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Inspiring Midlife Crisis: Wen Zhengming and the Jin and Jiao Mountains
Josh Yiu
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Wen Zhengming’s (1470–1559) Poem for the Painting ‘Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains’ (Jin Jiao Luozhao tu tishi) 金焦落照圖題詩, the finest work of Chinese calligraphy as of 2012 in the Seattle Art Museum, was created in 1521, when the artist was fifty-one years old.The calligraphy was acquired from Mrs. Chang Ch’ung-ho Frankel, who inherited it from her grandmother Li Shixiu (1861–1930), who in turn got it from her husband’s family. Chang Ch’ung-ho brought it with her to the U.S. in 1949. The calligraphy is a rendition of a poem composed by the artist to celebrate one of his own paintings which he did in 1495, when he was twenty-five years old. This painting, in handscroll format and now in the collection of the Shanghai Museum, is mounted together with the same poem, inscribed by Wen in 1545 (fig. 1). Spanning half a century, these three works manifest not only Wen’s fascination with the Jin and Jiao Mountains that overlook the Yangtze River, but also an important aspect of his “early period” that has not, until recently, been widely known.

Fig. 1: Wen Zhengming, Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains, 1495. © Shanghai Museum.

Significantly, the Seattle calligraphy contains a supplementary inscription by Wen, explaining the occasion for writing the poem in 1521. In his own words:

“Previously I painted Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains. Mr. Wu of the Ministry of Personnel [Li-bu] composed long poems and sent them to me; that was in yimao, the ninth year of the Hongzhi reign [1495]. Now it is the year xinsi of the Zhengde reign [1521], already twenty-six years have passed. Li-bu [Mr. Wu] died several years ago, so as I look at my earlier work, I sigh over the time separating me from my elders. My hearing and sight deteriorate daily; I feel desolate. In the evening, on the day before the winter solstice, I write this by lamplight. 係往歲作金焦落照圖,辱吳吏部寄詩題詠長句。是歲弘治九年乙卯,及今正德辛巳廿二十有六年,而吏部去世數年矣!因覽舊作,慨前輩之日遠,而區區之聰明日衰,為之惘然!小至夜燈下書。”

At the age of fifty-one, his health was not as grim as his words suggest. Indeed, his eyesight remained sharp well into his seventies. We know this because he was able to master, at that age, exquisitely small characters.See, for example, his Li Sao, Jiu Ge published in Onoe Hachirō 尾上八郎et al., Shodō zenshū書道全集, Tokyo, 1954-, vol. 17, pls. 84-85.

There must have been another source of his desolation. This midlife crisis, as it could be called, probably stemmed from his lack of achievement in officialdom that was expected of well-educated men, especially those from prominent families. Indeed, the Wen family boasted a long lineage of eminent men in the military, as well as in the civil service. Friends of the Wen family were also members of the learned elite, and held official positions. Since he was eight years old, Wen Zhengming had studied the classics with his father's friend Wu Kuan 吳寬 (1435–1504), who ranked first in the metropolitan examination in 1472.The jinshi進士examination was held every three years, and only three to four hundred men from throughout the empire would pass each time. Thus Wen Lin was one of an estimated three to five thousand-member elite of living jinshi holders, in a China with a total population of perhaps 150 million. Craig Clunas, Elegant Debts, 22. In 1495, the year that the Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains was painted, Wen Zhengming was actually on his way to make his first attempt at the metropolitan examination. By 1521, when the calligraphy was executed, he had failed the metropolitan examination eight times, the agony of which was exacerbated one year later, when he attempted to pass the examination in vain for the ninth and last time. In a society in which ruling-class membership was largely determined on the basis of individual merit, failure to pass the examination denied Wen Zhengming's advancement in the civil service, causing much frustration and agitation. In 1523, Wen finally obtained the rank of consultant (9B) in the Hanlin Academy in Peking at the recommendation of Li Chongsi 李充嗣 (zi Shixiu士修, Wushan梧山, 1462–1528; jinshi進士1487).Goodrich, L. Carrington and Zhaoying Fang房兆楹, Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368-1644 (DMB), Association for Asian Studies, New York, 1976, p1472. However, political intrigues compelled him to return to Suzhou in 1527. Here, he was admired as a leader in the arts for the next three decades, generally considered to have been his greatest period.

Written in 1521, when Wen was in his fifties, the Seattle calligraphy is characterized by the “slash-like, unarticulated stroke endings of the hooks and diagonals, the dry-brush strokes, and the reckless execution,” as Fu Shen puts it.Fu Shen, Traces of the Brush Studies in Chinese Calligraphy, New Haven, Conn, 1977, p133. The composition, the stroke-endings, the rapid brushstrokes and the elongated structures refer to Mi Fu’s (米芾 1051–1107) calligraphy. The explicit reference to Mi Fu is unusual in Wen Zhengming’s repertoire, as testified by the colophons at the end of the handscroll by respected calligraphers such as Huang Yi 黃易 (1744–1802) in 1802, Shen Yinmo 沈尹默 (1882–1971) in 1946, Fu Shen 傅申 (born 1936) in 1993, and Bai Qianshen 白謙慎 (born 1955) in 1995, because Wen Zhengming was known for adopting Huang Tingjian’s (黃庭堅1045–1105) style when writing large characters and Wang Xizhi’s (王羲之303–361) style when writing small ones. Extant examples of Wen in Mi’s style can be found in the Duoyunxuan朵雲軒collection and Guangdong Provincial Museum.These works are published respectively in Gu Tinglong 顧廷龍ed., Zhongguo Meishu Quanji—Shufa Zhuankebian 5—Mingdai Shufa中國美術全集•書法篆刻編5•明代書法, Shanghai, 1993, cat. no. 56, and Zhongguo gudai shuhua jiandingzu 中國古代書畫鑑定組ed., Zhongguo gudai shuhua tumu 中國古代書畫圖目, vol. 13, Beijing, 1996, p. 56, no. 1-0063. Not only is this reference to Mi Fu rare; both Shen Yinmo and Fu Shen express that the spirit of this work can hardly be distinguished from Mi Fu’s calligraphy. This praise underscores Wen’s ability to master various styles. Moreover, as Chiang Chao-shen’s (江兆申 1925–1996) colophon of 1992 suggests, the composition of Wen’s work also recalls Su Shi’s (蘇軾 1037–1101) calligraphy. Chiang may be referring to such characters as xiong胸 (胷) and qian. Nonetheless, the reference to Mi Fu is most evident. At the beginning of the scroll, Fu Shen has inscribed, “resonance of Nangong” (Mi Fu’s hao號).

What does the calligraphy tell us about Wen Zhengming? It is common practice to seek the answer to this question by examining the content of the poem. The scholar Qi Gong啟功 (1912–2005), for one, argues that “calligraphy, because of its literary content, is a vehicle of literature.”Qi Gong, ‘The Relationship between Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting’, in Alfreda Murck and Wen Fong, Words and Images Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting, New York, 1991, pp. 11-12. He reasons that it would be in bad taste to write an elegant line of poetry in the rigorous calligraphic style of Yan Zhenqing顏真卿 (709–785) or to transcribe the coarse utterances of a villain in a drama using the graceful calligraphic style of Chu Suiliang褚遂良(597–658). For Qi, the calligraphic style of a particular piece of writing is predetermined by its literary content. And yet calligraphy is not only an expression of its literary content; it can also be a reaction to that content or what that content represents.

Wen Zhengming's 1521 calligraphy is a telling object of enquiry in this respect because it allows direct comparison with his 1545 rendition of the same poem, now attached to the 1495 painting at the Shanghai Museum. Comparing the styles of the 1521 calligraphy with that of 1545, we discover that the 1545 calligraphy, with smaller characters that are more consistent in size, appears more graceful and relaxed than the earlier work. Evidently, the content of the poem does not explain this difference in calligraphic style; the circumstances, however, do. Given the fact that Wen rarely wrote in Mi Fu's style, this particular instance must have been a deliberate choice, and the rationale for this choice can be explained in the way that the Mi style was perceived. Mi Fu's contemporaries Su Shi蘇軾 (1037–1101) and Huang Tingjian黃庭堅(1045–1105) describe Mi's calligraphy as “like a sail against the wind or a horse in battle, marked by a sense of composure and exhilaration風檣陣馬,沉著痛快” and “like a quick sword hacking enemies and a strong bow that releases an arrow over a thousand li, piercing through anything in the way. 如快劍斫陣,強弩射千里,所當穿徹。”Ma Zonghuo 馬宗霍, Shu lin zao jian書林藻鉴, Beijing, 1984, 9:26b-27a; 9:26b-32b. Therefore, the Mi style embodies an unyielding strength that overcomes hardship. In light of Wen’s desolation over the passage of time and his lack of success in officialdom at this time, I propose that Wen projected strength and perseverance onto his own work by employing Mi Fu’s style when writing the inscription in 1521. In contrast, when he transcribed the same poem again in 1545, he had been a respected and recognized leader in the arts for years, and his accomplishment did not call for such an overtly rigorous style of calligraphy.

It is not my intention to say that the content is irrelevant, however. On the contrary, the content of the poem is of utmost importance. Thus far, most, if not all scholarly attention directed at the scroll has focused on the aesthetics and visual forms of the calligraphy. If we consider the poem-calligraphy as a historical document, it will draw our attention to two interesting issues regarding Wen Zhengming's art and the subject matter of the poem.

According to the poem, Wen was travelling on the Yangtze River when he saw the sunset over the Jin and Jiao mountains, and the captivating scenery inspired him to paint the subject in 1495. Despite his self-effacing, modest assessment of his own ability, he was pleased with the work, counting it as a personal pleasure and viewing it several times a day. Although Wen did not feel comfortable showing it [off] to others, those who did see it were enthralled by it. Among these was Wu Rui 吳瑞 (active late 15th–early 16th century), the Minister of Waterways and Irrigation mentioned in Wen’s poem, who composed at least two poems to praise it. They read:The poems are published in Shanghai Museum ed, Shanghai bowuguan cang Ming sijia jingpin xuanji 上海博物館館藏明四家精品選集 (Hong Kong: Daye gongsi, 1996), no. 35, and; Futian ji 甫田集, Siku Quanshu, 1273.5.1.6a-7a. Translations of the poems by Mark Pitner. See his "Making Land: the History of Jingkou san shan," unpublished manuscript.

Playfully picking up this worn bald brush to describe Jin and Jiao
The myriad layers of clear sky appear as jade banners.
Without having to touch the painting, my spirit has completely gone there,
It was like my ears had met with the current of Haimen.

In your leisurely composition of the Jin and the Jiao Mountains guarding Haimen,
In the setting sun a lone duck drifts in the traces of water left on the river back.
One painting brush successively passed on for so long,
I must believe you, sir, can in old age pass it to the next generation.

Wu Rui’s prediction that Wen Zhengming would pass on his skill to the next generation was highly accurate, as Wen Zhengming enjoyed a large following that not only sanctioned his role as a leader in the Suzhou art scene, but also made him the ipso facto founder of the eponymous “Wu school.”

What was so evocative about this painting by the 25-year-old Wen Zhengming? This work, one of the earliest and oldest extant paintings by him now kept in the Shanghai Museum, was mentioned in various historical texts such as the Fu Tian Ji 甫田集. Yet in modern scholarship it is not considered to be one of the artist’s major works: when it is mentioned, it merely serves to indicate that Wen was an active painter by that time. That this painting is of great importance can be established on two levels: the first historical, the second aesthetic. First, the painting served as a basis for a late Ming woodblock illustration of the Jin and Jiao Mountains included in a travel compendium of famous mountains called Tianxia mingshan shenggaiji 天下名山勝概紀 (fig. 2).He Lezhi 何樂之, Mingkan mingshan tuban huaji 明刊名山圖版畫集 (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chuban she, 1958), 11. As the illustrations of famous mountains in this highly popular travel literature were based on landscapes by famous painters, the inclusion of Wen’s composition suggests that Wen’s painting was well regarded by the late Ming. By the same token, the widespread distribution of the compendium would have made Wen’s composition even better known. Even more significantly, the historical importance of this work rests on the fact that it was copied by prominent artists: from his son Wen Jia文嘉’s (1501–1583) Jin and Jiao Mountains (Jin Jiao Shan 金焦山) (Yale University Art Gallery) of 1563, to Wen Zhengming’s disciple Chen Chun陳淳’s (1483–1544) Jin and Jiao Mountain (Jin Jiao Shan 金焦山) (Zhenjiang City Museum) of 1536; from Zhang Fu張復’s (1546– ca. 1631) Spring floods at Jin and Jiao Mountains Jin Jiao Chunzhang tu金焦春漲圖) (Tianjin City Museum) of 1628, to Yu Zhiding禹之鼎’s (1647–1716) album (Shanghai Museum) of 1692; and from Zhang Yi張崟’s (1761–1829) Three Mountains of the Jingkou region (Jingkou Sanshan Tu 京口三山圖) (Palace Museum, Beijing) in 1827 (fig. 3), to Tang Yifen 湯貽汾’s (1778–1853) Mount Jiao (Jiaoshan tu 焦山圖) in 1844.Wen Jia 文嘉, Yangtze River Landscape, in Tōkyō Daigaku東京大學, Chūgoku kaiga sōgō zuroku, Zokuhen中國繪畫總合圖錄. 續編. (Tōkyo: Tōkyo Daigaku Tōyō Bunka Kenkyūjo, 1998), 1.102-103; Chen Chun 陳淳, Jin Jiao tu 金焦圖, in Zhongguo meishu quan ji 中國美術全集 (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chuban she, 1984-86), 102; Zhang Fu 張復, Jin Jiao chun zhang tu 金焦春漲圖, in Zhongguo gudai shu hua jianding zu中國古代書畫鑑定組, Zhongguo gudai shu hua tumu中國古代書畫圖目(Beijing: Wenwu chuban she, 1986), 9.120; Yu Zhiding禹之鼎, Jin Jiao tu yong 金焦圖詠, in Zhongguo gudai shu hua tumu, 5.116-117; Zhang Yin 張崟, Jingkou sanshan tu 京口三山圖, in Zhongguo gudai shu hua tumu, 23, 247-8; Tang Yifen, Jiaoshan tu, Beijing Forever Auction, November 9, 2007, lot 78. All these paintings show an expansive view of two islands jutting out of a quiet river, which characterizes the composition of Wen Zhengming’s Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains.

Fig. 2: Woodblock Illustration of the Jin and Jiao Mountains from Tianxia mingshan shenggaiji, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Reproduced from Mingkan Mingshan Tuban Huaji.
Fig. 3: Zhang Yin, Three Mountains of the Jingkou region, 1827. Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Wen’s painting, in turn, recalls the expansive space of Wang Shen 王詵 (1036–after 1104)’s Misty River, Layered Hills (Yanjiang diezhang tu煙江疊嶂圖) (ca. 1084) and the two-mountain scheme in Zhao Mengfu趙孟頫 (1254–1322)’s Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (Qiao Hua qiuse tu 鵲華秋色圖) (dated 1296) (figs. 4 and 5). To a lesser extent, the composition of Wen’s Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains is also comparable to Qian Xuan 錢選 (ca. 1235–before 1307)’s Dwelling in the Floating Jade Mountain (Fuyu shanju tu 浮玉山居圖) and Wang Meng 王蒙 (ca. 1308–1385)’s Dan Mountain on the Sea (Danshan yinghai tu丹山瀛海圖). Despite similarities in form and composition, these possible sources did not outweigh Wen Zhengming’s innovativeness, because the earlier works are largely idealized landscapes that evoke a state of mind rather than describing a specific place.See Richard Barnhart’s discussion of the Misty River, layered hills in “Landscape Painting around 1085,” in The Power of Culture: Studies in Chinese Cultural History (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1994), esp. 200-201; Maxwell Hearn’s discussion of the Autumn colors of the Qiao and Hua Mountains, in Guoli gugong bowu yuan, Wen Fong and James C. Y. Watt, Possessing the Past Treasures from the National Palace Museum (Taipei; New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996), 274-277; and James Cahill’s discussion of Floating Jade Mountain in Hills Beyond a River Chinese Painting of the Yüan Dynasty, 1279-1368 (New York: Weatherhill, 1976), 35-37. What is special about Wen Zhengming’s painting is that it attempts to do both. In addition to his own testimony that the painting expressed his longing for the beautiful scenery, the painting itself also suggests a transcendent reality compared to Wang Shen’s Misty River, Layered Hills.

Fig. 4: Wang Shen, Misty River, Layered Hills, 1084. © Shanghai Museum.
Fig. 5: Zhao Mengfu, Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains, 1296. Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Professor Richard Barnhart argues that the basis for this type of painting in human life and thought and in the setting of cultural history is the state of exile, which he defines as banishment and separation from society and attainment of personal and mental freedom.Barnhart, Richard, “Landscape Painting around 1085,” in Peterson, Willard J., Andrew H. Plaks, Yingshi Yu, Ta-tuan Ch’en, and Frederick W. Mote, The Power of Culture: Studies in Chinese Cultural History, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1994, pp. 200-201. This compelling argument is entirely consistent with what we know about Wang Shen, who was exiled in 1080. More importantly, the eerily sparse composition becomes a convention for showing a lofty, transcendental realm, and this notion was epitomized in the landscapes of the Yuan master Ni Zan 倪瓚 (1301–1374), as well as in the Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains. Most likely, Wen Zhengming perceived the Jin and Jiao mountains as a transcendental realm as well. In 1522, the year after he completed the Seattle scroll, he created another painting of the Jin Mountain (currently in the National Palace Museum, Taipei). The inscription, which is full of allusions to mythical beings, addresses Jin Mountain as Penglai蓬萊Island, a mythical land of immortals.The Jin Mountain had been likened to Penglai蓬萊before Wen Zhengming’s time, for instance, in a poem by Yang Pan 楊蟠 (ca. 1017–1106, jinshi 1046) (see Jinshan Xiwang 金山夕望, in Zhou Boyi 周伯義comp., Jingkou sanshan zhi—Jinshan zhi 京口三山志: 金山志 [Taipei: Chengwen chuban she, 1974], 9.10b-11a. 3110-3111). Wen’s contemporary Qiao Yu 喬宇 (1457–1524) also compared the Jin Mountain to Penglai (See Jinshan youji 金山遊記, in Wang Tailai王泰來comp. Tianxia mingshan shengjing ji 天下名山勝景記 [Shanghai: Hui wentang shuju, 1928], 15). The lonesome island in the 1522 painting, which recalls the Song work Floating Jade on the Yangtze River(Fuyu tu浮玉圖) (also in the National Palace Museum), formerly attributed to Li Tang 李唐 (1049–after 1130), enhances the sense of isolation from the mundane world, as does the Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains.

Despite the few boats and expansive space, however, there is a crucial difference between the Sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains and the Misty River, Layered Hills by Wang Shen: Wen Zhengming did not depict a lost or unknown paradise. The identification of the Jin and Jiao Mountains is unmistakable because the frequent literary references to them since the Song period compare and contrast their topographical features, thereby anticipating their juxtaposition as a pair. The earliest known reference to these two mountains as a pair dates from the Song dynasty. Most famously, several of Su Shi’s poetic explorations of various places are dedicated to the Jin and Jiao Mountains: Visiting the Temple on Jin Mountain (You Jinshan si 游金山寺) and Taking a Boat from Jin Mountain arriving at Jiao Mountain (Zi Jinshan fang chuan zhi Jiaoshan 自金山放船至焦山).Su Shi 蘇軾, Su Shi shi ji蘇軾詩集, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1982, 2.7.307-310; for a translation of the former see Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o, Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1994, p36. By the Ming dynasty, we find fairly detailed explanations of their relationship, such as that in Lu Rong’s 陸容(1436–1494) Shu yuan za ji菽園雜記,Lu Rong陸容, Shu yuan za ji菽園雜記, Beijing, 1985, 12:145. in which the author attempts to uncover the exact time when they became so closely associated. Fundamentally, both played a role in the military and cultural life of the southern capital since at least the Song Dynasty.Gu Zuyu 顧祖禹, Du shi fang yu jiyao 讀史方輿紀要, Beijing, 1955, 25:1179. Wen Zhengming was the first artist (known to me) to have juxtaposed this pair, and in such a vivid visual form. More importantly, the different forms of the mountains in the painting correspond to their descriptions in historical texts, which contrast the positions of buildings on the two mountains.

As early as the Southern Song dynasty, Zhou Bida 周必大(1126–1204) noted that there was a common saying according to which the Jin Mountain is covered—wrapped around—by temple buildings, whereas the Jiao Mountain covers the buildings.Zhou Boyi 周伯義comp., Jingkou sanshan zhi—Jinshan zhi 京口三山志: 金山志, Taipei: Chengwen chuban she, 1974, 7:2b. In other words, buildings were to be found by the shore of the Jin Mountain, and in the midst of the Jiao Mountain. This understanding persisted into the Ming dynasty. Qiao Yu 喬宇(1457–1524), an official who was on social terms with Wen Zhengming, not only made a similar observation, but also described the Jiao Mountain as wider than the Jin Mountain.Qiao Yu喬宇, Jinshan youji 金山遊記, in Tianxia mingshan shengjingji 天下名山勝景記, p16. It is almost certain that Wen Zhengming took note of these differences and rendered the Jin and Jiao Mountain accordingly, with buildings on the wide Jiao Mountain and on the shore of the Jin Mountain on the left. The identification of these places also suggests a different interpretation of the boats from those in Wang Shen’s painting: the boats in Wen’s painting are not drifting aimlessly. The resonance and overlapping of the verbal world of Wen’s poem and the pictorial world of the painting signifies a symbiotic relationship between poetry and painting, and recalls the words of Chao Yidao晁以道 (1059–1129):

Painting depicts a form beyond the object,
and yet the form of the object must not be changed.
The poem expresses a meaning beyond the painting,
but should still convey the pictured scene.Chaves, Jonathan, “Meaning beyond the Painting: The Chinese Painter as Poet,” in Alfreda Murck and Wen Fong, Words and Images Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting, New York, 1991, p434.

Reconciling an idealized realm and an actual place must count as one of the singular achievements of this painting, especially given that Jin and Jiao Mountains were not, historically, afforded the tranquility that transcendental realms enjoy. Rather, they were subjected to the worst form of human intervention, namely warfare. Due to their location at the juncture of the Grand Canal and the Yangtze River and their proximity to cities such as Yangzhou and Nanjing, Jin and Jiao Mountains were strategic military outposts. Since the Song period, these places endured numerous episodes of warfare, including the Jurchen aggression in 1137, Mongol invasion in 1275, British artillery during the first Opium War in 1842, and more recently, the Sino-Japanese War in 1937.For the confrontations in 1137 and 1275, see Tuo tuo 脱脱 (1313-1355), et al. Songshi 宋史, Beijing, 1978, 26.477 and Songshi 123.3035. For the confrontation in 1842, see Da Manzhou Diguo Guowuyuan大滿洲帝國國務院ed., Daqing Xuanzong Cheng Huangdi Shilu 大清宣宗成皇帝實錄, Shenyang, 1937, 375:757a-765a. As for the attack in 1937, see Zhang Yibo 張懌伯 and Ji Junsheng稽鈞生, Zhenjiang lunxian ji 鎮江淪陷記, Beijing, 1999. Moreover, Mother Nature was not benevolent to Jin Mountain. Increasing silt-deposits eventually stopped the water flow and merged Jin Mountain with the shore during the Daoguang period (1821-50), leaving Jiao Mountain as the most prominent island,Shan Shumo單樹模 et al., Zhongguo Mingshan dachuan cidian中國名山大川詞典, Jinan, 1992, p. 1137. which may explain Tang Yifen's modification of the two-mountain scheme in his Mount Jiao painted in 1844.Tang Yifen, Jiaoshan tu, Beijing Forever Auction, November 9, 2007, lot 78. The aggressive Yangzi, which was a hotly contested war zone, has been subdued by Wen Zhengming's brush in the painting. Small boats, rather than war junks, restore the tranquility of the two mountains. In this way, Wen Zhengming successfully negotiates the region's historical vulnerability and natural beauty, conceiving an almost transcendental realm that is located in real time and space.

In addition to signifying a time of peace, the boats may be the most revealing feature for ascertaining the time of day. Despite the subject of the painting—the sunset over the Jin and Jiao Mountains—Wen Zhengming did not deign to depict a setting sun, which would have robbed the lyrical subtlety of the painting. Instead, he painted boats returning to the shore at dusk, and others that have already done so, as shown on the upper edge of the painting. If this reading appears, at first glance, to succumb to over-interpretation or excessive imagination, it is worth considering that this kind of reading must have been common and even encouraged in Wen Zhengming’s time, and probably facilitated other poetic reactions. Indeed, one need only look to the poem by Wu Rui quoted previously to find that Wu envisioned a lone duck drifting in the water upon seeing Wen’s painting—there is no duck in the painting. Given the fact that the lone duck is a literary motif usually associated with the sunset,Gu wu 孤鶩 “a lone duck” is a metaphor that gains much of its evocative power from the positive and very ancient metaphor of a pair of mandarin ducks (Yuanyang 鴛鴦, pi niao 匹鳥) that symbolize enduring relationships. Conversely, the lone duck is metaphor for the passage of time, separation and the inevitable passing away. This metaphor had a long history before reaching this poem: in Wang Bo’s 王勃 (ca. 649-676) “Teng Wang ge xu” 滕王閣序: “The rainbow clears as the rain stops; the setting sun cuts a swath of light across the land. Evening clouds descend and fly along together with a lone duck; autumn’s waters coalesce in a single shade with the outstretched heavens” 虹銷雨霽, 彩徹區明。落霞與孤鶩齊飛, 秋水共長天一色。漁舟唱晚, 響窮彭蠡之濱; 雁陣驚寒, 聲斷衡陽之浦 (based on the translation by: Victor Mair, Mei Cherng’s “Seven Stimuli” and Wang Bor’s “Pavilion of King Terng” [Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1987], 118-119). Then Wen Tong 文同 (1018-1079) uses it in “Han zhong shi” 漢中詩 “Lengths of smoke level with the Mianshui [a river in Shaanxi Province, Mian 沔 county, it forms the upper flow of the Han River 漢水], the lone duck enters the Yangshui [river in陝西Xixiang county西鄉縣, a river that flows north-west into the Muma River 木馬河 eventually flowing into the Han River.]” 斷烟橫沔水, 孤鶩入洋水; Zhang Yuanhan 張元幹 (1091–ca. 1170) again plays on the passage of time and the setting sun in “Nian nujiao ci” 念奴嬌詞: “In the past, where did you wander? You were like a lone duck in the pink glow of the setting sun” 舊遊何處, 落霞空映孤鶩. Then in Qian Weishan’s 錢惟善 (Yuan) “Nanjiang xi zhao shi” 南江夕照詩 we see the metaphor of departing and returning and the inevitable brevity of each, “The lone ducks landing and taking off rising and falling from the heavens, the arched bridge rising high above the middle of the water” 孤鶩倒飛天上下, 長虹高臥水中. Wu 鶩 is the common domesticated duck, Anas domestica, while the Yuanyang or Mandarin duck, Aix Galericulata, is a wild duck, an interesting juxtaposing in light of their metaphoric deployment. Bernard Read, Chinese Materia Medica: Avian Drugs (Beijing: Peking Natural History Bulletin, 1932), 256, 259. I am grateful to Mark Pitner for this reference on a lone duck. it seems that the aim of Wu’s description is to emphasize the quietude of the river at sunset, thereby contributing to the aesthetic experience of the painting.

As a record of his encounter with the Jin and Jiao Mountains, the importance of the 1495 painting by Wen must be reconsidered, not least because the artist himself expressed how much he liked the painting in the calligraphic inscription of the poem. His emotional reaction to this early work is captured in the 1521 calligraphy. Created under the influence of both exhilaration and desolation, the early painting and later calligraphy demonstrate how Wen channeled his emotional upheavals into creative energies that resulted in these unique and expressive masterpieces that are meaningful in both form and content.

© 2013 by the Seattle Art Museum


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