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2. The foolish old man who moved the mountains November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

Yu Gong in Chinese means “foolish old man”, “Yu” simply means stupid or foolish and “Gong” is the honorific way to call an older male person. “Yi San” is to move mountains. The foolish old man who moved the mountains.


I have painted this title, “Yu Gong moves a mountain” many times, I have done it in both a horizontal and a vertical format. This is because in “Yu Gong’s” family, there are many characters, old people, young people, men, women, there are mountain scenes and the painting can be very lively with all the digging and moving action. Everybody involved is doing something different, we can even add on the skeptics that can form secondary actors. There can be some very complicated expressions from these characters. This is even before we consider how to express the “foolishness” / conviction of Yu Gong and the brute strength of his grandchildren. Add on the various possible weather conditions, the size of the painting and the possibilities are endless.


Not only is this a good topic for Chinese ink painting, I believe it would make a good western oil painting as well but it is meant to be a big painting. It would have to be very expressive and it is one of those subjects that would stand the test of time and in which can be described as “a painting says a thousand words”.


Let’s look at the original story of Yu Gong moves a mountain, its origins is from Liezi’s [400 BCE, one of the major representatives of early Daoist philosophy] Tang Wen prose,

“ there were two mountains, Tai Xing and Wang Wu, its height is about 8,000 li, it was originally south of the state Zhi and north of He Tang. On the north face of the mountain lived a man called Yu Gong, who was 90 years old. To get to the next nearest village, one had to go around the mountain. One day he gathered his family and said, what if we put in our effort and make a more direct route between our village (Yui Nan) and Han Yang? Murmurs broke out… his wife then said, with your strength you can’t even move a hill, how do you expect to move Wang Wu mountain? That’s a lot of soil, dirt and stone. More murmurs… then they replied, well we could move the sand to the ocean towards the north. And so, with Yu Gong’s grandchildren, some stone carriers, some diggers and dirt baskets, they began moving the dirt from the mountain to the ocean, the progress was slow and the skeptics were loud, “this is too much, why do you use the remaining of your years and the last of your strength, when you don’t even make a dent to the mountain?”, to which Yu Gong replied, “you skeptics have a fixed view and weak conviction. Even after I die, my descendants will carry on this worthwhile cause, my children will have my grandchildren, my grandchildren will have children, and their children will have grandchildren to continue this, whereas the mountain does not get bigger (he sure had not heard of tectonic plates moving and increasing mountain sizes!), why not do this? Which left his skeptics speechless.


Then a bit of Chinese mythology and magic comes into play, The snakes of the mountain were uneasy about all this mountain moving business and brought this situation to the King of Gods. So impressed was the King of Gods by Yu Gong’s sincerity and determination that he sent his two son’s, Peng and Er to move the two obstructing mountains. One mountain was moved to the east and the other to the south. Since then, the state of Zhi is to the south and Han was to the north with no mountains between them.


In the story, there are many skeptics, they are all around us, they may even be us, one should take a mirror and at least know who oneself truly is. There are many people like this, who think themselves as being smarter or wiser. Even so, Yu Gong’s “foolishness” takes courage and foresight to act upon what one believes to be right, even against the strong current of skepticism. Yu Gong’s faith in himself and his vision had moved even mother nature and her help lies somewhere in the proverb of “God helps those who help themselves”. No matter what we do, if we depend on the faith of oneself and the faith of ones ability, with determination and a bit of luck, success should not be far.


The Tang dynasty (618 – 907) emperor, Tai Zhong (ascension 626 – 649 CE) also said, faith in oneself is next to godliness (faithfulness is next to godliness?) any humanly job can be done. With confidence in oneself, we need not play to the skeptic’s short-sighted vision. What we know is that humans are intelligent but God (or some greater being) is wise and the difference is that you can’t see or touch God but he is always in our presence. In line with a common saying God is in all of us (if only we have faith in ourselves?).


Yu Gong’s strength is from his conviction, remember that he said, “even though I die, I have descendants that will carry on, my children will have my grandchildren, my grandchildren will have children and their children will have grandchildren”.  We, man are inhabitants of this earth, although there are 2.2 billion (2004 : 6 billion) of us, there are still many things we don’t understand, like black holes, there are still so many things we do not understand about the ocean that we can explore. Why then do we compete so fiercely with war and suffering for the planet? Ultimately, what are we seeking? And what will we get from our actions?


Lao Zi (4th century BCE) summed it well, “there will always be things we do not understand, oh but to stand at mystery’s door!”. Black holes and deep oceans are still mysterious, man’s achievements have only reached the level of Nobel prize winners and as mere humans we can at least touch mystery’s door. We are really “yu”. If one can even get to Yu Gong’s determination, one will surely succeed. This is the reason, I never get bored of portraying this topic in my paintings.


A Chinese educated friend of mine, recently pointed out to his English educated friend that this painting is the painting to buy. His friend bought a large horizontal piece, framed it and hung it in his living room, I wonder what conversations this painting inspires?



1. jda5 - April 9, 2009

Thank you for the great background on Yu Gong Yi Shan 🙂

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