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Mi Fu – Talented Northern Song Eccentric

    Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD) was outspokenopinionated, and critical of many other artists and calligraphers.

    However, fortunately for his reputation, he could back up his talk with his talent.

    Today he is remembered as one of the four great calligraphers of the Song dynastya dynasty that was filled with great calligraphers.

    He is also remembered for his painting, poetry, and contributions to artistic theory.

    Spring Mountains and Auspicious Pines
    Spring Mountains and Auspicious Pines (date unknown) attributed to Mi Fu, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data). The calligraphy above the painting is by the Emperor Gaozong of Song.

    Mi Fu’s Biography

    Early life and education

    Mi Fu (米芾 [Mǐ Fú]), courtesy name Yuan Zhang, was born in Xiangzhou, Hubei Province, during the Northern Song period (960 – 1127 AD) of the Song dynasty (960 – 1276 AD).

    (Two decades after Mi Fu’s death, the northern half of China was taken over by the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD). This led to the Song dynasty’s government moving south for a period now known as the Southern Song period (1127 – 1276 AD).)

    He was the fifth grandson of Mi Xin (928 – 994 AD), a founding general of the Song dynasty. And the Mi family were of the ancient Xi ethnicity, a group with origins in China’s north east.

    Mi moved to Runzhou in Jiangsu Province as a child and began practicing calligraphy at aged 8. Later, he was recruited into the Academy of Calligraphy and Painting.

    Mi Fu’s personality

    Mi Fu’s contemporaries knew him as an eccentric and outspoken advocate of his own strong opinions.

    He is also said to have been what today we would call ‘a clean freak’ or perhaps ‘germaphobe’. He obsessively washed himself, including before each time he did calligraphy. 

    And he was a fanatical collector of works of art, calligraphy and even inkstones.

    His outspokenness and eccentricity are clear in his writings and the apocryphal anecdotes about him. 

    But alongside his idiosyncrasies lied a hardworking and discerning drive.

    Gaining an inkstone from the emperor

    Portrait of Huizong Emperor Seated
    Portrait of Huizong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 188.2 x 106.7 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    One anecdote, probably apocryphal, has it that his obsession with collecting inkstones led him to gaining a rare inkstone from the Huizong Emperor (1082 – 1135 AD) (a famously fanatical fan of art and art collecting).

    After viewing the inkstone, Mi Fu told the emperor that ‘after a lowly commoner such as myself has touched it, it’s no longer fit for your majesty.’ Luckily for Mi Fu, all the emperor did was concede the inkstone to him.

    Career and later life

    Mi didn’t reach particularly high in his career as an official. This could be because of his well-known eccentricity and outspokenness.

    As enlightened as the Song court was, it was still no place to stand out and speak out…

    However, his ability as a calligrapher and a painter brought in prestige and prestigious positions. Huizong awarded him the position of Doctorate of Calligraphy and Painting.

    Mi died in 1107 AD whilst serving in office as a military governor in Huaiyang, Henan Province.

    His son, Mi Youren (1086 – 1155 AD) was also an artist and calligrapher. However, his work – though esteemed – is generally not held in as high regard as his father’s.

    In 2005, his grave was discovered in Qingyuan, Guangzhou Province. Clues to its whereabouts were found by a scholar looking through Qingyuan’s historical records.

    Mi Fu’s calligraphy

    Letter Written to Jing Wen, On a Satchel by Mi Fu
    Letter Written to Jing Wen, On a Satchel (c. 1091) by Mi Fu, ink on paper, running script, 28.4 cm x 41.9 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    金井寒生一水池,
    读书窗纸照萤飞。
    悲欢穷泰寻常共,
    掷破还须匣取归。

    Lonely waters [ink] appear within the golden well [inkstone]
    Dragonflies glimmer by the paper window where I read.
    Together we have shared sadness, joy, poverty, and wealth,
    And when we are finally worn down, we’ll return via our boxes
    [like used inkstones put back in their boxes].

    – ‘Inkstone’ by Mi Fu

    Influences

    Early in life, Mi Fu primarily studied the calligraphy of the two main famous eras for it: the Jin (266 – 420 AD) and Tang (618 – 907 AD) dynasties.

    And in his Autobiographical Essay, he mentions studying and imitating the works of Tang dynasty masters, including Ouyang Xun (557 – 641 AD)Chu Suiliang (597 – 658 AD) and Liu Gongquan (778 – 865 AD).

    Later on, Mi Fu’s good friend and general Song dynasty ‘renaissance man’ Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD) encouraged him to study the words of the ‘two Wangs’.

    These are the most admired calligrapher in Chinese history Wang Xizhi (303 AD – 361 AD) and his son, innovative regular and cursive script master Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386 AD).

    Later on, he would try to stylistically escape or surpass their influence. Some critics believe that in his later career he achieved this.

    Mi Fu’s Calligraphic Style

    Poems Written on Sichuan Silk (1088) by Mi Fu
    Poems Written on Sichuan Silk (1088) by Mi Fu, ink on silk, running script, 27.8 x 270.8cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Mi is most famous for his running script calligraphy (the semi-cursive version of standard script).

    His style shows clear influence of the famous Tang dynasty running script master Yan Zhenqing (709 – 785 AD) and one of the four masters of regular script Ouyang Xun (557 – 641 AD).

    His fluent strokes vary between thick and thin and occasionally feature abrupt, sharp turns of the brush.

    Overall, his characters vigorous and free-flowing. The spaces within and between them are even, despite the swiftness apparent in their strokes.

    Perhaps Mi Fu’s most famous remarks on calligraphy come from an idiom he coined: 

    无垂不缩,无往不收 
    [wú chuí bù suō, wú wǎng bù shōu]
    Each vertical stroke should end with a contraction, each horizontal one by turning back on itself

    – Mi Fu

    This quote emphasises the physical nature of calligraphy. It’s no coincidence that Mi Fu was also deeply interested in martial arts.

    His friend, Su Shi, described Mi Fu’s style as ‘battleships in full sail, or war-horses charging into the enemy’s positions.

    One of the four great calligraphers of the Song dynasty

    Mi Fu has long been considered one of the four great calligraphers of the Song dynasty. The other three are:

    All four figures lived during the Northern Song period, which was later cherished as the Song dynasty’s cultural and political golden age.

    Shuazi

    Mi Fu was inspired by the calligrapher Duan Jizhan to adopt a calligraphic method termed shuazi (which can be roughly translated as ‘coating’ or ‘whitewashing’). 

    It involves calligraphers apply ink to paper or silk in the same manner they would on a wall. The idea is to maintain a steady rhythm that applies the right amount of ink evenly.

    (Mi Fu liked to write on walls after drinking, and even apologised to friends for doing so at times!).

    Mi Fu’s artistic philosophy

    Mi Fu practiced calligraphy very diligently each day. In doing so, he believed he was emulating the ancients. But at the same time, he also liked to emphasise how he treated calligraphy as ‘just a game’.

    何必识难字, 辛苦笑扬雄。
    自古为字人, 用字或不通。
    要之皆一戏, 不当问拙工。
    意足我自足, 放笔一戏空。
    Is it really necessary to recognise difficult characters?
    We laugh at the lengths Yang Xiong went to.
    Since ancient times, calligraphers
    Have not known [all] characters correctly. 
    It’s all just a game. 
    One shouldn’t question clumsiness or skill. 
    If my mind is satisfied, then I am satisfied. 
    When I put down the brush, the game is over.

    – ‘Reply To Shaopeng’s Remarks on Being Unable to Read Difficult Characters’, Mi Fu

    The Song dynasty was a period when the concept of scholar-artists developed greatly.

    These were usually officials, or at least independent and educated individuals who expressed themselves with calligraphy, painting, and poetry.

    They saw themselves as different to the more technically proficient artists hired by the government to work on realistic, official paintings and murals.

    Unlike this group, who worked for money, scholar-artists saw their work as a reflection of their inner cultivation of Daoist, Confucian, and Buddhist principles.

    The reality wasn’t always so clear cut. But intellectuals such as Mi Fu, Su Shi, and others, often thought and wrote about art theory in these terms. 

    They also emphasised the individual nature of art. Each artist must pursue their own path, wherever it may lead. Unlike professional artists, commissioned to represent others’ orders, the scholar-artist has to find his own vision. 

    A good example of this ethos can even be seen in how Mi Fu wrote about his beloved inkstones.

    He often painted scenes of hilly landscapes in mist or just before rain. When doing this, Mi declared that an exact model was not needed.

    Generally, in painting animals and human figures, one does a sketch and it resembles the object, but in doing landscapes, reproduction will not succeed. In landscapes, the level at which the artist’s mind is satisfied is high.

    On Painting, Mi Fu

    As in calligraphy, Mi felt that it was the artist’s mind and self-expression was more important than technical abilities.