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All That Flourishes Under the Brush: The Late Ming Culturati Wang Shizhen and His Endeavors

  • #Calligraphy
  • #Painting
  • #Curio
  • #Rare Books & Documents
  • #Antiquities


Wang Shizhen (1526-1590), an important historian and litterateur of the Ming dynasty, has many works to his name. Also a devoted member of the arts, he took part in almost all of the major cultural realms of his day. Of particular note was the fact that he astutely observed the flourishing of society in the sixteenth century during the later part of the Ming dynasty. This special exhibition examines the fascinating life of Wang Shizhen and his endeavors, offering a glimpse at the cultural efflorescence of the late Ming that bore witness to exceptional creativity and diverse competition in cultural life at the time. And through the eyes and under the brush of Wang Shizhen as a historian, it offers a unique perspective on the cultural underpinnings of this flourishing age.

Wang Shizhen enjoyed success from an early age, becoming a Presented Scholar (“jinshi”) at the age of 22 and rising through officialdom until tragedy struck the family when he was 34. At that time, his father Wang Shu (1507-1560) was a prominent official who became ensnared in court factionalism, imprisoned, and then executed. Wang Shizhen thereupon retreated from political circles and spent much of his remaining years in and around his hometown devoted to writing, traveling, friendly gatherings, and appreciating art. With a large collection, he delved into a wide range of arts and cultural connoisseurship, from garden design, painting and calligraphy, rare books, porcelains, and works of tapestry and embroidery to various curios.

Wang Shizhen, who came to dominate literary and cultural circles for twenty years, especially admired Jin and Tang dynasty calligraphy, Song dynasty painting, and Song porcelain, and he advocated visual culture as a testimony to history. He proposed the notion of “Five Transformations in Painting History,” in which he clearly identified changes in the period style of Chinese painting. As for the arts and crafts of his day, Wang also had many opinions. He particularly promoted the “Three Masters of Wu” in calligraphy, was able to discern the phenomenon of fake tapestries, and criticized the popularity of Ming official porcelains as a mistake. His views and observations all derived from a keen eye and a willingness to go against popular trends.

In the regional competition of his time, Wang Shizhen was the leader of cultural elites in Suzhou, which was engaged in a fascinating tug of war with more recent upstarts such as Huizhou and Songjiang. With his great literary talent and penetrating historical critique, Wang became admired by many and an acknowledged authority and arbiter of taste in cultural matters. With his designing of gardens, promoting religious beliefs, discovering the painting of actual landscapes, and advocating new-fashioned visual travel diaries, he took the lead in several new cultural movements as well.

Wang Shizhen, feeling that “all between heaven and earth is nothing but history,” focused on collecting and collating historical materials, his critical and copious writings forming a foundation for the later compilation of History of the Ming (Ming shi). In addition, his brush as a historian recorded the prospering world around him and, at the same time, avenged the wrongs against his father. Through his comprehensive observations and exhaustive evaluations of developments in various art forms, he was able to document the great cultural achievements of the Ming dynasty for posterity. And through his unique vision as a historian, he further analyzed the historical and cultural undercurrents of this flourishing era in Chinese history.

In recent years, academic research on Wang Shizhen has become increasingly common. It also just so happens that the collection of the National Palace Museum can amply illustrate the man and his endeavors to illustrate, through his natural talent and cultural advantage as well as a macroscopic view as a historian, the numerous opinions he left behind that influenced later generations. As an active leader in many art and cultural activities, Wang Shizhen was thus able to mold and shape the cultural layout of his day.


Publication: All That Flourishes Under the Brush: The Late Ming Culturati Wang Shizhen and His Endeavors