The Three Perfections



Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy

Chinese painting is often seen with calligraphy directly on the picture. Typically after an artist has finished a painting, he will make an inscription. The simplest inscription will contain his name followed by his seal or seals. The artist may add a date, something about the person for whom the picture was painted, a note on the occasion or the style he has chosen to paint. Beyond this the artist may include a poem or some prose that explores virtually any topic, from literature or painting to metaphysics or philosophy. Lengthy inscriptions often provide great insight into the painter’s process and personal life. It is the combination of all three creative processes – poetry, painting and calligraphy – that is considered the ultimate in artistic achievement. Very rarely does a single artist have talent in all three.

As the story goes, during the eighth century the Chinese poet, painter and calligrapher Zheng Qian (d. 764) presented a gift of his work to the emperor. Delighted, the emperor inscribed the words “Zheng Qian’s Three Perfections” (Zheng Qian sanjue). Since that time, these three – painting, poetry and calligraphy – have been connected and appreciated as the ultimate in the visual arts, known simply as the “Three Perfections.”

The richness of visual information in the combination of words and images makes for lively interchange and interaction in the mind. Cognitive psychology has taught us that both words and images are taken into the brain through the same passageway, but once in the brain, the information travels to different regions for processing and understanding. The Chinese understood that there is a play back and forth between words and images. Often one asks: Which came first, the poem or the painting? Was the artist inspired by the poem, or did he paint the picture and suddenly remember an appropriate poem? Perhaps both were inspired by natural scenery. We may never know, but in the end it does not matter. Just the fact that the mind raises the question means that the method is a success. The tension between them makes one think, understand and appreciate.