Zhao Cheng, zi Xuejiang (“Snowy River”) and also Zhanzhi, was born in Yingzhou, the modern Fuyang in According to Zhou Lianggong (1612-1672), Anhui province. Zhao’s friend and earliest biographer, Zhao travelled extensively in the north, living in various cities in Shandong and Henan provinces before returning to Haoshang in Anhui. Song Wan (1614-1673) of Laiyang in Shandong mentioned that Zhao visited his father in 1637 and Sun Chengze (1593-1675), who served in Beijing during the 1640s and 50s, collected and published forty of Zhao’s poems. Zhao was also associated with Hou Fangyou (1618-1655) and Hou Fangxia (jinshi in 1646), brothers whose Xueyuan “Snow Garden” was an important cultural center in Henan during the mid-17th century. The range of Zhao’s relationships serves to confirm Zhou Lianggong’s statement that “Wherever (Zhao) went, people competed in their praise of Him.”
One of the most important influences on the development of Zhao’s artistic style was Wang to (1592-1652), a calligrapher, painter, collector, and important official under both the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was perhaps during the latter part of Wang’s career, during the late 1640s, that Zhao was able to study the imperial collection of paintings through Wang’s intercession. According to Zhou Lianggong, “The master excelled in making copies. He regularly travelled to Changan (Beijing), where he associated with Wang Mengjin (Wang Duo) and often viewed the old Inner Palace collection. All of these were reproduced in small scale, and there was not a single brushstroke that did not resemble (the original.)” In his biography of Wang Hui (1632-1715), Zhou again mentioned the skill with which Zhao could replicate old styles: “(Wang Hui’s) copies of Song and Yuan masters are exactly like them; people in Wu (Suzhou) often buy his productions and mount them as fake (originals) with which to fool antiquarians. Even well-experienced connoisseurs do not recognize them as contemporary paintings. Among copiests of ancient (paintings) I have seen, there are only Zhao Xuejiang (Cheng) and Shigu (Wang Hui). Xuejiang adheres too closely to established rules and thus lacks self-expression, while Shigu is gifted by nature and rich in youthful vigor, so he is able to keep abreast of the ancients when he paints…” This somewhat reserved judgement is echoed by Wang Duo: “The commoner Xuejiang is a well-experienced painting master He especially excels in making copies.” However, judged by standards other than the incomparable Wang Hui, Zhao Cheng still produced very admirable works that were worthy of emulation. Zhou Lianggong recalled that “The master copied twenty old scrolls for me that I then gave to censor Wang Yian (Wang Daxing). These were later obtained by the King of Liuqiu, where they will forever be treasures of that land beyond the seas…” Zhou also recorded an album of forty leaves by Zhao with long inscriptions covering the remaining area written by Wang to as being “truly a special work. The master planned to give it to me, but after he died it was carried away by someone from Haoliang. Even today I still think about it.”
Other accomplishments of Zhao Cheng mentioned by Zhou include poetry, calligraphy, portraiture, and singing, and he was also noted for “liking to don a red robe and walk through snow carrying a staff.” During the autumn visit in 1637 to Song Yingheng (d.1643), Zhao and Song “sat that eve- ning on the river bank. Ordering a servant to catch more than several tens of fireflies, he then placed them within his gauze hat. Looked at from afar, their lights gleamed like pearls and the flashing rays illumined the path, while Xuejiang continued to chant as before; such was the lofty nature of his character” Zhao’s approach to painting—if not necessarily his very engaging personality—was inherited by a son named Zhao Shen and a grandson, Zhao Jian.
The account of Zhao Cheng’s life given above creates certain expectations about the nature of his art, very few of which are fulfilled by any extant painting. Despite the almost invariable written reference in his inscriptions to some great master of the past, Zhao’s actual paintings seem based not on direct study of some specific earlier masterwork but rather appear to be conscious manipulations of past traditions in the production of archaistic paintings that refer generally to the past while being very much of their own time. In the present painting, for example, the inscription refers to Zhao Mengjian (1199-ca.1267), a Song painter known today as a specialist in narcissi, plum blossoms, orchids, and bamboo rather than figure or landscape painting. And neither does the style of the painting relate to any known Sung style but seems instead to derive from literary accounts of pre-Song figure-in-landscape compositions.
The artist’s inscription gives the title of his painting as “Elegant Gathering in the Peach Garden,” and this is most likely the Peach and Pear Garden located in the capital city of Chang’an during the Tang dynasty. During the mid-8th century Li Bo (705-762) wrote a famous preface for the series of poems he and his friends composed while drinking in that garden one night. The main figures depicted here are thus probably to be identified as Li Bo and the group of friends known as the Yinzhong Baxian, “The Eight Immortals of the Winecup.” A contrasting vision of the same theme is that of Qiu Ying (d.1552), who’s painting now in the Chion-in (fig. 1) concentrates on a realistic portrayal of the urban setting for that evening gathering. Zhao Cheng’s painting is far more expressionistic, with especially the landscape elements being transformed so as to suggest the other-worldly nature of the original experience.
A similar approach can be found in a painting done some years earlier, the “Entertaining a Guest in the Apricot Garden” (fig. 2) painted in 1638 by Cui Zizhong (1594/5-1644). Zhao Cheng may have known Cui personally, and it is certain he was aware of Cui ’s art; one leaf of an album painted by Zhao in 1654 is inscribed as having been modelled on Cui’s version of a Song composition (fig. 3). By that date Cui had been dead for ten years, having starved himself to death rather than continue to live under the foreign Manchu regime, and Zhao Cheng had left the north for the city of Zhenjiang, near Yangzhou, where the present painting was done in the Sweet Dew Temple. The subject of Zhao’s painting was far removed from his own time and place, and the artist visually communicates the idea of spatial, temporal, and psychic distance by the archaizing, pseudo-naive style of the painting. The coloring and strong sense of patterning are close to those of the 13th-century master Qian Xuan, whose style was based in turn on those of Six Dynasties and Tang masters, so the viewing experience is enriched by art-historical as well as historical and literary allusions.
1. See Zhou Lianggong’s long biography of Zhao in Tuhualu (Huashi congshu edition), chapter 3, pp. 2172-2074. For a complete translation see Hongnam Kim: Chou Liangkung and his “Tuhualu” (Lives of Painters): Patron-critic and Painters in Seventeenth Century China, University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor; 1986, pp. 131-135.
2. For a discussion of this important group see Hongnam Kim, op.cit., volume 2, p. 65 fn. 236.
3. Zhou Lianggong, op.cit., chapter 2, p. 26. Although it is conceivable that Zhao Cheng and Wang Hui were acquainted, the painting dedicated by Wang Hui to “Master Xuejiang” recorded in the Xuzhai minghualu (Yishu jianshang edition) chapter 9, p. 1162, is dated to the year 1715 and is thus much too late to have been intended for Zhao Cheng.
4. Quoted in Zhang Geng: Guochao huazheng (Huashi congshu edition), chapter 1, p. 1257.
5. Wang Daxing served as envoy to the Ryukyu Islands during the mid-1650’s, and it was likely he who introduced Zhao’s paintings to that foreign land.
6. Li Bo also lived for a time in the mountains as part of another group, one known as the Zhuxi liuyi, “Six Eccentrics of Bamboo Stream,” and the remote setting here may be intended to suggest that part of Li’s life as well.
7. Zhao’s style of painting would seem to have been influential on that of the Yangzhou artist Gu Fuzhen, who could have seen such late works as the present one by Zhao.
Fig. 1: Qiu Ying: “Elegant Gathering in the Peach and Pear Garden”
after Minshin no kaiga, Tokyo, 1964, pl. 74.
Fig. 2: Cui Zizhong : “Entertaining Guest in Apricot Garden” 1638,
after James Cahill: The Distant Mountains, Tokyo, 1982, pl. 127.
Fig. 3: Zhao Cheng: “Landscape After Cui Zizhong” 1654,
after Zhao Xuejiang fangu shanshui ze, n.d. pl. 10.