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"Xiao-xiang" is shorthand for the rivers Xiao and Xiang in Hunan province to the south of the Yangtze River. The two rivers drain into Dongting Lake (Dongting hu). The term "Xiao-xiang" also refers to the ancient state of Chu. Against a spectacular background, from the right to left, two ladies in red led by a woman in white walk toward the river bank where a group of five musicians are playing. On the river, a boat is approaching the shore with a red-coated noble man (perhaps a prince) who sits beneath a parasol held by another, a servant, an official in white, and two boatmen. Far away near the left shore, some fishermen are raising their nets. Two fishermen on a boat are approaching from the extreme left, and six smaller vessels on distant waters are floating at the right.
In applying monochrome wash, the artist left several empty areas to create a feeling of a misty and indistinct expanse. The ink dots and dragged brush strokes not only give a sense of luxuriant trees on distant mountains, but also describe the topography of the mountain range. The intense ink dots, limited colors, and appropriate spaces help to create a dreamy and quiet atmosphere.
The tenth to the eleventh centuries witnessed the maturing of landscape painting. Based on divergent styles, later generations identified two schools which were named "northern school" (bei pai) and "southern school" (nan pai). The Rivers Xiao and Xiang (Xiaoxiang tu) by Dong Yuan is considered a work typical of the "southern school" style.
The painting is not signed and has no seals. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) painting master Dong Qichang (1555-1636), an influential connoisseur, acquired the scroll in 1597. In 1599 he wrote a long colophon attributing the painting to his putative ancestor Dong Yuan and identifying the theme with a painting listed in the Song dynasty (960-1279) imperial catalogue Painting Catalogue of the Xuanhe Period (1119-1125) (Xuanhe huapu). Later, the handscroll entered the collection of the Qing inner court.