Stepping out of the Classroom and Into the Mountains

Huangshan mountains shrouded in clouds
Apr 28 2023

Over a recent weekend twelve students left the classroom and ventured to Anhui’s famous Huangshan Mountain as part of Professor Emily Tsiang’s Experience Studio “Travelogue: Shanshui in Huangshan,” a 7-week course that encourages students to engage with experiential learning outside the classroom.

a group picture in front of the mountains

The course, which includes immersive weekend-long trips to places around China, encourages students to think more intentionally about their lives in the context of Chinese culture, said Tsiang. She wanted to engage her students in an experience with less selfies and more reflection. “I wanted to give travel some depth,” she explained. “How might we engage with Huangshan's granite peaks & pines not just through our phones but also through the perspective of a Neo-Confucian literati who turned toward nature for self cultivation and expressed their spiritual enlightenment through landscape painting?”  

Before the trip, students learned the basics of Chinese landscape painting, or shan shui hua from a Chinese painting expert. Atop the mountain, students were asked to try their hand at painting the landscapes they experienced while hiking. 

Paintings that a student did of the mountains

Paintings by Ariana Alvarez ’23

The travelers left Shanghai on Friday afternoon, taking a 3 hour train ride east to Huangshan. Spending Friday night at the base of the mountain, they rose early Saturday morning to ascend the mountain and spent the day hiking, taking photos, painting, observing, and finally watching the sunset from the highest point on the mountain peak. The next day they watched the sun rise and then spent the day hiking before returning by train to Shanghai. 

A collage of the mountain ranges at different times of the day.

Jiawen Li ‘23 was inspired by the vastness of the mountain landscape, which led him to reflect on a verse by Song dynasty poet Su Shi (translated by Xu Yuanchong) that he learned in elementary school. “It wasn't until hiking Huangshan that I truly appreciated the vagaries of mountains in China.” said Li. “As we traversed from the Back Mountain to the Front Mountain, our viewpoint, the mountain's shapes, and the weather underwent a continual evolution, which resonated with Su Shi's poetic musings:”


It’s a range viewed in face and peaks viewed from the side, 


Assuming different shapes viewed from far and wide.

That verse inspired Li to think beyond the vastness of the mountains and consider how they could be a metaphor for life. “Many times in our life, we cannot see the whole mountain, the full picture of events, or even our own life path, due to our limited knowledge and experience,” he said. “To gain a holistic understanding of things, one must go beyond a narrow scope and break free from subjective prejudices,” he said. 

A photo of Jiawen and his classmates posing in front of the mountains

Jiawen Li ’23 front and center with his classmates 

On his return from the trip, he found himself reflecting on a conversation he had with Professor Tsiang about his post-graduation plans. “[I realized] I still have ample time to wander through my mountains and experience its many facets,” he said. “As young people, we have boundless opportunities awaiting us, and it is up to us to explore them to find our true purpose.””

sunset on the mountains

Photo by Jiawen Li ’23 

Tsiang’s Experience Studio course asks students to engage with the Experiential Learning Cycle, a learning model developed by educator David Kolb. One of the aspects of this model is “active experimentation,” where, after a student has an experience and reflects on it, they apply what they learned by designing an experience themselves.

Now that Tsiang’s students have traveled to Huangshan, they will work on projects to craft off-campus activities using experience design frameworks. Experiences range from a biking tour to a guided meditation and art workshop. These events will be open to the NYU Shanghai community during Creativity and Innovation Week, May 5-12.