(China 1820 – 1887)
a - right scroll; 127 x 31.3 cm; image
a - right scroll; 175 x 40.8 cm; scroll
b - left scroll; 127 x 31.3 cm; image
b - left scroll; 175 x 40.8 cm; scroll
‘The early spring again stirs one’s distant thoughts;
With unperturbed nature the bamboo always prefers to dwell next to the water.'
Inscription and signature: Composed at the request of Junshou, a relative by marriage. Chen Pu.
In Chinese literature ‘jianghu’ (rivers and lakes) is a metaphor for the phenomenal world. To escape from ‘jianghu’ is to eschew official careers, fame and other social burdens and to live in seclusion, whereas to be concerned with ‘jianghu’ is to make a commitment to be part of society and to pursue an official career. Withdrawal from society or engagement with it – ‘to be or not to be’ – was a dilemma the Chinese intellectual often faced: on the one hand, the Confucian ideal demanded one seek an official career under a sage ruler; on the other hand, Daoism encouraged one to pursue the simplicity of a peaceful and unfettered life, in which one may indulge in scholarship or art. This predicament is expressed in this couplet. It conjures up the contradictory sentiment in the mind of the writer: a hesitation at the crossroads of withdrawal from, or participation, in government service. The couplet itself comes from two separate poems by the great Tang poet Du Fu (712–70 CE) (1). The antithetical balance in meaning between the two lines gives the couplet a sense of contemplation.
Chen Pu (alias Ziyu, style name Guqiao, or Chigang guiqiao), was a native of Panyu, in present-day Guangzhou. He gained the ‘juren’ degree at the provincial level examinations in 1844 (some sources say 1851). He served as magistrate of Anfu county in Jiangxi, but soon returned to Guangdong, dedicating himself to education and art; for decades he was the director of the Xuehaitang Academy in Guangzhou.
Chen Pu excelled at regular and running script, but specialised in the latter. He was a fervent follower of the ‘tiexue’ (study of classical calligraphy models). His early calligraphy studies were based on the style of Mi Fu (1051–1107) from the Song dynasty and Dong Qichang from the Ming dynasty. He considered himself a proponent of the classical semi-cursive style of Wang Xizhi (act 320–60), which was the foundation of the tiexue movement.
1 Du Fu, ‘Two poems written at “Man’s day” (Renri liangpian)', and ‘A poem written in response to Mr Yan’s ‘Pavilion in open country (Fengchou yangong jiti yeting zhizuo)’.
‘The Poetic Mandarin: Chinese Calligraphy from the James Hayes Collection’. pg.70.
© 2005 Art Gallery of New South Wales
The couplet, written on two narrow pieces of paper or silk, and hung either side of a large painting or doorway, is one of the most common forms of calligraphic art and has a long standing history in China. They first appeared in the Five Dynasties period (907-979) as pairs of plaques, carved after written master copies, to decorate architectural columns, courtyards and garden doorways. Couplets for indoor display, written on paper or silk, came into existence in the 17th century and gained great popularity in the Qing dynasty. The couplets themselves are either taken from classical poetry or contemporary literary works composed by the calligraphers themselves and their friends. A couplet is made up of two parts called the head and the tail. The two lines of verse are antithetically parallel. Formerly it was a very common practice to send them to friends or relations on such occasions as marriages and birthdays, or as condolences to families of deceased persons.
Asian Art Department, AGNSW, August 2003.
LIU Yang, The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Sydney, 2005, 70, 71 (illus.). cat.no. 13
The poetic mandarin: Chinese calligraphy from the James Hayes collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 23 Sep 2005–27 Nov 2005