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March 7, 2021

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Ancient Chinese master’s love of calligraphy, art and tea drinking

As a major personality of the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), Su Shi (1037-1101), a poet, calligrapher, painter, politician and gastronome, was a versatile sensation and considered one of the most significant figures in the profound history of classical Chinese literature.

Together with his father Su Xun and younger brother Su Zhe, the trio were known as the “Three Sus,” and among the “Eight Great Prose Masters in the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song dynasties.”

Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo, was one of the “Four Calligraphers of the Song Dynasty,” together with Cai Xiang, Huang Tingjian and Mi Fu.

He excelled in running script and regular script, imitating the styles of famous phenomenal calligraphers like Li Yong (AD 678-747) and Yan Zhenqing (AD 709-784), and then created his own unique writing style.

His brushwork is viewed “round, rich and full of changes, yet with a touch of innocence and brilliance.”

As the inventor of “Dongpo Rou,” a traditional dish of braised pork belly, the epicure was also passionate about tea and its technique.

On the second day of Chinese New Year, a year after Su Shi’s first remote trip to Huangzhou (in today’s Wuhan City), a friend visited him and noted that their mutual friend Chen Zao had an exquisite wooden “chajiu” (a kind of traditional Chinese tea grinder). A tea aficionado, Su Shi immediately wrote a short letter to Chen.

The letter, entitled “Xinsui Weihuo Zhanqing Tie” (“Short Letter of Chinese New Year’s Celebration”) revealed that Su Shi intended to borrow Chen’s fine tea grinder made in Jianzhou (in today’s Fujian Province) and asked a smith to make a copy of it, and of course it would be even better if someone could bring him an authentic one from Jianzhou. Later in the message he invited Chen and another friend to Huangzhou to celebrate the Lantern Festival.

According to Song Fuzao’s “Dongpo Jinian Lu” (“Dongpo Annuals”), the letter was composed in 1081.

The coordinated movements and supreme brushstrokes expressed Su Shi’s unrestrained nature and spontaneous personality.

An admirer of Su Shi’s masterpieces and calligraphy writing techniques, Chen was enraptured with joy when receiving the letter — it was not only the message from an old friend but a treasure from an icon of that era.

A few years later, the elder brother of Chen passed away. The sudden news filled Su Shi with grief and he wrote Chen a message of sympathy.

In this “Renlai Deshu Tie” (“Short Letter of Condolence”), Su Shi mourned on hearing the death and comforted his intimate friend.

In “Dongpo Ji” (“Dongpo Collection”) there were 16 letters from Su Shi to Chen, all written during the calligrapher’s stay in Huangzhou.

The two artworks were passed down to Dong Qichang, a notable calligrapher of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), whose style was favored and imitated by Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

To his appreciation, on the “Short Letter of Condolence” Dong left an inscription implying that the two short letters were the most valuable he had ever seen among dozens of Su Shi’s authentic art pieces.

Experienced connoisseurs of different epochs appreciated the two together. In 1946, the two masterpieces, which were separately collected, were mounted into one scroll.

The first part of the duo is the “Renlai Deshu Tie,” which is 29.5 centimeter long, 45.1cm wide. It was written in 16 lines in a total of 192 words. The other part displays the 14-line “Xinsui Weihuo Zhanqing Tie” in 247 words, 30.2cm long and 48.8cm wide.

In these two legendary works, Su Shi demonstrated his attainted calligraphy-writing experience and tea-drinking art knowledge.

The treasure is stored and on display in the Palace Museum in Beijing.


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