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Ming Dynasty ‘influencer’ on show in Hong Kong

A ZEN “INFLUENCER” from 500 years ago is back in the spotlight with a display at the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

In the recent exhibition“The Hong Kong Jockey Club Series: Stories Untold — Figure Paintings of the Ming Dynasty from the Palace Museum”in Gallery 4 of Hong Kong Palace Museum, a 60-centimeter long painting attracted a lot of attention.

Wen Zhengming’s masterpiece “Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion”. Image: Emily Zhou

On the scroll were mainly blue-green mountains, plus a long stream winding through trees and rocks. In the midst of this elegant and tranquil scene, several members of the literati were scattered, sitting together, apparently discussing something interesting.

“Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion” v (《蘭亭修契圖》), one of the most prominent masterpieces among ancient Chinese paintings, captured the poetic essence of the famous literary work “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Gathering” (《蘭亭集序》) by Wang Xizhi (王羲之) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty(東晉). The painter Wen Zhengming (文徴明) is the leader artist of the Wu School(吳門派), a dominant painting school prevalent in the Middle Ming Dynasty (明朝).


The development of painting in the Ming Dynasty reached its first peak between the 14th and 15th centuries. At that time, court paintings and paintings of the Zhejiang School were the most prevalent in the field, forming an era of inheritance and development of the Southern Song royal painting style as the mainstream.

During the Ming Dynasty, court paintings were dominated by landscapes, flowers and birds, while figure paintings were narrower in scope, mainly depicting portraits of the emperors and the harem and their leisure life, the king’s courtesy, and the civil and military achievements of the royal family.

But Wu School’s figure paintings replaced the dominant position of court paintings.

In the Zhengde Era (正德年間, 1506-1521) , thanks to the economic growth of the Wu region surrounding Suzhou city, the Wu School was established by the four masters Shen Zhou (沈周), Wen Zhengming(文徴明), Tang Yin(唐寅) and Qiu Ying(仇英), who inherited and developed the Yuan (元代) painting tradition, which advocates the graceful brushwork and a refreshing aura.

In this wealthy metropolis located at the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, nobles, famous artists, and literati mostly followed the artistic fashion of the Wu school: they often held elegant gatherings and banquets, while many of the literati who travelled in the mountains and forests enjoyed painting for their own amusement and shared their painting skills with others.

In Wen Zhengming’s masterpieces, we can easily see that he was good at recording the daily life of himself and his friends with a brush, just like today’s “influencers” share their images on Instagram.

Wen Zhingming’s painting “Life in Zhenshang Cottage”. Image: Public domain

“Life in Zhenshang Cottage”(真賞齋圖) was painted by 80-year-old Wen Zhengming. In the middle of the cottage is the main character, Hua Xia (華夏), a famous collector and friend of Wen’s, talking to a guest sitting opposite him. A servant stood beside the table, holding books for his master. The guqin (古琴,a kind of traditional Chinese instrument) and book collection in the cottage on the left suggested Hua Xia’s elegant aesthetic and hobbies.

A sketch of the Humble Administrator’s Garden by Wen Zhengming. Image: Wikipedia

In 1535 and 1551 respectively, Wen Zhengming painted two albums for the Humble Administrator’s Garden(拙政園), designed and constructed by Wang Xianchen (王獻臣), a friend of the Wen family. Generally regarded as one of the greatest classical gardens in China, the Humble Administrator’s Garden collects many masterpieces of Wen Zhengming. Apart from the two albums mentioned above, he also painted “Landscapes of the Humble Administrator’s Garden” in 1533, which includes 31 paintings and poems to commemorate the garden.

In terms of painting techniques, Wen was greatly influenced by his master Shen Zhou. Both of them were able to paint beautiful landscapes and elegant figures with intricate yet naive brush and ink work, and delicate yet defined colouring.


When Wen Zhengming completed “Gathering at the Orchid Pavilion”, he was 73 years old. But Wen, an artist of equal fame to his master Shen Zhou, was not the gifted youngster he was made out to be. In fact, Wen could not speak clearly until he was 11 years old, which sounded ridiculous and unacceptable for a boy born in a literati mansion.

However, Wen had a patient and understanding father. “I feel lucky that my son might be a late bloomer,” he said. “If my boy was like Tang Yin, talented but flirtatious, I would be so worried that he might be a loser.” If you know more about Tang Yin (link to Eddie’s article) you will be amazed at Mr Wen’s accurate prediction.

Wen Zhengming, 19, had a hard time even after he started school, because the teacher gave him the lowest grade for his homework on account of his bad handwriting. Being provoked by his teacher, Wen wrote at least 200 pages of calligraphy every day since then, which became a habit till he was 90 years old. 

 Small regular script written by Wen Zhengming. Image: Public domain

In February 1559, Wen Zhengming passed away peacefully while sitting at a table writing an epitaph for the deceased mother of the then imperial censor.

Nowadays, a wistaria planted by Wen Zhengming in Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou city, is still thriving verdantly, and is still attracting millions of followers 500 years later.

Image at the top by Hong Kong Palace Museum

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