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明 王寵 《行草書書荷花蕩六絕句》 卷

Six Poems on the Lotus Marshes, in running-cursive script

Artist

A native of Wuxian 吳縣 (modern Suzhou), Wang Chong (1494–1533) came from a merchant background. His father, Wang Zhen 王貞, collected old paintings, calligraphy, and other antiquities, and he provided a good early education for his sons. In the early Zhengde period (1505–6), Chong and his older brother, Wang Shou 王守 (1492–1550), were selected to study in the local government school. In 1508, they met Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), who fulfilled their fathers’ request to provide each brother with a courtesy name (zi 字).

Despite their age differences, Wen and the two brothers developed a lifelong friendship and a strong artistic rapport. They socialized frequently and contributed to the same artistic projects. For three years starting in 1511, the Wang brothers studied poetry and classics under the tutelage of Wen’s close friend, the scholar and calligrapher Cai Yu 蔡羽 (1471–1541), at his Baoshan Jingshe academy on an island in nearby Lake Tai (太湖洞庭山包山精舍). Along with Wen and Cai Yu, Wang Chong acknowledged that his calligraphy was profoundly influenced by another local master of the older generation, Zhu Yunming 祝允明 (1461–1527).

Wang Chong was a brilliant poet and calligrapher, but he failed the provincial exams eight times between 1510 and 1531 before finally abandoning the idea of a government career. Unemployment made it difficult to live comfortably as an artist. Fortunately, Wang Chong’s calligraphy was highly valued in his hometown; he lived on the support of friends and patrons until he died before the age of thirty-nine. His relatively few works have been eagerly collected and appreciated from his own time to the present.

Interesting Fact

Repeatedly failing at the upper levels of the degree system was not altogether rare among gentleman artists of Suzhou. Wang Chong’s mentor Cai Yu failed the provincial examination fourteen times, and Wen Zhengming never passed the jinshi examination despite making multiple attempts.

Calligraphy: eighty columns, running-cursive script, six sheets of gold-flecked paper (first two white, last four blue)

Comprising six original poems and a dedication, this scroll is the grandest and most visually impressive of Wang Chong’s surviving works. Because Wang both authored and wrote the poems, their imagery and ideas are intimately tied to the pace and expressiveness of the calligraphy. Wang clearly wished to impress the recipient, a wealthy younger friend named Yuan Bao, which explains the unusually monumental quality of his writing as well as the expensive and exceptional materials, such as the lustrous black ink and decorative blue paper.

Wang’s thick brushstrokes fluctuate in pressure and speed. Both the size of individual characters and the number of characters per column vary, creating unexpected changes in form and feeling and filling the calligraphy with exuberant spirit. The rounded brushwork, blunt stroke heads, minimal angular ligatures, and occasional sharp tails reveal a certain cultivated awkwardness in execution. The spontaneous breaks, quick sequences, and random connections, however, create a fresh, energetic rhythm that engages the viewer and prevents the writing from becoming facile or mannered.

Poems

Wang’s six poems, four of which are translated below, are all quatrains with seven characters per line (qiyan jueju 七言絕句). According to the title that precedes them, the poems describe the Hehuadang 荷花蕩 (Lotus Marshes), located a short distance outside Fengmen 葑門 (Turnip Gate), the southernmost gate in Suzhou’s eastern city wall.

[Poem 1]

荷花蕩裏采蓮歸,九龍山頭暮靄微,輕身倚檝下前浦,花氣人香逐浪飛。
Picking lotus in the Lotus Marshes, girls are going home
On top of Nine Dragon Mountain, the evening mist is faint
Light bodies lean on the oars coming down to front beach
Flowers’ fragrance mixed with theirs flying on the waves

[Poem 2]

青山如屏碧水迴,萬朵菡萏參差開,歌船舞棹垂楊畔,十里繁華錦繡堆。
Green hills form a screen, the azure waters swirl
Ten thousand lotus buds open at staggered heights
Pleasure boats glide by shores of hanging willows
Ten li of gorgeous colors, a bank of rich brocade

[Poem 3]

藕枝如玉翠蓮房,白白溪魚紫荇香,落日舵樓傳玉斝,掌中平(牙)列萬山蒼。
Lotus roots resemble jade, blue-green the lotus pods
White Creek fish is white, purple water lilies fragrant
At sunset in the boat cabin, passing goblets of jade
We steer past the level ranks of a myriad verdant hills

[Poem 4]

蕩裡人家齊賣蓮,十五女兒工數錢,柴門一片花如綺,野老風前高樹眠。
Out in the marshes, everybody’s selling lotuses
Girls of fifteen years expertly count the coins
From brushwood gates, flowers stretch like silk
An old peasant dozes in a shelterbelt of trees

Recipient

On the final sheet of paper, Wang Chong dedicated the scroll to Yuan Bao 袁褒 (1499–1577), courtesy name (zi 字) Yuzhi 與之:

昨與與之談荷花蕩之勝,與之云未識,遂賦六絕句呈覽,或可當臥游耳。王寵

Yesterday I was telling Yuzhi about the scenic attractions of the Lotus Marshes and he said he wasn’t familiar with [the place], so I composed six quatrains and presented them for his perusal so that he might voyage there vicariously while reclining. Wang Chong

Yuan Bao, a dedicated scholar who loved books, cared little about money and was generous with friends. He was particularly close to Wang Chong, who often found himself in tight financial straits. On one occasion in 1528, with Wen Zhengming’s son Wen Peng acting as guarantor, Yuan loaned Wang fifty taels of silver (worth an estimated $5,000 in US currency today).

Also native to Wuxian, Yuan Bao was one of the so-called “Six Talents of the Yuan Family” (Yuan shi liujun 袁氏六俊). This group of four brothers and two cousins born in the 1490s and early 1500s were prominent poets and scholars, collectors of paintings and calligraphy, and book publishers in sixteenth-century Suzhou. Most importantly in this context, the Yuans were also wealthy patrons and supporters of local Suzhou gentleman artists, many of whom were unemployed and had negligible or unreliable sources of income.

Starting in the mid- to late 1510s and continuing for the next seventy years, at least two generations of Yuans played significant roles in Wu School history. They provided ongoing support for Wen Zhengming (1470–1559), his sons Wen Peng 文彭 (1498–1573) and Wen Jia 文嘉 (1501–1583), and the larger community of scholars, poets, and artists. When Wen Zhengming returned to Suzhou in 1526 following his three-year stint at the imperial court, the Yuans interacted with this group more than ever.

Relationships between patrons and artists in Suzhou were often layered and convoluted. For example, Wang Chong studied calligraphy with one of Yuan Bao’s cousins, Yuan Gun 袁衮 (1499–1548). Wang Chong’s older brother Wang Shou 王守 (1492–1550) passed the 1526 national jinshi examination in the same graduating class as Yuan Bao’s youngest brother, Yuan Zhi 袁袠 (1502–1547), who later compiled the poetry of the painter Tang Yin (1470–1524). Tang Yin’s daughter married Wang Chong’s son.

As active members of the Suzhou elite, the Yuans hosted and participated in literary and artistic gatherings; contributed poems and inscriptions to collective handscrolls; commissioned works for events such as birthdays, retirements, or deaths in the family; and accepted artworks created for them as gifts, such as this scroll. In 1532, for example, Yuan Bao hosted a literary gathering at his estate with Wen Zhengming, Wang Chong, and other members of the artistic community, and he received another dedicated painting from Wen Zhengming later that year.

Wang Chong did not date this scroll, and we don’t know for sure when he composed the six poems. However, based on studies of Wang’s development as a calligrapher, we can guess that he completed these poems circa 1528–29, when he had similar interactions with Yuan Bao.


明 王寵 《行草書書荷花蕩六絕句》 卷
Six Poems on the Lotus Marshes, in running-cursive script

Wang Chong王寵 (1494–1533)
China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1528–29
Handscroll; ink on paper
Purchase—Regents’ Collections Acquisition Program
Freer Gallery of Art F1980.2






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