Poetry and painting in China

On the relationship of poetry and painting in China

Jonathan Chaves [source]

Su Tung-p’o once said of Wang Wei, the great T`ang poet and painter: “There is poetry in his painting and painting in his poetry.” This has become the standard dictum on the relationship of poetry and painting in China, a relationship that through the centuries has frequently concerned writers on both subjects. 

In the West careful distinctions have long been drawn between the literary and the pictorial arts, whereas in China poetry and painting have been nearly inseparable and have been related to each other in a variety of ways. The Chinese poet and painter might well be one and the same person, Su Tung-p’o and Wang Wei being the two supreme examples of artist-writers as highly esteemed for their skills as painters as for their verse. In the West, such figures are rare. Michelangelo was a fine poet, but in neither the critical nor the popular mind does his writing equal his painting or his sculpture. Perhaps only William Blake corresponds well to the Chinese conception of the poet-painter, an artist using similar themes and images in both his poems and his paintings and  The practice of inscribing poems on paintings, or on special sections of paper attached to the paintings for just this purpose, was another aspect of the close relationship between poetry and painting. The poem might be written by the painter himself by a friend of his, or by a later owner or connoisseur. Often, the poem includes images which do not appear in the painting, so that while the physical beauty of the picture is enhanced by the elegance of the calligraphy in which the poem is written, the imaginary world conjured up by the painting may be further expanded by the imagery of the poem. Sometimes the poem is the work of an earlier poet, but often it is an original poem by the artist himself A perfect example is the hand scroll by the Yuan artist Wu Chen (1280-1354), showing a fisherman seated in his boat gazing into the water.


Wu has inscribed the following poem of his own composition in the upper right-hand corner of the picture:

West of the village,
evening rays linger on red leaves
as the moon rises over yellow reeds on the sandbank.
The fisherman moves his paddle, thinking of home –
his pole, lying in its rack,
will catch no more fish today.

The poem adds an image that is entirely absent from the painting that of the village-and colors the leaves and reeds red and yellow, although in the picture they are done in shades of gray ink. We learn that it is sunset, and that the fisherman is thinking of returning home. Because these enhancements of the picture are expressed in words, they affect the viewer on a subtler level than the purely visual, and deepen his experience of the total work of art. Sometimes, when painter and poet are two different people, the picture will inspire the poet to reflect on his personal situation, as in the famous poem by Su Tung-p‘o, inscribed on the painting Misty River and Tiered Mountains by a contemporary, the landscapist Wang Shen. After a long description of the scene, Su recalls his  past happiness while living on the Yangtze River, and longs for the day when he will be able to return to nature (referring to himself as the Gentleman of the Eastern Slope):

Saddening my heart, a thousand tiers of mountains along the river
shimmer with blue-green colors across the sky like clouds or mist.
Are they mountains? Are they clouds? It’s hard to tell,
but when mist opens and clouds disperse, the mountains remain.
Here I see two verdant cliffs, shadowing a deep valley,
and a hundred cascades that fly down the cliffs,
twist through forests, coil around rocks, hide and reappear,
The stream grows calm, the mountains open, and the foothill forests end; `
a tiny bridge and rustic shops lean against the mountain.
Travelers pass beyond the tall trees;
a fishing boat floats, light as a leaf:
The river swallows the sky.
Where did the governor find this painting,
its limpid beauties brushed by such a sensitive hand?
Where in our world is there such a place?
I’d go there now, and buy myself an acre or two of land!
But I remember an isolated spot at Fan-k’ou, near Wu-ch’ang,
where the Gentleman of the Eastern Slope resided for fiveyears.
Spring breezes rippled the river; the sky was vast.
Summer rain clouds curled up at dusk; the mountain glowed.
Crows shook branches of red maple leaves before my riverhome.
Winter snows, dropping from towering pines, woke mefrom my drunken sleep.
The flowing waters of Peach Blossom Spring are in thisworld;
why insist that the Wu-ling story was only a fairy tale?
But the rivers and mountains are fresh and pure,
while I am covered with dust;
there may be a path that leads to them, but it’s hard to find.
With many a sigh, I return the scroll,
and wait for a friend who lives in these mountains
to send me a poem, “Come back!”

Although less frequent, the opposite phenomenon might also occur; that is, a painter might be inspired by a poem to do a picture based on the poem.


On a more profound level, Chinese poetry and painting are related in the fundamental similarity of their creative processes. Not only are the themes and images of both arts essentially conventional, or traditional, but those that appear in painting are the same as those used in poetry. For this reason, it is not surprising to find that a particular image-the fisherman, for instance, as an exemplar of Taoist freedom_will appear in a poem of the fourth century B. C., and again in a poem of the eighteenth century. Similarly, the same image of the fisherman will appear in a painting listed in aT’ang-dynasty catalogue and also in a picture by one of the Eight Eccentrics of Yang-chou, a group of Eighteenth-century

In fact, the standard images of both poetry and painting were catalogued in two important encyclopedias, both published in the early eighteenth century. One, the famous Chie tzu huan hua chuan  (The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting), appeared in its final form in 1701. This work is a collection of all the traditional images of Chinese painting, including mountains and rocks painted in various styles, trees and flowers of many kinds, birds and insects, temples, villas, and scholars and fishermen in boats. The other encyclopedia was the P’ei-wen yun-fu (The P’ei-wen Treasury of Rhymes), published in 1711, but using material going back to the Yuan dynasty (1279-1363) This is a compendium of poetic images and phrases, each of which is quoted in chronologically arranged passages. Every image in The Mustard Seed Garden Manual can be found here as well. Under the heading “fisherman” (yu-fu), the passages quoted range from the earliest poem on this theme, found in the Ch’u tz’u anthology, much of which dates back to the fourth century B.C., to a Northern Sung poem by Su Tung-p’o_”I should meet the old fisherman here, / Winding his way through the reeds.” The second line of Su’s couplet is a quotation from a passage in the Taoist classic, the Chuang-tzu, also dating from the fourth century B.C., where Confucius meets a fisherman who “winds his way through the reeds.” Clearly, the Chinese mind was accustomed to leaping easily over centuries.

Yang Wan-li was particularly fond of creating new variations on old themes. One of his versions of the fisherman theme is novel in that it removes the fisherman and leaves us with only the boat:

It is a tiny fishing boat, light as a leaf?
no voices are heard from the reed cabin.
There is no one on board-no bamboo hat, no raincoat, no fishing rod.
The wind blows the boat, and the boat moves.

In a Western context, it would be unthinkable to illustrate a collection of Rimbaud’s poetry with the paintings oi say, Ingres. Even though the two men lived in the same century, their styles and modes of expression are so very divergent that any attempt to link them seems foolhardy. But there is nothing incongruous in juxtaposing, as in this book, a poem by a twelfth-century Chinese writer with a picture by a painter of the seventeenth or eighteenth century; though widely separated in time, the two artists might well share the same vocabulary and much the same perception of life and nature.

Jonathan Chaves
Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow
White Pine Press, 2004

Resource: poetry China