The practice of mourning one’s parents or teacher by attending them at their grave is known already from the Chou dynasty, when Tzu-kung lived on the grave of Confucius for six years. In the present painting then, the figure in the thatched cottage would be the filial son Liu Shu-yu, who had built the hut on the hilly ground in which his parents were buried, leaving the more level areas for agriculture. The scene is remote from human activities, as is death from life, and there appears to be absolute silence, with neither figure nor bamboo and trees showing any signs of movement, as is appropriate in a scene of mourning, of remembering what has been lost. The style and execution of the painting support these narrative themes, for there is a precision and clarity in the area around the hut that is balanced by the more insinuative mist and clouds along the river valley, suggesting depths that cannot be plumbed by human intellect.
The scene must have been very congenial to the artist, Shao Mi, for he was characterized by an early biographer as ‘a recluse. His poetry and paintings were highly prized by the people of Wu (Suchou) but he lived in seclusion at Kua-ch’ou and called himself The Old Man of Kua-ch’ou.’ [Chou Liang-kung: Tu-hua Lu, Hua-shih Ts’ung shu edition, vol. 4, p. 2047.] Other of Shao’s paintings are equally suggestive of the refined and fastidious nature of the man himself, known for his compulsive cleanliness. Another of Shao Mi’s paintings was his depiction of a thatched hut erected by Chou Liang-kung; a colophon written for that painting by a friend of Chou’s could be applied to the present work as well: ‘This quiet, isolated, and lonely scene has no place for noise and clamorous activity but the life-force would overcome a king. Those who sit within will certainly achieve pure enlightenment.’
The most comprehensive and illuminating biography of Shao Mi is that by Ellen Johnston Laing, which for the convenience of general readers is quoted here in full: [Ellen Johnston Laing, ‘Shao Mi,’ in L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang, editors: Dictionary of Ming Biography 1368-1644, New York, 1976, vol. II, pp. 1166-1168. Chinese characters and references to other entries are omitted from the biography quoted here.]
Shao Mi, fl. 1626-1660, probably originally named Shao Kao, was a native of Wu-hsien (Suchou). Noted primarily as an artist, Shao Mi was also known as a poet and calligrapher. His father was a physician and the family lived at a place known as Lu-mu, located to the west of Shih-hu (Stone Lake). He was a sickly child and consequently did not undergo the strenuous preparations for the civil service examinations. He developed certain peculiarities such as a mania for cleanliness and order; much to the despair of his wife and servants, he constantly brushed and adjusted his garments or dusted and rearranged his ink-stones and desk top. When guests arrived, he conversed with them but never invited them inside while he leisurely prepared to go out with them. At parties he drank only half a cup of wine and then drifted off to sleep regardless of the company present. Probably due to his ill health, as well as to his easy-going disposition (and the lack of pressure to study), he was described as being ‘as thin as a yellow crane and as free as a sea gull.’ He followed his personal inclinations and, in addition to practicing the arts of poetry, calligraphy, and painting, collected curios and antiquities. He owned, for instance, a painting by T’ang Yin which he once showed to the connoisseur Chang Ch’ou. Shao named his house I-ch’ang (Contentment Hall), and there he delighted in his treasures.
In his middle years Shao contracted a lung disease (or, according to some sources, a kidney disease) and began to delve into pharmaceutical books, seeking prescriptions of medicine which might relieve his affliction, but in vain. As he grew increasingly uncomfortable, he became more eccentric and introverted. After his death, his writing, paintings, and possessions were scattered and lost as his family suffered impoverishment. He had two sons, the elder, Shao Yu, drowned sometime before 1672; the younger son, Shao Kuan, who was lame, became a monk at Mt. Hsuan-mu, southwest of Wu-hsien.
Although Shao had no degree, he and the literati had common interests, and thus Wen Chen-rneng and other leading members of the intelligentsia of Suchou were his friends and companions. In this respect, Shao Mi is interesting because, even as a talented and appreciated individual, he never achieved true prominence, but remained in the shadow of the illustrious and the wealthy. Wu Wei-yeh not only wrote Shao’s epitaph, but also, elsewhere, reveals that Shao enjoyed conversing about Suchou’s luminaries of bygone days. He was reputed to be an avid admirer of plum blossoms; he is mentioned in this connection by Yao Hsi-meng. In 1628 Shao Mi and Ch’ien Ch’ien-i, who also was acquainted with Shao’s father, went out to enjoy the plum blossoms. In his writing Ch’ien several times refers to Shao and his appreciation of these blooms; Shao often painted scrolls depicting them.
In 1637, while at the Ch’ing-yin Hall of the Fa-shui monastery (one of his haunts), Shao painted the farewell scene ‘I-hao Chi-shu t’u’ (Sending a crane to deliver a message) for a poet-friend, Ch’u Chuan (1580-1676 or 1607-1700). Shao also had numerous acquaintances among the Buddhist clergy, such as the poet Pen-ch’eng who lived at the Hui-ch’ing monastery and Chih-hsu who resided at Ling-feng. One of Shao’s pupils, the monk Tzu-chiung (1601-1652), gained some fame as a calligrapher and was one of Shao’s more intimate friends. Although Wu Wei-yeh included Shao Mi as one of the ‘Nine friends of painting,’ there appears, however, to have been little direct social communication between them and Shao.
Shao’s paintings display great virtuosity. A long handscroll entitled ‘Yun-shan p’ing-yuan” (Cloudy mountains and level distance), dated 1640, and now in the Abe collection of the Osaka Municipal Museum, reveals the artist’s consummate ability in interpreting the styles of Sung and Yuan dynasty masters. Many works by Shao were influenced by the artistic style of T’ang Yin, while still others are more individualized, such as the album including the poem ‘Ling-ching hsien so pi meng ts’eng lai tz’u p’in’ (Dream journey to Ling-clung), dated 1638. Most of Shao’s paintings depict landscapes or plum blossoms, but sometimes bamboo; a painting of a goose, another of a dragon, as well as a few figure paintings, are also among those signed by or assigned to Shao Mi. Two portraits of Shao have been published. One, painted by Tseng Ch’ing (1568-1650), depicts Shao seated in a chrysanthemum garden. The other portrait, executed in 1657 by Hsu T’ai and Lan Ying, shows Shao seated on the gnarled roots of a slanting tree.