Home > Exhibitions > Painting With Words > In Full Flower > Traveling South

明 唐寅 《南游圖》 卷

Traveling South

Painting: Traveling Toward a Bright Future

At right, a young gentleman rides his donkey along a smooth path beside an inlet of water. A servant follows with a rolled umbrella over one shoulder and his master’s wrapped qin (zither or lute) slung across his back. Ahead, several rustic figures push wheelbarrows packed with goods. A glimpse of elegant buildings through a gap in the cliffs at left beckons us to the traveler’s urban destination.

In depicting the conventional theme of travel, this short landscape combines soft brushwork, nuanced washes of dilute ink, and delicate detail, skillfully outlining both the narrative and the topography. Closely cropped at the top so that no sky appears, the composition has a tight horizontal frame. The contours in the terrain, plateaus, and inlet of water all lead our eye from right to left, subtly pointing the way into the future. By including the destination, the artist, Tang Yin (1470–1523), abbreviated the process of getting from here to there into one immediately apprehensible scene. It is not so much a snapshot of the traveler’s journey as a microcosm of its totality: a pleasant amble through nature on the way to a bright future, the visual equivalent of saying, “Have a nice trip.”

Tang finished the composition by drawing a vertical line across the paper. He did not sign the painting but impressed two of his personal seals, one at each lower corner. At right, a rectangle relief seal reads Nanjing jieyuan『南京解元』(First place in Nanjing); at left, a square relief seal states his surname and courtesy name (zi 字): Tang Ziwei tushu『唐子畏圖書』(Seal of Tang Ziwei).


Renowned as a painter, poet, and calligrapher, Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470–1524) ranks among the leading artists of the Ming dynasty. His father, a merchant in the Suzhou wine and food trade, made sure his oldest son received a strong classical education. Tang attended the local Confucian schools, which prepared students for the official examinations, and his precocious literary skills got the attention of his teachers and the local literati community. Though he grew up amid the hurly-burly of the marketplace, he soon developed more refined interests and aspired to greater things.

Tang’s talent also endeared him to Wen Lin (1445–1499), the father of Wen Zhengming, a late bloomer who shared Tang’s birth year. The two boys met when they were fifteen, and despite radical differences in character and temperament, they became close friends. Tragically, in 1493 Tang’s father, mother, wife, and sister all died in quick succession, leaving him alone with a younger brother to care for. During this difficult period, Wen Lin became a valuable source of advice, support, and encouragement. Five years later, Tang and Wen Zhengming went off to Nanjing to sit for the provincial examinations. To everyone’s surprise and delight, Tang was awarded first place (jieyuan 解元); to no one’s astonishment, Wen Zhengming failed.

Despite Tang’s charm and brilliance, he had a wild side. He was given to self-indulgence (some would say decadence) and poor decision-making. While in the imperial capital in 1499 to take the national jinshi examinations, Tang behaved inappropriately—possibly involving drunken debauchery—and then became embroiled in a trumped-up cheating scandal. Although he hadn’t actually done anything wrong, Tang was jailed, expelled from the exams, and sent home in disgrace, with the once-certain promise of a glorious official career now reduced to ashes.

Nevertheless, Tang’s status remained intact among the scholarly and wealthy elite of his native Suzhou. He lived and moved in the leading circles of local society, and, through their continuing patronage, he made a successful (if sometimes precarious) living through his writing and art for the next twenty-five years. Something of a gallant about town, Tang later became the protagonist of many popular stories and plays supposedly based on his romantic dalliances.


Following Tang Yin’s stunning reversal of fortune in the exams, he often assumed the time-honored victim’s mantle of the righteous outcast, misunderstood by society and unjustly persecuted by jealous evil forces. Such dark themes also found their way into his seemingly innocuous poems and inscriptions.

On the left side of the vertical line, Tang inscribed two quatrains of seven character lines (qiyan jueju 七言絕句) in seven columns of elegant running-standard script:

On the river, springtime breezes blow the tender elms I clasp my zither and see you off trailing long robes If someone you encounter should appreciate your music Cut some reeds where you are and build yourself a hut

Xi Kang long ago performed the Melody of Guangling Quiet for a thousand years its tonalities are lost Today I have traveled to this place to see you off That we may look for its tablature in the handbook

The first poem alludes to the ancient qin master Boya 伯牙. His friend Zhong Ziqi 鍾子期 was so spiritually and emotionally attuned to Boya’s music that he immediately understood the inspiration for the musician’s performances, such as those of his compositions “High Mountains” (Gaoshan 高山) and “Flowing Water” (Liushui 流水). When Zhong died, Boya destroyed his qin, declaring that he had no reason to keep playing now that there was no one who understood him. Since that time, the term zhiyin 知音 (someone who understands or appreciates one’s sound or music) has been used to refer to a bosom friend.

Xi Kang 稽康 (223–262), who is named in the second poem, was an outstanding poet and musician. An immortal taught him to play the “Guangling san” 廣陵散 (Melody of Guangling) but forbid him from ever sharing its secret score. Just before he was publicly executed by the corrupt government, Xi played the tune one last time, sighing that the composition would be lost with his death.

The earliest version of the “Melody of Guangling” known today, purported to be the original score, was published in 1425, eighty years before this painting and scroll were made. The song is still part of the standard repertoire for the qin, and it may have been a specialty for Yang Jijing, the musician for whom the painting was made.

Using an old term for Suzhou, in the last column the artist signed his text: “Tang Yin from Wuqu.” Following the signature, he applied two of his personal seals: a square relief seal giving his cognomen (hao 號), Bohu『伯虎』(Uncle Tiger); and a square intaglio seal reading Tang Yin siyin『唐寅私印』(personal seal of Tang Yin).

A Going-Away Present

Yang Jijing 楊季靜 (ca. 1477–after 1530), an admired young performer of ancient music on the qin 琴 (zither or lute), set out for the southern imperial capital of Nanjing in 1505, seeking recognition and patronage. Eleven Suzhou painters, calligraphers, and poets created this handscroll as a parting gift. In Suzhou, Yang was a favorite of the circle around Wen Zhengming—especially of Tang Yin, the artist of this handscroll, and others who continued to address poems, letters, and paintings to him over the following years. Evidently, he had supportive fans in Nanjing as well. The scroll preserves important information about both Yang and the tradition of qin playing in Suzhou that is not available elsewhere.

In concept and execution, the scroll is collective rather than collaborative. The eleven gentlemen were neither inspired by a singular event and nor together at the same time or place. Instead, their works are individual contributions toward a larger project. An extension of earlier traditions, such joint endeavors were a common medium of social currency among gentleman artists of Suzhou during the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


Nanjing 南京, also known historically as Moling 秣陵 or Jinling 金陵, located on the Yangzi River some 135 miles (220 kilometers) away. Although Nanjing is west of Suzhou, traveling there was described as “going south” in the local Suzhou custom.


The eleven artists’ contributions to the handscroll comprise three main components: a frontispiece; a painting followed by each artist’s poetic inscription; and nine individual colophons, all but one of which are poems.

Frontispiece Wu Yi 吳奕 (1472–1519)
Painting (and two poems) Tang Yin 唐寅 (1470–1523)
Colophon A1 (poem) Wen Zhengming 文徵明 (1470–1559)
Colophon B2 (poem) Xu Shangde 徐尚德 (1470–1553)
Colophon B3 (poem) Wang Huan 王渙 (1483–1535)
Colophon B4 (poem) Liu Bu 劉布 (late 15th–early 16th century)
Colophon C5 (prose introduction) Peng Fang 彭昉 (1469–1528)
Colophon C6 (poem) Huang Yun 黃雲 (act. 1483–after 1513)
Colophon C7 (poem) Zhu Yunming 祝允明 (1461–1527)
Colophon D8 (poem) Qian Tongai 錢同愛 (1475–1549)
Colophon D9 (poem) Xing Can 邢參 (ca. 1450–1521)


Neither the frontispiece nor the painting is dated. The nine colophons cover four unequal lengths of the same gray paper. Sheet A has one colophon, sheets B and C have three apiece, and sheet D has two. None of the colophons on sheets A and B are dated. One dated colophon appears on sheet C; two are on sheet D.

The order in which the four sheets are mounted does not reflect the order in which they were created. Some sheets may have circulated independently before being mounted.

Written to serve as the “introduction” to the scroll, colophon 5 mentions that Yang departed in yichou eryue「乙 丑 二 月」 (second lunar month in the yichou year [March 6–April 3, 1505]). It also states that Qian Tongai, who wrote colophon 8, initiated work on the scroll. Colophon 8, however, suggests that Yang’s trip was in the third lunar month 「三月」, which corresponds to April 4–May 3, 1505. And colophon 9 bears a date of 「四月五日」 (fifth day of the fourth lunar month), or May 8, 1505.

Based on these discrepancies, we can assume that the eleven contributions to the scroll were created separately over a period of six weeks or so, between sometime in March and May 8, 1505. Although the components were probably assembled and mounted shortly after May 8, we don’t know exactly when Yang Jijing actually departed Suzhou. It’s also unclear when or how he received either the separate components or the assembled and mounted scroll.


At right, Wu Yi’s frontispiece, written in 1505, begins the scroll with two large characters as a thematic title: Nanyou 南游 (Journeying South, or Journey to the South). They’re written in ancient seal script, one of the earliest forms of Chinese writing, having emerged in the second millennium BCE. Cast or incised on ancient bronzes, older examples of seal script exhibit a wide range of regional styles. During the Qin dynasty (221–206 BCE), the imperial court calligrapher Li Si 李斯 (ca. 280–208 BCE) standardized these forms, engraving them in stone and creating the style followed by most later calligraphers, known as small seal script (xiao zhuanshu 小篆書). Over time, other script types became more popular. During the Ming dynasty, seal script was seldom used except in certain formal and decorative contexts—such as the frontispieces for handscrolls.

Here, Wu Yi’s thick lines of generally even width capture the strength of seal script seen in ancient carved models. The structures of each character diverge subtly from traditional forms, however, particularly in the balance between angles and curves. The strict but open symmetry of the character at right both complements and contrasts with the complex density of the character at left.

Although the second character is naturally wider and more horizontally oriented than the first, Wu simplified and compressed elements to make the two equally tall and wide. This produced a slightly squeezed effect and created a dynamic visual tension between the characters, enhanced by other details of composition and execution. For example, vertical lines curve inward in the character at right but curve outward in the character at left. Similarly, the ink is thick and dark at the top of vertical strokes; toward the bottom, it thins to streaks. This distinctly calligraphic technique of writing with brush and ink is called feibai 飛白 (flying white).

Wu’s harmonious integration of different writing traditions and individualized approach to composition, structure, and execution indicate a strong personal aesthetic at work. His work exemplifies how antiquarian interests stimulated innovative responses among the gentleman calligraphers of Ming dynasty Suzhou.


Following the title are two columns written in standard script, which read:

Seal script by Wu Yi for family friend [Yang] Jijing

Wu Yi 吳弈 (1472–1519) was a nephew of the high government official and poet Wu Kuan 吳寬 (1435–1504) from Changzhou 長洲 (modern Suzhou). Wealth and family connections, along with his innate talent, secured Wu’s position in the elite literary and artistic circles of Suzhou. He lived at the large family estate known as Dongzhuang 東莊 (East Villa), which he inherited from his uncle, and he was active in a group of local poets called the Dongzhuang shiyou 東莊十友 (Ten Friends of East Villa).

As a calligrapher, Wu Yi specialized in a style seal script that harkened back to Li Yangbing 李陽冰 (mid- to late eighth century) in the Tang dynasty. Until his untimely death at the age of forty-seven, Wu was an integral member of the same cohort of Suzhou gentleman artists as Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) and Tang Yin (1470–1524), who also contributed prominently to this scroll.

Wu impressed four seals on the frontispiece: one in both the upper and lower right corners, and two following his signature at left.


Then as now, the life of a performer could be somewhat hardscrabble and full of uncertainty. Survival required a lot of touring, short-term engagements, audience cultivation, and grubbing for patronage. Judging from the colophons, the scroll was intended to serve both as a farewell gift for Yang Jijing and as a kind of letter of recommendation for his potential patrons in Nanjing. The texts provide biographical information about Yang and laud his character, praising his talents as a qin master with both a historical pedigree and a unique approach and noting his willingness to travel in search of an appreciative audience. They also encourage the young musician to follow his ambitions.

As noted above, nine contemporaries of Yang Jijing, Tang Yin, and Wu Yi contributed colophons to the scroll. Here, we will look at five.

Colophon 1: fourteen columns, small cursive script, five characters per line, light gray paper

The most prominent contributor to the scroll was Wen Zhengming. The renowned artist composed an “old-style” poem, meaning it lacked a fixed length as well as parallel syntactical constructions.

Starting with an extended reference to Yang Jijing’s father (the Old Man Who Guarded His Simplicity), who passed the qin tradition to his son (Master Ji), the poem ends with the young musician’s departure for Nanjing (or Moling). Along the way, Wen’s verses allude to the friendship between Boya and Zhong Ziqi through references to "Liushui" (Flowing Water), one of Boya’s songs, and the term zhiyin (to understand one’s sound). The closing lines provide a rare look at the literati’s opinion of qin music compared to that of two other stringed instruments, the zheng and pipa, which were popular at the time.

I knew the Old Man Who Guarded His Simplicity
Sincere and true, an upright gentleman of old;
His whole life spent with a seven-foot zither
In clear tones, he sketched the "Flowing Water."
Easy and serene never frivolous in substance
He quite knew the fingering for every sound;
He could have passed this on to several sons
But Ji it was whose heart alone matched well.
To him the ancient melodies were truly passed
His surplus skill expresses their innate mood;
But how shall his art alone be called refined?
He cultivates himself as his father did before.
In the past among those famous for the zither
There was once in Yue a master named Liu Hong;
But the Zither Liu whom we have here in Suzhou
Came in fact from this old father and his son.
With the passing of a scant few sixty years
The whole tradition now belongs to Master Ji;
Sorry that so few here understand his music
He packs his zither and sets off a thousand li.
Moling was a famous capital in ancient times
Go, go, surely you will find reception there;
Sonorously strum forth that unique music
Wash their ears entirely of cittern and guitar.

Still using his original given name (Bi), in the last column the poet added his signature: “Wen Bi from Changzhou.” He followed it with impressions of two personal seals: a square intaglio seal reading Wen Bi yin『文壁印』(Seal of Wen Bi); and a square intaglio seal with the name of his studio, reading Tingyunsheng『亭雲生』(Master of Towering Clouds).

Colophon 5: thirty-two columns, standard script, twelve characters per column, ruled-line grid, first entry on the third paper

Peng Fang 彭昉 (1469–1528) wrote this short essay as an explanatory preface or introduction (xu 序) for the group of poems. The text opens with an official title for the piece: “Preface to Poems on Seeing off Qin-master Yang Jijing on his Journey to Jinling.” It proceeds through a disquisition on Yang’s commitment to excellence—and on qin music as a mystical means to effect positive social change and bring peace and harmony to humankind.

Peng concluded with a discussion of Yang as a qin master and the literary activity around his departure, excerpted below:

吾蘇楊季靜善琴,自其先人傳之,曲、操、引、弄博綜,無所不該,而宮徵[攫]醳之妙,以獨追於古先….季靜概知者之罕遇,以故挾其所有,不遠千里而游。乙丑之二月,携琴一囊,復上金陵….于其行,詩人錢孔周賦一律以贈,繼而作者凡若干篇…. 而猥以鄙言在首…. 隴西彭昉識

Yang Jijing of our fair Suzhou excels at playing the qin, which was transmitted to him by his father. He has a broad repertoire of songs, melodies, preludes, and ditties, and there are none that are not just as they should be; but it is in the marvelous quality of his tuning and pitch that he uniquely reprises the ancient masters. . . . As Jijing seldom meets a person who understands [his music], he will tuck what he has beneath his arm and does not think it far to journey a thousand li. In the second lunar month of the yichou year [March 6–April 3, 1505], carrying his zither in its bag, he is heading back up to Jinling. . . . On his going, the poet Qian Kongzhou composed a regulated verse to give him [see colophon 8], and subsequently other writers [contributed] a certain number of pieces. . . . unworthily my humble words are to be put at the head. . . . Recorded by Peng Fang from Longxi

In his early years, Peng Fang was a frequent companion of his fellow townsman Wen Zhengming. He passed the national jinshi 進士 examinations in 1511 and was appointed to a succession of administrative positions in the southern provinces. Peng had no aptitude for government service, however, and he was allowed to quit. Evidently, he was quite poor but extremely fond of wine. His strong, forceful calligraphy was highly in demand during his lifetime.

Colophon 7: six columns, standard script, third entry on the third paper

Written by Zhu Yunming 祝允明 (1461–1527), colophon 7 comprises song lyrics (ci 辭) in irregular meter, presumably intended to accompany a performance of qin music. The first column is the title of the poem: "Lyric for Summoning the Phoenix; Seeing off Master Yang who is traveling to Jinling."

From black paulownia wood crimson strings hang
It has emerald pegs and stops of yellow gold
Cradling it alone you climb the high terrace
And sitting on a stone
   you then begin to strum
Clear shang cannot compare in sadness with clear jiao
Phoenix, come home!
   Phoenix, come home!
On the high terrace the red sun leaves an autumn glow
But the autumn glow easily fades, oh,
   Phoenix, will you not come?

Following the text, Zhu signed his full name and impressed two square intaglio seals. The first repeats his given name, Yunming『允明』, and the second gives his cognomen (hao 號): Zhizhisheng『枝指生』(Master Branch Finger), a reference to the fact that he was born with a sixth finger on his right hand, the one he used to write calligraphy. This unusual trait enhanced Zhu’s ability to manipulate the writing brush. He became one of the most renowned calligraphers of the Ming dynasty, especially for his works in cursive script.

Although Zhu was a bit older, he was particularly close to Wen Zhengming and Tang Yin, as well as to the young qin player Yang Jijing. Although this standard script colophon is a tame example of Zhu’s writing, the calligraphy is crisp and self-contained, with a premium on balance and legibility. This is typical of Zhu’s contributions to collective scrolls of this type, in which the main emphasis was on the poem.

Colophon 8: eight columns, standard script, seven characters per line, ruled-line grid, first entry on the fourth paper

[lines 1–4]
Jinling in the Third Month and spring is not yet ended
Eager to see the country you mount your figured saddle
Singing girls call for wine at the Willow Blossom Café
Ferry passengers thump the sterns at Peach Leaf Rapids

These lines provide a lively description of Yang Jijing’s trip in the third lunar month. The poet, Qian Tong’ai 錢同愛 (1475–1549), was generally known by his courtesy name (zi 字), Kongzhou 孔周—as in Peng Fang’s preface (see colophon 5), which identifies him as the one who started work on this collective scroll. Now mounted at the end of the scroll, Qian’s poem was the first to be written. He owned a large collection of calligraphy and was a frequent companion of Wen Zhengming, Tang Yin, and other contributors to the scroll.

Colophon 9: twelve columns, standard script, five characters per line, ruled-line grid, second entry on fourth paper

The opening lines of this “old-style” poem, the last work on the scroll, provide additional context for Yang Jijing’s departure:

[lines 1–4]
Master Yang is about to make a long trip
And quickly came to take his leave of me
When I asked him where it is he is going
He pointed to the Left Bank of the River

The poem text is dated and signed: “Early summer, fifth day of the fourth lunar month [May 8, 1505], written by Xing Can in the Emerald Duckweed Studio.” Judging from the six weeks or so between the dates of Peng Fang’s preface (colophon 5) and of this poem, it seems that Yang Jjiing’s departure was not so much a singular event as an extended process of saying good-bye to different people. Yang even may have shopped the scroll around himself to gather contributions.

Xing Can 邢參 (ca. 1450–1521) (act. 1487–after 1517) was a poet, scholar, and book collector. He originally lived outside Fengmen 葑門 (Turnip Gate) in the Xing Family Lane. Solitary by nature, Xing did not remarry after his wife died. He built a ramshackle studio outside the city west of Huqiu 虎丘 (Tiger Hill), where he loved to read and to chant his own poems in a loud, resonant voice. Xing taught in a local school to make a living, but he was very poor and often lacked firewood and other necessities. He loved antiquities, though, and collected manuscripts and rare editions when he could. Honored by the local community, he participated in scholarly projects and compilations and contributed to collective scrolls such as this one.

明 唐寅 《南游圖》 卷
Traveling South

Tang Yin (1470–1524)
China, Ming dynasty, 1505
Handscroll; ink and color on paper
Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art F1953.78

You're viewing an archived version of our site. Some pages may be out of date. Visit freersackler.si.edu for the most up-to-date information.