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明 陳淳 《狂草書書杜甫詠懐古迹三首詩》 卷

Three Poems by Du Fu, in wild-cursive script


Chen Shun (1483–1544) was known as a flamboyant and accomplished calligrapher. He is especially renowned for his free, flowing calligraphy in wild-cursive script, a style that had developed during the eighth century. In wild cursive, characters’ internal strokes are barely visible, and the connections between characters are spontaneous and random. Casual and immediate, it is an ideal vehicle to express emotion naturally.

As his exuberant calligraphy shows, Chen Shun clearly was moved by the three poems he wrote out, from a series titled Thoughts on Ancient Sites 《詠懐古迹》 by the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu 杜甫 (712–770). Swiftly executed, Chen’s sweeping, ribbonlike brushstrokes seem to dance across the paper in broad, flamboyant patterns. Individual characters vary from tight and small to large and expansive, vertical columns shift from one to several characters, and the ink alternates from dark to pale and from wet to dry. This scroll is among the most visually exciting of Chen’s surviving works.

Poems: Thoughts on Ancient Sites

  1. The beautiful and talented Wang Qiang, also known as Mingfei (Bright Concubine), served in the harem of the Han dynasty emperor Yuan (reigned 48–33 BCE). After seeing an unflattering portrait of Wang, the emperor, who had never actually met her, betrothed Bright Concubine to the king of the Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic tribes that controlled Central Asia northwest of China. Realizing his mistake too late, the emperor was unhappily obliged to part with Wang, who left the “purple terraces” of the palace to serve as queen of an alien people. It is said that her tomb in Inner Mongolia, though surrounded by desert, remains always green.


    A host of mountains and myriad chasms lead to the Gate of Thorns;
    The village still survives that bore and raised Bright Concubine.
    Then she left the Purple Terrace for the endless northern desert,
    Where only her green tumulus remains now, facing the yellow dusk.
    From the picture, he could not tell her face was like spring wind;
    With ringing pendants, her soul in vain returns on moonlit nights.
    For a thousand years, the lute has spoken an alien Hunnish tongue,
    Declaring clearly her bleak resentment in the burden of her song.

  2. Toward the end of the second century CE, the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) began to disintegrate. Eventually, three kingdoms emerged; the state of Wei occupied the north, Shu was situated in the west, and Wu held the south and southeast. None was strong enough to defeat the other two.

    Many considered Liu Bei (161–223), the first ruler of Shu, to be the legitimate successor to the Han. His chief counselor was Zhuge Liang (181–234), posthumously known as the Martial Marquis. Liu challenged the rival state of Wu, moving his armies down the Three Gorges of the Yangzi River. In 222, he established his headquarters at a strategic location named Yong’an (Eternal Peace), where he died the following year. Memorial shrines dedicated to Liu and Zhuge were located at Yong’an.


    The lord of Shu went down the Three Gorges to keep a watch on Wu,
    And was still at the Palace of Eternal Peace in the year he died.
    One can imagine his kingfisher canopies among these vacant hills,
    Though jade halls are but an illusion in the ruins of his temple.
    Water cranes nest upon the firs and pines of this ancient shrine,
    Where village elders come for the festivals in summer and winter.
    The holy fane of the Martial Marquis stands forever close nearby,
    So, together as one, lord and servant share the ritual oblations.

  3. Zhuge Liang (181–234) was a great military strategist and statesman. With the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), he served as chief counselor to Liu Bei, helping to secure Liu’s position as the first ruler of the kingdom of Shu. Zhuge and Liu hoped to restore the Han but in the end were unsuccessful. After Liu’s death in 223, Zhuge loyally served Liu’s son and led several military expeditions on behalf of Shu. He died in battle in 234.

    Yi Yin and Lü Shang helped found the Shang dynasty (ca. 1700–1050 BCE) and the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1050–249 BCE), respectively. Xiao He and Cao Shen assisted in founding the Han.


    The great name of Zhuge Liang hangs suspended from the firmament,
    The memorial portrait of this ideal servant is majestic and pure.
    When the Three Kingdoms divided, he devised convoluted stratagems,
    In the cloudy welkin of high antiquity, he was a solitary feather.
    He looked on Yi Yin and Lü Shang as his brothers, and would have
    Outdone both Xiao He and Cao Shen had things gone as he directed.
    In the turnings of fate, the throne of Han could not be restored,
    And all hope destroyed, he was slain while serving with the army.

明 陳淳 《狂草書書杜甫詠懐古迹三首詩》 卷
Three Poems by Du Fu, in wild-cursive script

Chen Shun (1483–1544)
China, Ming dynasty, ca. 1540
Handscroll; ink on paper
Gift of C. C. Wang, New York
Freer Gallery of Art F1980.21

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