowledgeable friends could understand.   A character might appear that no one could read. Some famed Imperial scholars even quit their jobs, like “mad monk” Zhu Ta (c.1626- 1705), who physically escaped to the mountains, as his depression mounted over the sorry state of China.  Zhu became a drunk monk, a wandering hermit. His ink work is most beloved. 

       Some people did not pass their Imperial exams so they were denied their lifetime goal of being awarded a permanent government bureaucrat job, so these artists turned to painting to support themselves.

        What historical turmoil had threatened China romantic dreams?  For instance, hordes of Genghis Khan Mongolians or Manchurians usurped power, or famines devastated the population, (man-made by Mao, for example, or the weather, or locusts.  Only 11% of their huge land is arable.) Wars with the British or French or Japanese. Stealing China’s prized ports like Hong Kong and Shanghai, after exchanges for opium were forbidden by the Emperor.  Japanese soldiers tore China asunder and more, like steep monetary indemnities imposed by the West, leaving peasants in grinding poverty. Permanently.

        My mind wanders: new China plans to right these wrongs, lifting millions out of poverty in a frenzy of intense work.  To stop the new Corona Virus, they built blocks of hospitals in Wu Han in 11 days. Shanghai glitters. Poverty still exists, but so does rising middle class wealth and travel, billionaires, and cultural clashes among their 54 language groups and the Han Chinese.  

       In 2020 loneliness and alienation happens when social neighborhoods are bull dozed for miles of 50 story apartments that spring up like bamboo shoots after a rain.  Now peasant farmers have sold their lands to the government. He or she can no longer step out of the door to absorb the energy of earth or walk their birds in a cage.  Gorgeous parks by master gardeners help. Reforestation is mandated. 

      I reflect often how a honeymooner tagged me on our Silk Road Trip in the airplane (2008) , “You speak Mandarin right?  We heard you. We love Americans! All Chinese people love Americans! Don’t believe anything you hear otherwise. Promise!”)



       Walking again.

        Water laps.  A fisherman’s boat disturbs the water just off the cliff in mid- bay. 

        Do you feel the peaceful ways of a peasant fisherman?   Freedom?

        What else lives along this shoreline?  Shall I add lotus leaves? 

        Grasses bending in breezes.

        Men in distant sailing boats must be moving, showing the dragon winds.

       Ah. Here is the main mountain shrouded in roiling clouds.  White space is read by Chinese people, who know traditional works, as clouds and water.

       Rocks are not viewed as static objects.  Rocks composed by Chinese ink Masters are envisioned as containing the energy of life (“chi”), which is emerging from the earth and from our brush tip.  Thus, Scholar Poets of old have a carved rock statue on their desk or shelf. Seals carved with their names or moods are usually made of marble, jade, dragon bones, and horn. 

      Mountain Water painting is not just a hobby.  Here are elements of a life lived propitiously.  Water is used to mix ink sticks.   Expensive ink slabs for grinding ink are made of special rocks from An Hwuei Province.



      Tomorrow, I’ll add colors, faint burnt sienna and Chinese blue like a traditional, old-fashioned painting from hundreds of years ago.  I want to call forth old Masters. I plan to share their tradition with my grandchildren.

       I add jade green to make foliage emerge. 

       Now I try to make eight kinds of Chinese style ink dots: a left swish, a right one, a brush doubling back onto an ink dot, and a hooked ink dot.  

        “Ink sings, the brush dances.”  One of my seals from Shanghai says this when I stamp it on my painting.



      At breakfast, an oversized art book invites other intellectual journeys.  I read translated Chinese poetry into English which are located on the sides of these reproduced paintings in the Fabian Collection.

      I admire Scholars’ poetry in their own calligraphy or that of the collectors or the Emperor.  These poems or statements are embraced by descriptive, red seal colophons. I love rock seals.  I have a fondness for old Seal Script carved on their bases. Where did the artist place his seals on this landscape?    Who made the seal? Ah. Here is a round seal stamp opposite a square one. Are red characters ( intaglio) contrasted with white carved out words?   Yes. They like to play with opposites in this art form.

       I try to find calligraphic strokes on rock lines. Wide. Narrow. Lift. Push the brush.  This tree trunk has roots made with calligraphy strokes.  Will I ever achieve this level?

       Back to my painting.  I remember Teacher Chou’s advice:  “Barbara, don’t overload your work.”   I think of feedback to all of my classmates, as well.  “Slow down. Show each stroke.”

       This work stays untouched day after day, while I wonder, “What do I want to next?”

     I know. Go for a walk. 

     Ponder the beauty of Nature.

     Every day.  Another slow walk.  Collect imagery in the library of the mind.

    Thanks for strolling with me.

     Will you come again?


©Barbara Bornet Stumph, M.S., 2020  

       Barbara Bornet Stumph is a retired English Language Development and Ancient World History teacher.  She attended the East-West Center, University of Hawaii in Intensive Mandarin and Related Chinese Studies with field study in Taiwan, University of Oregon , and Cal State University. Barbara loved being a Teacher Consultant at the BAWP and a Teacher Researcher.  During recent four years, Barbara’s painting activities culminated in additional instruction at the famed China Art Academy International College in Hang Zhou, China. 





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