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Wang Shen

    Wang Shen (ca. 1048 – ca. 1103 AD) was born into an elite Song dynasty family and then married into the Song royal family.

    He was friends with the leading literati of the day.

    And he was selected by the reigning emperor to be a tutor to a prince that went onto – unexpectedly – become an emperor, too.

    However, what distinguishes his life and legacy was his artistic talent. Two decades Wang’s passing, a catalogue commissioned by the emperor he tutored wrote:

    […] 写烟江远壑,栁溪渔浦,晴岚绝涧,寒林幽谷,桃溪苇村,皆词人墨卿难状之景。
    […] He painted misty rivers and distant valleys, willows by streams and fishermen fishing, clearing mists and partially seen brooks, wintry forests and secluded valleys, peach trees blossoming along streams and villages in reeds – all scenes that writers and poets found hard to articulate.

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings (1120), scroll 11
    Detail from Misty River, Layered Peaks (Song dynasty) by Wang Shen, handscroll, ink and colour on silk. The Shanghai Museum. (Image credit: Alamy)

    Early life and family background

    Wang Shen (王诜 [Wáng Shēn]), courtesy name Jin Qing, was born during the reign of the Renzong Emperor (r. 1010 – 1063 AD).

    His exact date of birth and death are unknown – this is unusual for someone of his social status and fame.

    His aristocratic family’s ancestor was one of the founding generals of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). Wang himself inherited a military rank.

    (Wang’s friend and fellow artist, calligrapher and poet Su Shi (1137 – 1101 AD) remarked that Wang was “born into a race of generals”).

    Because of this, Wang grew up in the Imperial City of the Song empire’s capital Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province). Although it was noted in records that the Wang family were originally from Taiyuan (in today’s Shanxi Province).

    Growing up surrounded by art and artists

    a solitary clearing amid peaks by li cheng
    A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks (ca. 960) by Li Cheng, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 111.4 x 56 cm. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. (Purchase: Nelson Trust). (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Growing up in the palace and Imperial City exposed Wang to much of the empire’s greatest art.

    In particular, an imperial style of landscape painting had developed in during the Song period

    It had first been introduced to by the works of painters from the Five Dynasties period (907 – 960 AD) arriving at the Song court. This period had ultimately given birth to Chinese landscape painting as it is recognised today.

    This included a number of painters, but the one that stood out the most was Li Cheng (919 – 967 AD). His landscape painting style was adopted as a king of official imperial style

    A lineage was created of painters painting in Li’s style. One example of this was Fan Kuan (active ca. 1023 – 1031 AD).

    Travellers by Streams and Mountains by Fan Kuan
    Travellers by Streams and Mountains (ca. 1000) by Fan Kuan, hanging scroll, ink on silk, 206.3 x 103.3 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Alamy)

    Wang famously characterised Fan’s style as representative of a martial (武) style in Chinese painting, as opposed to the civil (文) style of the more educated and refined Li.

    Another significant example was Guo Xi (1001 – 1090 AD), Shenzong’s favourite court painter. Wang learned from Guo and would have seen his paintings, which decorated the interior of the most important buildings in the Imperial City.

    Marriage to Shenzong’s sister

    In 1067, the Shenzong Emperor (r. 1067 – 1085 AD) ascended to the throne.

    The same year, in August, Wang became Shenzong’s brother-in-law by marrying Shenzong’s full sister, the Princess Shuguo (1051 – 1080 AD).

    Tutor to the Prince of Duan

    Significantly, Wang was also selected to serve as a tutor to the emperor Shenzong’s 11th son (and therefore Wang’s nephew, by marriage), Zhao Ji (1082 – 1135 AD), the Prince of Duan.

    The prince, like Wang, was intensely interested in calligraphy, painting, and collecting. So, Wang was to have a big influence on his artistic tastes.

    The prince would unexpectedly become the emperor after his half-brother, the Zhezong Emperor (r. 1185 – 1100 AD) died aged 23. When he ascended to the throne, he became the Huizong Emperor (r. 1100 – 1125 AD).

    Portrait of Huizong Emperor Seated by unknown painter
    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)

    By that point, most of Wang’s generation’s lives and political careers were almost over. 

    However, Huizong heavily promoted the arts through the Academy of Calligraphy and the Academy of Painting during his 25-year reign. So, strong traces of Wang’s tastes and philosophy on these arts lived on.

    Anecdote on Wang and Zhao in the palace

    In her biography of Huizong, Patricia Buckley Ebrey quotes an interesting anecdote on Wang’s interaction with the future emperor.

    Once Wang Shen and Huizong met unexpectedly at the palace whilst waiting to line up for an audience. Huizong said: “Today I inadvertently forgot to bring my razor. I’d like to borrow one to trim the hair at my temples. Could I?” Wang Shen took one out from his belt. Huizong said, “This type is very new and attractive,” to which Wang Shen replied, “I recently had two made, one of which has not yet been used. In a little while [text missing].” That evening, Wang sent Gao Qiu to deliver it.

    Quoted in Emperor Huizong, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 26

    When Gao Qiu delivers the razor, he finds the young Zhao playing kickball and soon joins in. Years later, Gao Qiu would go on to become the commander of the imperial guard.

    A man of culture

    Detail from Light Snow on a Fishing Village by Wang Shen
    Detail from Light Snow on a Fishing Village (Song dynasty) by Wang Shen, hand scroll, ink and colour on silk, 32. 4 x 220. 3 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Despite his hereditary military title, Wang was not directly involved in the military. 

    Instead, he appears to have spent much of his time involved in his cultural hobbies, namely:

    • Poetry
    • Calligraphy
    • Painting
    • Art collecting 

    To the young prince, Wang must have been a fascinating and inspiring figure. 

    After all, Wang was a man who, like him, had grown up at the heart of the royal family. And one who knew all the great artists and poets of the day, as well as owned a great collection. 

    One of the pieces wang owned was Sun Guoting’s early Tang dynasty masterpiece Treatise on Calligraphy (687 AD).

    Friendship with Su Shi

    Wang first made friends with Su Shi between 1069 – 71, when Su worked as an official in the capital Bianliang (today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province). 

    Their circle also included the painter and calligrapher Wen Tong, the poet Wang Gong, the essayist Kong Wenzhong, and many others.

    The following century, the eminent – but often severe – philosopher Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 AD) criticised Su’s circles:

    They wrote but they never exerted effort in cultivating their own person. They spent their days doing nothing more than reciting poetry, drinking wine and telling jokes.

    Quoted in Egan, Ronald C., Word, Image and Deed in the Life of Su Shi (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 360

    But a century after Zhu Xi, the eminent but controversial artist and official Zhao Mengfu (1254 – 1322 AD)paid tribute to Su’s group in painting: 

    The Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden by Zhao Mengfu
    The Elegant Gathering in the Western Garden (Yuan dynasty) by Zhao Mengfu, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 131.5 x 67 cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Wang stays in touch with Su Shi

    Like many officials, Su would travel around the country on different postings. But he stayed in touch with Wang, who was largely based in the capital. 

    Like many literati of their time, the two would often exchange letters and poems. Wang even financed an anthology of Su’s poems written in Hangzhou, where Su was first posted between 1071 – 73.

    A quote from another time and culture comes to mind:

    There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.

    – P. G. Wodehouse (allegedly – I cannot find a source for this quote… If you know it, please contact me!)

    Unfortunately for Wang, and many others, friendship with Su would prove to be costly…

    This is because of Su’s oppositions to the most important political event of the day: the New Policies.

    The New Policies and their opponents

    The New Policies (新法) were a set of sweeping political and economic reforms that began in 1061, under Wang’s brother-in-law, the Shenzong Emperor.

    They were strongly opposed by what became termed the conservative (/anti-reformist) faction of officials. Chief amongst these conservatives were a few officials, including Sima Guang (1019 – 1086 AD) and Su Shi.

    Wang himself is believed to have been unsympathetic to the New Policies. He was close to many anti-reformists and is even believed to have provided them with inside information.

    Wang is targeted for anti-reform activities

    In 1079, Su Shi was arrested, tortured, and then put on trial for sedition. His poetry was used as evidence against him in what later become known as the Crow Terrace Poetry Case.

    Su was spared execution but sent into exile in Huangzhou, in China’s far south.

    Wang, and fellow poet and painter Wang Dingguo (1048 – ca. 1117 AD), were the two most prominent names on a list of Su’s 29 co-conspirators.

    Some reformist officials even argued that Wang Shen should be executed for his part in Su’s sedition. This included sending Su money and gifts and financing an anthology of his poetry (which included poems critical of the emperor).

    Fortunately for Wang, his connections appear to have saved him and he initially wasn’t even exiled. His wife is said to have pleaded with her brother, the emperor, to save him.

    However, many other conspirators were not so lucky. 

    Wang Dingguo, for example, was sent into exile in Junzhou (today’s Danjiangkou, Hubei Province). Here two of his children died and he himself nearly did, too.

    Exile in remote regions was difficult for several reasons, not least because of the climate, diseases, and poverty it exposed officials to.

    Su Shi wrote movingly about his difficulties in exile in his famous running script masterpiece, Cold Food Observance (1082).

    Cold Food Observance by Su Dongpo
    Cold Food Observance (1082) by Su Dongpo, ink on paper, running script. 34.2 X 118cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Why exactly was Wang exiled?

    In 1080, the year following Su’s banishment, Wang’s wife, the Princess Shuguo died and Wang was stripped of his government job and sent into exile in Junzhou (today’s Danjiangkou, Hubei Province).

    The emperor accused Wang of having behaved inappropriately with his concubines during Wang’s wife’s (/emperor’s sister’s) terminal illness.

    Concubines (unofficial second – /third/fourth, etc. – wives) were a cultural norm in imperial China. And many historians believe this charge was fabricated to banish Wang.

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings states that Shenzong wrote to Wang saying:

    至其奉秦国失欢以疾薨,神考亲笔责诜曰:「内则朋淫纵欲而失行,外则狎邪罔上而不忠。」
    With regards to [Wang] losing favour with the Princess Qinguo during her terminal illness, the Emperor Shenzong blamed Wang, writing: “Within your household, you lost your personal integrity as you pursued your desires. Your public libertine behaviour effectively mocked your ruler and made you disloyal.”

    Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings, scroll 11

    Return to the capital

    In 1085, the Shenzong Emperor died. He was succeeded by his sixth son, the nine-year-old Emperor Zhezong (r. 1085 – 1100 AD).

    Led by the Empress Gao, the regents that initially ruled in Zhezong’s place reversed the New Policies. This meant that the anti-reformists were able to return from exile.

    Yuanyou period (1086 – 1094 AD)

    The period that immediately followed Shenzong’s passing was known as the Yuanyou period. (Chinese emperors usually gave different names to different periods of their reign).

    Despite their return to imperial favour, the anti-reformers soon began fighting amongst themselves.

    This period was reviled about a decade later, when the Huizong Emperor had given up trying to reconcile reformists and conservatives. 

    Huizong’s grand councillor, Cai Jing (1147 – 1136 AD), even had stone monuments erected across the empire denouncing Yuanyou Faction members in the early 12th century.

    Exchanging poems with Su Shi

    In late 1088, Su Shi composed a poem after viewing Wang Shen’s Misty River, Layered Peaks on a visit to Wang Dingguo.

    His poem followed the rhyme scheme of the great Tang poet Du Fu’s (712 – 770 AD) ‘Autumn Day in Kui Prefecture’.

    Du Fu was a hero to Song dynasty literati. He considered China’s greatest poet (alongside his friend and contemporary Li Bai (701 – 762 AD). And he was seen principled official that had unfairly treated by his government.

    In the first instance, ‘Autumn Day in Kui Prefecture’ is relevant to Misty River, Layered Peaks because depict landscapes.

    Secondly, like Su and Wang, Du Fu was banished to a remote posting (Kui Prefecture). Du’s poem decries this situation and directly criticises his government. 

    Du Fu’s poem references other historical figures in a similar predicament. By writing in the same vein, the implication that Su’s (and Wang’s) cause was just is emphasised.

    In Poetry and painting in Song China: The Subtle Art of Dissent (2000), Alfreda Murck highlights this exchange between Su and Wang as an example literati dissent. 

    Much of this dissent relied on sophisticated allusions to references that only the most well-read and observant would have detected.

    Final years

    This Yuanyou ended soon after the death of Empress Gao in 1093. 

    The New Policies we re-instated by the Zhezong Emperor, and the ‘Yuanyou Faction’ (including Su Shi and other officials) were persecuted and exiled once again. 

    Then, Zhezong died aged 23. Huizong took over and initially issued an amnesty to the Yuanyou Faction. Su Shi died on his return from his second exile period. 

    Had he lived several years longer, her would have seen Huizong eventual reverse his position.

    For example, Su and Wang’s friend and fellow literatus Huang Tingjian (1045 – 1105 AD) died en route back into exile in 1105.

    At some point during this brief period of amnesty, Wang appears to have died. Unlike Su, Huang, and many Yuanyou faction members, his name was not blacklisted for the rest of Huizong’s reign. 

    The Xuanhe Catalogue of Paintings lists 35 of his works in the royal collection two decades later.