Individual plants and clumps of cabbages, dandelions, and grasses are carefully arranged so as to create a continuous, almost measured spatial plane from fore to middle ground, where the pictorial world ends. The result makes a strong appeal to the intellect, since this scene is easily comprehended by the mind alone rather than making demands on our emotions or imagination.
The subject could not be more mundane, consisting of vegetables and weeds, and the viewer is thus denied the usual pleasure of reading and understanding the connotations and associations of more overtly attractive flowers and plants. Attention is therefore deflected to the means of representation, and the techniques by which the artist created a most compelling painting. In the first place, the shapes vary a full spectrum from sharp and pointed to smooth and elegantly rounded. Ink tonality is varied from dark to light and is arranged in such a way as to emphasize the frontal picture surface, with little sense of recession from fore to background. The creation of a shallow stage on which a limited number of pictorial forms are arranged is characteristic of the Yuan era, when a more intellectual approach to art supplanted late Sung romanticism.
The present painting can be contrasted in approach to that of the late Sung monk-painter Fa-ch’ang Mu-ch’i (ca.1220-ca.1280) (fig. 1). Whereas Mu-ch’i’s work exhibits spontaneous brushwork and a composition that has an immediate visual impact on the viewer, the work here is far more disciplined in technique and has a composition that reveals its richness only over time. Bridging these differing approaches, and in part occasioning them, was the art of Ch’ien Hsuan (1240?-1311?), a major figure in the dramatic transformation of Chinese painting that occurred during the later 13th-century.
Declining to join his friend Chao Meng-fu (1254-1322) in serving the conquering Mongols, Ch’ien remained a private citizen, depending on the sale of his paintings for his livelihood. One important group of possible patrons for the paintings of Ch’ien Hsuan were Japanese visitors to China, many of them monks, who during the Kamakura period went to China for religious study and, on their return, brought back paintings, especially contemporaneous late Sung and Yuan paintings that accorded with their taste. Some portion of these paintings entered the Ashikaga shogunal collection, which in the late 15th century was catalogued in the Kundaikan Sayuchoki. That catalogue does not describe the paintings themselves but rather ranks the 177 artists active between the 3rd and the 14th century who were represented in the collection. The relative ranking of these artists is especially revealing of specifically Japanese taste in painting and, further, suggests the differing aesthetic standards then being applied by Chinese and Japanese collectors. Almost half of the 177 artists—85 or 48% of the total—were active during the Yuan period, and, among those 85, a total of 47 are unrecorded in standard Chinese biographical sources for painters. These figures suggest that the Japanese monks were mainly bringing home with them paintings done by their Chinese contemporaries, and that the selection was being made not on the basis of the artist’s fame—the Four Great Masters of the Yuan, for example, are not represented or mentioned at all—but rather on purely aesthetic grounds, what was appreciated and could be understood in visual terms alone.
From a Japanese point of view, only two Yuan artists were worthy of placement in the highest of the three classes: Ch’ien Hsuan, who was ranked 35th overall among the 177 artists, and Yen Hui, who was placed one rank below the early Yuan master. Since both Ch’ien and Yen were professional artists, this ranking may seem surprising, especially when contrasted to that of Chao Meng-fu, held in China to have been the fountain-head of much of Yuan painting but ranked by the 15th century Japanese critics as number 105 overall and in the lowest of the three qualitative ranks. This distinction was not based on familiarity, since many of the visiting monks were in fact acquainted with Chao Meng- fu, and greatly admired his calligraphy if not his paintings, but rather was the logical outcome of the revolutionary approach to painting adopted by Chao and those who followed him. In arguing that painting had to be based on calligraphy, had to have art-historical overtones, had to convey social connotations, or had to suggest political stances, Chao Meng-fu, although perhaps unintentionally, created a situation in which those untutored in calligraphy or art-history, unconcerned with Chinese society, and not knowledgeable about Chinese politics, would lack the essential keys for an immediate visual understanding of a given painting, and such pictorial statements would henceforth require simultaneous verbal statements in the form of inscriptions to make clear the point of the painting. Chao’s approach worked well enough with the intended audience for his paintings, his friends and those who shared his aesthetic ideas. Ch’ien, however, was not a high official like Chao but rather a professional artist who depended on the sale of his paintings for his livelihood.
Seals of Ch’ien in fact appear on a painting closely related to the present work (fig. 2). However, it seems certain that Ch’ien used such family members as Ch’ien Chun-yung, who lived in P’i-ling, a production center for paintings of the types sought out by Japanese collectors, to take best advantage of the Japanese market. In an inscription dated to 1289 Chao Meng-fu wrote that ‘Ch’ien’s relatives in the district for the most part follow and imitate him,' so already by that time Ch’ien had assistants who helped him in his work as well as those who were influenced by his example.
Yu Li-ai, the name appearing on the present painting, is not recorded in either China or Japan and, given his unusual surname and name, he could well have been a foreigner living in China during the Yuan era, as did the painter-monk from India, Fan-yin T’o-lo. In the artist’s inscription here, T’u-yang is given as either his by-name or, more likely, the place from which he hailed, and one possibility in that case is that he was from Central Asia, as was Kao K’o-kung.
1. See Howard Rogers: ‘Lives of the Painters: Ch’ien Hsuan,’ Kaikodo Journal XVII, Autumn, 2000, pp. 15-52.
2. Translated from Chao Meng-fu’s colophon on a painting illustrated in ibid. figure 76.
Fig. 1. Fa-ch’ang Mu-ch’i, att.: ‘Cabbage,’ detail of handscroll, after Suiboku bijutsu taikei, Tokyo, 1973, vol. III, cat. 70.
Fig. 2. Ch’ien Hsuan, att.: ‘Five Vegetables,’ after Ku- kung Shu-hua T’u-lu, Taipei, 1989, vol. 2, pp. 247-48.