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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”
  • Jerome Silbergeld

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"Mi Youren’s and Sima Huai’s Joint Poetry Illustrations" by Susan Bush

Enough to please both viewing and listening,” reads one of the poems written on the handscroll “Shi yi tu”: “Paintings Conceived from Poetry” or “Pictures of Poetic Ideas.” A viewer who appreciates how a poetic concept is transformed into a painted image, with calligraphy as the intermediary that conveys both sight and sound, is bound to be pleased by this scroll in which one gets not one but two exceptionally fine paintings. And more than just pleased, for even a cursory glance at either one of these two little-known paintings is enough to alert the viewer to the possibility that here are two unusually early landscapes in the Chinese scholar-painter’s mode, shidafu hua or shiren hua, that would come in later centuries to be known as wenren hua, or literati painting. Calligraphically inscribed directly on each painting is a five-character title at the beginning and a twenty-character poem at the conclusion. “Through Dense Mountains, a Rushing Stream Narrowed by Stones” reads the politically coded title of the first of these paintings. “Chan-chan Rushes the Stream between Rocks” reads the second. Both titles conjure up sight and sound.

Neither of the paintings nor the titles and poems written on them are signed. And so, as easy as it is to appreciate the beauty and to sense the historic importance of these paintings, it is difficult to make heads or tails of who painted them and who wrote what and therefore how best to understand contextually what they really are and what they mean. As one of the later inscriptions, by Dong Qichang in the seventeenth century, put it succinctly, “Inscribing paintings is really no easy affair!” By this, the writer meant the challenge of writing knowledgeably and having something more to offer than personal attitude and opinions. The first several scholars to see and inscribe this work might have had certain knowledge about who painted these two landscapes, but none of them gives us that information in any direct, definitive fashion. Why state the obvious? But it is precisely those inscriptions that make intelligent speculation possible—eight colophons in all, including six writers from the Song or Yuan period—together with the numerous seals that follow and occasional references to the scroll in published catalogues. These writings form the basis of this article, which is a model in the use of internal data.

What seems likely enough from the inscriptions alone is that these two images came from north China in the late Northern Song period or south China in the early Southern Song period—the author herself is not certain which. The second colophon, which is also the earliest dated one—November 9, 1148, by Tian Ruao—implies that two different artists painted the two landscape scenes and identifies them as descendants of Sima Guang and Mi Fu. The third colophon, by Wang Min, probably written sometime within the next eleven months, offers the first name “Duanshu” as the organizer of the scroll who chose the poetic titles by Du Fu and arranged for the “ink wonders” of “Youren” (Mi Youren, 1074–1151) and “Duanheng.” The sixth colophon, by Song Jingyang (considered here to be Song Sheng of the late Yuan–early Ming period), identifies Duanheng as “Sima Duanheng” (possibly Sima Huai, dates unknown). Beyond that, nothing is certain. Nevertheless, the inscriptions and seals offer up many facts and clues from which to imagine tantalizing possibilities, and this article illustrates just how much one can pry out of the many texts spread across a Chinese painted scroll. For those who love puzzles, especially connoisseurial ones, the riddle of this Shi yi handscroll is perhaps as gratifying as its landscape views are beautiful.

In an era when most of China’s early painted masterpieces have entered the public domain, the Shi yi tu remains in a private collection, rarely seen and little known. The scroll itself has been published but once, and then poorly, in Shanghai in...