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The artist’s inscription notes that he painted this work in the twelfth month of the guiwei year (1943) while in the western suburbs of Chongqing. Three seals on the work serve as additional signatures; they are a square seal with “Personal Seal of Baoshi” (Baoshi siyin) in intaglio, which shows the characters outlined by vermillion ink; a square seal with “Favorite Work of Baoshi” (Baoshi dexin zhi zuo) in relief, which shows the characters in vermillion ink; and a rectangular seal with “Frequently after Becoming Intoxicated” (Wangwang zuihou) in relief.
The image of Su Wu tending to a flock of sheep is a traditional subject in Chinese painting and one seen frequently in Fu Baoshi’s "Historical Accounts" series of works. This painting is one of his earlier works on the subject. During the first year of the Tianhan reign (100–97 BCE) of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 BCE) of the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE), Su Wu (ca. 140–60 BCE), then 40 years old (in sui), was sent as an emissary to the Xiongnu. The chief (called a chanyu) of the nomadic people held Su and attempted to force his surrender. In the face of threats and bribes, Su remained committed to his emperor and refused to submit. Consequently, the chief banished him to live as a shepherd near the Northern Sea (present-day Lake Baikal in Siberia) in hopes of dampening his patriotism in the harsh environment, yet Su never abandoned his loyalty to the Han emperor. In fact, he always held tightly the tally (fujie) issued by the court as proof of his identity as an imperial ambassador. After enduring frigid winters and extreme hunger, Su was finally rescued by an envoy of Emperor Zhao of Han (r. 87–74 BCE) and returned after nineteen years.
The scene depicts a Han general arriving to lead Su Wu home. The hoary-bearded emissary stands tending sheep. He holds his official tally and gazes into the heavens with profound resolve. The general bows in respect to the aged emissary. Meanwhile, the Xiongnu officials, respectful of the older man’s unyielding spirit, observe the two Han officials or speak to one another. The gloomy sky and bleak wintry landscape provide the background for the solemn scene. Painted towards the end of the war against Japan, the artist used the story of Su Wu to express the unbending resolve of the Chinese people as they pressed forward with the determination for victory.
The Palace Museum received this work as a donation from Fu Baoshi’s wife Luo Shihui.
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying