It is uncertain when Kuncan took Buddhist monastic vows. After the establishment of the Manchu regime, he lived in Nanjing, where his friends included several artists emotionally tied to the vanquished Ming dynasty. Working exclusively in the landscape genre, Kuncan created dense, firmly structured compositions with brisk, staccato strokes to capture the vitality and abundance of nature. His talent for bringing coherence and grandeur out of complex landscape elements established him as a leading master of this period. Kuncan’s philosophical inscription on this hauntingly somber landscape reads:
Master Cheng Lian [a musician, 7th century B.C.] transformed people’s temperament with the sound of ocean waves. Zong Shaowen [the landscape artist Zong Bing, 375–443] did it with echoes in the mountains. Temperament can be transformed to transcend romantic and worldly attachments. Mr. Wang Dengxian [active mid-17th century] studies in the Gaozuo Monastery [in Nanjing], taking rainy woods as his ocean waves and mountain echoes. Every day he strolls in them, chanting his literary compositions and, when gay, singing out loud while tapping trees [to keep time]. He lives as he wishes. My senior Ji once said, “As emotions arise, wisdom is blocked. When thoughts shift, the body changes in accord.” How can anyone say there is no transformation-inducing cinnabar in this process? I painted this landscape to amuse myself. When Mr. Wang saw it, I gave it to him as a present.