This vertical scroll painting depicts the top of a clump of bamboo. The skillfully graduated monochrome ink composition fills the entire height of the space; the foreground leaves are treated with thicker ink, while those in the background are treated with clearer ink, suggesting a misty effect. Bamboo is a symbolic plant, and the graphic resemblance of leaves and stalks to particular brushstrokes has always fascinated calligraphers.
Since the Song period (960-1279), bamboo had been credited with a range of qualities. Under the Yuan, Taoist painters like Wu Zhen praised the virtues of the plant; the artist who portrayed it entered into a relationship with Nature. The perennial nature and the resistance of bamboo, which bends without breaking, were also emblematic of Confucian virtues. More than any others, the scholarly circles in Jiangnan (Jiangsu and Zhejiang) embraced Néo-Taoist and Confucian beliefs.
In their paintings, Yuan scholars pursued the developments of their Song counterparts, thus reaffirming their cultural heritage and identity by turning to the past. The demise of the didactic art of the Song Academy faithfully mirroring the taste of the emperor Huizong (1101-1125) paved the way for the blossoming of scholarly painting. This type of painting became a means of conveying the artist’s moral and cultural integrity, as well as the expression of a class of people who chose to exile themselves from foreign domination. Turning its back on the figurative and narrative painting of the professional and academic painters, the new art developed a calligraphic approach to landscape as a graphic expression of thought, using words as well as pictures. Often accompanied by poems, the simplified calligraphic forms that the painters used provided an expressive, personal contribution to the new, abstract pictorial vocabulary.