Ni Zan was from a wealthy family and until middle age was able to devote his life to scholarship and artistic pursuits. He built a pavilion to hold his great library and collection of antiques, paintings, and calligraphy and entertain his many quests. A series of floods, droughts, and consequent famine and uprisings brought this ideal existence to an end as the Yuan dynasty began to unravel. For twenty years, beginning in 1351, Ni Can wandered with his family through the southeast, living in a houseboat or staying with friends.
Scholars read Ni Zan's paintings of simple, almost barren, unpeopled landscapes as expressive of a longing for a simpler world.