Three poems by Du Fu in wild-cursive script

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Artist: Chen Shun (1483-1544)
Historical period(s)
Ming dynasty, ca. 1540
Ink on paper
H x W (image): 26.8 x 770.2 cm (10 9/16 x 303 1/4 in)
Credit Line
Gift of C.C. Wang
Freer Gallery of Art Collection
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view


China, cursive script, Ming dynasty (1368 - 1644)
Provenance research underway.

A native of of Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, Chen Shun is renowned for his free, flowing calligraphy in wild-cursive script. Developed in the eighth century, wild cursive is a variant of cursive script in which the internal strokes of each character are abbreviated almost to the point of disappearance, and the linkage or separation between individual characters is spontaneous and random. Casual and immediate, wild-cursive script is an ideal vehicle for the natural, unpremeditated expression of emotion.

On this scroll, Chen Shun wrote out the last three from a series of five poems, Thoughts on Ancient Sites by the famous Tang dynasty poet Du Fu (712-770), which clearly inspired an exuberant emotional response in his calligraphy. Executed at great speed, sweeping, ribbonlike brush strokes seem to dance across the paper in broad flamboyant patterns. Individual characters vary from tight and small to large and expansive; vertical columns shift from one to several characters; and the ink alternates from dark to pale and wet to dry. This seven-and-a-half meter handscroll, only one-third of which is on display, is among the most visually exciting works by Chen Shun known to survive.

Thoughts on Ancient Sites (poem three)
by Du Fu (712-770)

A host of mountains and myriad chasms lead to the Gate of Thorns;
The village still survives that bore and raised Bright Concubine.
Then she left the Purple Terrace for the endless northern desert,
Where only her green tumulus now remains, facing the yellow dusk.
From the picture, he could not tell her face was like spring wind;
With ringing pendants, her soul in vain returns on moonlit nights.
For a thousand years the lute has spoken an alien Hunnish tongue,
Declaring clearly her bleak resentment in the burden of her song.

(Translation by Stephen D. Allee)

This poem refers to the beautiful and talented Wang Qiang, also known as Mingfei (Bright Concubine), who served in the harem of Emperor Yuan (reigned 48-33 B.C.E.) of the Han dynasty. The emperor, who had never actually seen her and based his decision on an unflattering portrait, selected Wang as a bride for the king of the Xiongnu, a powerful confederation of nomadic tribes that controlled an area of Central Asia to the northwest of China proper. Realizing his mistake too late, the emperor was unhappily obliged to part with Wang Qiang, who left the "purple terraces" of the palace to live out her life on the steppes as the queen of an alien people. It is said that her tomb in Inner Mongolia, though surrounded by desert, remains always green. Still popular among Chinese musicians, the "lute" (pipa) originated in Central Asia.

Published References
  • Nakata Yujiro, Fu Shen. O-bei shuzo Chugoku hosho meiseki shu [Masterpieces of Chinese Calligraphy in American and European Collections]. 6 vols., Tokyo, 1981-1983. vol. 5: pls. 85-91.
  • Fu Shen, Glenn D. Lowry, Ann Yonemura, Thomas Lawton. From Concept to Context: Approaches to Asian and Islamic Calligraphy. Exh. cat. Washington. cat. 13, pp. 46-49.
  • Fu Shen. Traces of the Brush. New Haven. cat. 55, p. 92.
  • Kathleen Yang. Through a Chinese Connoisseur's Eye: Private Notes of C.C. Wang. Beijing. p.342, fig.130.
Collection Area(s)
Chinese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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