The Symbol of the Mountains

Mountains have a specific meaning to the Chinese. They are one of the elemental Taoist symbols, and featured prominently in landscape painting. In the Taoist imagination, the high mountain peak is where the Taoist “mountain man” absorbs the bright yang air of heaven, and meets the constellations face to face.

“Moving the mountain” does a key allegory, which signified perseverance in traditional Chinese, understand? In a well-known tale, an old man, called Yu, and his family engages themselves in the immense task of removing a mountain that block their way. For thousands of years, their determination has invigorated both collective and individual endeavor in trying times.

The idea of mountains is also an integral part of the early history of the Chinese in Canada. “Gold Mountain”, however, remained a dream what awaited the Chinese railway workers in the Rocky Mountains were hard labor, exploitation, and for some, death. The railway tracks were laid over the bones of the dead and the survivors’ misery. Despite this, these pioneers laid down the foundation for a community.

The Mountains, Gu Xiong’s multi-media installation, draws on these traditions and histories. Moreover, it gives the traditional theme new meanings by speaking personally about his migration through different geographical and cultural spaces. His photographs capture his movement in the past three decades or so, and mountains, whether natural or man-made, are landmarks in this movement. They register moments of dislocation, sojourn, discovery and revelation. His relocation from a big city to a remote, mountainous rural area during the Cultural Revolution constituted Gu Xiong’s first migration and life trial. The wild mountains made him an artist; drawing became his therapy. The Rocky Mountains and later still, the mountain like towers of New York became points of identity – excitement, shock, alienation, poverty, discrimination, cultural clash, struggle, transformation and redemption.

On the surface, The Mountains carries on Gu Xiong’s characteristic theme, which is his personal voyage, the myriad facets of migration and immigration, and more recently, his spiritual progression. However, The Mountains is an intellectual reflection rather than an artistic documentation of migration and cultural crossing. It employs Taoist wisdom and sees migration and cultural crossing as a process of coming to know the unknown. Taoist tradition compares cognition to travelling from a distance, they look like mountains and rivers, when one ventures into the mountains and rivers, and they no longer look like mountains and rivers. When one looks back, after passing through the mountains and rivers, they again look like mountains and rivers. Nonetheless, the last stage in this process implies that a qualitative leap in the traveller’s cognition has taken place. Seen in this light, and imagining the mountains and rivers as Canada, we can see that The Mountains is a new departure: Gu Xiong, after a decade of living in this country, has, as an artist, transformed into someone who can again see the mountains and rivers, and even some of the peculiarities of this geography’s inhabitants. He can even begin to see the outlines- much as in traditional Chinese painting one sees the outlines of mountain crags through the parting cloud banks- of similarities between local and Chinese habits.

– Xiaoping Li, 1999


Xiaoping Li has a PhD degree from York University in sociology. She currently serves as the Department Chair of Okanagan College.

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