Su Tung-p’o once said of Wang Wei, the great T`ang poet and painter: “There is poetry in his painting and painting in his poetry.” This has become the standard dictum on the relationship of poetry and painting in China, a relationship that through the centuries has frequently concerned writers on both subjects.
In the West careful distinctions have long been drawn between the literary and the pictorial arts, whereas in China poetry and painting have been nearly inseparable and have been related to each other in a variety of ways. The Chinese poet and painter might well be one and the same person, Su Tung-p’o and Wang Wei being the two supreme examples of artist-writers as highly esteemed for their skills as painters as for their verse. In the West, such figures are rare. Michelangelo was a fine poet, but in neither the critical nor the popular mind does his writing equal his painting or his sculpture. Perhaps only William Blake corresponds well to the Chinese conception of the poet-painter, an artist using similar themes and images in both his poems and his paintings and even integrating poetry and painting in his illustrated books.
The practice of inscribing poems on paintings, or on special sections of paper attached to the paintings for just this purpose, was another aspect of the close relationship between poetry and painting. The poem might be written by the painter himself by a friend of his, or by a later owner or connoisseur. Often, the poem includes images which do not appear in the painting, so that while the physical beauty of the picture is enhanced by the elegance of the calligraphy in which the poem is written, the imaginary world conjured up by the painting may be further expanded by the imagery of the poem. Sometimes the poem is the work of an earlier poet, but often it is an original poem by the artist himself A perfect example is the hand scroll by the Yuan artist Wu Chen (1280-1354), showing a fisherman seated in his boat gazing into the water.