Four herons huddle together for warmth on a wintry branch, their bodies and the branch defining together a composition of diagonals centered on the middle of the picture. The white of the birds and the snow-covered portion of the branch are in fact not painted but reveal the color of the silk ground, here left in reserve, unpainted, so as to stand for snow and the color of the birds. The scene evokes the coldness of winter with much grace and elegance.
Cheng P’ei–or Cheng Wei-p’ei, as he signed himself here–tzu Shan-ju, as appears on one of the seals on the present painting, was born in Lu-ch’eng, an area within Yangchou in Kiangsu province. A student of Shen Ch’uan, he accompanied his master on a trip to Nagasaki in Japan in 1731, becoming famous along with his teacher in that foreign country. Shen Ch’uan returned to China in 1733, but there is no record that Cheng accompanied him on the return trip, and it is noteworthy that all of Cheng’s extant paintings, including the present example, derive from Japanese provenances. One of these, a screen painting portraying the “Three Friends of Cold Winter” is dated to 1734, after Shen Ch’uan had left, and demonstrates how successfully Cheng P’ei had adapted to the foreign environment. Perhaps his change of name, from “P’ei” to “Wei-p’ei” as here was connected with the later part of his life.