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明 (傳)周臣 《騎驢探梅圖》 軸

Searching for Plum Blossoms While Riding on a Donkey

Blossom Hunting

A man rides a donkey along a lakeside trail, followed by a servant carrying his qin. Bundled against the cold, the man may have set out from the rustic houses nestled below towering mountains. Glancing up at the first plum tree on the trail, he heads toward a thatch-roofed pavilion shaded by pines and plums in bloom. Mountains rise on all sides, dark evergreens lining their distant crests and hollows.

Seen as a harbinger of spring, plum blossoms were admired for their ephemeral, pristine beauty and their fortitude in blooming during the coldest part of the year. They were also an emblem of the upright gentleman in retirement. Searching for plum blossoms in the winter mountains became a seasonal pastime during the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127). Numerous poems and other accounts confirm that it was still a common practice among Suzhou gentlemen during the Ming.


With its sense of grandeur and monumentality, the painting’s landscape style derives from Northern Song models. Ink wash darkens the sky and water, while much of the land is left unpainted to resemble snow. Small clusters of dots highlight contours in the terrain, and short “axe-cut” brushstrokes (fupi cun 斧劈皴) facet the rocks.

Such features closely resemble the consciously antique style of the Suzhou artist Zhou Chen (ca. 1450–ca. 1535), who generally referenced Song dynasty styles rather than the Yuan styles preferred by Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, and their followers. Although the painting does not bear an artist signature or seal, some recent scholars have attributed it to Zhou himself.


Zhou Chen was an important teacher of Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470–1523). After his student’s success surpassed his own, Zhou may have partnered with Tang to produce paintings for the market. Both men often employed similar brush techniques and approaches to composition. On occasion, they may have painted the same compositions for different customers or patrons.

In fact, the Guangdong Provincial Museum (廣東省博物館) owns a virtually identical version of this composition by Tang, titled Xuelin xunshi tu 《雪林尋詩圖》(Seeking a poem in the snowy woods). The artist inscribed the following poem on it:


Shivering with cold, he cannot bear to ride his crippled donkey
Snow fills the tall pines, bending and breaking their boughs
Above myriad mountain ranges, the birds have ceased to fly
In a cloak of downy feathers, the recluse seeks for poems alone

Tang cleverly used a term for recluse that includes the word bu 逋 (to flee, abscond). It brings to mind Lin Bu 林逋 (967–1028), an iconic recluse poet of the Northern Song dynasty who was famous for his love of plum blossoms. Unlike the mainstream Wu School literati artists, who generally favored personal and contemporary themes, illustrations of popular literary and historical figures were stock-in-trade for Zhou and, to some extent, Tang.

明 (傳)周臣 《騎驢探梅圖》 軸
Searching for Plum Blossoms While Riding on a Donkey

Probably by Zhou Chen 周臣 (ca. 1450–ca. 1535)
China, Ming dynasty, early 16th century
Hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art F1917.108

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