The Chinese painter Chao Meng-fu (1254-1322) was a high official under the Yüan dynasty, 1279-1369, and helped to establish the tradition of amateur scholarly painting, wen-jen-hua.
Chao Meng-fu was born at Huchow in Chekiang Province. He was a descendant of the Sung dynasty imperial family and destined for a brilliant official career. But while he was still in a junior post, the Sung dynasty fell and he retired into private life. In 1286, however, he was persuaded to take office under the Mongol conquerors of China. He often regretted his decision, but in the course of his long career he helped to soften the attitude of the Mongols toward their Chinese subjects. He served under five emperors and held several important posts, including that of director of the Hanlin Academy of Letters and governor of Chekiang and Kiangsi provinces. He was greatly admired in his lifetime, and on his death he was canonized as Duke of Wei.
Chao Meng-fu was considered the leading calligrapher of his time. He was especially noted for his hisiao-k'ai shu (small formal script) and Hsing-shu (running script), in which he revived the fluid, harmonious style of the great 3d-century calligrapher Wang Hsi-chih.
As a youth, Chao Meng-fu studied under the obscure artist Ao Shan, but he was also influenced by his conservative friend Ch'ien Hsüan. In the course of his official journeys in North China after 1286, Chao Meng-fu saw and collected paintings by the great masters of the 10th and 11th centuries, such as Li Ch'eng, Tung Yüan, and Fan K'uan, who were largely unknown in the South. These pictures inspired him to break away from the conventions into which landscape painting had hardened at the end of the Southern Sung Dynasty. "The most important thing in painting," he wrote, "is the spirit of antiquity (ku-i). " By this he meant not simply copying ancient styles but reviving the spirit of the old masters and using their direct, unaffected approach to nature as a way of finding a new freedom of expression.
On his return from the North in 1295, Chao Meng-fu painted for a friend his most famous surviving had scroll, Autumn Colors on the Ch'iao and Hua Mountains, a landscape in which he interprets archaic conventions in a revolutionary way. Seven years later, in the hand scroll Water Village, he carried his new style still further: the composition is inspired by Tung Yüan and, more remotely, by the T'ang painter-poet Wang Wei; but the brushstroke is even more relaxed and spontaneous. Of his own paintings Chao Meng-fu wrote that "they may seem simply and carelessly done, but true connoisseurs will realize that they are very close to the old models."
Chao Meng-fu was noted as a painter of bamboo, and there is a beautiful hand scroll by him, Bamboo, Rocks and Lonely Orchids. He also painted animals, especially horses. The most original of his animal paintings is the Sheep and Goat executed in a dry and deceptively simple brushwork. Nearly all the surviving horse paintings that bear his name are forgeries, but there is, in the John M. Crawford, Jr., Collection in New York, a painting by him of a horse and groom in dry ink on paper. Several members of his family were noted painters in their day: on this same scroll are studies of horses and grooms by his son Chao Yung and grandson Chao Lin. His wife, Kuan Tao-sheng, was China's foremost woman painter of landscape and bamboo.
Chao Meng-fu expressed in his art and writing the ideals of the wen-jen-hua: a cool detachment and under-statement, a lack of concern for realism and for obvious visual appeal, a close union of painting and calligraphy, a restrained self-expression, and a creative reinterpretation of the art of the past which could be fully understood only by the small circle of the scholarly elite. The revolution, both in painting and in attitudes to painting, which Chao Meng-fu epitomized was carried to fruition by the next generation of Yüan scholar painters, the "Four Masters"—Huang Kung-wang, Wu Chen, Ni Tsan, and Wang Meng.
There is no complete study of the work of Chao Meng-fu in any Western language, although a survey of his career and achievement is found in volume 4 of Osvald Sirén, Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles (7 vols., 1956-1958). Two monographs by Li Chu-tsing deal in detail with certain aspects of Chao Meng-fu's work as a painter: The Autumn Colors on the Ch'iao and Hua Mountains (1965) and The Freer Sheep and Goat and Chao Meng-fu's Horse Paintings (1968). The most comprehensive account of Yüan art is Sherman E. Lee and Ho Wai-kam, Chinese Art under the Mongols: The Yüan Dynasty, 1279-1368 (1968).