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Old Tree and Flowing Stream
Ma Hezhi (fl. 12th c.), Song dynasty

Ma Hezhi’s “Old Tree and Flowing Stream” is the fifth leaf in the album Famous Paintings Through the Ages. It depicts an old tree by a stream with two falcons, one perched in the tree and the other flying off into the void. The composition is succinct with the scenery concentrated on the left side, the branches extending diagonally towards the right and into the sky behind the falcon in flight. Ma Hezhi used nimble, spirited brushwork for the tree that later became known as “leech strokes.”

Since the painting does not include a title label, scholars have debated whether the subject is based on The Classic of Poetry. Some propose that the work indeed is an illustration for The Classic of Poetry, while others believe the lack of any poetry text or preface differs from the conventional format of “illustration right, text left” for text-image versions of The Classic of Poetry surviving today and thus see it as just a general landscape painting.

With its lyrical and sketchy rendering of the scenery, this painting expresses the aesthetic intent associated with the literati, the use of brush and ink exceptionally fine with an archaic air. It has been identified by many scholars as one of the few surviving works from the hand of Ma Hezhi, and for this reason was classified by the government as a National Treasure in 2011.