On the relationship of poetry and painting in China


Wu has inscribed the following poem of his own composition in the upper right-hand corner of the picture:

West of the village,
evening rays linger on red leaves
as the moon rises over yellow reeds on the sandbank.
The fisherman moves his paddle, thinking of home –
his pole, lying in its rack,
will catch no more fish today.

The poem adds an image that is entirely absent from the painting that of the village-and colors the leaves and reeds red and yellow, although in the picture they are done in shades of gray ink. We learn that it is sunset, and that the fisherman is thinking of returning home. Because these enhancements of the picture are expressed in words, they affect the viewer on a subtler level than the purely visual, and deepen his experience of the total work of art. Sometimes, when painter and poet are two different people, the picture will inspire the poet to reflect on his personal situation, as in the famous poem by Su Tung-p‘o, inscribed on the painting Misty River and Tiered Mountains by a contemporary, the landscapist Wang Shen. After a long description of the scene, Su recalls his  past happiness while living on the Yangtze River, and longs for the day when he will be able to return to nature (referring to himself as the Gentleman of the Eastern Slope):

Saddening my heart, a thousand tiers of mountains along the river
shimmer with blue-green colors across the sky like clouds or mist.
Are they mountains? Are they clouds? It’s hard to tell,
but when mist opens and clouds disperse, the mountains remain.
Here I see two verdant cliffs, shadowing a deep valley,
and a hundred cascades that fly down the cliffs,
twist through forests, coil around rocks, hide and reappear,
The stream grows calm, the mountains open, and the foothill forests end; `
a tiny bridge and rustic shops lean against the mountain.
Travelers pass beyond the tall trees;
a fishing boat floats, light as a leaf:
The river swallows the sky.
Where did the governor find this painting,
its limpid beauties brushed by such a sensitive hand?
Where in our world is there such a place?
I’d go there now, and buy myself an acre or two of land!
But I remember an isolated spot at Fan-k’ou, near Wu-ch’ang,
where the Gentleman of the Eastern Slope resided for fiveyears.
Spring breezes rippled the river; the sky was vast.
Summer rain clouds curled up at dusk; the mountain glowed.
Crows shook branches of red maple leaves before my riverhome.
Winter snows, dropping from towering pines, woke mefrom my drunken sleep.
The flowing waters of Peach Blossom Spring are in thisworld;
why insist that the Wu-ling story was only a fairy tale?
But the rivers and mountains are fresh and pure,
while I am covered with dust;
there may be a path that leads to them, but it’s hard to find.
With many a sigh, I return the scroll,
and wait for a friend who lives in these mountains
to send me a poem, “Come back!”