Individual Work
Shan Shui

Qianxun Chen’s Shan Shui (山水), a web-based interactive poetry anthology, forwards the player to a collection of landscape poetry (山水诗), the famous corpus from ancient China which scholars and poets of the day utilized to eulogize the beauty of nature from their imagination and actual views. Furthermore, as Chen introduces, landscape is also known as a traditional painting style (山水画) in China, with which mountains, water, and sometimes Chinese calligraphy are displayed in an ink wash and abstract way. What is even more impressive about the work is that each poem of the collection does not actually exist in the Chinese literature history. Instead, Chen showed her expertise in computing and let the programming intelligence generate those poems. To play the game, users are required to do clicks everywhere on the screen all the way through. Each click will return a newly produced poem, along with which will be a background of landscape painting. To some extent, the background visualizes the texual descriptions of the landscapes in the verses as the artistic conception.

All the poems generated by the computer are in a poetic form called Wujue (五绝), which consists of four lines of five syllables following certain tonal constraints. The form of Wujue belongs to the modern form poetry (近体诗) that grew popular in Tang Dynasty (618-907). Tonal constraints are categorized into level (平) and oblique (仄). Wujue poems are strictly following the rules by use of a single rhyme through the verses and the patterns of tonal alternations between level and oblique, where one kind of combination in a line is often the inverse of that in another (Cai, 2008).

The images in the background are made of landscape elements corresponding to the nouns that appear in the generated verses. The elements include the ink wash paintings of waterfalls, sunset, mountains, boats, bamboo groves, birds, old paths, lotus, pagodas and pine trees. The user enters the program by the first click into a title page. Then the following clicks will lead them to a spectrum of content pages where the poems are composed by the program and displayed on the right hand while also visually situated in the ink wash sceneries. By changing different matches of nouns and transitive verbs, there could be countless poems and background images in concert with them. When hovering on a certain word of a poem, other parts of the poem would fade away, leaving the English translation of the word aside. The mechanism is for the convenience of international readers to understand the specific meanings of nouns and verbs.

To implement the interactive and artistic features of Shan Shui, the program takes advantage mainly of JavaScript, a language widely used in web development. There are two JavaScript libraries the work is basically built on, respectively Processing.js and RiTa.js (Chen, 2014). Processing.js is a port of Process, a software sketchbook and language to write images, animations, visual application and interactive content (“Processing.js”, n.d). RiTa.js is a library for computational literature, which allows artists and authors to work with natural language in programming media (RiTa, n.d).

In terms of taxonomy, it might not be hard to decide that Shan Shui falls in the genre of e-poetry or computer-generated poetry. However, the background images can not be ignored either because they convey the context. While the landscape poetry does a good job in conveying the beauty of nature as Chen introduces, It could also be extended that, in ancient China, the way a poet described the landscape was also influenced by his or her own mood back then. For example, at the age of 24, Du Fu (杜甫), as one of the most well-known poets in Tang Dynasty, failed to pass the imperial examination (科举考试), a civil examination system for selecting candidates for the state bureaucracy. However, he was still confident and determined on the next attempt. Upon his trip to Shandong province, he wrote, “Into cloud layers, rising from its scoured breast, fly birds returning to roost; My eyes open until the corners crack follow their flight. I shall climb nothing beyond peak, whence beheld, all hills are small (Ayscough, 1929).” By comparison, Ma Zhiyuan (马致远), another famous poet for Qu (a poetic form in Yuan Dynasty), was frustrated by his underappreciated talent. When describing the landscape of autumn, he wrote, “Over old trees wreathed with rotten vines fly evening crows; Under a small bridge near a cottage a stream flows; On ancient road in the west wind a lean horse goes. Westward declines the sun; Far, far from home is the heartbroken one (Liguang & Jianhua, 2017).” Through computer intelligence, Chen managed to explore the composition of landscape Wujue poetry and expression of emotions embedded inside.

This entry was drafted by Zijun Wang, a master student at DH510 Digital Fiction course by Dr. Astrid Ensslin, in the winter of 2020 at University of Alberta.


  • Chen, Q. (2014). Shan Shui [Electronic Literature]. Retrieved February 14, 2020, from
  • CAI, Z. (2008). Recent-style Shi poetry : pentasyllabic regulated verse (Wuyan Lushi). How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology, 161–180. Retrieved from
  • Processing.js. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2020, from
  • RiTa. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2020, from
  • Ayscough, F. (1929). Tu Fu: The Autobiography of a Chinese Poet A.D. 712-770 Volume I (First Edition edition). Jonathan Cape, London.
  • Liguang, L., & Jianhua, Z. (2017). Humanity And Social Science: Proceedings Of The International Conference On Humanity And Social Science (Ichss2016). World Scientific.
Author statement: 
In Chinese, shan signifies mountain and shui signifies water. Combining both characters together produces the word landscape in Chinese. Shan Shui also refers to the tradition of Shan Shui painting (landscape painting) as well as a certain style in poetry that focus on conveying the beauty of nature. With each click, the program can generate a new Shan Shui poem and a corresponding Shan Shui painting. The poem is a Wujue, a poetic form consisting of four lines of five syllables following certain tone patterns.