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“The Foolish Old Man Moves a Mountain” is an ancient fable, recorded in The Book of Lieh-tzu: The Questions of Tang: “The mountains of Taihang and Wangwu are seven hundred miles square and seven hundred thousand feet high. They stood originally between Jizhou on the north and Heyang on the south. When the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain was nearly ninety, he was living opposite them, and it vexed him that, with the north flank of the mountains blocking the road, it was such a long way around to come and go. He called together the family and made a proposal: ‘Do you agree that we should make every effort to level the high ground, so that there is a clear road straight through to south of Yu and down to the south bank of the Han River?’ They all agreed. But his wife raised difficulties: ‘You are too weak to reduce even the smallest hillock; what can you do with Taihang and Wangwu? Besides, where will you put the earth and stones?’ They all answered: ‘Throw them in the Gulf of Zhili, north of Yintu.’ Then, taking his son and grandson as porters, he broke stones and dug up earth, which they transported in hods and baskets to the tail of the Gulf of Zhili. The son of their neighbor Mr. Jingcheng, born to his widow after his death, and now just cutting his second teeth, ran away to help them. The Foolish Old Man did not come home until the hot season had given way to the cold. Old Wiseacre of River Bend smiled and tried to stop him, saying: ‘How can you be so unwise? With the last strength of your declining years, you cannot even damage one blade of grass on the mountains; what can you do to stones and earth?’ The Foolish Old Man of North Mountain breathed a long sigh, and said: ‘Certainly your mind is set too firm for me ever to penetrate it. You are not even as clever as the widow’s little child. Even when I die, I shall have sons surviving me. My sons will beget me more grandsons, my grandsons in their turn will have sons, and these will have more sons and grandsons. My descendants will go on forever, but the mountains will get no bigger. Why should there be any difficulty about leveling them?’ Old Wiseacre of River Bend was at a loss for an answer. The mountain spirits that carry snakes in their hands heard about it and were afraid he would not give up. They reported it to God, who was moved by his sincerity, and commanded the two sons of Kua’er to carry the mountains on their backs and put one in Shuodong, the other in Yongnan. Since this time there has been no high ground from Jizhou in the north to the south bank of the Han River.” Later generations would use the phrase “foolish old man” to stand for a strong-willed person who is not afraid of difficulties. “The foolish old man moves a mountain” is often used as a figure of speech for advancing despite hardship. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Xu Beihong’s The Foolish Old Man Moves a Mountain was painted in India in 1940. Rabindranath Tagore invited him to India, so all of the models for the painting were Indian. Xu applied the forms of Western nudes to Chinese painting. Prior to this work, his other pieces such as Boatmen and Mountain Demons employed the use of nude models to varying degrees.

Details

  • Title: The Foolish Old Man Moves a Mountain
  • Creator: Xu Beihong
  • Date Created: 1940
  • Physical Dimensions: h 231, w 462 cm
  • Medium: Oil
  • Support: Canvas

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