Poem in running script

Artist: Ruan Yuan (1764-1849)
Historical period(s)
Qing dynasty, early to mid-19th century
Hanging scroll; ink on gold-flecked paper
H x W (image): 164.5 x 40.7 cm (64 3/4 x 16 in)
Credit Line
Gift of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Freer Gallery of Art
Freer Gallery of Art
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view

Hanging scroll

China, Qing dynasty (1644 - 1911), Robert Hatfield Ellsworth collection, running script

To 1997
Robert Hatfield Ellsworth (born 1929), New York City, to 1997

From 1997
Freer Gallery of Art, given by Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in 1997 [1]


[1] The total gift from the Ellsworth collection consists of nearly three-hundred objects (F1997.42-.85 and F1998.83-294). All Chinese calligraphy in the proposed gift were published in Mr. Ellsworth's Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1800-1950 vol. 3 (New York: Random House, 1986) (see Curatorial Note 2, Joseph Chang and Stephen D. Allee, May 19, 1998, in the object record).

Previous Owner(s) and Custodian(s)

Robert Hatfield Ellsworth 1929-2014


Picture stones from Taihang look like crowding clouds,
Human craft cannot achieve the majesty of Heaven's art.
The flower-and-stone convoys ended and Bian River froze,
Snow Wave Studio was destroyed, winter clouds grew dark.
Master Su is long departed and his stone is gone as well,
The inscription that still remains in a desolate town.
Along Black Water in Liangzhou, a jade axe drew the line,
And the sovereign kingdom of Dali opened its national gates.
Sun Zhiwei has been dead now for eight hundred years,
But into the Diancang Mountains his soul was summoned back.
The painter's powdered drawing entered the bones of the rock,
The spiritual force of the poet penetrated the roots of Heaven.
Breakers soaring up to Heaven copied the whiteness of clouds,
Ancient snows immured in earth transformed to scars of jade.
On slice after slice, the waves of Erhai magically appeared,
That single billow from Dingzhou was not the final say.
Moreover these toppling waves crashing on the quay,
Stand in a screen and do not use Su Shi's level basin.
The plum blossoms before my studio seem like fragrant snow,
One glance at Master Snow, and the Way is there before me.

An exceptionally erudite scholar, Ruan Yuan was one of the most important and influential figures in the cultural and intellectual milieu of early nineteenth century China. Born in Yizheng, Jiangsu Province, a large town on the lower Yangtze River near the city of Yangzhou, Ruan Yuan passed the national examinations in 1789 and pursued a highly successful official career. After 1799, he was governor of several provinces, including Yunnan (1826-35), where he was able to pursue his passion for collecting marble "picture stones" from the area of Dali, the main subject of the above poem. Ruan Yuan composed his poem to follow the same rhyme scheme as an earlier verse, the Snow Wave Stone, by the famous Song dynasty poet Su Shi (1037-1101), who also wrote a prose inscription on the subject. Su's poem and inscription were both quite well-known in Ruan Yuan's day, especially among stone fanciers such as Ruan, and their imagery, diction, and content underlie various lines in his poem.

Ruan Yuan's contributions to the study of ancient script are particularly notable and he wrote two important theoretical essays on the evolution of calligraphic scripts and styles, dividing their historical development into northern and southern schools, each with a distinct lineage of successive masters. Closely reflecting these scholarly interests, Ruan Yuan himself wrote in various styles of seal script, clerical script, and standard script, but most frequently encountered are his works in running script, as seen in this scroll, which fall squarely within the model-letters tradition favored by the court. Reflecting more of a scholarly than artistic sense of style, this scroll is an excellent example of Ruan's limber, if somewhat conventional, approach.

Published References
  • Robert Hatfield Ellsworth. Later Chinese Painting and Calligraphy: 1800-1950., 1st ed. New York. vols. 1, 3: pp. 265, 50.
  • Thomas Lawton, Joseph Chang, Stephen Allee. Brushing the Past: Later Chinese Calligraphy from the Gift of Robert Haftield Ellsworth. Exh. cat. Washington. cat. 3, pp. 62-65, 127-29.
  • Thomas Lawton, Thomas W. Lentz. Beyond the Legacy: Anniversary Acquisitions for the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. vol. 1 Washington, 1998. pp. 256-261.
Collection Area(s)
Chinese Art
Web Resources
Google Cultural Institute
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