Image: 17 11/16 in. x 15 ft. 1 1/16 in. (44.9 x 459.9 cm)
Overall with mounting: 18 in. x 38 ft. 11 3/16 in. (45.7 x 1186.7 cm)
Bequest of John M. Crawford Jr., 1988
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 213
Xianyu Shu was a northerner who, at about the age of thirty, moved south, eventually settling in Hangzhou. There, he impressed his southern friends with his calligraphy, connoisseurship, and "heroic" northern spirit. Even Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), a close friend, acknowledged Xianyu's superiority in cursive writing.
One of Xianyu's most famous works, this scroll is a transcription of a poem by Han Yu (768–824) beseeching the preservation of the ten ancient Stone Drums, monuments carved with poems in archaic seal script around the fifth century B.C. Its vigorous brushwork displays both the freedom and energy of Xianyu's northern heritage and the new sophistication acquired through his study of Jin- and Tang-dynasty masters.
Inscription: Artist’s inscription and signature (68 columns in cursive script)
Zhang handed me this tracing, from the stone drums, Beseeching me to write a poem on the stone drums. Du Fu has gone. Li Bo is dead. What can my poor talent do for the stone drums? …When the Zhou power waned and China was bubbling, Emperor Xuan, up in wrath, waved his holy spear And opened his Great Audience, receiving all the tributes Of kings and lords who came to him with a tune of clanging weapons. They held a hunt in Qiyang and proved their marksmanship: Fallen birds and animals were strewn three thousand miles. And the exploit was recorded, to inform new generations… Cut out of jutting cliffs, these drums made of stone – On which poets and artisans, all of the first order, Had indited and chiseled – were set into the deep mountains To be washed by rain, baked by sun, burned by wildfire, Eyed by evil spirits, and protected by the gods. …Where can he have found the tracing on this paper? – True to the original, not altered by a hair, The meaning deep, the phrases cryptic, difficult to read, And the style of the characters neither square nor tadpole. Time has not yet vanquished the beauty of these letters – Looking like sharp daggers that pierce live crocodiles, Like phoenix–mates dancing, like angels hovering down, Like trees of jade and coral with interlocking branches, Like golden cord and iron chain tied together tight, Like incense-tripods flung in the sea, like dragons mounting heaven. Historians, gathering ancient poems, forgot to gather these, To make the two Books of Musical Song more colorful and striking; Confucius journeyed in the west, but not to the Qin Kingdom, He chose our planet and our stars but missed the sun and moon… I who am fond of antiquity, was born too late And, thinking of these wonderful things, cannot hold back my tears… I remember, when I was awarded my highest degree, During the first year of Yuanhe, How a friend of mine, then at the western camp, Offered to assist me in removing these old relics. I bathed and changed, then made my plea to the college president And urged on him the rareness of these most precious things. They could be wrapped in rugs, be packed and sent in boxes And carried on only a few camels: ten stone drums To grace the Imperial Temple like the Incense-Pot of Gao – Or their lustre and their value would increase a hundredfold, If the monarch would present them to the university, Where students could study them and doubtless decipher them, And multitudes, attracted to the capital of culture From all corners of the Empire, would be quick to gather. We could scour the moss, pick out the dirt, restore the original surface, And lodge them in a fitting and secure place for ever, Covered by a massive building with wide eaves Where nothing more might happen to them as it had before. …But government officials grow fixed in their ways And never will initiate beyond precedent; So herd-boys strike the drums for fire, cows polish horns on them, With no one to handle them reverentially. Still aging and decaying, soon they may be effaced. Six years I have sighed for them, chanting toward the west... The familiar script of Wang Xizhi, beautiful though it was, Could be had, several pages, for a few white geese! But not, eight dynasties after the Zhou, and all the wars over, Why should there be nobody caring for these drums? The empire is at peace, the government free. Poets again are honored and Confucians and Mencians… Oh, how may this petition be carried to the throne? It needs indeed an eloquent flow, like a cataract – But, alas, my voice has broken, in my song of the stone drums, To a sound of supplication choked with its own tears.
To the right is “Song of the Stone Drums” composed by Changli [Han Yu, 768–824] of the Tang dynasty. Written by Kunxuemin, Xianyu Shu, Boji from Yuyang [present-day Jixian, Hebei] in the summer, the twentieth of the sixth lunar month, of the xinchou year in the Dade reign era [July 26, 1301].
Nie Danian (1402–1456) of Linchuan comments on the calligraphy of Kunxue Laoren [Xianyu Shu] stating: “Calligraphy flourished in the Jin period (317–419). In the Tang dynasty, with the rise of Yan [Zhenqing, 709–785] and Liu [Gongquan, 778–865], the methods and criteria of the old tradition gradually deteriorated. When the style of Su [Shi, 1037–1101] and Mi [Fu, 1052–1107] appeared in the Song dynasty, the tradition of the Wei and Jin periods was then completely discarded. Xianyu Boji [Xianyu Shu] studied calligraphy together with Zhao Wenmin [Zhao Mengfu, 1254–1322]. But there are qualities in his cursive script that surpass Zhao Mengfu.” Chen Jingzong (1377–1459), the academician, once remarked that [Xianyu Shu’s calligraphy] has definitely entered the gate of the Wang [Xizhi school]. So highly was he regarded by his contemporaries. In short, if one considers the masters Yan, Liu, Su, and Mi as missionaries of the [calligraphic] cult of Wei-Jin, then Zhao Songxue [Zhao Mengfu] and Xianyu Kunxue [Xianyu Shu] were the most outstanding artists of their times. One therefore should not be biased against one at the expense of the other. The cursive style of this scroll has an aged quality of maturity, in addition to the fact that it transcribes Han Yu’s “Song of the Stone Drums.” It is certainly not in the same order as the artist’s more ordinary works. I first saw the scroll in Jingkou, then again in Suzhou. For years I have tried to acquire it before it finally came into my possession. That was the time when we had a continuous cold rain, and I had to keep the stove fire burning every day so the scroll could be remounted by a famed restorer. This is indeed the kind of life that people call “the tasting out of the tasteless.” On the fifteenth of jiaping [the twelfth lunar month] in the jimao year of the Kangxi reign era [February 3, 1700], at the beginning of spring, Gao Shiqi, Jiangcun, noted this by a rainy window in the Jianjing Zhai Studio at Zhehu. [Seals]: Hao zhuangxin qian yunian, Bu yi sangong yi ciri, Jiangcun Shiqi zhi zhang
Xianyu Kunxue [Xianyu Shu] died in the renyin year of the Dade reign era . This scroll was written in the xinchou year  when the artist was forty-five years old. It is therefore a work of great deliberation done in his mature years. Among his works that I have seen, this probably ranks highest among [examples of] his cursive script. Wu Pao An [Wu Kuan, 1435–1504] used to say that “Xianyu Shu’s cursive script was derived from the methods of the standard and semi-cursive scripts. The brush was applied with great care. As a result there is always a particular logic and deportment in each of his dots and strokes which never make his audience feel bored or tired. People these days like to reach out for the attainment of Zhang Xu (ca. 675–ca. 750) and [Huai] Su [ca. 735–ca. 800] before they even know anything about the older masters, Ouyang Xun (557–641) and Yu Shinan (558–638). That is why the structure of their calligraphy is so loose, incoherent, and so torturously long-winded that they end up nothing much more than pieces of blown away thatch of creeping weeds.” This is indeed well said. Xianyu Kunxue studied the cursive script together with Zhao Songxue [Zhao Mengfu, 1254–1322]. Zhao could not praise him more highly, conceding that his art is unsurpassable. Judging from the present example, Zhao’s modesty was after all no mere lip service. Today, I am able to see this scroll side-by-side with the Liu Zhongshi tie, an authentic work written on a bluish paper by Yan Zhenqing from the collection of the Li family of Gaoyang. In addition, at the end of the scroll is Xianyu Shu’s own colophon written in semi-cursive/standard script which again is as fresh and lofty as in his best. It is surely one of the best fortunes of my life to be able to enjoy a day such as this amid all the turmoils boiling over everywhere. Recorded on request of my friend, Congyu [Zhang Heng, 1915–1963], on May fifteenth in the twenty-seventh year [of the Republic] , Yinmo. [Seal]: Zhuxi Shen shi
Liu Dingzhi 劉定之 (active mid-20th c.) Gouqu Liu Dingzhi Zhuang 句曲劉定之裝
 Translation from Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu, The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931, pp. 33-35. The Romanization has been changed from Wade-Giles to pingyin.  Translations from Department records.  Translation from Sherman E. Lee and Wai-kam ho, Chinese Art Under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368). Exh. cat. Cleveland, OH: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1968, no. 274. Modified.  Ibid. Modified.