Asian Art

Mao Xiang (Chinese, 1611 - 1693)
Waiting for the Moon at Six Bridges, Qing dynasty, 17th century
Handscroll, ink on satin
14 1/4 x 218 1/2 in. (36 x 555 cm)
General Acquisitions Fund, 1970
AMAM 1970.39

This unusual example of Mao Xiang's calligraphy offers important evidence of the artist's late style and his enduring engagement with the legacy of the great painter and critic Dong Qichang (1555-1636).

Mao Xiang ranks among the most colorful characters in seventeenth-century China. Perhaps best known today as a poet and romantic, Mao also enjoyed considerable fame as a calligrapher during his own lifetime. He was a disciple of one of the most important calligraphers of his age, Dong Qichang, and samples of his brushwork were highly sought after by his contemporaries. Yet, for reasons that are not entirely clear, relatively few specimens of his calligraphy have been preserved, and his accomplishments in that art have been obscured in the centuries since his death. The Oberlin scroll is thus a rare survival of Mao's work, and has become an important benchmark for assessing his skill and development as a calligrapher.1

The text of the calligraphy is a well-known vignette from a travelogue by the late Ming poet and essayist, Yuan Hongdao (1568-1610). The essay recounts one of Yuan's visits to West Lake near the city of Hangzhou.2

West Lake is best in springtime under moonlight; within a single day, it is best in the morning mists and evening vapors. This year the spring snow was abundant indeed, and the plum blossoms, retarded by the cold, were followed closely by the peach and pear blossoms. When one went out it was really a marvelous sight. Zhouwang [Tao Wangling] told me several times: "The plum trees in the Jinwu Garden once belonged to Zhang Gongfu's concubine, Glistening Jade. You should hurry there to view them." But at the time I was besotted by the peach blossoms and could not bear to take myself away. Out around the lake, from the Severed Bridge to the Su Dike, it was like a band of green mists and pink haze spread out for more than twenty li. Songs and shouts carried on the wind, and rouged perspiration fell like rain. So abundant were the gauze and silk [robed people] that they were more numerous than the willows on the shores. What an utterly beautiful scene! The people of Hangzhou only visit the lake during the midday hours. But in fact, the delicacy of the lake's light when it is tinted with azure, and its loveliness when the mountain mists are infused with colors, are both at their most bewitching when the morning sun is just rising and when dusk is just falling. Moonlight scenes are even more ethereal. The appearance of the flowers, the aura of the willows, the visage of the mountains, the sentiment of the water--each of these has a separate charm. These joys will remain to mountain priests and experienced wanderers--how could they be communicated to vulgar people?

Yuan Hongdao was a central figure in the Gongan school, a group of late Ming writers and poets who believed that good writing originated from genuine feeling and authentic experience, rather than strict imitation of traditional literary models. Throughout his short life, Yuan sought to balance tradition and innovation and to keep his perception of the world fresh. Although he died a year before Mao was born, the younger man undoubtedly became familiar with Yuan's philosophy of life through their mutual friend, Dong Qichang. Mao's choice of this text is thus doubly appropriate, in part because he himself was a bon vivant, as Yuan had been, but also because of Yuan's close association with Dong Qichang, whose style of calligraphy Mao strongly alludes to in this scroll.

Calligraphy is one of the most difficult of all the Chinese arts for the uninitiated viewer to appreciate. Not only is the content often baffling, but understanding the form requires an intimate knowledge of brush techniques and past styles. Even a novice viewer, however, can sense the subtle rhythms and visual harmonies of Mao's writing in this scroll, and these qualities make it easy to understand why it is considered one of his masterpieces.

In this scroll, Yuan Hongdao's text is divided into forty-eight lines and written in a fluid style called xingshu, or "running script." Most of the lines consist of four characters, although this pattern is occasionally punctuated by three- or five-character lines that prevent the structure of the text from becoming monotonous. The characters were probably written using a brush that combined a large "belly" (the upper part of the brush-head where the ink is stored) with a fairly sharp, flexible tip. Such a brush would have allowed Mao to execute the lively, rounded, thickening and thinning strokes that give this scroll its subtle energy, and would have contained enough ink for him to maintain the leisurely tempo one can still sense when following the progression of characters through the scroll.

Mao Xiang began his study of calligraphy under Dong Qichang, but in his middle years veered away from the influence of his teacher.3 However, the Oberlin scroll, which Chou Ju-hsi has convincingly dated to Mao's later years, reveals that toward the end of his life Mao once again returned to Dong's style. The calligraphy of Waiting for the Moon at Six Bridges is not written in the imitative hand of a student; rather it reflects a mature style in which Mao has synthesized elements of Dong's calligraphy with his own. In thus passing through the stages of emulation, divergence, and synthesis, Mao reveals that Dong's influence upon him was not just stylistic, but theoretical as well. Dong, like Yuan Hongdao, felt that tradition was most valuable when mastered and transcended. That belief is embodied in this important scroll, and thus creates a special harmony between form and content that goes beyond stylistic comparisons and resonates on a much higher philosophical plane.

C. Mason

Born into a Jiangsu gentry family whose garden attracted frequent visits from many local scholars and artists, Mao Xiang was surrounded by art and literature from a very early age, an environment that nurtured his precocious talents. At the age of thirteen, Mao published his first collection of poems, and not long afterward he became the student of Dong Qichang (1555-1636), who at that point was in his seventies and perhaps the most important artist and art theorist in China. So impressed was Dong with the young Mao that he compared him to the great Tang dynasty poet Wang Wei (699-751 A.D.), and instead of a formal teacher-pupil relationship, Dong claimed Mao as "a friend in spite of age difference" (wangnianjia).

As an adult, Mao was an important member of the "Restoration Society" (fushe), a reformist group of scholars who sought to end the endemic corruption and institutional paralysis that so weakened the late Ming government. After the collapse of the Ming in 1644, Mao adopted the mantle of loyal "leftover subject" (yimin) and refused to serve the new Manchu regime. His reputation as a noble political reformer and loyalist was equaled only by his renown as a romantic and lover of beautiful women. He had a celebrated affair with the famous courtesan and painter Dong Xiaowan (1625-1651), and two of his other concubines--Cai Han (1647-1686) and Qin Yue (ca. 1660-1690)--were also known for their combination of physical beauty and artistic talent. Shortly after his death, Mao was immortalized as one of the main characters in Kong Shangren's play, The Peach Blossom Fan.

General References
Hummel, Arthur W., ed. Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period. Washington, D.C., 1943, pp. 566-67.

Yu Jianhua. Zhongguo meishujia renming cidian. Shanghai, 1981, p. 577.

With Wen Yuan Koh Art Co., Ltd., Taipei, Taiwan, from whom purchased in 1970


Chou Ju-hsi. "From Mao Hsiang's Oberlin Scroll to his Relationship with Tung Ch'i-ch'ang." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 36, no. 2 (1978-79), pp. 140-67.

Technical Data
Trimmed at left end, this handscroll is in good condition but for some minor staining. The current mounting was added after the scroll was purchased in 1970. The calligraphy is written in black ink on satin. There are seven unidentified seals at the beginning of the scroll, and five seals at the end of the scroll, including one of Mao Xiang ("Bijiang"), one of Wang Luben (1897-1930), and three unidentified.

1. Other examples of Mao Xiang's calligraphy are known, and several are reproduced in Chou Ju-hsi, "From Mao Hsiang's Oberlin Scroll to his Relationship with Tung Ch'i-ch'ang," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 36, no. 2 (1978-79), pp. 140-67.

2. Inscribed "Waiting for the Moon at Six Bridges," Mao Xiang. The Chinese text of this essay is reprinted in Lidai xiaoshuo bijixuan, Ming ce diyi (Taipei, 1965), p. 133. It has been translated in Richard E. Stassberg, Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China (Berkeley, 1994), pp. 310-312. Another translation is included in Chou Ju-hsi, "From Mao Hsiang's Oberlin Scroll to his Relationship with Tung Ch'i-ch'ang," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 36, no. 2 (1978-79), pp. 141. This translation is by C. Mason, with reference to Stassberg and Chou.

3. Chou Ju-hsi, "From Mao Hsiang's Oberlin Scroll to his Relationship with Tung Ch'i-ch'ang," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 36, no. 2 (1978-79), pp. 140-67.