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  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River
  • The Beauties of Shu River

明 (傳)仇英 《蜀川佳丽圖》 卷

The Beauties of Shu River


Four groups of travelers and a few loners negotiate a rugged, mountainous track in Shu, modern Sichuan province. At right, a tall robed man and his entourage of front-riders and women wearing red hoods wend their way out of the foothills and approach a low bridge. In the middle, several riders rest, and a family makes its way around a large rock. At left, another contingent ascends one of Shu’s famous hanging roadways, which hugs the sheer cliff. Judging from the flowers, the season is spring. Coiling white clouds wreathe the mountaintops. In the background, a large body of water with patterned waves recedes into the distance. Judging from the flowers, the season is spring.


A rebellion shattered the Tang Empire in the summer of 756. After more than four decades on the throne, Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗皇帝 was forced to flee to Shu, negotiating the treacherous mountain route. The story is thought to be the basis of the painting by Li Zhaodao 李昭道 (late 7th–early 8th century), one of the founders of the blue-and-green style, that is replicated here. This version, however, differs from the original in important ways: The later artist added figures and an entire section of landscape, and the cheery, springtime scene doesn’t match Emperor Xuanzong’s tragic tale. We don’t know for sure if Qiu Ying or the unknown workshop artist who actually executed the painting associated it with the unfortunate Tang ruler.


After the Tang dynasty, when the “blue-and-green” landscape style originated, artists generally employed the mode to evoke an air of prosperous antiquity. During the sixteenth century, the style became firmly associated with the commercial painter Qiu Ying, who often revised and amplified earlier paintings. Qiu’s revival of “blue-and-green” was so popular that a cottage industry sprang up in Suzhou to reproduce his works for the market. Sumptuous materials, such as high-quality silk and costly mineral pigments, were used to produce high-end versions of his compositions.

Over the next century, Qiu Ying’s name essentially became a brand. This work was most likely Qiu’s invention, but while the figures’ vitality and fine detail, the meticulous brushwork, and the carefully balanced composition are generally consistent with his technique and approach, they lack the animation and exquisite touch associated with works from the master’s own hand. We thus can conclude that this painting is a later copy.

[separate label – left end]

明 文徵明 《行書書 唐 李白 蜀道難 一首》 卷
Hard is the Road to Shu by Li Bai, in running script
Wen Zhengming (1470–1559)
China, Ming dynasty, 1550
Ink on paper

Theme and calligraphy

The Tang dynasty poet Li Bai 李白 (701–762), who served at the court of Emperor Xuanzong, recounted the perils of the road to Shu. Titled “Hard is the Road to Shu” (Shudao nan 《蜀道難》), this famous poem, written in irregular meter, is sometimes interpreted as an attempt to dissuade the emperor from fleeing into Sichuan.

Accordingly, at left, a later owner of the painting attached a transcription of Li’s poem written in masterful calligraphy by Qiu Ying’s friend and occasional collaborator Wen Zhengming (1470–1559). Wen transcribed the lengthy poem using his late style of running script, which derived from his study of the Song dynasty calligrapher Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 (1045–1105). According to Wen’s postscript, he wrote out the text on November 24, 1550 (嘉靖庚戌十月既望), at his Jade Chime Mountain Hall (Yujing shanfang 玉磬山房) studio, which he constructed at his home in 1527 after his return from serving at court. This is one of the largest and finest known examples of Wen’s writing in this style.


Li Bai’’s poem describes the hardships of the route from the Tang capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an, Shaanxi province) to the Sichuan basin. In antiquity, roads penetrated the barricade of mountains that encircled Shu in only a few locations. The most famous road—equally renowned for its wild beauty and its many hazards—stretched from the base of Mount Taibai in the north through Sword Gate Pass, where it descended to the Sichuan basin and proceeded to the Shu capital of Chengdu, also known as Brocade City. Hanging bridges, stairways hewn from naked rock, and cantilevered walkways made of wooden planks and trestles led across the rugged mountains and steep defiles.

Hard is the Road to Shu

Li Bai (701–762)

Oh, whew, my! How steep it is and high!
Hard is the road to Shu,
     harder than ascending the clear blue sky!
When Can Cong and Yu Fu founded the realm, how long ago it was!
For forty-eight thousand years afterwards
     human smoke did not reach the passes of Qin
West at Mount Taibai was a road for birds that led clear across to Emei’s summit
But the earth collapsed and mountains crumbled and strong men died
And only since then have sky ladders and trestle roads been linked together
Above, at the lofty pinnacles where six dragons wheel the sun around
Below, by the whirling stream where churning waves collide and swirl
Even yellow cranes on the wing cannot make it over
And gibbons that wish to cross sadly clamber along
Green Mud trail, how it twists and turns!
With nine loops each hundred paces winding up the sheer escarpment;
Brushing Three Stars, passing the Well, I look aloft gasping in fright
And clutching a hand to my breast I sit down there, panting hard
I ask you, sir, on your westward road, when shall you return?
The crags that jut above this fearful track cannot be scaled
I only see a mourning bird calling from an ancient tree
A male that flies behind his mate among the forest groves
And I only hear the cuckoo
     crying at the nighttime moon,
     grieving in the vacant hills:
Hard is the road to Shu,
     harder than ascending the clear blue sky!
Which makes the ruddy faces pale of all who listen.
Endless peaks stand not a foot from heaven
Withered pines dangle and sag, drooping from vertical walls
Gushing torrents and plunging streams wrangle in savage tumult
Smashing cliffs, rolling stones, thundering down a myriad ravines
Beset with perils such as these,
Alas, for the man on this far road, why, oh why, did he come here?
At Sword Gate Pass among majestic jagged heights
If a single soldier guards the gate ten-thousand others cannot breach it
And if those who hold it are hostile they become like leopards and wolves
At dawn one flees from angry tigers, at dusk one flees from giant snakes
That slobber blood through whetted fangs and slaughter men like cutting hemp
While it may be said that Brocade City is fun
     Wouldn’t it be better to make it quickly home?
Hard is the road to Shu,
     harder than ascending the clear blue sky!
I tilt my body, gazing west, and heave a long-drawn sigh

明 (傳)仇英 《蜀川佳丽圖》 卷
The Beauties of Shu River

Traditionally attributed to Qiu Ying 仇英 (ca. 1494–1552)
China, Ming dynasty, 16th–17th century
Handscroll; ink and color on silk
Purchase—B.Y. Lam Foundation Fund
Freer Gallery of Art F1993.4

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