, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), ca. 1695
Shitao (Zhu Ruoji) (Chinese, 1642–1707)
Album of twelve paintings; ink and color on paper
Each painting leaf: 6 1/2 x 4 1/8 in. (16.5 x 10.5 cm); Each album leaf: 8 5/16 x 5 5/16 in. (21.1 x 13.5 cm); W. of double page: 10 5/8 in. (27 cm)
Facing pages inscribed by the artist
From the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Family Collection
Gift of Wen and Constance Fong, in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Dillon, 1976 (1976.280)
Plum Blossoms and Bamboo
First it shows one or
Gradually we see five or
In a setting sun
with brilliant clouds glowing
in the distance,
How the beautiful flowers
compete with my brush and
During the early Yuan (Mongol) period, scholar-painters developed, as symbols of enduring beauty, the theme of "three friends in winter"the pine tree, bamboo, and plum blossomsa theme which also became popular as a decoration on Yuan and Ming blue-and-white ceramic ware. By the seventeenth century, an expanded floral group known as the "four gentlemen"plum blossoms, orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboohad emerged. Here, in an album that requires six floral subjects, Shitao adds lotus blossoms (leaf 6) and narcissus (leaf 12) to the traditional "four-gentleman flowers."
The aesthetic pleasure of planting and observing flowers was reinforced by a well-defined set of moral and spiritual associations which were vital in sustaining the morale of Chinese scholars and artists who found themselves in troubled circumstances. The early Northern Song hermit Lin Bu (9671028), a famous lover of plum blossoms, even fancied himself "betrothed" to the flowering tree. In Nanjing in the 1680s, Shitao went through an intensive period of seeking out plum trees, while he painted their blossoms and wrote poems about themlearning every mood and nuance of that fragrant flower. In this painted leaf, the ancient, gnarled plum branch, delicately rendered in a dry and light shade of ink, is set off against a crisply executed spray of bamboo in the foreground. A faintly visible inkwash applied to the background makes the plum branch and blossoms stand out as if lightly covered with snow under bright sunlight.
The beauty of the plum painting is so intense that, in Shitao's own words, only the real flowers, when enhanced by the setting sun, can compete with it. Zheng Sixiao, an early fourteenth-century painter who resisted the Mongols, once wrote:
For dozens of stubborn years,
I play only with a brush;
My brush is a rootless flower,
Yet every day it produces fruits;
It produces fruits by the thousands and tens of thousands,
Each one shining as brightly as the crimson sun;
Day after day I would pick these fruits,
To offer them as alms to the Buddha of the Ten Directions.
The calligraphy here, in the manner of Ni Zan (13061374), has thinner and more angular strokes than that of the preceding leaf. The wiry brushstrokes echo those of the painting; the calligraphy even imitates the effect of subtly varying ink tones in the painting: the characters grow thinner as the brush dries and then larger as the brush is re-inked. The calligraphy page is signed "Shidaoren" ("Stone, the Daoist"). The oval intaglio seal placed on the signature reads Kugua Heshang, Ji, huafa ("painting method of the Monk of Bitter Melon, Ji"). The square seal Shi Yuanji yin, seen on the preceding calligraphy page, is repeated in the upper right-hand corner of this painting.
On the Mountain Peak
High on the mountain
the beautiful colors are cold,
Where flying white clouds
cease to look white.
On this leaf, the master accomplishes the all but impossible task of suggesting the simultaneous effects of wind, movement, and frigid air, and he does so in an unusual way: in his "flying white" calligraphic technique, the ink is dry and thick as if frozen so that the "white" of the paper ceases to "fly" freely through the splitting hairs of the brushstrokes.
For Shitao, the ultimate mountain scenery was always represented by the incomparable peaks of Mount Huang, the Yellow Mountain, in Anhui Province. By the time he lived there, in the 1660s, he had traveled all over southern China, yet until he saw the massive white clouds moving through the vast "seas" of flowers, trees, jagged cliffs, and blue abysses, he had never felt such infinite space. Here even a life of extreme solitude seemed to have meaning. This group of mountain peaks appears repeatedly in his paintings. As he wrote:
The Yellow Mountain is my teacher,
And I am the Yellow Mountain's friend;
Of nature's myriad different forms,
The Yellow Peaks leave nothing uncovered
The calligraphy echoes the heroic quality of the mountain peaks: it is executed in a bold and powerful style. The brush, with firmly centered tip, bored vigorously into the paper in a manner reminiscent of the style of Yan Zhenqing, the famous Tang master. The calligraphy page is signed "Qingxiang Daoren, Ji" ("The Daoist from Qingxiang, Ji"), followed by the square intaglio seal Shi Yuanji yin. In the upper left-hand corner of the painting, there are two square signature seals, Yuanji (intaglio) and Shitao (relief).
Words from a sympathetic heart
Are as fragrant as orchids;
Like orchids in feeling,
They are agreeable and
You should wear these orchids
To protect yourself
from the spring chill;
When the spring winds are
Who can say you are safe?
The first two lines are a quotation from The Book of Changes. Even in the earliest surviving Chinese literature, orchids are identified as junzi, or "virtuous gentlemen." A wild plant that grows in uninhabited mountain valleys, the orchid's fragrance has an aloof and disinterested quality that seems to recall a man of true virtue: it is said that dealing with good and decent people is like entering a room full of orchids; if a person ceases to be aware of the fragrance, it is because he has become such as person. The ancient Chuci ("Songs of the South"), on the other hand, speak of how the fragrant and good are often overwhelmed by the foul and evil:
Now fragrant and foul are mixed together,
Who, though he labored all night, could discern between them?
Why have the sweet flowers died so soon?
A light frost descended and moved them all down.
Under the Mongols, Zheng Sixiao (who painted orchids without roots because his "soil had been swept away") once executed a long ink handscroll of orchids, and remarked: "All of them are virtuous gentlemen; no mean-spirited people are allowed!" Shitao, however, held a more generous, and more realistic, view of the world. In his painting, the lovely orchids are shown with two thorny branchesthe latter representing the brambles, or "stinking weeds," decried in the Chuciindicating that in nature the bad is found, and must be accepted together with the good. In this painting, the orchids, symbols of friendship between virtuous men, present almost smiling, welcoming countenances. Only the last line of the poem reminds us of Shitao's ever-present sense of living in precarious times.
The calligraphy of the poem, in the manner of Zhong You, with its softly undulating strokes and gently rising and fading ink tones, simulates the swaying orchid leaves and blossoms. The poem is signed "Kugua Laoren, Ji" ("Old Man of Bitter Melon, Ji"). The signature is followed by a rectangular intaglio seal, Qian you Longmian, Ji ("before me there was Longmian [Li Gonglin]"). The painting bears the double name seals Yuanji and Shitao.
A Despondent Man from Qingxiang
A despondent man from
Passes by looking
for old friends;
With no money to buy
a mountain to live on,
He sleeps peacefully, pillowing
his head on his own fist;
Though he has seen much,
beyond many rivers and skies,
He loses his heart to
the Cun Caoting
["Inch-sized Thatched Hut"];
In a light skiff you and he
Not even a boatman was present
to distract you.
In early 1695, Shitao visited Wuling in Hunan Provincethe famous "Peach Blossom Land" of Tao Qian (365427). On his journey home, he found himself in the Yangzi River village of Baisha, near Yangzhou. There, he visited many famous sights in the company of the calligrapher-poet Xian Zhu and others, and wrote many poems.
This poem was written right after he arrived in Baisha: originally line 2 read "stops by looking for old friends." The poem seems to have been addressed to the owner of the "Inch-sized Thatched Hut"; Shitao was seekingin fact, begging fora place to settle down, but it was not to be. In a note following the poem on this leaf, he explains that he is changing the word ting ("stops") to ke ("passes") because he is on a boat, ready to leave Baisha.
Shitao often represents himself in a skiff in his paintings, and this is one of the most vivid such presentations. While the poem and the calligraphy reveal the author's heavy heart, the drawing is simple and airyjust another journey, aided by a strong wind. The distant mountains and reeds on the river shores recede swiftly as the man in the boat, the ribbons on his hat flapping in the wind, is swept onward.
The calligraphy, filling the page in the Zhong You manner, contrasts nicely with the painting's sparseness. The poem is signed "Zhixia ren, Ji" ("man under the single plum branch, Ji," a reference to the old Nanjing residence, Yizhi Ge); the signature is followed by the square intaglio seal Shi Yuanji yin. In the upper right-hand corner of the painting are the double name seals Yuanji and Shitao.
Visible, in the space below the boat, is the stain of a seal smudged accidentally on the back of the painting.
Gathering Lotus Flowers
Fields of flowers and leaves fill
Ditches full of water,
A fragrant breeze lingers
By a boat gathering
Phrases of a tune mixed
with the sound of oars
striking the water,
Stir the white clouds,
Setting bits of them afloat.
This poem was also written while the painter was visiting the village of Baisha. The lotus flower was also thought to possess "gentlemanly" qualities because, in the words of Zhou Dunyi (10171073), "How spotlessly it arises from its slimy bed! How modestly it reposes on the surface of the clear pool!" While at Baisha, Shitao went boating with friends in waters full of lotus flowers. The painting supports the lyrical mood of the poemthe shapes of the lotus leaves and petals look like drifting skiffs and floating clouds, and the swaying reeds suggest the movement of "oars striking the water." A heady and unmistakable fragrance seems to emanate from the center of the page, where a large pod, bursting with ripe seeds surrounded by stamens, looks like a giant powder puff.
Technically, the painting is remarkably simple: delicate line drawings in the "blank-outline" style, occasionally reinforced with darker ink for accent, combine with inkwash applied in intaglio style, the whole suddenly bringing forms into three-dimensional relief. There seems to be a deliberate interplay between the painting and the seals in its upper right-hand corner: the intaglio and relief patterns of the seals are echoed by the contrasting "blank-outlined" (positive, or relief) and inkwashed (negative, or intaglio) areas of the rolled-up leaf in the foreground. Without color (except for the vermilion of the seals), the painting seems to throb with life, and actually feels colorful.
The calligraphy, in a free Ni Zan manner, is also lyrical in its movements, with fluent and occasionally circular strokes evoking floating clouds and "oars striking the water." The poem is signed "Xiazunzhe, Ji" ("the blind arhat, Ji)", and is followed by the same pair of name seals, Yuanji and Shitao.
The Wilderness Hut
A wilderness hut,
lonely and desolate,
On a wild mountainside,
A flowerless old tree
the water's edge;
After supper, I wander here
Seeking quiet scenery,
How sad the sunset feels,
When I am so cold
This poem and painting give a picture of the hermit's hard and lonely existence, which Shitao knew well. In a poem dated 1674, Mei Qing described the life of Shitao and Hetao on Jingting mountain in Anhui Province: "The cold wind regularly blows through their thatch-covered walls; when the last scraps of vegetables are finished, they often go hungry." However, although Shitao often grieved and complained in his poems, he never despaired of life, since the hardships he suffered were more than compensated for by the beauty he saw in the world around him. Chan (Zen) Buddhism had taught him self-discipline, and he became all but immune to the threats posed by hardship. In a painting dated 1663, Shitao's fellow Chan priest and painter, Kuncan, explained the chief lesson of Chan, namely, the fortification of one's self: "Buddha was not a lazy fellow
Neither were the Bodhisattvas, nor the sages of kings, Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Confucius. It is because the world today is so full of lazy fellows that families have fallen into disorder, the nation has fallen into disorder, the religious establishments have fallen into disorder. In the words of The Book of Changes, "If Heaven's way is to succeed, everyone must continually strengthen himself, without a moment's indolence [zi qiang bu xi].
On these pages, the artist's calligraphic brushstrokes again play against those of the painting. In turn, both calligraphy and painting, in describing the misty and rippling effects of river water in the evening, heighten the poem's plaintive tone. As if to increase the emotion of these leaves, the calligraphy affects the Huang Tingjian (later Northern Song) style of throbbing brushstrokes, as well as irregular and asymmetrical characters. The calligraphy page is signed "Shitao Ji," upon which a rectangular intaglio seal is placed: Tou bai yiran bu shi ze ("my hair is white and I am still illiterate"). On the painting, the pair of square name seals Yuanji and Shitao again neatly complete the simple composition.
Plum blossoms in October
Sending forth a cold
Are accompanied by
the late-bloomer, the
Since Heaven and Earth
have no special favorites,
Will the plum and
again in the Spring?
The chrysanthemum, the favorite flower of the best-known ancient recluse-poet Tao Qian, was the symbol of reclusion (in another Shitao album of this period, now in the Sackler Collection of the Princeton University Art Museum, Tao Qian smells a chrysanthemum). As Shitao prepared to retire, he thought of Tao Qian, just as countless retired poets and painters had before him, and as others would in the centuries to follow.
Although this poem was written to commemorate an unusual event, the blossoming of plum trees in October, its real subject is the chrysanthemum, which as the perennial late-bloomer symbolizes not only reclusion in itself, but also endurance and integrity, qualities with which the poet would obviously like to identify himself. As his wintry years approached, would there be a second spring, as it were, for the aging artist? The poet's tone is wistfully ironic.
The calligraphy reverts to the gently nostalgic Zhong You mode of leaf 1. It is signed "Xiazunzhe, Yuanji" ("the blind arhat, Yuanji"), followed by the oval seal Kugua Heshang, Ji, huafa ("painting method of the Monk of Bitter Melon, Ji"). In the lower right-hand corner of the painting, we find the same rectangular intaglio seal seen on the preceding calligraphy page: "my hair is white and I am still illiterate."
Late Spring on the Mountain
New bamboo shoots grow taller
than the eaves of the house,
Deep in the morning mist,
a mountain peak can be seen;
May in the mountains feels
Leaning on a railing,
I feel the cold dew
on my coat and hat.
This poem may have been written in the 1670s, when Shitao was living in the Anhui mountains. Although the painting does not illlustrate the poem, it does reflect the poet's feelings perfectly: the bare branches seem to be awakening, and the inkwash enveloping the lonely figure makes the damp and chilly mountain almost palpable. This is one of those quiet, almost desultory moments in which our senses are most alert and receptive to the atmosphere around us.
The painting, which is built up with a series of single brushlines of increasing thickness and intensity, is a perfect illustration of what Shitao meant, in his tract on painting, by yihua, "single-stroke painting." The tiny, spidery calligraphy in the Zhong You manner suits the contemplative mood of the painting. It is signed, "Qingxiang Xiaocheng Ke, Ji" ("followers of Hinayana from Qingxiang, Ji"), followed by the small rectangular intaglio seal Shitao, seen earlier on leaf 1. A complete set of these small seals, reading Shitao and Yuanji, appears at the tip of these branches.
Bamboo and Dry Branches
In this picture I follow
Li Cheng's style of branches
with a new idea:
I see a beautiful maiden,
simple and elegant,
with only a touch of cosmetics.
As I try to capture
her inimitable smile,
I suddenly realize that I
shall never entirely succeed.
Dong Qichang (15551636), in formulating the Orthodox "Southern School" theory of painting, wrote: "Some say, 'One should establish one's own style.' But this cannot be. For example
when painting dry branches, one should follow Li Cheng. A thousand years cannot change this. Even if a painter should make his own modifications, he cannot depart from the source. How can anyone put aside the ancient methods and start out on his own?"
In a colophon dated 1686, Shitao wrote: "In painting, there are the Southern and the Northern schools, and in calligraphy, the methods of the Two Wangs [Wang Xizhi andWang Xianzhi]. Zhang Rong (443497) once remarked, 'I regret not that I do not share the Two Wangs' methods, but that the Two Wangs did not share my methods.' If someone asks whether I [Shitao] follow the Southern or the Northern School, or whether either school follows me, I hold my belly laughing and reply, 'I always use my own method!'" Thus Shitao makes it quite clear that his real model is naturethe swaying branches that look to him like a "beautiful maiden"even though he invokes the name of Li Cheng.
The accompanying calligraphy, a more elegant version of the Ni Zan manner, with elements of the style of the Tang master Li Yong, has the same gaiety and charm as the painting. The calligraphy page is simply signed "Ji," followed by the square intaglio seal Shi Yuanji yin. The painting is stamped with the pair of name seals Yuanji and Shitao seen on the other album leaves.
The mountain colors are
a hoary green, the trees
are turning autumnal,
A yellowish mist rises thinly
against a rushing stream;
In a traveler's lodge,
Bitter Melon [Shitao] passes
his time with a brush,
His painting method ought
to put old Guanxiu to
Guanxiu (832912) was a wandering poet-painter-priest of the war-filled Five Dynasties period. His life had been very much like Shitao's, and he once summed up his experiences in two lines:
A single water bottle, accompanied by an alms bowl,
together we grow older and older,
A thousand mountains and ten thousand waters have
gone past, again and again.
This is the only landscape in the album to be fully colored in rust and green (the mountain color of the poem). Despite its small size, the scenery appears truly monumental. Brushstrokesrock outlines, texture strokes, a running stream, foliage patterns, and "moss dots"crisscross each other, building and expanding until the whole turns into a powerful flowing design of undulating forces and counterforces.
In turning his works into abstract designs of brushstrokes and compositional movements, Shitao reflected a major seventeenth-century development: Wang Yuanqi (16421715), an Orthodox master, explained that in painting, "one need pay attention only to the 'breath force' and the general outlines of the design. It is not necessary to present beautiful scenery, nor is it important to follow old compositions
" In Shitao's works, however, nature always remained the source of inspiration: "Mountains and rivers compel me to speak for them; they are transformed through me and I am transformed through them." In several large compositions, datable to the late 1690s, Shitao's seal spells out his painting method: "I search out all of nature's extraordinary peaks to be my designs" (Sou jin qi feng da caogao).
To enhance the hoary and monumental quality of this landscape, the archaic "clerical" script is used. This style of writing, with its severe horizontals and verticals relieved only by flaring slanting strokes, is suitable for formal commemorative inscriptions carved in stone. The calligraphy is signed "Xiazunzhe, Yuanji" ("the blind arhat, Yuanji"), over which the square intaglio seal reads Kugua Heshang ("Monk of Bitter Melon"). The square name seals Yuanji and Shitao appear on the right side of the painting.
Oh narcissus and plum
you are enjoyed together by
In the wintry months, the two
of you compete for glory;
On a warm day
by a bright window,
I hold my brush,
How my quiet thoughts wander
beyond the boundless
The symbolism of the narcissus (shuixian, or "water goddess") entered Chinese thought relatively late and was not fully developed until the late Northern Song period. In the late thirteenth century, the Southern Song scholar-painter, and member of the Song imperial clan, Zhao Mengjian (1199before 1267), popularized it in painting.
The mood of this last poem is comfortably relaxed. Shitao was fifty-four years old when these album leaves were executed, and he could enjoy observing a narcissus plant in his study and letting his thoughts "wanderbeyond the boundless shores." In dramatizing the personal tragedies of the late-Ming Loyalist painters, later poets often pictured them in flights of sorrow: Zheng Xie (16931765), for instance, wrote of Kuncan, Zhu Da (Bada Shanren), and Shitao:
Their nature toppled, their families scattered,
How their temples had turned white,
With a bag full of poems and paintings,
Each of them became a priest;
Horizontal and vertical,
Thousands of scrolls they smeared,
How their inkdots were outnumbered by their teardrops!
But uncontrolled grief has never been the stuff from which great art is made. For Shitao, though his nature had toppled, his cultural heritageflowers, mountains, words, and imageshad survived and gained renewed vigor through his brush.
The single narcissus plant on this leaf, though simply done, embodies several brilliant innovations: a faint background wash around the "blank outline," which makes the leaves and blossoms stand out in relief, and the dark and sharp ink strokes accenting the tips of the blossom petals, which are allowed to bleed and thus create a coloristic effect. The simple composition captures wonderfully the fresh vigor of a narcissus in full bloom.
The calligraphy, in a free and bold manner, combines all of Shitao's favorite idiosyncrasieswavering strokes, "clerical" flaring endings, deliberately blunt strokes with firmly centered "hidden" brushtip, and irregular compositionsinto a highly individual style. It is carried out with as much ease and self-assurance as the simple drawing of the narcissus. The calligraphy is signed "Xiaocheng Ke, Ji" ("follower of Hinayana, Ji") and is followed by the rectangular intaglio seal reading, "my hair is white and I am still illiterate"; the painting is accompanied by the double name seals Yuanji and Shitao.