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Coral (Shanhu tie)

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Period: Northern Song dynasty (960–1127)
Medium: Ink on paper
Format: Album leaf

Calligrapher(s): Mi Fu (1051–1107)

Dimensions: Height: 26.6 cm; width: 47.1 cm

This manuscript is a letter by Mi Fu regarding a discussion on art collection. The calligraphy itself shows that the artist wrote swiftly with an unrestrained style. In full command of his calligraphic technique, he was able to freely express himself as an experienced writer while maintaining artistic propriety; indeed, the piece shows his advanced competency while reflecting his liberal personality. The middle of the manuscript features a depiction of the coral brush-stand discussed in the piece. Interpreted as the result of the artist receiving spontaneous inspiration, the rendering is Mi Fu's only known extant painting.

The manuscript begins discussing the artist's acquisition of a heavenly king (tianwang) painting by Zhang Sengyou (act. early sixth century), who was a painter of the Southern Liang dynasty (502–557) during the period of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (386–589). Specializing in painting Buddhist and Daoist figures, Zhang is known for his depictions of the Buddhist guardian-deities collectively called heavenly kings (tianwang). Mi Fu notes that the painting has an added inscription by Xue Ji (649–713), a calligrapher of the Tang dynasty (618–907).

Continuing his discussion on art collection, Mi Fu notes that he acquired two works of art from a certain senior Le (Le Lao) through a man named Yuanzhi (whose exact name is uncertain, possibly Yuan Zhi). The artworks were either created by or sourced from a man with the surname Yan.

The work also mentions his acquisition of a painting of the Six Dynasties period (220–589) titled Studying the Rites (Wenli tu) and a piece of coral, both of which had been owned by Xie Jingwen (1021–1098). Mi describes the red branches of the coral and the gold-sand at the base. He also references Xie by his official position and recalls that he had received the coral from the superior. Mi was elated to have received the coral on the same day he received an imperial appointment to the bureaucracy but expresses his regret at lacking the necessary painting skills to depict the coral stand properly.

Mi Fu’s letter contains many interesting allusions and references. He discusses the art from Xie Jingwen (courtesy name Shizhi), who was a contemporary of Mi Fu and whose biography is recorded in chapter (juan) 295 of The History of the Song (Song Shi). Instead of using Xie’s name twice, he calls him by his official position jiexiang, a provisional minister over ordinary and military prefectures. Mi names the official position in the Ministry of Rites (Li bu) to which he was appointed, namely, mingbiao, possibly with a supervisory role in the civil service examination. When he notes his lack of painting skills he makes reference to the gradation of tone (called wuse, lit. “five colors”) produced by the effects of the ink wash and the varying dryness or moisture of the brush.

Original Chinese Entry by Jin Yunchang
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying with contributions by Xu Bingbin

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