The most complete biography of Cheng Tai is that included in the Mo-lin Chin-hua of 1871: ‘Cheng Tai, tzu Tsai-tung, hao Tan-ch’uan and also Jui-shih Shan-jen, was a very good friend of Hua Yen (1682-1756). Hua Yen excelled in freedom while Cheng Tai excelled in power. In drawing men, women, flowers and plants, Cheng’s brushwork was extremely mature and muscular…. His nephew, Cheng Fang-hui, whose name was Tz’u-ch’eng, was able to follow the family teachings. Within the finely regulated there was yet a plentitude of untrammeled air. Unfortunately he passed away during his middle years without having advanced the old boundaries. The Mo-hsiang Hua-shih takes Cheng Tai’s tzu to be Tz’u-ch’eng and, moreover, has him as Hua Yen’s pupil: both are wrong.’ [Chiang Pao-ling: Mo-lin Chin-hua, preface dated 1871, chapter 2, p. 1b.]
The contemporaneous Hua-jen Pu-i account of Cheng is much shorter, indicating that he was not yet perceived as a master painter: ‘Cheng Tai, tzu Tsai-tung, is from Ch’ien-r’ang (Hangchou) . He studied the figures of Wang Shuku.’ [Hua-jen Pu-i, p. 40a.] Wang Shu-ku, the teacher of Cheng Tai, was born in Hangchou in 1649 and was still active in 1732. Wang was a specialist in figure painting and was said to be ‘the only one after Ch’en Hung-shou (1599-1652),’ the late Ming artist also from Hangchou who was one of the most renowned figure painters of his day. The painting styles of Cheng and Wang are indeed very close, with both artists emphasizing scholarly iconography manifested in elegant and forceful brushwork derived from such earlier masters as Chang Lu (16th century). Cheng Tai’s style of figure painting is at times very close to that of Hua Yen, a circumstance that apparently misled the author of Mo-hsiang Hua-shih into thinking that Cheng was Hua’s pupil, but Cheng Tai and Hua Yen were contemporaries and friends who each made good and creative use of the five-hundred- year long Hangchou tradition of figure painting.
The present painting portrays five figures, the most important of whom are the commanding figure of a scholar-official in the center and an older man in the lower left who offers a cup while flowers are being braided into his hair. The Japanese box-inscription for the painting identifies the main figure as Su Shih (1036-1101) in Hui-chou, the modern Hui-yang district of Kuangtung province, the wild and barbarous region to which the great poet-statesman was banished in 1094. The older man has apparently just passed the examinations, one of the occasions on which men were graced with flowers, and is shown as he offers refreshment to his examiner and therefore teacher. The theme of Cheng’s painting is thus the absolute need and ultimate glory of upholding humanistic traditions under the most adverse conditions