Arts of Asia

Untitled (Poem), 17th century
Zha Shibiao (China, 1615–1698)
Hanging scroll: ink on satin
81 1/4 x 19 1/2 inches
Sophie and Brian Leung Fund 2001-9-1

Zha Shibiao—painter, calligrapher, poet, and art collector—was a native of Huizhou in the Anhui province in east China, though he spent his later life in the city of Yangzhou on the northern bank of the Yangtze River. After the fall of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), Zha referred to himself as the "old man from Plum Blossom Gulley" and abandoned his pursuit of a government office position to devote himself to painting and calligraphy. As a commercial painter, protesting the usurpation of the imperial throne, he often emulated the barren landscapes of the fourteenth-century Ni Zan (1301–1374), which reflected Zha's own attitudes toward modern society.

As a calligrapher, Zha similarly transformed familiar models of writing to fashion a new style. In the poem on this scroll, which describes a melancholy scene in early autumn, Zha imitated the "running script" (xingshu) of the seventeenth-century artist Dong Qichang (1555–1636). Zha sometimes used the side of a brush to gently modulate the strokes and enhance their sensuous, wavelike effect. To accentuate the sense of movement within the characters, Zha extended several vertical strokes into ragged ends, or agitated the lines by wobbling the brush as he pulled it across the surface of the satin. At the same time, he exhibited restraint in the even alignment and structural containment of the characters. The poem and its dedication read:

The wind is up. Remnants of summer's heat dissipate.
Alone with my staff: calmly, I take pleasure in this.
In the color of the countryside, I prolong quiet steps.
Against the sound of autumn, I enter the later years of life.
The sun's rays slant. The shadows of birds are confused.
The water level drops. The roots of trees are suspended.
I turn my head. An old friend is faraway.
Someone plays a frontier pipe in evening mists.

Going by the creek, I recorded this poem and presented it to Hanyuan, Mister Nian, Old Man of the Way.

Three seals of the artist appear on this work and read: Mouhe ("so-and-so gulley"); Zha Shibiao yin (Zha Shibiao's seal); and Erzhan shi [?] ("Scholar Who Looked Twice"). The recipient of the poem is not identified.

Text by Anne Burkus-Chasson, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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