Handscroll: The Four Sages of Shang Shan

Ma Yüan (Chinese)Southern Song dynasty, Circa 1225

Cincinnati Art Museum

Cincinnati Art Museum
Cincinnati, United States

This handscroll by Ma Yüan, one of the preeminent court painters of the Southern Song dynasty, depicts the mountain retreat of four aged scholar-officials known as the Four Sages of Mount Shang (Shang Shan). For ethical reasons, according to literary accounts, these individuals chose a life of seclusion rather than serve as administrators under the arrogant Gaozu, first emperor of the Han dynasty (reigned 206–195 B.C.). When the emperor decided to disinherit his eldest son, the heir apparent, in favor of another son, the empress and one of the emperor’s trusted counselors devised a plan to convince the emperor not to change the imperial succession. According to the plan, the Four Sages were to be persuaded to briefly leave their mountain hideaway to entreat the emperor on behalf of his eldest son. The Sages agreed to go to the emperor, gained his trust through their moral reputation, and the rightful heir was restored.

In the Art Museum’s scroll, the four recluses play chess and gather mushrooms. Behind them a stream emerges from a rocky ravine to join a larger body of water in a torrent of surging waves. The turbulent waters symbolize the political unrest outside the sages’ peaceful retreat. The subject of the four Shang Shan scholars later became a particularly poignant allegory for those loyal Song literati who experienced the Mongol takeover of China in 1279, as indicated by the thirty-six inscriptions that follow the painting.


  • Title: Handscroll: The Four Sages of Shang Shan
  • Creator: Ma Yüan (Chinese)
  • Date Created: Southern Song dynasty, Circa 1225
  • Location: China
  • Location Created: China
  • Physical Dimensions: 13 x 121 in. (33 x 307.3 cm)
  • Credit Line: Anonymous Gift
  • Accession Number: 1950.77
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Handscroll: ink and light colors on paper

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