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A Poem for Nature

  The Fanghu Isle of the Immortals (Detail)
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Wang Yun
(1652–1735 or later)
The Fanghu Isle of the Immortals (detail)
Qing dynasty, Kangxi reign, dated 1699
Hanging scroll; ink and colors on silk
142 x 60.3 cm
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Fortieth Anniversary Memorial Acquisition Fund
cat. no. 149


Lesson Objective: Students will imagine what it would be like to enter a landscape painting and then write a poem on nature.

Related Objects: Mountains of the Immortals, The Fanghu Isle of the Immortals

Subject Area: Language Arts
Suggested Grade Levels: Middle and Secondary School

Instructional Materials:


Middle School:

  • Read the information on Mountains of the Immortals and The Fanghu Isle of the Immortals and have students identify these elements of a Chinese landscape: mountains, trees, waterfalls, clouds, a Taoist temple, immortals, and a crane.
  • As you locate these details, discuss their possible symbolic significance.
  • Ask students to determine whether these scenes are taking place in an imagined or actual location.
  • Discuss the Taoist concept of an immortals' paradise. Compare the two images to Western art by discussing their composition, perspective, colors, material, and format.

Secondary School:

  • Follow the procedure listed above to guide classroom discussion on the two Chinese landscape paintings. Ask students to read the poem below by Li Po, a famous Tang-dynasty poet.

      Dialogue in the Mountains
      You ask me why I lodge in these emerald hills;
      I laugh, don't answer—my heart is at peace.
      Peach blossoms and flowing waters
      go off to mysterious dark,
      And there is another world,
      not of mortal men.
      —Li Po*
  • Discuss the kind of landscape Li Po is describing. Suggested questions include:
    —Is it similar to the scenes in the landscape paintings?
    —What does Li Po mean by the second line? Why is his heart "at peace"?
    —What might be "mysterious" and "dark" in the landscape Li Po is describing?
    —Discuss the other world that is "not of mortal men."
  • Keeping these questions in mind, students will write down their interpretations of this poem and share them with the class. Encourage students by telling them that poetry, like art, is subjective and therefore open to interpretation.

*Poem excerpted from Stephen Owen, The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High Tang, page 136


Middle School:

  • Ask students to choose one of the above paintings and make a list of its details.
  • Encourage them to imagine entering the landscape, thinking about the following questions:
    —What natural and man-made things do you see?
    —What would you like to explore?
    —How does it feel to be standing under the soaring peaks?
    —What sounds, smells, and textures surround you?
    —Is anyone else with you in the landscape?
  • Keeping their imaginings in mind, students should write a poem based on their responses to the questions above and including the details they noted earlier. Instruct them to use adjectives to describe the place.
  • Encourage students to use similes to more accurately describe the landscape.

Secondary School:

  • Complete the poetry-writing activity listed above.

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