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The Lady of the River Xiang

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Period: Dated 1943
Medium: Color and ink on paper
Format: Hanging scroll

Artist(s): Fu Baoshi (1904–1965)

Dimensions: Length: 105.2 cm; width: 60.8 cm

The painter added a lengthy inscription of the poem “The Lady of the River Xiang” (Xiang furen) to this work. After the poem, the artist notes how it is part of a larger collection of poetry called Nine Songs (Jiu ge, in Songs of Chu, Chuci) attributed to Qu Yuan (ca. 340–278 BCE)—a minister and poet of the Warring States period (475–222 BCE)—and how the collection has served as a source for Chinese painters for the past two millennia. He gives the examples of how esteemed painters like Li Gonglin (1049–1106) and Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) took inspiration from these works. Meanwhile, Fu expresses his shame over not being able to attain the artistic greatness of the classical painters.

Along with the inscription, four seals serve as additional signatures; they are a square seal with “Baoshi, Great Wealth” (Baoshi dali) in intaglio, which shows the characters outlined by vermillion ink; a rectangular seal with “Seal Infatuation” (Yinchi) in relief, which shows the characters in vermillion ink; an elliptical seal with “New Edict” (Xinyu, a homophone of his hometown Xinyu, Jiangxi Province) in relief; and a square seal with “Newly Established Destiny” (Qiming weixin) in relief.

On the occasion of his daughter Yishan’s fourth birthday, Fu and his wife Luo Shihui felt the urge to read from Songs of Chu. As they read two of the opening lines from “The Lady of the River Xiang” that describe the continuous winds of autumn and leaves fluttering down upon Dongting Lake, he and his wife both fell silent. He lamented how the invading Japanese forces had probably reached as far inland as the waters of the Yuan and Li, both of which flow into Dongting Lake and which are mentioned in the ancient poem. Indeed, at the time of painting and the writing of this inscription, the invading Japanese forces had advanced into Hunan. As he contemplated this poem with his wife, Fu was overwhelmed with anguish as they mourned the violation of their homeland. In light of this, he was inspired by the solemn beginning of the poem to paint the figure.

Fu Baoshi greatly revered the historical figure Qu Yuan, whose poetry became a favorite literary source for him and other Chinese painters. “The Lady of the River Xiang” (Xiang furen) is associated with another poem called “The Noblewoman of the River Xiang” (Xiang jun, sometimes translated as “The Lord of the Xiang River” since jun was used historically to refer to either a man or a woman) in Nine Songs. The two figures are traditionally interpreted as two daughters of Yao (possibly 24th–23rd c. BCE), a semi-legendary emperor of pre-dynastic China, with the lady (furen) as the younger sister Nüying and the noblewoman (jun) as the older sister Ehuang. Venerated as the Goddesses of the Waters of Xiang, the concept of these female figures captivated Fu Baoshi, who never tired of painting them. This invaluable painting is the earliest of Fu’s works on this feminine subject.

Fu’s depiction of the Lady of the River Xiang has her standing solemnly under a tree as leaves flutter to the ground. Her eyes provide a window into her soul; they are outlined with varying densities of ink and color and produce a vivid effect. The drapery of her garments is depicted with natural, flowing lines that show the dynamism of a living figure. He painted the figure's garments and accessories with inspiration from Gu Kaizhi's (ca. 344–406) Admonitions scroll, which has long been the most adored of works of traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy. The figure is aesthetically pleasing and surrounded by a balanced distribution of branches and falling leaves.

The scholar and official Guo Moruo (1892–1978) later added his own inscription to the piece. He records the date as the twentieth of the eleventh month of the thirty-third year (1944) of the Republic of China. Also seen in this inscription, the sixteenth of November was Guo Moruo’s birthday, so various painters, including Fu Baoshi and Li Keran (1907–1989), and his colleagues from the Political Department of the Military Affairs Commission gathered at his home to celebrate. Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), then serving as the deputy-director of that department, came from Yan’an to Chongqing; during the trip, he too visited Guo. The artists shared their recent works with him and the other visitors. Seeing how Zhou was especially fond of this painting, Fu generously gifted it to the rising political leader for him to take back to Shaanxi. Guo inscribed two heptasyllabic quatrains to express his outrage at the Japanese invasion and to note the beauty of the heroic feminine figure in this example of the artist’s great accomplishments. He emphasizes that, had the woman in the painting been alive, she would have proudly participated in the guerrilla offensive against the Japanese.

Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying

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