A few months ago, most people would be forgiven if they weren’t familiar with Wuhan. Despite being China’s ninth largest urban center with over eleven million people and many impressive accomplishments, it still took a back seat to other metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai. Today, Wuhan has become China’s best-known city, as the first epicenter of COVID-19.

Long before this, Wuhan was associated with another story that provided the subject for many works of art, including an exquisite fan painting in HoMA’s collection, The Red Cliff by Wen Boren (1502–1575). It also offers some words of wisdom about difficult times from one of China’s greatest minds.

The story comes from Su Shi (1037–1101). Su was equally gifted in the political arena and the creative realms of poetry, calligraphy, painting and even cooking (He was known for his fondness of fatty foods, something many of us can relate to with all the stress cooking that we’ve been doing lately!). He was also strongly opinionated at a time when factionalism permeated the court, leading to exile more than once. His first exile, from 1080–1086, was to Huangzhou, now a suburb of Wuhan. Of course, this was long before COVID-19, yet even at that time the hardships of such a posting meant not only separation from the comforts of the capitol, but also risk of exposure to malaria and a host of other diseases.

Nevertheless, Su produced many of his finest writings while he was in Huangzhou. Red Cliff Ode would become a favored subject for later painters and calligraphers (Su actually wrote two odes on the Red Cliff, however, it is the first that is relevant here). One day, Su and some friends traveled by river to this local scenic spot. The place was famous not only for its dramatic landscape, but also because it was the supposed site of a massive naval battle a thousand years earlier. The battle was an important turning point in Chinese history, and contributed to the long separation between the north and south—as well as the resulting cultural differences that still broadly define both regions today.

As they sailed past the cliffs, Su’s companion began to play a melancholy tune on his vertical wooden flute (xiao). (Those of you familiar with the Japanese shakuhachi, a relative of the xiao, know just how haunting its sound can be). When Su asked why, his friend admitted that as he thought about the great leaders of this legendary battle, of their aspirations that had become nothing more than dust, he suddenly found the fleeting nature of existence to be unbearable. Su’s insightful response would inspire centuries of later writers and artists:

“Have you really understood the water and the moon?” I said. “The one streams past so swiftly yet is never gone, the other forever waxes and wanes yet finally has never grown nor diminished. For if you look at the aspect which changes, heaven and earth cannot last for one blink; but if you look at the aspect which is changeless, the worlds within and outside you are both inexhaustible, and what reasons have you to envy anything?

(from Cyril Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature)

Wen Boren was born into a family that dominated the arts in the most cultured city in China, Suzhou, during the 16th century. Virtually all of the influential luminaries of the time were part of his extended social circle. It is no surprise that the calligraphy on the fan was added by Peng Nian (1505–1566), the finest calligrapher of his generation. What is a surprise is that despite the small format, Peng has added the entire ode in “fly’s head” script, so-called because each character could fit on the head of a fly (the script was developed by Wen Boren’s uncle, the senior statesman of the arts Wen Zhengming). Wen’s balance between expressive power in the cliffs and fine detail in the figures of Su (in a red robe) and his companions on their boat are equally remarkable.

– Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Art

Wen Boren (1502–1575)
The Red Cliff
China, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 16th century
Fan; ink and color on paper
Purchase, 1967