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Paradise found

Updated: 2024-01-06 09:45 ( China Daily )
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An idealist idyll

Another Yuan-era painter-calligrapher who had added a cultural layer to the land is Ni Zan (1301-74). Son of a wealthy Jiangnan family, he was forced, in his 40s, to abandon his estate due to floods, droughts and subsequent tax levies on the region's landholders. Dispersing his possessions and living intermittently on a houseboat, Ni witnessed the final years of the Mongol rule while continuing to make art.

Ni wrote, in poems collectively titled Three Odes to the Spring of Jiangnan:

"The spring breeze is petulant, and the spring rain urgent/pouring down like tears, moistening the river/Falling flowers regret leaving branches/Zither strings are plucked, to mourn the disarray of red (petals) and green (leaves) …"

A hand-scroll by Wen Zhengming titled Spring in Jiangnan, on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, is believed to have been directly inspired by Ni's poems.

Although it doesn't seem quite so, says Li Lan, an ancient painting specialist from the Shanghai Museum, which owns the piece. "A sense of loss permeates Ni's words," she says. "Wen Zhengming, born in Jiangnan nearly a century after Ni's passing, dabbed his canvas with plenty of green and the occasional red for a lighthearted rendition of a breezy spring.

"Idealism — that's what it is," says Li. "And if you think about it, idealism is really the flip side of escapism."

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