Skip to content

Blog post

Connecting the dots: painting, thesis and writing

Hieu Kieu

I am a newly minted PhD from the School of Education and Professional Development at the University of Huddersfield. Two months after graduation, I am still coming to terms with the ‘what was’, ‘what is’ and ‘what will be’ for my thesis, for a research job and for the continuity of life. In the core of these whats are questions about the thinking of writing and the doing of writing – thesis writing in particular. In this blog post, I am connecting the pathway from the thinking of thesis writing to the doing of writing, via the illustration of Chinese shan shui painting and the advice from the legendary Vietnamese figure, Ho Chi Minh.

Shan shui painting

Chinese shan shui painting is the painting of mountain (shan) and water (shui). However, it always conveys deeper meaning than the look of mountains and waters. Shan shui painting has three key elements in its composing methods: the pathways, the threshold and the heart. The ‘pathways’ capture the patterns created by nature such, as the river flow, the sunrays and moving clouds. The idea is that there is no straight pathway. The ‘threshold’ is where the pathways lead to: it is similar to the horizon lines, and something that sets the boundary for the painting, whether it is one mountain or two mountains and however it/they leave its/their marks on the sky, ground or river. The ‘heart’ provides the vitality and meaning for the painting. The presence of the heart element implies that each painting should have a ‘heart’ point as the returning points for all the meandering pathways.

Figure 1: An example of shan shui painting

…and the thinking of thesis writing

I tried to link a doctoral thesis with this painting style for their commonality in producing arts, although I appreciate that the comparison is somewhat tenuous. The common point is the presence of the heart. In the thesis, the heart is similar to what audiences are looking for in the ‘So-what?’ question (or the contribution-to-knowledge question). Reaching this ‘heart’ requires the plurality of pathways: either from mimicking natural paths or discovering your own paths. Thus, the journey never seems to be straightforward. Somewhere down the line, there are voices commanding, ‘Researchers of the World, Create!’ (Koro-Ljungberg 2012: 808). This creative bit takes me to the horizon lines in the painting or the thresholding boundary. This part brings joy and balance to the entire inquiry process. Koro-Ljungberg’s command refers to the encouragement for researchers to embrace the diversity and complexity required to move toward the ‘conceptual, analytical and interpretive spaces that can meet the needs of ever-changing communities of practices’ (ibid: 809). Similar to ‘good’ art, people come back to it – a ‘good’ piece of research makes people come back to it and use it.

The doing of writing

Finally, without writing, there will be no heart (contribution to knowledge), no pathways (methods and research contexts) and the exciting threshold horizon. To end this post and connect the dots from the shan shui painting to research and writing, I offer my favourite Ho Chi Minh quote about writing. He advised writers to consider four key questions before writing.

  1. Write for what?
  2. What to write?
  3. Write to whom?
  4. How to write?

In his advice, Ho Chi Minh located the writers in the circles of ‘purposes’, ‘content’, ‘audiences’ and ‘style’, as below

Figure 2: Ho Chi Minh’s four key questions for writers

The movement from the thinking of writing to the doing of writing sometimes is just a spur-of-the-moment phenomenon, but sometimes takes years. We do not do writing for love all of the time, but also to meet obligations. Like shan shui painting, there are paths, thresholds and hearts. As Ho Chi Minh advises, there is a need to think about what, to what end, to whom and how we write. Not all of us are blessed by hearing the music in our heads and writing it down like Beethoven. However, we can see pictures in our mind and voices of other academics, where writing is to paint them down with words. These words then create the pathways starting from a source flowing in multiple directions where multiple interpretations are possible. Before crafting these pathways, writing becomes a part of the lifelong dialogue between the thinking of writing and the doing of writing.


Koro-Ljungberg M (2012) ‘Researchers of the World, Create!’, Qualitative Inquiry 18(9): 808–818.

Chi Minh H (1995) Hồ Chí Minh toàn tập (The collection of Ho Chi Minh), volume IV, Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản Chính Trị Quốc Gia (Publishing House of National Politics)

More content by Hieu Kieu