Travelers Among Mountains and Streams

Travelers Among Mountains and Streams

National Treasure

National Treasure Intro

Fan Kuan was a landscape painter during the Northern Song dynasty, Travelers Among Mountains and Streams is his greatest work. Fan Kuan began by studying the works of the Five Dynasties landscape painters Li Cheng and Jing Hao, and was so enamored with nature that he transformed his years of observation of natural scenery into ink on silk, creating this masterpiece that has been passed down for thousands of years.

Fan Kuan’s use of light colors to outline the rocks of the mountains, lush forests and waterfalls presents a sense of three-dimensional space, while the figures and donkeys appear small but vivid. The painting was described by Liu Dao-chun, an art critic at that time, as “a distant view without leaving one’s seat,” meaning that the painting gives the impression that you’re looking at a distant scene, with the effect that the scene is right in front of your eyes. The painting was praised by Dong Qi-chang, a leading painter and calligrapher during the Ming dynasty, as “the best Song dynasty painting.”

This painting is now in the National Palace Museum, and together with Guo Xi’s Early Spring and Li Tang’s Wind in Pines Among a Myriad Valleys, it is known as the “trio of national treasures” at the National Palace Museum. The silk scroll is easily scorched and brittle, so to protect this precious artwork and reduce the time it is exposed to light, after each time it is exhibited there must be a 3-year break, and it cannot be exhibited for more than 42 days. It was designated as a national treasure in 2012.

National Treasure Appreciation

The composition of this painting is simple, with the towering mountains in the background taking up two-thirds of the painting. The blank space retained around the mountainside represents the clouds and mist, highlighting the effect of spatial distancing.

The middle ground is dominated by the donkey train led by two travelers and the rocky jungle behind, while in the foreground there are the “strange stones” below the painting. The main scene appears like it is far away, while the middle scene is brought closer, creating a sense of distance that is difficult to detect.

Fan Kuan did not give a title to this painting, the title Travelers Among Mountains and Streams was actually inscribed on the top of the painting by Dong Qichang (1555-1636), a calligrapher and painter during the Ming dynasty.

The shape of the mountain is depicted by piling up layer upon layer of short strokes, and then chiseled with short strokes to portray the rough and sharp look of the rocks, emphasizing the steepness of the mountains.Later generations have used the expression “rain-drop texturing” to describe this technique, which can highlight the jagged texture of the rocks.

The mountaintops are covered with shrubs painted with thick ink dots. Mi Fu (1052-1108), a calligrapher and painter, accurately described the painting as, “mountaintops often dotted with dense trees” and with “the distant mountains look precipitous and powerful.”

On the right side of the painting there is a waterfall rushing straight down from the mountain pass, serving as a foil to the imposing mountain.

The mist from the splashing water and the swirling mountain fog meet in the middle of the mountain to create a natural division between the background and the middleground, and thus making the space appear more profound.

On the right of the painting there is a Buddhist temple hidden in the dense jungle, with only one corner exposed. The scene depicts a tranquil state of mind that also shows Fan Kuan’s religious devotion.

There are two streams rushing downwards from the left and right sides. The difference in height between the river bed and the size of the rocks makes the flow appear more rapid and creates a turbulent spring.

There is a monk on the left who appears to be walking towards the temple on a pilgrimage.

In the lower right corner there is a traveling caravan of merchants, one in front of the other, they are urging the donkeys carrying goods on their backs to move forward.

Although the figures in the painting are miniscule and not easy to be seen, they are in fact the main theme in Travelers Among Mountains and Streams.

Understanding seals


    1. Wang Yumin, “New Discoveries about Travelers Among Mountains and Streams.” The National Palace Quarterly, No. 166: 1997, pp. 46-57.
    2. Ni Tsaichin, “Divine Paintings: The National Palace Museum’s Trio of National Treasures,” Art & Collection, No. 174: 2007, pp. 80-85.
    3. Li Peishi, “The Glory and Clues Behind Seals: Research on the Three Compilations and Seals of the Shiqu Baoji. Art & Collection, No. 208: 2010, pp. 84-93.
    4. Chen Yun-Ru and He Yan-Chiuan, Grand View: Special Exhibition of Northern Sung Painting and Calligraphy, Taipei: National Palace Museum, 2006.
    5. Cai Meifen, Splendid Treasures: A Hundred Masterpieces of the National Palace Museum on Parade, Taipei: National Palace Museum, 2011.
    6. Liu Fang-ju, Pu Li-An and Chen Yun-Ru, National Treasures of the Museum: Masterpiece Paintings by Fan Kuan, Guo Xi and Li Tang, Taipei: National Palace Museum, 2021.


The National Palace Museum (NPM) was established on October 10, 1925, when there were tens of thousands of paintings and pieces of calligraphy in the collection of the Qing court, which could be seen in the Forbidden City in Beijing. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the NPM moved its cultural relics to the south of China. The war ended in 1945, however in 1948, because of the ongoing civil war between the Kuomintang (KMT) and Communist Party, the KMT moved the artifacts in the NPM to Taiwan, then temporarily placed them in Beigou, Wufeng, Taichung. Later, a new museum in Waishuangxi, Taipei, started to be built. The new building was completed in August 1965 and formally opened to the public in November. In December 2015, the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum in Chiayi officially opened.

The NPM’s collection of artifacts were inherited from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing courts. Later, the artifacts transported to Taiwan from the Preparatory Department of the National Central Museum were incorporated into the NPM’s collection. The NPM houses hundreds of thousands of collected and acquired artifacts. These have gradually been digitized and are available on the “National Palace Digital Archive.” Some digital image files of artifacts are available on the “Open Data ” and can be used by the public under a Creative Commons license.