Taoists saw in the buffalo and herdsman theme the basic elements of nature and its rhythms. In Chan Buddhist literature during the Sung period, the pair appear as a metaphor for the path to enlightenment. Twelfth and thirteenth-century academic painters popularized the theme, rendering the subject in soft colors and meticulously laid ink outlines like those seen here. Buddhist and Taoist symbolism aside, this small fan painting can also be read as a lyrical portrayal of rural existence.
Using a rather extreme aerial perspective, the artist provides a detailed scene of a boy leading a buffalo home at dusk along a river or large canal. They walk on an elevated path that is part of the dike system forming the rice paddies to their left. While at first glance this small fan painting seems a poetic interpretation of agrarian life, it also symbolizes the harmonious relationship between man, animal, and nature espoused by the Taoists. The artist has skillfully condensed a remarkably wide panorama of varied landscape into only a few inches of silk.