by Su Shi

An art-loving lay Taoist in Sichuan collected several hundred calligraphies and paintings. Among his collection was a painting of fighting water buffalos by Dai Song (a Tang painter). He enjoyed it so much that he had it mounted with jade cap, storing it in a brocade pocket, bringing it with him when he was away from home. One day he hung the painting out when it caught the attention of a passer-by buffalo boy. Clapping his hands, the boy laughed, “Ha, a goring buffalo always clamps his tail down between his thighs. What a strange buffalo this is that he raises his tail.” The lay Taoist smiled in agreement. “Ask a rancher about farming; ask a servant-girl about weaving,” as the saying goes.

Human figures, birds, buildings, household utensils all have regular appearance, whereas mountains, rocks, bamboos, trees, waves, mists and clouds don't. However, we can approach them by reasoning. Everyone can tell mistakes in things of regular appearance, but even an experienced painter may be ignorant of easoning. Unfortunately, those who gamble on fames are those who take chances on things without regular appearance. A mistake is merely a flaw, which doesn't harm the painting much; however, wrong reasoning mess the whole thing up.

I found a picturesque quality in Wang Wei's (a Tang painter) poems and a poetic quality in his paintings. Here is one of his poems. “White rocks stick out from the brambles; red autumn leaves are sparse on the chilly hills. It isn't raining at all; nevertheless, I get wet by the expanse of wilderness.”

Those who take painting a matter of lifelikeness must be as naive as an amateur; those who confine themselves to this poem must not a poet. Painting and poem share the same principles, which are naturalness and freshness.

Su Shi (1037 - 1101)
Bamboos and rocks
ink on rice paper, 105 x 28 cm.

Essays on Chinese painting

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