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Sheng Mao-yeh (active 1594-1640) was a professional painter from Ch‘ang-chou in the southern province of Kiangsu While little is known of his life and career, records indicate he had several younger brothers and cousins all of whom were painters. His hometown was a borough in the city of Suchou, the most cosmopolitan and vibrant artistic center of the time. Chinese art critics generally classify artists into two groups: the professionals who made a living by painting and the scholar painters, known as literati, who painted as a means of personal fulfillment and whose work is characterized by spontaneity and freedom of expression. Although Sheng was a professional painter, his work possesses the elegance and spontaneity typically associated with the literati. For this reason, despite the absence of any written evidence substantiating a direct relationship, Sheng‘s painting style is sometimes linked to the work of the group known as the Wu school, the great scholar-painter school of the Ming Dynasty.
The Orchid Pavilion Gathering depicts a literary convocation in celebration of the annual Spring Purification Festival. This festival, one of the oldest Chinese customs, took place each year on the third day of the third moon. Such activity was perhaps derived from ancient bathing customs in China. Lacking the convenience of modern plumbing, people could rarely afford to bathe during the winter. By springtime, when the weather became warm, a day was designated for all to bathe in the river.
To mark this occasion men of the educated classes traditionally held elegant parties at a scenic spot near water. The scholars played a special drinking game that incorporated a poetry competition. Servants would fill small cups with wine, set them on large leaves and place them in a stream. The cups then floated down toward the scholars, who sat on the banks. Those unable to provide suitable verse had to take a cup from the stream and drink the contents before resuming the game.
The setting of Sheng Mao-yeh‘s painting is an actual event held by 41 scholars who joined a Spring Purification gathering in 353 C.E. It took place at Lan-t‘ing (the Orchid Pavilion) in Shao-Hsing, Chekiang province. This party has for generations captured the imagination of artists of all kinds and is depicted not only in fine art, but also in popular decorative art such as lacquer ware, bamboo carvings and even snuff bottles.
This historical gathering is especially revered because of the presence of a distinguished guest: the legendary calligrapher Wang His-chih (371-79). Wang is considered the great sage of calligraphy and even today students strive to emulate his work. Inspired by the fine wine, the idyllic setting, the weather and the company during the celebration, Wang composed a preface to the anthology of the guests‘ collected poems. This piece, entitled Lan-t‘ing hsu or The Orchid Pavilion Preface, includes a rhapsodic description of the gathering and surroundings as well as a sentimental lament for the fleeting world. Enlivened by his superb calligraphy, Wang‘s preface is, even today, considered one of the classics of Chinese literature.
Artistic and Literary Conventions
During the Ming Period, all educated painters were familiar with the Lan-t‘ing text. When using this motif, each artist strove to reflect his understanding and interpretation of the prose. Such paintings reveal, first, the painters‘ skill in envisioning the gathering at Lan-t‘ing and second, their ability to translate that impression into a painting. Sheng Mao-yeh‘s imagination and superb painting technique are fully verified by his deftly arranged handscroll. His composition depicts the details of Wang-hsi-chih‘s spring gathering, combining standard imagery with his own interpretation. The horizontal format and episodic nature of the handscroll suit Sheng and he takes full advantage of this format by building visual climaxes along the undulating stream, which winds both high and low in the picture plane. The river, twisting between the foreground and background of the painting, immediately calls to mind the many meandering waterways and hilly terrain located in the regions surrounding Suchou.
The painting is a horizontal handscroll, ink and color on silk, intended to be unrolled from right to left for viewing on special occasions. The composition begins, as all Chinese handscrolls do, in the lower right corner, with two scholars and a young servant approaching the pavilion with its festive congregation. The path continues behind a raised bank and uncoils to reveal a scholar seated at the river‘s edge, attended by a standing servant who is framed by interlocking pines. Following the scholar‘s gaze down the path, one sees three more guests crossing the bridge. The pine tree provides a canopy for these figures and draws attention to the swimming geese. Sheng Mao-yeh‘s inclusion of these waterfowl in the scroll is an allusion that would not have been lost on his Ming dynasty contemporaries. Wang His-chih had a legendary fondness for geese. It was said that he had been inspired by their graceful, arching necks when writing cursive scripts. In the scroll, Wang is seated in the center of the pavilion among a number of scholars and attended by two servants. Dressed in a red robe, he is depicted composing his famous preface.
The relative status of the figures is revealed not only by their physical scale but also by costume and dress. The servants in Sheng‘s painting wear blue jackets and pants instead of robes, since they must perform physical tasks. Young servants either wore their hair in two tufts or let it loose before they reached adulthood. Because the Chinese regarded beards as a symbol of status deriving from advanced age and wisdom, most men grew beards. Consequently, the scholars in the Lan-t‘ing paintings are bearded.
Wine cups balanced on floating green leaves subtly contrast with the gentle stream. Scholars lounge on both banks, talking, drinking, and even dangling their feet in the water. True to the legend, 41 scholars are depicted in the composition. Sheng gracefully renders the figures in varying elegant poses and gestures while at the same time conjuring up a mood of relaxed spring indolence. The artist‘s attention to the shapes, as well as his careful placement of the figures in the landscape, demonstrates his skill and justifies his subsequent status as a superb professional painter. At the final bend of the river, two servants collect the empty wine cups. Sheng uses naturalistic, mute tones and colors throughout the landscape and the end of the scroll fades lyrically into the distance as obscure trees form are rendered with lighter ink washes.
Literati and Professional Painters
The most striking aspect of The Orchid Pavilion Gathering is Sheng‘s ability to achieve the spontaneity of the literati Wu school while at the same time maintaining the decorative and exquisite composition found in the best professional works. The successful balance of both literary and professional concerns is a rare accomplishment and is likely one reason for his great success. The Wu school characteristics are particularly apparent in Sheng‘s depiction of the rocks and trees; yet his attention to composition, especially the elegant figures carefully positioned in the landscape, strikes one as principally professional in style. It was perhaps this unique blend of the literati and professional, combined with his superb execution, that generated a strong demand for Sheng‘s paintings in local markets. This could very well be the case, given that many of the Wu school painters in Suchou during the 15th and 16th centuries were well educated and affluent. At the height of their careers, in addition to their creative activities, they collected early paintings and antiquities. This patronage facilitated the development of a booming antique market in the city. Three generations later, in Sheng Mao-yeh‘s time, dealers still came to Suchou to buy and sell old collectibles, which in turn fostered a market for professional-style paintings. In order to meet this demand many of these professional painters began to paint in older styles. Sheng‘s work is among the most accomplished of this type of Suchou painting, which was also sought in lucrative foreign markets, including Korea and Japan.
Sheng Mao-yeh‘s The Orchid Pavilion Gathering begins with a beautiful piece of handmade paper decorated with gold and silver leaf sprinkles. The stave at the beginning is made of brass instead of the more common wood stave traditionally used in Chinese mounting. Another noticeable characteristic is the protrusion on the two ivory scroll knobs. Typically Chinese handscroll knobs are mounted within the edge of the handscroll and do not protrude. The absence of extra paper at the end of the scroll for colophons is still another characteristic that diverges from the typical Chinese practices. All these unusual features suggest that the painting was mounted in Japan around the 17th or 18th century. It is quite possible that the painting was brought to Japan when it was still only a length of painted silk. Most probably, a Japanese collector purchased it, had it mounted, and then kept this treasure in the family‘s collection, where it likely remained for 300 years. This would explain the excellent condition of the painting as well as its lack of past publication.
In late December 1974, a descendant of the original Japanese collector, desperate for money for a celebration, took the handscroll to a dealer. In order to save himself some of the embarrassment inherent in parting with a family heirloom, the owner brought the work to the shop of an American dealer, James Freeman, instead of one of the many Japanese dealers in Kyoto. On that very morning, Richard Edwards, now a U-M emeritus professor, happened to be present at Freeman‘s shop and was the first customer to view the painting. He immediately recognized its refined quality and agreed to purchase the scroll for the university. The painting has since attracted the attention of many scholars as well as a number of envious institutions.
Born in Shantung, China, Marshall P.S. Wu received his BFA at the National Taiwan Normal University, his MA in art history at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu and his doctorate at the University of Michigan. He served as the curator of exhibition at the National Palace Museum, Taipei and the assistant curator of Asian art at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. For the past 20 years Wu has headed the Asian department at the U-M Museum of Art. He is also an accomplished landscape painter.