February 14 1982: The Foolish Old Man Moves Mountains


Huang Yao had a weekly column called Moyuan Suibi in the Nanyang Siang Pao, a newspaper in Malaysia.


private collector 

I have painted “Yu Gong Yi Shan” or “Foolish old man moves mountains” many times before, in the form of both horizontal and vertical scrolls. There are indeed many details to be depicted: after all “Yu Gong” the foolish old man had a big family, including children and grandchildren; there are the mountains that act as backdrop; the beauty of the of the motions of the people digging up the earth, the stones being broken apart and the mud being carried away. To add to all that, I could also include the sending in of the food and drinks, as well as the people standing around watching. At appropriate moments, I could include the “wise men”; even the expression of each person could be very complex. If I include the feelings of being ashamed or being cowardly, the painting would be even more outstanding. This is definitely marvelous material for a painting because one can depict not only “Yu Gong” and the “ability” of his children and grandchildren, but also the weather and the grandness of the scene, with endless exploratory potentials.

The painting can be executed very well not only through the ink painting of the East, but also through the oil painting of the West. If you paint it as a large wall mural, it can result in a grand and breathtaking work. This is certainly an instance of how “painting” can be used to express that which words are often incapable of.

Let us look at the original text of the story “Yu Gong Yi Shan” by Liezi of Han Dynasty:

“There were two high mountains between Jizhou in the north and Heyang in the south. One was called Taihang Mountain and the other Wangwu Mountain. Just to the north of the mountains lived an old man called Yu Gong who was nearly 90 years old. With the two high mountains just in front of his house, he and his family had to walk a long way around the mountains whenever they had something to do on the other side of the mountains.

One day, Yu Gong called all his family together to discuss about  moving the two mountains so that they can have a direct route to the south of Yuzhou reaching the bank of the Han River. His wife said, "An old man like you cannot even move a small hill, not to mention the two high mountains. Even if you can, where can you throw so much earth and stone?"

"The Bo Sea is big enough to contain all the earth and stone," said everyone.

So it was decided. His children started to dig the mountains, led by the old man Yu Gong. Even their neighbor's son joined in. From winter through summer, the workers only returned home once.

A man named Zhi Sou (literally “wise old man”) who lived in Hequ, near a bend of the Yellow River saw them working and tried to stop them, saying, "You are so silly! You're so old and weak that you can't even take away the grass and trees. How can you move the high mountains?"

"You're wrong," Yu Gong said with a long sigh. "Look, my sons can continue my work after my death. When my sons die, my grandchildren will continue. So generation after generation, there's no end. But the mountains can't grow higher. Do you still say I can’t move them away?" Zhi Sou was speechless.

Later the Heaven God, upon learning of Yu Gong’s story, was greatly moved by his sincerity. He then ordered two sons of Kua Eshi, a god of great strength, to carry the two high mountains away.” One was put east of Shuozhou and the other south of Yongzhou. From that time onwards, no mountain stood between the south of Jizhou and the southern bank of the Han River.

The “Zhi Sou” in the story acts as a mirror, reminding people to see themselves for who they really are. There are many people in the world who think of themselves as being “smart”. In the face of the “stupidity” of “Yu Gong”, even “Di” (the general term for God, Nature or Heavenly Justice) was moved, giving birth to the aphorism “Help yourself and God will help you”. Everything we do should be done with “sincerity”. Tang Tai Zong said, “'Move the heavens with your sincerity'. If you want to succeed, you need to be 'sincere', and not try to be clever like 'Zhi Sou'. You have to understand, this is the difference between the cleverness of mere humans and the wisdom of God. You might not be able to see or touch 'God', but He is constantly with us. Just as the saying goes, 'God is with us!' 'I raise my head and there is God!'”.

The strength of “Yu Gong” is also that of “God's strength”. Remember how he said, "Look, my sons can continue my work after my death. When my sons die, my grandchildren will continue. So generation after generation, there's no end.” Even though there are now 2.4 billion people on earth, there is still a “black hole” in space; there are still “unknown mysteries” in the ocean's deepest corners, which we can further explore, so why compete so ruthlessly, no end to destructions and killings? What do we want? And what if we get it? Laozi was right when he remarked that: this we can but call them mysteries and “Mystery upon Mystery is the Door to all wonders.” The “black hole” and the deepest corners of the ocean are “mysterious”. We might be so intelligent as to win the “Nobel Prize”, but we have not understood the “mysterious” nature of things, and are stupid beyond belief. What we want is to move the Gods like “Yu Gong”, and that is why I always love to paint this picture.

A friend who is well-versed in the Chinese language has helped instruct a couple of highly-educated professors (who are nevertheless English-educated) to purchase this painting. After adding on a huge frame and hanging it in their living room, I wonder what people might think of it?


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