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  • Mi Youren’s and Sima Huai’s Joint Poetry Illustrations
  • Susan Bush (bio)


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"Bitter Songs and Poetic Images: An Introduction to Susan Bush’s 'Mi Youren’s and Sima Huai’s Joint Poetry Illustrations'" by Jerome Silbergeld

The handscroll of painting and calligraphy by the late Northern Song–early Southern Song artists Mi Youren 米友仁 (1074–1151) and Sima Huai 司馬槐 (active early twelfth century) is a rare document whose study provides unusual insights into the aesthetic history and scholarly culture of twelfth-century China. The scroll includes two separate landscape paintings, each with an inscribed title and a accompanying poem related to the mid-eighth-century poet Du Fu, followed by a lengthy series of inscribed colophons, all of which attended by a large number of seals affixed to the paper surface of the scroll. No signatures or seals by the artists exist on either painting and it is not clear who wrote the titles and accompanying poems. Nor can any identity be established for the writer of the first colophon, who merely signs his name as Cizhong 次仲, “the Second of Two,” possibly meaning a younger brother, except that the seal placed beneath his signature clearly indicates that he is a Sima family member (“Sima descendant” 司馬之後). Because of this absence of facts, there can be no firm conclusions to the basic questions of who, where, and when the paintings and primary calligraphic inscriptions of this scroll were produced. The attributions to Mi Youren and Sima Huai are given in subsequent colophons by Southern Song–dynasty officials that include the dates 1148 and 1149 and the place Yichun 宜春 in Yuanzhou 袁州, Jiangxi Province.

Catalogue indexes have generally listed this joint handscroll as a Southern Song (1127–1279) work under the name of Mi Youren. However, a late Northern Song (960–1127) date for the two paintings is a possibility. That is, one or both of the paintings might be done in an early style that precedes Mi Youren’s earliest signed works, from the 1130s. Cataloguers’ methods of recording have also led to confusion about the order of the mounted scrolls, and these matters must be analyzed and hopefully laid to rest. Colophons offer historical insights about period and region, as do the seals, genuine or false, affixed to paintings and colophons. This essay will address these problems and demonstrate the most important points that can be learned by studying the paintings, colophons, and seals. They will be discussed in the order that these three components might appear in the normal viewing process. While the joint handscroll itself is a remarkably early example of scholars’ painting, it is the colophons and seals that make this work a worthy methodological model for in-depth investigation.

In many respects, this handscroll is an exceptional work among the surviving examples of its time. First of all, its manner of combining text with images is unique. Song illustrations of poetic lines are known, but here we have a pairing of lines and poems suggesting a linkage of mountain and water (shan and shui, 山 and 水) presented in a mode of question and response. Secondly, while the style of the compositions and their general techniques accord well with Song descriptions of the Mi family style, that of Mi Youren and his even more prominent father, the painter, calligrapher, poet, and imperial connoisseur Mi Fu 米芾 (1051–1107), the particular rendition of these paintings is highly unusual. Thirdly, hitherto unknown seals occur here, which play an important role in suggesting one of the artist’s identity and helping to define the handscroll’s history. Fourthly, the colophons by mid-twelfth-century officials of different backgrounds stationed in the Jiangxi region are of interest both for what they do and do not say. Fifthly, the Ming colophon and later seals help us to document and trace the handscroll’s survival in difficult times. Finally, the latest colophons and the suspect seals help to round out the story of later connoisseurs’ critical judgments and supplement the critical record established in earlier catalogues. Note that the seals used on this scroll will be mentioned in the text only when they are particularly relevant, but they are discussed in fuller detail in...


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